ascensionThe Syfy channel premiered Ascension, a limited event series, in December of 2014, as a way to introduce people to the idea of what would have happened if Project Orion (also check out their Wikipedia page), a government sponsored program from the 1950s that would have placed over 150 scientists on the moon and even been able to send expeditions to other planets, would have actually happened. Ascension chronicles what could have happened had Project Orion actually occurred.

Ascension gives viewers a glimpse into the secret programs of the government and the lives of the people who both wittingly and unwittingly found themselves stuck on that spacecraft. In 1963, at the height of the Cold War, the government secretly recruited 350 people for a mission into space. A huge interstellar spaceship called Ascension was launched into space on a 100 year journey to another solar system. Present day on the ship is 50 years later and viewers are introduced to the children of the original crewmembers, the middle group of people, the ones who are doomed to spend their whole lives on the ship without ever being able to see their destination. Their parents started the ship and their children will be remembered as the ones who complete the journey. This middle group will be forgotten.

Tragedy has struck on Ascension with their first murder having been committed. This leads to chaos as the captain and his crew struggle to figure out who committed this crime while also working to keep the rest of the ship calm. Striated class systems and struggles for power dominate the investigation of the death of a woman from the upper decks as people from the lower decks are accused of the crime. This television show is wracked full of plays for power, multiple ship romances and trysts, and rivalries that will have you on the edge of your seat. Add in the fact that people on board only have access to culture, information, and technologies from 1963 and before and the whole spacecraft takes on an eternal 1960s feel that is intriguing and pleasing to the eye.

Check out this show to learn more information about the launch of Ascension, the people aboard the ship, as well as information about the founders and the governmental organization responsible for making sure the mission stays on course no matter the cost.

beat the reaper1What would you do if you lived a double life? If you had the option to better yourself and change your life for the better, would you take it, no matter the cost? How far would you be willing to go for revenge? All of these questions and more are what the characters in Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper deal with on a daily basis.

Beat the Reaper begins by introducing us to Dr. Peter Brown, an intern at Manhattan Catholic, on his way to work when he is held up at gunpoint. Brown springs into action, showing a vast knowledge of martial arts and combat skills that are so tailored to seriously main and kill that they couldn’t simply have been learned by taking classes at the local gym; they must have been put to actual use. How did this seemingly normal man gain these skills? The mystery begins.

Peter Brown, aka Pietro Brnwa, used to be a contract killer/hitman for the mafia, a relationship that began in his teen years after the brutal murder of his grandparents and one that ends with him having to join Witness Protection when one job turns his life upside down and ultimately leads to Brown tossing his best friend out of a 6th floor window. In WITSEC, Brown decides to become a doctor to honor the legacy of his grandfather, a job that, so far, has not put him into contact with anyone in his previous life until the day he walks into patient Eddie Squillante aka Nicholas LoBrutto’s room and finds himself face-to-face with a man dying of cancer who demands to be saved or he will reveal Brown’s new identity, thus guaranteeing a group of other hitmen to come after him. Brown is forced to reconcile the sudden thrusting of his two lives together and decide how far he is willing to go to get what he wants.

This book is Josh Bazell’s debut novel and his background as a physician shows through in the intricately detailed medical digressions and footnotes that populate the book. If footnotes throw you off, don’t be worried. Bazell has molded Brown’s character into a perfect mix of the medical and the criminal that the descriptions of medical issues come across as the well-articulated discussions of a compartmentalized and highly knowledgeable individual. This darky humorous, suspenseful crime novel will have you wondering where Brnwa ends and Brown begins, a dichotomy that will either lead to life or death for this compelling main character.

the seven good yearsEtgar Keret is an Israeli writer who has had his work translated into thirty-seven languages. He is a lecturer at a university and a short story writer. Keret has also appeared in many newspaper publications and reviews and contributes on This American Life. I was first introduced to Keret through his short stories and the work that he has done on two films, Jellyfish and Wristcutters: A Love Story.

The Seven Good Years: A Memoir chronicles in a year-to-year story the seven years between the birth of Etgar’s son and the death of his father. Each section is broken up into a different year and while Etgar does manage to incorporate flashbacks to help readers realize how he became the person he is today, how he met the people important to him, and how his relationships with his family have grown and changed, the majority of the story is on pivotal moments that happened within those seven years of grandpa, dad, and son relationships.

