Grave, by Allison C. Meier
I read this book via NetGalley. It’s out on Feb 9, 2023.
As long as these are being published by Bloomsbury Academic, I will keep reading these. (… there’s a joke here relating to the subject matter of this book, but I won’t go there.)
For a book about graves, this book isn’t morbid at all. Which is exactly the tone that I would expect from this series. It takes graves, and the reason for graves, seriously; but it doesn’t dwell morosely on the idea of death. Nor does it romanticise it. Instead, this is a thoughtful and engaging examination of burial practises – particularly in post-colonisation North America – and how and why they’ve changed. That time and place is important to note; while various global practises are mentioned, like the very earliest burials known and Tibetan sky burials and others, this is focused on one specific place and time. And that’s fair: this is a short book! It’s not meant to be an all-encompassing tome. I guess this could be seen as a snapshot of a place that has changed a lot in terms of its ethnic makeup over the last few centuries, that has (for better or worse) often been seen as leading the way in innovation, as well as sometimes dragging its heels on change (hello metric system). So it’s a useful way of getting a glimpse at one history of grave practises.
The author is someone who has led cemetery tours and has done a lot of thinking about what graves and burial practises mean. I learnt surprising things: like, in the USA, it’s quite standard for a body to be embalmed before burial in a coffin. I’m pretty sure that’s not standard in Australia (I just looked up one undertaker group; embalming is an optional extra). A sobering aspect was the history of unmarked graves, and segregation within cemeteries (a relatively new word, apparently!) – I know at least some old general cemeteries in Victoria are, or were, Catholic/Protestant separated (and different areas for Chinese dead, especially in goldrush areas and I guess there must be a few towns with small, historical, Jewish sections?). I most enjoyed the fact that there are new practises being developed. I had already learnt of ‘water cremation’ (yes, it’s a nonsensical term), which is far more eco friendly than the standard creation; but ‘natural burial’ – like a pine coffin that degrades quickly – and other more environmental options are just going to be increasingly necessary. We already have issues with perpetual leases on graves…
Anyway, this is yet another excellent entry into this series. I loved it and continue to look forward to more.
Two more Object Lessons from Bloomsbury Academic
I know, I’m a bit obsessed with this series. But they keep popping up on NetGalley, and I keep being intrigued, and I keep being approved for them… and so I keep reading them…
Intriguingly, Mushroom is perhaps the most surprisingly metaphorical of these so far. It’s certainly not quite what I expected. There are short sections about specific mushrooms, related to (northern hemisphere) seasons. But the main sections are Mystery, Metaphor, Mycology, Medicine and Magic. All of these things I know relate to mushrooms and the history of their use by humans; there was a bit more emphasis on the metaphor aspect overall than I had anticipated. Which was certainly interesting, just not what I imagined!
Mushrooms are eaten for sustenance, of course, but they have also been used for medical and spiritual and magical purposes. Rich explores all of these, and – as most of these books do – also situates the discussion very personally.
Not quite what I expected, but not something I regret reading.
This was another excellent addition to this series. With chapters headed Clock, Fire, Siren, Security, Siren, “Failure, False, Fatigue”, and Future, Bennett takes us on a rollicking ride through alarms. There’s history and technology, sure. But there’s also art and culture, and the ways in which alarms are not neutral objects or sounds but can mean different things – particularly, she stresses, in America, where police sirens can mean different things depending on your skin colour (and I suspect the same thing may be true in Australia, at least to some extent). The idea of alarms as a prosthetic is profound – supplementing or replacing our own vigilance; but of course, now smart watches etc are encouraging us to be MORE vigilant (‘closing the ring’). Also, feeding into the capitalist world (my intention to never have one was significantly reinforced by reading this.)
Also, starting a book about alarms with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, comparing the watchman, Clytemnestra’s alarm system, and Cassandra as alarm? INSPIRED.
Loved it. One of my favourites to date.
Never Afters, by Kirstyn McDermott
I don’t tend to read the works of Kirstyn McDermott. Even though she’s a friend. And not for the usual reasons that friends give, either; instead, it’s because she is too good. Kirstyn tends to write horror, and I tend to find her work just too distressing.
