The Way Through the Woods by Long Litt Woon

“We live in a society that regards death as a defeat for medical science rather than a part of life. In a culture that allows little place for death in the public area, grief becomes a private affair, viewed as a luxury we cannot afford.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 182 pages.
Read from June 16, 2019 to June 20, 2019.

When I spotted this book off Netgalley I was interested in reading it due to its themes on grief, yet I found myself very intrigued with the information provided on mushrooms and enjoying these aspects much more than I thought I would. Woon’s journey through mushrooms is intertwined with the grief of her husband; her passion for mushrooms and the intimate details of her mourning make a unique relationship that intertwines and reads well.

“We are all amateurs at grief, although sooner or later every one of us will lose someone close to us.”

Woon discusses her grieving journey intimately and just how uncomfortable we are with death as a society despite it being a part of literally everyone’s life at one point or another. It’s so uncomfortable that many of those grieving feel utterly alone and abandoned in their mourning as no one knows what to do to provide support or relief.  In social interactions the death and memory of the person are often just avoided altogether, leaving the bereaved to heal on their own. It’s a tragedy in its own right, however, the grieved are still the ones that ultimately have to decide how to move on.

“Grief grinds slowly; it devours all the time it needs.”

This is when mushrooms became paramount in Woon’s grieving process. Woon and her husband had once discussed taking a mushroom course together before he died, something that they never got to do together. Woon found herself drawn to sign up for the class alone and quickly learned to lose herself in the world of mushrooms and the journey that comes in learning about them, picking them, and cooking with them. Woon provides some great facts on the different types of mushrooms in Norway and the mushroom culture. Did you know that not every country can agree on which mushrooms are considered toxic? They deadly ones are consistent but the what one country labels as toxic another considers harmless. The book is complete with drawn images of distinct mushrooms in Norway and even a few really yummy-sounding ways to prepare and cook mushrooms, a great addition to the book that I was not expecting.

Mushrooms are something that I have very little experience in eating and tasting having only really come to enjoy them in my adult years. I have, however, always found them interesting and have been in awe of people who are knowledgable on them. Woon discusses how people usually perceive mushrooming as a dangerous ordeal as the little knowledge that people have when it comes to wild mushrooms is only on how poisonous some can be. Woon details the education process it takes to become an expert in mushrooming and explains that errors rarely happen. The wild mushrooms gathered in Norway are inspected by certified experts before they’re allowed to be taken home. With the right knowledge and by double checking each other’s haul, wild mushrooming is a perfectly safe hobby to have but it’s still hard to convince the general public of it.

Through mushrooms, Woon managed to crawl out of the pit that grief had put her in and slowly put together a new life without her beloved husband. Loss, as Woon explains, means so much more than just the loss of that loved one’s life, it’s the loss of the life that will never be had again. Those that are left behind after someone dies will never be the same. Their lives as they know it, or knew it, will never be the same. The unwanted task then falls the mourning to find their way again and start anew with the perceived insurmountable task of doing it without the person they lost.

This book is a comforting and validating read for anyone grieving and while the glimpse into the mushroom culture and its accompanying facts are extremely interesting, most of the information is only valid only in Norway. Even with that, Woon’s writing is highly engaging, enjoyable and interesting, even if you’re only mildly interested in mushrooms.

Stiff by Mary Roach

“Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 303 pages.
Read from May 3, 2019 to May 6, 2019.

I don’t really understand how anyone could be offended in talking about dead bodies or their various uses in science, though I appreciate that it is a sensitive subject, death is a reality of life. I think it’s not that people are uncomfortable with the dead bodies themselves but of their own perceptions of death. Many people can’t fathom being a corpse or if it was their loved ones, regardless of what happens to us when we die.

“We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.”

Mary Roach personalises her experience and interest in death as she shares her own intimate experience with the passing of her own mother. Death may be an uncomfortable reality but it is an experience we all have in common. Mary Roach approaches cadavers in a very entertaining, informative and tactful manner. She observes and interviews the intricate lives of those doing the less-than-glamorous work with corpses while also exploring the strategies they use in order to cope and maintain their humanity with the surreal nature of their jobs.

Anything you ever wanted to know about how a body decays Mary details in her interviews with forensic pathologists that do studies on real corpses to help crime investigators in gruesome murder cases.  If you’ve ever wanted to know where your body goes after you donated it to the medical sciences, Mary can tell you, and it’s often not what you would expect. Mary also discusses how many of our scientific advancements are owed to the illegalities of body snatching through history.

“Many people will find this book disrespectful. There is nothing amusing about being dead, they will say. Ah, but there is.”

This book requires a healthy amount curiosity about death and a slightly open mind on the topic, especially if you’re not interested in how a maggot might sound eating human flesh during one of the many dynamic stages of decay. It also discusses the donation of cadavers to science and some very specific uses which many may not be comfortable with, as well as the sensitivities surrounding organ donation and its importance.

