Mary Roach sure did! If you ever had any doubts about approaching this potentially daunting subject, let Roach sweep away all your doubts: she makes what might be an otherwise unsavory subject (for some, not all) into one from which you can’t quite tear yourself away. From discovering how much the average ribs can compress before the organs they protect are no longer exactly protected (2.75″, if you’re interested, p.88) to knowing all the different uses a cadaver might serve (apart from the aforementioned) and what took their place before (hello pigs! hello dogs! hello monkeys! to name a few. Though animal substitutes still serve in our place, sometimes alive rather than not. Take that how you will), Roach takes you through human cadaverhood in possibly the most approachable volume you’ll read. She litters the entire book with smart quips and witty remarks, both in the main text as well as in the copious footnotes, which I strongly advise you not to overlook, and renders the lives – if they may be referred to as such? – of human cadavers into stories in their own right, taking them through adventures where their physical safety is imperiled or allowing them to find a nice plot of land in which to decay under varying conditions, entertaining the living every once in a while to show them how they’re faring. There’s never a dull moment as a human cadaver! Have I got you now?
Sarah Bakewell promises freedom, being and apricot cocktails at this here café, but I think what we get is actually – and I kid you not – a love story. Which is not to say that love stories and freedom, being, and apricot cocktails are mutually exclusive – least of all that last one, I’m sure!
I’m going to argue my case. It’s a love story firstly between Bakewell and the existentialist philosophers (and philosophy), but also, through the process of becoming witness to that story, between the reader and – I suppose it’s a pick and choose, but I truly do think he’s the protagonist here – Jean-Paul Sartre. Don’t get me wrong, now. Bakewell does an extremely good job picking apart existentialism and following it through the ages, from its inchoate stages through its evolution in Sartre and other customers of this existentialist café over time. She details their relationships with each other as they become friends, break with each other, try again, and break it off for good. There is a good mix of 1)historical context, which I appreciated a lot and helps give depth to the characters, allowing you to understand what may have served as possible motivators, 2)character development, and 3)the understanding that ideas are not static entities, are subject to change, and sometimes defy attempts at definition. Bakewell embraces #3 from the very start, and having read this book cover to cover, I leave satisfied not being able to provide a clean and simple definition of what exactly constitutes existentialism. But let’s talk about #2: character development. Continue reading
Ivan Coyote is the kind of storyteller who finds their way into the heart of anyone who takes the time to listen. In fact, one of the stories in Tomboy Survival Guide is kind of about just that! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
If you don’t know who Coyote is, I implore you to look into their work – they are a Canadian writer and storyteller who grew up in the Yukon. Their stories reflect their endless fascination with and love for people of all kinds, and they have a remarkable ability to pull beautiful things out of tragedy and pain. All of their story collections thrum with humanity (to the point where they even bring out the reluctant poet in me, apparently!)
Their most recent collection, Tomboy Survival Guide, is particularly dear to my heart, though. I originally discovered Coyote when they were touring with Rae Spoon, one of my favourite Canadian musical artists. The two artists collaborated on on the multimedia show Gender Failure, exploring their experiences growing up and failing to fit into the gender binary. I saw this show three times while it was touring, and I cried at each performance; it was that good. (The stories and lyrics from this show were also published as a book by the same title, so go ahead and check it out* for yourself!)
Tomboy Survival Guide also follows up on a collaborative performance project of the same title, that Coyote developed with an all-tomboy musical ensemble, an dit explores many of the same themes as Gender Failure. Here Coyote digs back into their own life, growing up from their tomboy roots into a young butch adult, and finally embracing the uncategorizable nature of their gendered experience. Funny, vulnerable, and sometimes sad, this is ultimately a heart-warming collection of memories that, like all of Coyote’s writing, inspires me to be a stronger and more compassionate person.
*pun very much intended