Days of Death, Days of Life by Kristin Norget (thoughts)
This book made me wish I’d been an anthropologist, which is high praise indeed! ;) As a Canadian grad student in the 90s, Norget lived in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico; her original intention was to study the Days of the Dead, but soon she realised that the relationship between everyday life and death extended beyond the holiday. Hands on, my favourite aspect of the book is Norget’s self awareness; she acknowledges that her experiences are affected by being white Western woman from a developed nation and looks at the dangers of anthropology, such as a tendency to exoticise or objectify the culture, and its strengths and weaknesses. I love this kind of informed honesty; it makes me much more likely to trust an academic. Norget is also talented at both observing people and writing about them; I definitely felt like I got to know the families and neighbourhoods and I felt privileged to be able to see a tiny slice of their life. She approaches her subject from a variety of angles, but always portrays the individuals as human beings rather than just things to be studied. I also loved the way she questioned Mexican’s stereotypes about their own relationship with death, as exemplified by some of Octavio Paz’s writings; she looks at how much of this accepted truth seemed to be borne out in reality. Her mix of bigger picture analysis and individual stories was just right for me, and the book was always interesting, informative, and thought-provoking. I couldn’t wait to pick it up again every time I set it down, and I closed the cover with a contented sigh. That is, until I discovered she hasn’t written any more books! I highly recommend this to armchair travellers, anyone looking for good nonfiction, and those curious about popular religion, Mexico, or of course cultural differences to the approach of death.
Suggested Companion Reads (linked to my thoughts)
- The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz (Although it’s on my TBR list, I haven’t read this (have to prepare myself for the machismo), but since Norget references his writings several times I think it would enrich the experience.)
- Looking for History by Alma Guillermoprieto (She’s a marvelous Mexican journalist who writes about all over Latin America; this essay collection includes the most pieces on Mexico, and especially looks at politics during the time period when Norget lived there. I haven’t reviewed it yet on my blog, but you can see what I thought of two of her other books: The Heart that Bleeds and Samba.)
- Passed On by Karla FC Holloway (I mentioned this in my Sunday one-sentence reviews; it’s about the cultural experience of death amongst African Americans and is very well written.)
- Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks (A travelogue set in the same area, although Sacks went there to look at ferns!)
- The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea (I never did blog about this one, but it’s a marvelous historical fiction look at a girl living on a ranch who became a powerful saint; it feels appropriate here because she seems to die and then sits up in her coffin during her wake.)