Here is your poll for our anatomy theme. There is a mix of fun and serious books, and I encourage you to vote according to what you’d like to read back to back. I will close the poll on Saturday, which will be a social. Due to the delay in getting the poll up, our first meeting will take place on November 26, and the second will be on December 10. That may be our last book for the year, since I know many of us are busy around the holidays.
Socials and open mic nights will continue. We can do a holiday meeting if you’d like to, perhaps something where everyone comes having read their favorite holiday story and talks about it a bit to the rest of us? Tell me what you think. I’ll check in about this this Saturday.
People participating in secret Santa: Please get wishes on your wishlists, and be sending out your gifts relatively soon, especially if shopping from places without quick shipping like Etsy.
Tentatively planning our gift opening day for December 17th or around there.
Butts: A Backstory by Heather Radke
(Note: this will be out on November 29, so if it gets chosen, we’ll be reading it second)
ONE OF THE MOST ANTICIPATED BOOKS OF FALL: Esquire, Time, LitHub, The Every Girl, BookPage
“One of the year’s most ingenious and eye-opening cultural studies.” —Publishers Weekly, Best Books of 2022
“Deeply thought, rigorously researched, and riveting…A pitch-perfect debut.” —Melissa Febos, bestselling author of Girlhood and Body Work
Whether we love them or hate them, think they’re sexy, think they’re strange, consider them too big, too small, or anywhere in between, humans have a complicated relationship with butts. It is a body part unique to humans, critical to our evolution and survival, and yet it has come to signify so much more: sex, desire, comedy, shame. A woman’s butt, in particular, is forever being assessed, criticized, and objectified, from anxious self-examinations trying on jeans in department store dressing rooms to enduring crass remarks while walking down a street or high school hallways. But why? In Butts: A Backstory, reporter, essayist, and RadioLab contributing editor Heather Radke is determined to find out.
Spanning nearly two centuries, this “whip-smart” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) cultural history takes us from the performance halls of 19th-century London to the aerobics studios of the 1980s, the music video set of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and the mountains of Arizona, where every year humans and horses race in a feat of gluteal endurance. Along the way, she meets evolutionary biologists who study how butts first developed; models whose measurements have defined jean sizing for millions of women; and the fitness gurus who created fads like “Buns of Steel.” She also examines the central importance of race through figures like Sarah Bartmann, once known as the “Venus Hottentot,” Josephine Baker, Jennifer Lopez, and other women of color whose butts have been idolized, envied, and despised.
Part deep dive reportage, part personal journey, part cabinet of curiosities, Butts is an entertaining, illuminating, and thoughtful examination of why certain silhouettes come in and out of fashion—and how larger ideas about race, control, liberation, and power affect our most private feelings about ourselves and others.
Notable Review by Krista
Butts, silly as they may often seem, are tremendously complex symbols, fraught with significance and nuance, laden with humor and sex, shame and history. Women’s butts have been used as a means to create and reinforce racial hierarchies, as a barometer for the virtues of hard work, and as a measure of sexual desire and availability. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that there is little a person can do to dramatically change the way their butt looks without surgical intervention, the shape and size of a woman’s butt has long been a perceived indicator of her very nature — her morality, her femininity, and even her humanity.
Early in Butts: A Backstory, author Heather Radke dismantles the “adaptationism” theories of evolutionary psychology — the notion that perceived sexual markers, like a peacock’s tail or a woman’s rear end, signal reproductive health to prospective mates (which is what I know I had been taught) instead of being merely physical artefacts of some minor modification that happened along the way — and offers instead the idea that, when it comes to women’s butts, the attractiveness and meaning of these incidental mounds of muscle and fat is entirely culturally imposed. In the West, the idea of what attractive backsides look like has varied greatly over the years — from extravagant Victorian bustles to narrow-hipped flappers; from hardened Buns of Steel to bulbous Kardashian belfies — and while these standards have generally been determined by straight, white men, women from all walks of life have endured the incessant evaluation of a body part they can’t even properly see. More social commentary than straight-up science, Radke looks at the cultural meaning of the female butt from many fascinating angles, and with writing that is equal parts informal and journalistic, she presents an eye-opening overview of something I had never given much thought to at all. Engaging and provoking, I’m rounding up to five stars. (Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.)