We’ve also had fruitful and fascinating conversations about the nature of horror as a genre, so I’m not going to say that this novella series, the Never Afters series, isn’t horror. Perhaps they’re gothic and gothic is the overarching category and horror fits in that, as I believe Kirstyn would argue, and perhaps other people would formulate it differently; I don’t know. All I know is that these fairy tale continuations, while not exactly the stuff of Disney-fied dreams, also aren’t quite the stuff to bring me nightmares. So that’s nice.
#1: Burnt Sugar. Now adults, childhood long behind, Gretel is a baker and Hansel is drunk more often than not. So far, so not exceptional. But Gretel brought back more than memories from the gingerbread house…. I appreciated that the siblings’ past trauma was dealt with sympathetically without making them only victims (they’ve managed to build a life around it). I know I said these novellas aren’t the stuff of nightmares; maybe what I should have said is that it’s not more nightmarish than the original stories. Because the truth is that this is a horrific story, in the ‘being controlled is terrifying’ way. Very clever.
#2: The New Wife. I don’t think of Bluebeard’s story as being in the same category as Hansel and Gretel – perhaps my fairytale omnibuses (omnibi??) left it out, or I skipped over it in an early aversion to horror? Who knows! But this may be my favourite of the Never Afters. Unlike Burnt Sugar, this story begins within (what I remember of) the original: the new wife unlocking the room that she was never supposed to enter… and goes from there in a rather different direction, involving ghosts, and what I understand is a classic gothic trope – the terrifying house.
#3: After Midnight. How do you do a new take on Cinderella?? Add a few decades, make the prince-now-king as feckless as such types often are, and the now-queen mother to only daughters – and also hardened by her experiences (or maybe she was always so?). Make the story a diary, complete with crossed out sections. Make veiled suggestions about what other things might be happening. Maybe this is my favourite, actually.
#4: Braid. I’d read this one previously – I don’t remember where – but I do remember a conversation about how hair, out of its appropriate place, is surprisingly distressing. Because Zel’s hair is as surprising and unexpected as it was back when she lived in the tower. Like Burnt Sugar and After Midnight, this is set many decades after the time of the fairytale, and deals with what it’s like to live with the consequences of those seemingly romantic and dramatic events of youth. Zel’s life has been complicated, mostly in mundane but nonetheless real and emotional ways – good and bad, love and loss. You just keep living…
#5: By the Moon’s Good Grace. In some ways the least unexpected of the stories. Like The New Wife, it picks up in the middle of the classic story; this has Little Red learning important truths about who her family is, who she is, and the consequences of that.
#6: Winterbloom. Somehow I know the Beauty and the Beast story least well, since I had completely forgotten that the whole saga starts with the father picking a rose without permission. This final novella is another set some years after the fairytale. The Beast is a composer and musician, Beauty is intrigued by roses and creating hybrids; their marriage is generally fine but shows some cracks. And then they have a visitor, aaaand… well. That’s rarely without consequence. Maybe this is my favourite instead?
Alone, excellent; as a set, they show how old stories continue to have resonance, can be used to explore modern and perennial themes.
The books can be bought from Brain Jar Press.
OK: by Michelle McSweeney
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out on January 12.
Another roaring success from the Object Lessons series. I had NO idea that OK had such a history. I DID know that you could use a tiny little object to illuminate significant moments in history, which is exactly what McSweeney does here: the connection between communication and technology, and the fate of OK in that – from the Penny Press in the 1830s in the US, to the telegraph and telephone and US cultural imperialism via TV and finally BBSs and social media… it’s all here.
I was also introduced to the term ‘phatic language’ and I love it. Phatic language is “language that is socially rich, but informationally empty”. All those markers that signal we’re listening and we care (in theory), including OK. I love that there’s a term for it, and I love that it has a real and important place in communication. I also love that the DARPA dudes thought email would be more like telegrams (terse, all info and no pleasantries) rather than a conversation, and HAHA sorry guys. Also apparently answering the telephone with “Hello?” was initially considered incredibly bad manners? This is a magnificent example of changing language and social expectations.
Meanwhile there’s also the fact that all those email suggestions that gmail throws at you were learned from “the Enron Corpus” – tens of thousands of emails from 2001 – is creepy and makes me even more determined not to use them.
For lovers of language and communication technology and micro history.