A new year is upon us and with it, a fresh start to crush my Goodreads Reading Challenge, or at least that is how I would have approached it in past years. I’m an intensely competitive person, and I would read 60-90 books a year mostly just to prove I could. I always had a long list of books I was dying to get to, so the challenge was fun. After five years of this, however, my To Read list wasn’t inspiring my bibliophilic lust anymore. In fact, I read a good 15 stinkers in 2019, just to reach my goal.
So this year I am pairing down my list to things I’m excited to read. Some are brand new, and some are just new to me, but I’m eager to get my hands on all of them. So without further ado here are the books I’m excited to read this year.
Anna and Louise over at Life.Death.Whatever. are two of the best people I know in the Death Awareness advocacy world. Heartfelt, compassionate, sincere, and funny they both worked for years helping the dying and their families. They are world-class communicators that can turn a scary subject like death into something you are genuinely interested in exploring; even if you are not a Grade A weirdo like me.
I was so excited to see that along with their site (go check out their 5 Things series), lecture series, and advocacy, they will be coming out with a book in April 2020. Life.Death.Whatever the book is set to be a collection of the heartbreaking, loving, surprising and uplifting stories of the lives and experiences they’ve encountered in their work. I can’t wait for its release. I gobbled that pre-order right up and I hope many of you will do the same.
Mexican Gothic, 2020
Silvia Moreno-Garcia first popped up on my radar a few years ago when she edited the fantastic Lovecraftian anthology She Walks In Shadows. I am a massive fan of the Cthulhu Mythos but have always found Lovecraft’s world is better served by a diverse cast of voices. To say he was limited as a writer (and a human being) is an understatement. Garcia collected the most skilled female writers in the genre for She Walks. It is the best Lovecraft anthology I’ve read, and I still stand behind my original recommendation. She Walks was followed by another genre gem with Certain Dark Things dedicated to the lives and intrigues of Mexico City’s vampires.
Our bit of genre flirting turned into a full-blown love affair with Gods of Jade and Shadow. Gods is a dark fairy tale and a love letter to Mexican culture. It showed Garcia’s growth as a writer without taking away the elements that made her early work so enjoyable.
So I will be counting the days until June when Mexican Gothic drops. Mexican Gothic is a classic gothic tale complete with an old country estate, secretive relatives, and strange goings-on, but set in the fragile yet glamorous world of the Mexican elite of the 1950s. If you are on the fence about pre-ordering, check out this excerpt.
Knowing Bodies, Passionate Souls: Sense Perceptions in Byzantium, 2017
Ok, so this kind of book is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, but a big part of my work is about the history and culture of the senses. I absolutely loved Harvey’s book I recommended last year, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination. That work focused on the importance of smell in the Mediterranean region and in particular early Christianity. From the rose-scented wounds of Christ to the joyful filth of the Pilar Saints, it was fascinating and a must-read for those interested in olfaction.
This is why I’m so excited to read Harvey’s 2017 addition to this subject Knowing Bodies, Passionate Souls that delves into the sensual world of the larger Byzantine Empire.
You know I am excited about a book when I can’t wait for the translation. Odorama: The Cultural History of Odour is a Spanish language book recently published by Taurus. The author, Federico Kukso, is a science writer and journalists whose past work has focused on general science education. I’m fascinated to see a science journalist’s perspective on olfactive history as well as the differences between the English and Spanish discourse. This is also a whopper of a tome coming in at 538 pages. This puts it at nearly double the length of Reinarz’s masterpiece Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell which would be my alternative recommendation for those that don’t speak Spanish. I think I will tackle this one via the audiobook.
Perfumes: The Guide, 2018
I appreciate a certain degree of savagery in reviews, especially perfume reviews. There is so much smoke-and-mirror to the fragrance industry. I despise the incestuous nature of it all, which is what made Luca and Tania’s first guide such a breath of fresh air. They gave zero fucks.
On top of that, they gave context to the industry that few perfume writers could. They also were able to convey odours in writing in such a way that it actually informed the consumers. A shockingly rare skill in fragrance reviewers. So when on the tenth anniversary it was announced that an updated version of Perfumes The Guide was coming in 2018 I got pumped, and I’m delighted to be finally getting around to reading it.