Lev, Etgar’s son, was born in the middle of a terrorist attack. When they finally get to the hospital, there are no doctors in the maternity ward because there are so many trauma people needing help. The journalist who goes to interview Etgar makes this attack seem commonplace and Etgar soon references Tel Aviv. Readers are thrust into a Keret’s world, a world where he travels the world doing book talks, meets with different people, and does readings from his previous works. The flashbacks provided me with much needed background to understand the reluctance and focus on family behavior through certain circumstances. Although Lev and Etgar experienced their childhood at different time periods, the overarching base emotions prove to be the same. I found this book by Keret to be an engaging and emotional read, one that while being marketed as a memoir, also read to me as a story about more than just his family life. Sure, on the surface the family dynamics are there, but I found myself digging deeper into the book to really flesh out the happenings that molded Etgar and his family to behave the way they do.

I found this book to be an introduction to a culture and an area of the world that I basically grew up knowing little to nothing about. This memoir could have been exceptionally heavy and depressing, in fact at points it is, but Keret was able to show readers that while sad moments are present, there are always ways to find good moments as well.

smoke gets in your eyesI’ve got a thing for any books that deal with death, medical, or morbid themes. (Check out my blog post on Working Stiff.) Death is not something discussed across the dinner table or out in public while waiting for the bus. Instead it is pushed to the back of our minds as something that we will deal with later, something we can put off until “our time comes”. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty talks about death across a wide variety of cultures, continents, and centuries, in an effort to help us understand that we shouldn’t fear or push death to the dusty corner of our lives. We should work to become as comfortable as possible with death in order to lift up the stereotypes that surround the people who work with death everyday. (Side note: the author dives into very real descriptions of preparing bodies after death and the intricate details of some death cultures, so this book is definitely not for the faint of heart or stomach.)

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a work of nonfiction that tells the intertwined stories of the myriad cultures of death and the life of the author. Caitlin Doughty was born in Hawaii and had no real exposure to death until she turned 8 and witnessed the violent death of a small child at a mall. Once she was old enough, Doughty moved to Chicago where she graduated with a degree in medieval history, something that helped fuel her theoretical interest in death. After graduation, she realized that there was not much she could do with a degree in medieval history, so she moved to California and began applying for jobs at crematories in order to gain practical work experience with the dead.

This book talks about Doughty’s first job as a crematory operator, the one who deals with your loved ones’ bodies and remains, as well as “other duties as assigned”, like shaving faces, dealing with the bodies that have been donated to science, preparing bodies for funerals, and going on runs to pick up the newly deceased from wherever they died. At her first job, Doughty gets her real look into the mystery surrounding the people who choose to work with the dead for a living and is able to see what exactly goes on behind the scenes at funeral homes, hospitals, nursing homes, etc., when people die. While Doughty can indeed get very graphic, for instance she goes into great detail about the embalming process, the information she presents comparing different death cultures around the world to our own now, as well as comparing how people view death across time, is immensely fascinating and really points out to readers that the more we know and make an effort to understand death, the less we will shun it and be afraid of it. While this book does talk about the author’s journey into the death industry, Doughty also includes passages of other relevant historical and societal death practices for readers to try to understand.

war of the wivesA phone call wakes you up in the middle of the night: “This is Detective Inspector Bowles from the Metropolitan police, Mrs. Busfield. We’re outside your house. Can you please let us in?” You scramble out of bed in shock, your first thoughts running to your two grown children and the one sleeping down the hall. Are they okay? You open the front door to find two policemen telling you your husband of twenty-eight years has been found dead, floating in a river. Not possible. He’s supposed to be in Dubai on business. You are in denial.

Fast forward to the funeral. As you walk to the crematorium flanked by your children, everyone stares. Standing outside, you hear wailing coming from the parking lot and see a grown woman on her knees keening. As she staggers to the door, you’re infuriated that she dare intrude on your grief. She reaches the vicar standing on the steps, grips his arms, and demands to know what happened to your husband and wants to know who organized the funeral without telling her. He politely tries to disengage, while asking who the woman is. She grips his arm and says, “I’m his wife.” You are shocked. She can’t be.

Two women. One husband. Deception, betrayal, and death. If this description has caught your interest, check out Tamar Cohen’s War of the Wives for more information about Selina, Lottie, their families, and the dead patriarch of the family, Simon Busfield. Just remember: Not everything is as it seems.

love, of a kindLove, of a Kind is the seventh book of poetry put together by Felix Dennis. Dennis was diagnosed with throat cancer in January 2012. As a result of that diagnosis, he began bringing together and revising poems for what he believed to be his last book. The poems here run along the themes of pain, life, death, and love.

