Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs by Caitlin Doughty

“It’s normal to be curious about death. But as people grow up, they internalize this idea that wondering about death is “morbid” or “weird.” They grow scared, and criticize other people’s interest in the topic to keep from having to confront death themselves.”

4/5 stars.
ebook,  240 pages.
Read from April 13, 2020 to April 18, 2020.

Anyone else struggling to get reading done during this virus? For whatever reason I find I read more when I’m on the move and busy. I read on the bus and on my lunch but when I’m stuck at home I’m distracted by many other things to fill my time. Obviously, I’m still reading but clearly, it’s not been at the same volume. I might have to adjust my reading goal this year…

I had been on the waiting list for this book for a long time at the library after a recommendation from a friend, which speaks to this book’s popularity. While I’m currently in mourning myself, this lighthearted and graphic book on corpses and dying might seem inappropriate for me but I figured since so many aspects of death are already on my mind, may as well make it somewhat enjoyable if I can.

This isn’t Caitlin Doughty’s first successful novel and she is also a successful mortician and funeral homeowner in LA. After getting a lot of interesting questions over the years, mostly from inquiring young minds, Caitlyn decided to write all these curious questions and answers in a book. The tone of the book is a mixture of intrigue with blatant corpse humour along with cute skeleton cartoons that weave between the chapters. Caitlyn doesn’t spare any details when it comes to the science and decay of dead bodies.  From straight forward questions such as, why we turn colours when we die? To more macabre questions such as why we as species don’t participate in cannibalism? My personal favourite questions, however, including wanting to know if you can have a Viking-style funeral, and what would happen if you swallowed a bag of popcorn before death and were then cremated.

“We can’t make death fun, but we can make learning about it fun. Death is science and history, art and literature. It bridges every culture and unites the whole of humanity!”

Death is universal. Well, with our current technological advances it is anyway. Maybe one day we’ll overcome it? Whether or not that’s a good idea or not is a whole other ethical debate. Despite death being something we all share, our modern society has no death culture and little support for the grieving. Grieving is something that people are expected to keep private and get over as soon as possible. Grief makes people uncomfortable, sometimes even for the person experiencing it. Why are we so uncomfortable with death? Probably because it terrifies us and we don’t know a lot about the process. It’s books like this one that help turn fear into intrigue and acceptance. Death is awful. No one wants to experience it, yet we all will. Knowing about the death process and what goes on at funeral homes once the bodies of our loved ones get there is a way to ease the pain of their loss.

Caitlin’s writing is scientific, yet approachable. She makes it comfortable to read grisly topics that would make other people squeamish and despite death being a grim affair, she somehow manages to make you laugh at the same time. I mean, someone who can make a Justin Timberlake and a dead body reference in the same sentence has some serious talent.

“I’m bringing body back. Returning corpses, but they’re not intact.”

*Kids, this is a Justin Timberlake reference. You’re fine not knowing who that is.

This book was just what I needed. An easy, interesting read on death. It’s the perfect book to pick up during this COVID-19 crisis too, especially if you’re in lockdown. This book will help alleviate anxieties during this stressful time. I’ll definitely add Caitlin’s other book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, to my reading pile. I would highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a curious and lighthearted read, even if you’re slightly squeamish.

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.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky

“A large percentage of what we think of when we talk about stress-related diseases are disorders of excessive stress-responses.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback,560 pages.
Read from March 27, 2019 to April 24, 2019.

When this book was recommended to me I thought it was a self-help book for whatever reason. It’s not. Not really. And for that, I’m grateful as it’s one the most clever, accessible, and engaging science reads I’ve come across.

Sapolsky is a professor of biological sciences, neurology and neurological sciences and based on his candid writing style, is exactly the kind of prof you would go out of your way to take a class with. He writes about the science he is passionate about and includes funny personal anecdotes and relevant studies to his work. If you don’t read the footnotes in this book you’re really going to miss out as it was one of my favourite aspects of this book. Seriously, hilarious.

Sapolsky’s book opens with some biology basics that is a nice refresher on high school content. It may feel technical at first, but as Sapolsky points out, he uses the lingo so much through the book and explains it in such simple terms that it’s easy to progress through the chapters. He takes you through how stress affects every single aspect of our body. It’s actually deeply unnerving to read and, dare I say it, stressful! The funny footnotes and candid comments that Sapolsky makes throughout the book are necessary to counterbalance the anxiety-inducing facts he is laying on you about prolonged stress and disease. Sapolsky also discusses why our stress response is different than that of all the other species in the worlds and how our modern world doesn’t do our stress responses any favours. The also talks about why our stress response is essential, despite some of its faults.

In a way, what Sapolsky is stating isn’t anything we didn’t really already know it’s just nice (scary) to have the science behind it. He also explores the social and political aspects of stress as well and how it plays in with the science of stress. For example, being poor gives you a higher chance of having stress-related diseases. Of course, this makes sense when you have trouble meeting your basic needs which are the number one cause of major stress in any species. Additionally, he also explores how relationships and religion can play a part in easing or exasperating stress and stress-related diseases.

“Medicine is a social science, and politics nothing but medicine on a large scale.”

The book concludes with a short chapter on what you can do to help combat prolonged stress to reduce your chances of getting a stress-related disease. I was actually hoping there would be more in this chapter after all the anxiety-inducing stress facts Sapolsky loads you with, especially considering some major stress factors are from uncontrollable circumstances. I genuinely enjoyed reading this book and I think it would be a good read for anyone interested in an engaging science read on our modern lifestyles. However, this book may not be the best book for excessive worriers or hypochondriacs, probably best to stick to self-help books on stress if you consider yourself one of these types.