Because of the power long held in science, politics, media, and the realms of culture and politics, white people, men, and straight people have always maintained an inordinate amount of influence and control over what meanings are applied to bodies. They have invented and enforced ideas of what is normal and what is deviant, what is “mainstream” and what is marginal. By looking closely at how people in power have constructed those meanings, my hope is that I will make visible something that often feels invisible: the deep historical roots of why women seem to have so many — and so many contradictory — feelings about their butts. I wanted to understand why butts have come to mean so much, when they could very well mean nothing at all.
Throughout, Radke makes the case that there is a pernicious racial dimension to the evaluation of the female butt (and particularly with the belief that Black women have the largest butts — which white men take as an invitation to sexual advances and which white women envy and feel threatened by.) She tells the story of Sarah Baartman — the so-called “Hottentot Venus”, an enslaved South African of the Khoe tribe — whose butt was so tremendous that she was brought to England in 1810, where she was put on display in a nude body stocking for Brits to pinch and poke with their umbrellas. (More egregiously, Baartman’s various body parts were put on permanent display in Paris’ National Museum of Natural History after her death.) Radke draws a line between this “scientific” fascination with large behinds and the eventual fashion for bustles (with the added bonus for white women that they could present this alluring racialised silhouette in public and remove it in private.) This chimes with one of the last stories in the book: After Miley Cyrus infamously “twerked” onstage at the MTV VMAs (a dance, appropriated from the Black community, that goes back to New Orleans’ antebellum Congo Square) Cyrus apparently made twerking a part of her concert tour, strapping on a huge padded butt for her performances (a racialised act, which could then be undone in private.)
In between, Radke covers ‘20s flappers and the eugenicists of the 1940s (who were trying to determine what a “normal” [read: “white”] shape looked like); fashion, “ready to wear” clothing, and drag queens; exercise trends, surgical fixes, and the music industry. As for the last: I was intrigued to learn that Sir Mix-a-Lot didn’t think of “Baby Got Back” as a novelty song; it was meant as a political statement, a push back against the time’s media preference for skinny white women. And while that song and its video might serve more to objectify than extol Black women and their butts (they are presented by and for the male gaze), Nicki Minaj takes ownership of her own body and its meaning by sampling “Baby Got Back” in “Anaconda” (and I would have never considered the cultural importance of either song without this book, and I now feel like I should have been paying attention.)
In so many ways, butts ask us to turn away, to giggle with hot-faced shame and roll our eyes. When I started writing this book, I wondered what would happen if I instead turned my full attention toward the butt, if I investigated its history and asked butt experts and enthusiasts of all stripes — scientists, drag queens, dance instructors, historians, and archivists — serious questions about what butts are and what butts mean. In doing so, I found stories of tragedy, anger, oppression, lust, and joy. And I found that in our bodies, we carry histories.
I don’t know if I was entirely convinced that attraction to the female butt is primarily generated by popular culture (evolutionary psychology is a hard theory for me to shake off based on a couple of quotes), but as an examination of how cultural trends pressure women to conform to shifting, impossible beauty ideals (even the eugenicists couldn’t find a woman to represent the “norm”), and how those pressures are felt differently to women of different (primarily different racial) groups over time, this work is scholarly, wide-ranging, and surprising; exactly the kind of thing I like.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.
Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn’t know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like?
Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).
Notable Review by Melki
Ten months into my job at Westwind, I knew death was the life for me.
When Caitlin Doughty took a job at a California crematory, she learned more than just how to dispose of dead bodies. The daily exposure to death changed her thinking on the subject and turned her into a warrior fighting the good fight for the good death. While practicing the process of turning a former human into four to seven pounds of grayish ash and bone, Doughty’s way of thinking on the subject began to evolve.
Corpses keep the living tethered to reality. I had lived my entire life until I began working at Westwood relatively corpse-free. Now I had access to scores of them – stacked in the crematory freezer. They forced me to face my own death and the deaths of those I loved. No matter how much technology may become our master, it takes only a human corpse to toss the anchor off that boat and pull us back down to the firm knowledge that we are glorified animals that eat and shit and are doomed to die. We are all just future corpses.