The author lived a fairly loud and extravagant life after a humble beginning. Dennis was born and lived a life of poverty in a south London suburb where he dealt with his father moving to Australia, his mother choosing not to follow, and their subsequent divorce in a time where divorces just did not happen. As a consequence of their divorce, Dennis’ mother chose to not let her previous failed marriage be a reason for her or her children to not succeed in life. Dennis’ career spanned from publisher to poet to spoken word performer to philanthropist. Never one to stray from the limelight, various interviews with Dennis can be found online.

After his diagnosis in 2012, Dennis created Love, of a Kind as a way to cope. Dennis pairs his poems with woodcut engravings that help pull readers more completely into his world. Read along and feel Dennis as he pours his feelings about love into the words that he chose to be his memory after his death in 2014.

When Roger Rosenblatt’s daughter Amy dies suddenly, he and his wife Ginny, without hesitation, pack up their lives and move into her house to help care for her three small children. Making Toast is a record of that time – of the grief and sadness, but also of learning to laugh again.

Amy died from an asymptomatic heart condition at the age of 38. Her sudden and unexpected loss ripped a hole in the community of family and friends whose lives Amy had touched. Rosenblatt realizes that he learns more about his daughter – her selflessness, her humor, her generosity – after her death than he did while she was alive. He struggles not only with his own overpowering grief and anger, but also that of his grandchildren who each cope differently, his stoic son-in-law, his wife who must now step into Amy’s footsteps, his adult sons, his many friends. He finds solace in the mundane – reading stories, helping with schoolwork, making toast to order. Gradually, they all learn that while cannot escape the terrible loss, they can learn to live with it and to continue.

Written as a loose collection of essays, anecdotes and remembrances,  this small book is an eloquent and understated  study on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, the coming to terms with terrible loss and a fitting tribute to a life that made a difference.

The audiobook, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch,  read by the author,  is bittersweet because he and the audience know his time is short. A computer professor who is aware that he has less than a year to live wants to leave his children and students a legacy of the principles, ideas and beliefs he has gathered over the years.

In this lecture, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” Pausch is brutally honest about himself and his disease, yet he never loses his sense of humor.

Parenthood, marriage,education, science and Walt Disney are all examined. He is not falsely modest, and attributes his success to being able to learn from others and his mistakes.

It makes you wonder – what lessons you would impart to the next generation?

wicked plantsWicked Plants: the Weed that Killed Abraham Lincoln’s Mother by Amy Stewart is a delightfully gruesome catalog of a great variety of harmful plants and just exactly what they can inflict on you. This alphabetical list of plants that can poison, strangle, paralyze, induce hallucinations or heart attack or merely cause pain and suffering is illustrated with appropriately gothic drawings. Many of the plants are surprisingly common – castor bean plants and angel’s trumpet for instance. Others are bizarre and nearly fantastical.  Stewart’s writing style is witty and entertaining and her love and knowledge of all things botanical shines throughout the book.

Amy Stewart’s website has lots more info, including interviews with Amy and news about her upcoming events. Amy is the author of several thoughtful gardening-related books including the excellent Flower Confidential about the floral industry.

Don’t miss the chance to see some of those dastardly plants up-close when Vander Veer Botanical Park Conservatory features ten of them in their special exhibit, running concurrently with their annual Chrysanthemum Festival, mid October through mid November. Excerpts from the book will be featured in story boards displayed throughout the exhibit.

Conservatory hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 10am – 4pm. Admission is $1 for adults; children under 16 are free but must be accompanied by an adult. For more information about the display, contact Paula Witt at 563-323-3298.

Shelter MeThree months have passed since Janie’s husband was killed in an accident. She is still awash in grief, barely able to function, struggling to get herself and her two small children through each day when a contractor shows up at her house, ready to build the porch her husband had secrectly planned as a surprise for her.

Over the following months Janie finds strength and solace and even laughter from unlikely sources – her annoying, talkative Aunt, the shy, awkward priest, a neighbor she has nothing in common with, even the contractor who becomes a daily, calming presence in their lives. Slowly the pain lessens and Janie learns that moving on does not mean forgetting the past.

Shelter Me by Juliette Fay is a sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny story of how one family puts itself back together after unimaginable tragedy. The writing is compelling – it’s very hard to put this book down – and the characters so real that they will stay with you long after you finish.