I started the year with Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. I live in Los Angeles, which is Scientology ground zero. For years I had heard stories, seen the Tom Cruise freakout video, watched the guys with the E-meters on Hollywood Blvd. But I didn’t know much about the history of Scientology other than, “L. Ron Hubbard thinks aliens detonated hydrogen bombs in volcanoes.” Damn. It’s more insane than you can possibly imagine. And the best part is that this isn’t a hatchet job by Wright, he tries so hard to be fair to Scientologists, meticulously researching everything and presenting it in an unbiased way. It’s just that the each story is more bonkers than the next. Wright is also a brilliant narrative nonfiction writer, so it’s a pleasure to read.
During the American Librarians Association Conference, I was able to get an advanced reading copy of Edward O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence. His last book, The Social Conquest of Earth, was mind blowing. He’s the world’s leading scientist on ants, who just happens to, late in his career, be writing these treatises on why humans are the way they are. He’s tackling BIG PICTURE questions that hardly anyone else is. I have so many scribbles in the margins of this book that it’s practically defacement.
The two best books in my genre (that is to say, DEATH) this year are Being Mortal by Atul Gawnade and Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell. Being Mortal is a great introduction to the problems with how we care for the elderly and dying in the U.S. We’re in such denial about the state of eldercare that we are wildly unprepared for the baby boomers to start dying, and there is going to be untold suffering because of it. Having someone as prominent as Gawande writing about it is a good start.
I’m not generally a fan of crime-forensics (shows like CSI, Bones, etc). But Dr. Judy Melinek is a stone cold professional. Working Stiff is the opposite of sensational, it’s a look into the world of the people in the trenches of the medical examiner’s office. It’s not a glamorous world, you have to care about your work, you have to know what you’re doing, and you have to be comfortable with death, or it will chew you up and spit you out.
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