Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the CrematorySmoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I believe I first heard of this book on Mysterious Universe, if I’m not mistaken, and read it in audiobook format narrated by the author herself, which by the way is a medium of delivery which I believe is in fundamental and intuitive ways superior to the printed word. Having the author narrate her stories, thoughts and observations directly to you can create a powerful emotional connection, the non-verbal qualities of which should not be underestimated. The effect this one had on me was that of a profound book, which it is, but with the attributes of a captivating, paradigm-shifting motivational speech, TED talk or the like. I’ve had this experience before with The Power of Now and others that don’t readily spring to mind but are likely sitting somewhere on my audiobook shelf.

What makes this book special? Well, all I can say is that listening to what Ms. Doughty had to say about death and “our” relationship with it really made me think. We don’t cremate people in Greece, nor do we embalm them, but the fear of death is still something that governs most people and our lives to a degree we’re too scared to even consider. The way we treat our elderly and rob them from the right to a “good death” is definitely something we have in common in many globalised cultures. At some point, she said something close to “in 19th century Britain, nudity or sex was taboo; today, in what we consider our free-minded and progressive society, it is death is the greatest taboo of all.”

I’m writing this review from an internet cafe in Ioannina and I’m running out of time, so keep this: if you want to have your attitude towards death in general questioned and think deeply about the ailments of our necrophobic society, don’t miss Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The writing was captivating, too; it took me just 4 days to finish.

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Into the WildInto the Wild by Jon Krakauer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Huff. It’s been almost 8 months since I read Into the Wild and I still haven’t reviewed it. OK. Let me look at the little notes I took while reading it so I could remember the points I wanted to make about it before giving it back to its rightful owner, the Dutch girl Rian who, before lending it to me, told me that it’s in her top five books.

Hey, why not copy the notes here?

*He’s received unwarranted flak. Like Thoreau, criticism against him is really against an idea he never supported explicitly.

*Krakauer fantastic reporter/researcher. Weaves everything together, including personal and parallel/related stories, convincingly.

*Started reading at 17:30. Read the whole book in more or less 6 hours in almost a single sitting.

*Quotes at beginning of each chapter great addition—include McCandless’s own notes and favourite quotes.

*What if Krakauer had died in his own mountain climbing story he retells in the book? Would we have ever heard about Alex Supertramp?

*Similarly, if Christopher McCandless hadn’t died, then his story wouldn’t have become known. There are countless others who live the life he wanted to (and for a time, did) live, but they are virtually unknown to all but few.

*Arrogance? Indignation of his father? What exactly was the final straw that pushed him into the wild?

Then there’s Daphne’s notes who also read the book before I gave it back to Rian. She can take care of those, if she wishes.

What I can say is that McCandless is a very controversial figure. You either love him or hate him, and I’ve noticed that people’s opinion on him have very different sources. Some admire him for his courage to abandon his reality and/or prospects of what most would consider a successful and happy life, in order to venture out and into the “real” life. Others believe that his greatest achievement was to live as long as he did the way he did, that he was a free spirit, an example for all.

Then there’s those who say that Alex Supertramp’s story was just a glorified suicide, that a great part of his story has been misrepresented, especially through the movie. They dislike him for his unwarranted fame and his selfishness for abandoning his family and good fortune.

What I can say is that I’m torn. I wouldn’t call his story a glorified suicide. Perhaps it was until or after some point, but right before the end it seems that he’d learned his lesson, the famous “Happiness only real when shared”. It’s interesting that he ultimately didn’t care whether he’d die or not having chosen to live the way he did, but for crying out loud, he was practically next to civilization when he chose to live in that school bus! Some preparation could have saved him his life… if he wanted to survive, that is. Again, perhaps it had started out as a suicide before Supertramp realised what he’d got himself into and what he had really left behind.

My biggest takeaway from the book isn’t the story of the human thirst for freedom and adventure, nor the idea that “the system can be hacked, what are you waiting for?!”. It’s the notion that people naturally glorify death and dying for one’s alleged cause. That makes all the difference.

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Norwegian WoodNorwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some memorable quotes from this book:

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

“Letters are just pieces of paper,” I said. “Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish.”

“Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Only assholes do that.”

Murakami was born in 1949. Like Terry Pratchett, who passed away some days ago. Like my father. What would it be like to have Terry Pratchett or Haruki Murakami as your dad?

The protagonist was also born in 1949 and serves as our 20-year-old guide through the Japan of way back when: most of Norwegian Wood takes places in Tokyo and Japan in ’69 and ’70. I see it as a mental documentary of what it was to live back then. Such indirect or direct accounts always excite me and nostalgically take me back to places I never saw, memories I never had. Manos Hatzidakis gives me a similar feeling (ASXETO!)

I don’t know what it is in his writing, but Murakami-san can take me on a trip. His descriptions make sense. I connect with them in a way I just cannot with the works of a lot of other writers. I’m there. I smell the grass in the lush Japanese mountains and the cars’ fumes in dirty, crowded Tokyo. I taste the sake and the whiskey. I’m a voyeur in the sex scenes that are funny in their straight-forward explicitness. I care for the various tragic, funny or awkward characters. It makes sense that I do: I’ve got to know them. I grow attached to these living, breathing people that could easily be followers of a contemporary variety of the Tao of Zen.

So it also makes sense that I’m sick of them dying for no clear reason to me. What I can safely say is that, no matter if death at one’s own hands is a cornerstone of Japanese culture or that the protagonist considers that “death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of it”, I much prefer reading what Murakami has to say about life and love than about suicide.

Thank you Daphne for lending me Norwegian Wood.

PS: There’s a lot of ’60s music in this book and many characters playing well-known pieces on guitars and pianos. Here’s a little playlist I found that would do nicely as a companion soundtrack:

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Review: Mort

Mort (Discworld, #4)Mort by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, I’d like to mention that this particular edition of the book is pure, distilled class. I found it in Гринуич (Greenwich, written “green witch”), one of Sofia’s largest bookstores. Happily, there’s also “Guards! Guards!” from the same line of beautiful 2014 hardcover editions of the Discworld series on that rotating shelf waiting for me to get my hands on it… All I have to do is swallow shelling out another seemingly-cheap-but-it’s-what-I-should-be-paying-for-my-nourishment-with 20 лв so soon after I did it for Mort with this particular expression on my face.

Anyway, I wanted to include quotes from Mort in my review to yet again share just how witty, pertinent and, well, funny Pratchett’s writing has proved itself to be, but I decided to just put links to lists becase this would grow out of any sort of proportion and my reviews in general need more words like my back needs more hair. The lists of quotes: [1] [2].

Many discheads count Mort as one of the best books in the whole series, and I remember my friend Garret pestering me to read this book in particular for years. My time did come, now that my disc is spinning – you may interpret that analogy at will, by the way. I would say that, compared to Small Gods, the Discworld entry I read before this one, Mort was funnier but lacked part of the punch; Small Gods made me think “hey, Pratchett’s onto something here”, but no such internal exclamations were had with Mort, and rather missed they were. However, I did have to think (relatively) long and hard to decide whether or not I should give Mort 5 stars all the same as a reward for it managing to crack me up so systematically. The end result of that painful procedure you can see before you; nevertheless, let it be known that Mort is funny and that you should read it, even if you’ve never read a Discworld novel before.

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