Bitten By Witch Fever, 2016
In 1874 a Dr Robert C. Kedzie self-published 100 copies of Shadows from the Walls of Death which were distributed to libraries across the United States. This was a sensational protest book that contained a small pamphlet in which Dr Kedzie admonishes the powers-that-be for not taking the threat of arsenic-laced wallpaper seriously and then provides 86 samples of the toxic paper. As a result of the deadly samples, Kedzie proved his point, and eventually, the lethal colourants were discontinued. However, that is also the reason why only two copies of his book survive today, which few can access. Scanning the text linked above, required the archivists to wear full-body protective gear and scanned the pages under a ventilated lab hood.
Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home by Lucinda Hawksley picks up were Dr Kedzie left off, minus the killer swatches. Bitten by Witch Fever catalogues hundreds of examples of arsenic wallpaper from some of the biggest names in interior design, including William Morris. I’m excited to learn more about one of the first upper crust safety scandals. I’m also intrigued as to how the love of a rather garish green led to merchants willingly selling products they knew were harmful.
Advice For Future Corpses, 2018
Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying by Sallie Tisdale, has been the book other Death Care advocates suggested to me the most in 2019. I think the fact that it’s gone through 13 reprints in 24 months is a good sign that it certainly struck a nerve. From what I’ve heard, the book goes into the nitty-gritty of end of life with good-humoured frankness.
I’m fascinated to see how Tisdale achieved this. In my work with the dying, the most significant challenge I find for families is that though the death may be expected, there is still great anxiety because the family doesn’t know really what to anticipate. It is a terrifying new road, and they don’t have a map. I hope this is a book I can suggest in the future for those starting on that long road or just want to feel better prepared when the time comes.
Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture, 2012
This is one of those books that isn’t new, but it is new to me, and I’m kind of shocked that I didn’t hear about it when it was first published. I feel that the olfactive history of countries in development do not receive the same level of scholarship that Western Europe does. India is home to a rich and complex perfumed history that pre-date French perfumery by thousands of years. How many books can you name about Grasse? How many about Kannauj? See!
This is why I’m so excited to see Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture by James McHugh. I’m partly interested in this book to further my own knowledge about aromatic use in Hindu death rituals for a future post, but also to get a better understanding of the cultural importance of sandalwood.
The Dutch House, 2019
I have never read anything by Ann Patchett, and I’m looking to expand my fiction reading into new authors and genres. The Dutch House was a massive hit, winning all sorts of awards and plaudits. I tend to be wary of mega bestsellers, but the story is intriguing.
The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives, they return to the well-worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested.
A dark fairy tale, you say? Co-dependency, an insurmountable past, and family secrets? Ok, you got me, I want to read you!
The Morbid Anatomy Anthology, 2014
The Morbid Anatomy Anthology has actually been a book I’ve been avoiding. In the Venn diagram of spooky, Death Awareness advocacy, anatomy and oddities certainly have some overlap. However, I’m not really in that overlay because of deeply held beliefs on the treatment of bodies after death, particularly marginalised bodies that did not ask for nor imagined this for their remains. I tend not to vibe with the ‘bodies are objects and commodities’ crowd. It has led to a total aversion for me on the subject, even though I knew the Morbid Anatomy Library to be a reputable institution. As my husband puts it, “Genghis Khan was flexible, you Nuri, are not”. Still, I didn’t remove the anthology from my wish list. I didn’t want to read it, but I still wanted to hold on to it.
The softening of my near evangelical prohibition on anatomy and oddities content come from Ivan of Bizzaro Bizar. He showed me that these subjects could be discussed in a way that humanises and show compassion to the remains. That education could lead to preservation and not just sales. I was painting with too broad a brush. My real issues were on three fronts 1) the sensationalising of suffering, 2) the omission of the oddities businesses’ colonial past and 3) the selling of human remains. However, there are many people doing research in this area with no interest in perpetuating any of these.
So in the interest of personal growth (aka trying not to be a judgy asshole), I am planning on finally reading this collection of anatomical and oddities essays, some by authors I really respect like Evan Michelson and Paul Koudounaris.
The Testaments, 2019
I have read The Handmaid’s Tale three times in my life, and each time it deeply affected me in new and terrifying ways. So much so I couldn’t bring myself to watch the series. I have a bit of apprehension just thinking about emotionally stepping back into Gilead with The Testaments, but I have to admit I want to know Offred’s fate. This is the power that Atwood yields at her best. This is the power of fiction. It gives a collective narrative to a fear we don’t talk about, but that is just on the edges of our reality. It feels essential to read this sequel. As Atwood put in her forward, “Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.”