Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

“How nice it would be to die swimming toward the sun.” —Le Corbusier

4/5 stars.
ebook, 203 pages.
Read from July 5, 2020 to July 8, 2020.

I can’t remember how I found this book but I must have put it on hold at the library after reading about it somewhere. I was a competitive swimmer for the majority of my youth so I have always had a close connection with water, making this read a no-brainer. As a species, you could say that we’re really not meant to swim. We are in many ways, the least adapted to do it and yet we’re drawn to it and how it makes us feel. Whether its a pool, ocean or river, we are drawn to what the water gives us.

Bonnie Tsui is a swimmer and wanted to explore the deep connection that humans make with water. She talks to people from around their world with their unique experiences with swimming.  The author explores the science on what happens to our bodies in water and how some are capable of changing and adapting to its environment. The author visits Iceland to swim in its waters and to talk to a minor celebrity whose uniquely adapted body allowed him to survive in freezing water for more than 6 hours as he swam to safety after his fishing boat sank. He was the only one on the ship to survive. In Iceland, swimming is ingrained in every community as an important survival skill and beloved pastime. The author talks to renowned open water swimmers and Olympians, to those living in wartime Bagdad where swimming lessons occurred amidst the war, to Japan with its unique history of samurai swimming, all to explore the many ways that we find solace, danger, and challenge in water.

If you don’t swim or have an aversion to water, this book likely won’t speak to you. However, it may help you understand why many are drawn to water when you’re less inclined. For me, this book told me much of what I already felt and knew when it came to my experiences with water. It was wonderful to follow this author’s journey and feel her passion and get the science and history behind some of the unique aspects of our relationship with water.  This book is a subtle love letter to water, a thank-you, an expression of appreciation and an insight into our relationship with it. The writing is concise and really gives you a feel for the people that the author is interviewing as well as insights into her own passion and history with water creating a well-rounded and accessible non-fiction read.

If this book sounds at all intriguing to you, then I would highly recommend reading it. It’s short and sweet and made me look up a few further interesting facts and stories based on what the author discussed. Like samurai swimming, I just had to know what it looked like. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

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.