“It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more than half of the people in the position H’s family was in will say no, will choose to burn those organs or let them rot. We abide the surgeon’s scalpel to save our own lives, our loved ones’ lives, but not to save a stranger’s life. H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her.”

Mary also discusses the feelings and respect that we give our dead regardless of what use a corpse has after death. Whatever scientific purpose a cadaver has there is something sacred in keeping our humanity and due respect in its treatment, in that a dead body, while no longer occupied, was once a person who was loved and had a life like anyone else.

I loved this book. It’s my kind of book. Weird, interesting, factual, personal, and well-written. However, I could see it not being for everyone. For those who are science-minded and comfortable discussing the gruesome details of the body, this book is definitely for you. If thinking about the specific details of an organ transplant and knowing what a still beating heart looks like in an open chest cavity makes you queasy, you might want to pass on this one.

Perfectly Hidden Depression by Margaret Robinson Rutherford

No one knows the real you because you never let them in. You’re not comfortable with the reality of you so you pretend it doesn’t exist.  If this sounds all too familiar to you, then you need this book.

5/5 stars.
ARC, ebook, 232 pages.
Read from May 29, 2019 to May 31, 2019.

You always meet your deadlines regardless of how you’re feeling, you push forward through difficult circumstances and hide behind a facade in order to keep an appearance of having it all together. All because you don’t want to be perceived as incompetent or weak, yet inside you’re constantly battling with yourself, your feelings, and your self-worth. You’ve tried to line yourself up with the standard definitions of depression yet you never fully fit it due to your heightened sense of responsibility, your inability to recognise or share your feelings, and the high sense of control you constantly try to implement in your life. No one knows the real you because you never let them in. You’re not comfortable with the reality of you so you pretend it doesn’t exist.  If this sounds all too familiar to you, then you need this book.

After some harrowing experiences with patients, the author of this book noticed a pattern and began to put together the shape of this unique type of depression that often goes unnoticed and undiagnosed. Coined by the author, Perfectly Hidden Depression (PHD) can be the result of a variety of factors such as upbringing, ingrained beliefs, and personality traits. The author states that there isn’t anything in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM) on this type of depression but that this is an acknowledgement and an observation from her own professional experiences (which she details and provides resources for). The author believes PHD is a subset of depression that many practitioners miss because it doesn’t present the way the DSM has listed. The author gives this list of defining features that make up someone with PHD:

  • Are highly perfectionistic and have a constant, critical,
    and shaming inner voice
  • Demonstrate a heightened or excessive sense of
    responsibility
  • Detach from painful emotions by staying in your head
    and actively shutting them off
  • Worry and need to control yourself and your
    environment
  • Intensely focus on tasks, using accomplishment to feel
    valuable
  • Focus on the well-being of others but don’t allow them
    into your inner world
  • Discount personal hurt or sorrow and struggle with
    self-compassion
  • May have an accompanying mental health issue, such
    as an eating disorder, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or addiction
  • Believe strongly in counting your blessings as the foundation of well-being
  • May enjoy success within a professional structure but
    struggle with emotional intimacy in relationships

Think of some of the shocking celebrity suicides that have happened recently, Anthony Bourdain, for example. Everyone thought he has this dream life and that he seemed like a generally happy and satisfied person. What if Anthony was the epitome of PHD? In that, he felt his personal value was only in his accomplishments, driven by how grateful he thought he should feel, and then feeling burdened and overwhelmed by the mask of achievement and perfection that he felt he had to wear. He also had addiction problems. If we knew more about people that presented with this perfectly masked depression we could provide them with better treatment and save them and those around them an immense amount of suffering.

“Anthony Bourdain was apparently not physically ill, not financially destitute, not concerned about getting his next meal, and not lacking in fame. In fact, he remarked he had “the greatest job in the world.”” – Toronto Sun, July 7, 2018

It’s hard not to get personal in reviewing this book as I picked it up from Netgalley out of my own personal interest. After reading The Gifts of Imperfection eight years ago I worked through my own PHD, which at the time was just learning to be vulnerable again. I started talking and writing about my issues and the condition, dermatillomania, that still plagues me, something that would have been unthinkable before. I made steep headway with Brené Brown’s book but it wasn’t enough. This book feels like the acknowledgement and the validation I need to press forward in my own personal growth and happiness in terms of the regressions I have made at this point in my life.

The author of this book is shedding light on an area of depression that requires some serious attention. Her writing is personable, concise, insightful, informative, resourceful and clinical. I have already recommended this book to at least three people I know and I anxiously await its publication as I look forward to adding this to my permanent bookshelf.  At this time, I have not done the reflections recommended in the book as I was excited and anxious to get through all the content because of how alarmingly relevant I found it. I am now looking forward to re-reading the book and diligently doing the reflections which I believe will be immensely valuable. I’ve already started recommending this book which is due to be published on November 1, 2019. I highly recommended this book to anyone who feels they fit this description, and if you do, chances are you’re reluctant to reach out for help, so start with this book, no one has to know.