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What to Read Next (No. 276): My Favorite Reads of April
Featuring "The Marriage Portrait" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"
Happy Friday, readers!
I’m in sunny Palm Springs, California this week on a combo work trip + vacation. It’s a very fun area to visit if you’ve never been! I got some great reading done en route and between work sessions, which I’ll share next week.
This week, I thought it’d be fun to highlight my two favorite books from April. The first is a historical novel by an award-winning novelist and the other is a mortician’s memoir that’s sure to stay with me.
Let’s get right to it!
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The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
After reading a lot of story-forward sci-fi and fantasy in the first few months of the year, I was itching for some rich prose come April. While perusing the library’s featured shelves, I stumbled upon Maggie O’Farrell’s newest novel, The Marriage Portrait, which I knew had stellar reviews. After reading the first few pages, I was entranced by her writing and finished it within a few days.
The story centers on Lucrezia, the teenage daughter of a duke who, suddenly and surprisingly, ends up a bride. The independently-minded and fierce girl — did you notice the tiger stripes on the book cover? — is now a duchess and must figure out her place in the stifling environment of 16th century Florence.
Will her unknown-to-her husband, Alfonso, treat her well? What about the conniving new sisters-in-law — will they form an unexpected bond or remain at odds? Is her former life a relic or will she still be able to seek the refuge of her home and family?
There’s not a whole lot of conversation or propulsive action, but O’Farrell captures Lucrezia’s inner life and dialogue so well that I never got bored. Plus, there are just enough dramatic plot points and incisive conversations to keep the pages turning.
In short, O’Farrell’s writing is so good that it didn’t even matter what was happening — a fact that made the spectacular ending all the more enjoyable.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
In her work as a physical therapist, my wife (Jane) encounters more interesting and unique people than anyone else I know. She recently started treating a mortician, which reminded me about this 2014 book that sat on my list, unread, for a long time.
The conversations Jane and I had about her mortician patient inspired me to finally pick up Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which ended up being one of the most memorable memoirs I’ve read in a long time.
Caitlin Doughty was in her early 20s when she started working at a crematory. (The backstory is interesting; I’ll let you read that!) The first few chapters are basically a description of what that day-to-day business looks like — which is as much a surprise to her as it is to readers of the book.
It’s pretty gruesome, as you might expect, but never in a gratuitous or unnecessary way. Doughty is straightforward in her descriptions and expertly balances lighthearted irreverence with deep respect for the dead.
In the book's second half, she gets rather philosophical about America’s culture of death denial. Our society is uniquely averse to talking about and accepting death — something that Jane’s mortician patient echoed. Doughty is intent on reversing that and nowadays works to help Americans talk more openly about death and dying:
“A culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death. Overcoming our fears and wild misconceptions about death will be no small task, but we shouldn't forget how quickly other cultural prejudices — racism, sexism, homophobia — have begun to topple in the recent past. It is high time death had its own moment of truth.”
Overall, I really enjoyed Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. It’s not for the squeamish, but for those with the stomach for it, I can pretty much guarantee you won’t forget it. Doughty writes movingly about the realities and rituals of death and her book has me thinking (in a healthy way) about what I want my own ending to look like.
That’s it for me this week! Thanks so much for reading — I deeply appreciate the time and inbox space.