In addition to her philosophical musings, Doughty presents a nice historical overview of death and its many resulting rituals. Particularly interesting was how a book – The American Way of Death – helped popularize cremation in this country. Doughty’s relaxed conversational tone, positive attitude and great sense of humor keep a potentially depressing subject from getting too bleak. She offers a unique perspective on the fate that awaits us all.
This book made me do a little rethinking of my own. Doughty’s mention that to incinerate one body uses as much energy as a 500-mile car trip, made me question if cremation is right for me. And while it was Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers that first made me give some serious thought to what should happen to my carcass when I’m done using it, THIS book prompted me look up Green Burial options in my state.
There aren’t many.
Hopefully, when I check out in a few decades – fingers crossed, knock on wood – the choices will be bountiful. But it doesn’t hurt (too badly) to think about it now. After all, I’m just a (future) dead gal, typing.
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? And other Questions about Dead Bodies by Caitlin Doughty,
Everyone has questions about death. In Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?, best-selling author and mortician Caitlin Doughty answers the most intriguing questions she’s ever received about what happens to our bodies when we die. In a brisk, informative, and morbidly funny style, Doughty explores everything from ancient Egyptian death rituals and the science of skeletons to flesh-eating insects and the proper depth at which to bury your pet if you want Fluffy to become a mummy. Now featuring an interview with a clinical expert on discussing these issues with young people—the source of some of our most revealing questions about death—Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? confronts our common fear of dying with candid, honest, and hilarious facts about what awaits the body we leave behind.
Notable Review by Jenna
Those who have read Caitlin Doughty’s previous books know her talent for taking the usually bleak and depressing subject of death and turning it into something entertaining. A bit on the gross side perhaps, but entertaining nonetheless.
In Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?, Ms. Doughty answers several questions about death, dying, and dead bodies asked of her by children. They are things that many of you may have wondered too, at least when you were children and before you learned that death is a taboo subject and also something to be avoided at all costs. And yet, it cannot be avoided. At any cost. Unless you know something every single one of your fellow human beings don’t know, you are going to eventually end up ashes or worm food or pumped full of embalming fluid. You are not going to get to enjoy your precious body for all eternity, it just doesn’t work like that. No matter who you are or how rich you might be, no amount of money will buy you eternal life. Perhaps at some point in the future scientists will figure out how to upload our memories into machines and thus grant us immortality, but as of now, sorry, no can do. You’re gonna croak.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of such bad news, but really, it’s always better to face the facts. So now that you know the truth of your limited existence, you might be wondering what exactly will happen to your body when it’s no longer living and breathing and eating and shitting. Some questions you might have that Ms. Doughty thoughtfully answers are:
•Why do we turn colours when we die?
•Will my hair and nails keep growing in the coffin?
•If I die making a funny face, will it be stuck like that forever?
•What will I smell like and how long until I start stinking?
•Can I have my body preserved in amber like a prehistoric insect?
•What would happen if I swallow a bag of popcorn before I die and am cremated?
And of course, the eponymous question that we’re all wondering:
•Will my cat indeed eat my eyeballs???
The answer is, he might. (It’s not a spoiler because it’s answered in the first chapter.) In case you’re thinking it would then be better to adopt a dog rather than take the chance this adorable kitten might grow up to be an eye-munching connoisseur of human flesh…. better think again because that adorable puppy is gonna do the same if left alone without food for too long. Sorry folks, but they gotta eat. If you don’t want to become pet food, please arrange to have someone find your body soon after you die — or always leave out a lifetime supply of food for your furry babies. However, if you do want to become pet food, well….. I think it would be kinder to find someone willing to break the law who will dump your body at sea rather than have your beloved pet locked up with your decomposing body and little else.
Please don’t do that to Fluffy or Fido.
(Note: For the answers to the rest of the questions and more, you’ll need to pick up this fun, funny, and interesting book for yourself. You won’t be disappointed!
Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society by Beth A. Conklin
Mourning the death of loved ones and recovering from their loss are universal human experiences, yet the grieving process is as different between cultures as it is among individuals. As late as the 1960s, the Wari’ Indians of the western Amazonian rainforest ate the roasted flesh of their dead as an expression of compassion for the deceased and for his or her close relatives. By removing and transforming the corpse, which embodied ties between the living and the dead and was a focus of grief for the family of the deceased, Wari’ death rites helped the bereaved kin accept their loss and go on with their lives.
Drawing on the recollections of Wari’ elders who participated in consuming the dead, this book presents one of the richest, most authoritative ethnographic accounts of funerary cannibalism ever recorded. Beth Conklin explores Wari’ conceptions of person, body, and spirit, as well as indigenous understandings of memory and emotion, to explain why the Wari’ felt that corpses must be destroyed and why they preferred cannibalism over cremation. Her findings challenge many commonly held beliefs about cannibalism and show why, in Wari’ terms, it was considered the most honorable and compassionate way of treating the dead.
Notable Reviews by multiple people because a lot of them are really short
Maddie: After reading this for a course on death and dying, I am left thinking about how critical anthropology is in understanding some of the most taboo subjects such as cannibalism. As the title says, “Compassionate Cannibalism” turns the entire concept from a Westerner’s point of view on its head. The book reveals how the Wari’ community historically mourned in this way out of love, respect and it being a cathartic ritual. The writing itself allows the reader to understand more deeply the emotions felt among the Wari’ in grief and mourning. I ended this book reflecting heavily on how the West is quick to judge behaviors and traditions, such as cannibalism, without understanding the cultural context and meaning tied to it.
Mollie: Professor Conklin is an amazing anthropologist and I loved her classes at Vanderbilt. Highly recommend this book…. it’s a great study, she has such perspective and insight.
Michelle: Completely fascinating and heart wrenching. Don’t let the content turn you away.
Jessica: The only book I ever liked from my courses in Cultural Anthropology. I regrettably loaned this book out and never got it back. One day I will probably purchase it again to read once more.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Okay, you’re thinking: “This must be some kind of a joke. A humorous book about cadavers?”
Yup — and it works.
Mary Roach takes the age-old question, “What happens to us after we die?” quite literally. And in Stiff, she explores the “lives” of human cadavers from the time of the ancient Egyptians all the way up to current campaigns for human composting. Along the way, she recounts with morbidly infectious glee how dead bodies are used for research ranging from car safety and plastic surgery (you’ll cancel your next collagen injection after reading this!), to the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin.
Impossible (and irreverent) as it may sound, Roach has written a book about corpses that’s both lively and fresh. She traveled around the globe to conduct her forensic investigations, and her findings are wryly intelligent. While the myriad uses for cadavers recounted are often graphic, Roach imbues her subject with a sense of dignity, choosing to emphasize the oddly noble purposes corpses serve, from organ donation to lifesaving medical research.
Readers will come away convinced of the enormous debt that we, the living, owe to the study of the remains of the dead. And while it may not offer the answer to the ancient mystery we were hoping for, Stiff offers a strange sort of comfort in the knowledge that, in a sense, death isn’t necessarily the end.
Notable Review by Miranda Reads
Fascinating, touching and surprisingly wholesome considering it’s about dead bodies
Many people will find this book disrespectful. There is nothing amusing about being dead, they will say.
Ah, but there is.
Mary Roach brings cadavers into a whole new, sometimes painfully bright, light.
We follow her as she attends autopsies and medical discussions.
We learn what happens to bodies as they decompose on the field, under the field and in so, so many places.
The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back.
We get a bit of a history lesson with the sordid tales associated with body-snatching and the early medicine’s need for atomically correct models.
We even go so far back as ancient Egypt and their secret honey recipe (you will never look at honey in the same way) (trust me).
This is one book you’d have to be dying to miss out on.
Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.
What shall we read next? (Choose 2)
- Butts: A Backstory by Heather Radke (44%, 7 Votes)
- Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty (31%, 5 Votes)
- Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? And other Questions about Dead Bodies by Caitlin Doughty (25%, 4 Votes)
- Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society by Beth A. Conklin (0%, 0 Votes)
- Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 8