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A more genteel exploration of life’s inevitable decay can be found in Martha Cooley’s GUESSWORK: A Reckoning With Loss (Catapult, paper, .95).This splendid and subtle memoir in essays captures 14 months in the ancient rural village of Castiglione del Terziere in northern Tuscany.The subfield of feminist scholarship devoted to narratives of what’s commonly referred to as “the body” is having something of a heyday.Disability studies are growing in popularity, as is the prominence of intersectional theories around gender, body modification and “the politics of difference.” Often, the lines of inquiry (or “interrogations,” as academics like to say) concern themselves with power dynamics imposed by cultural norms, including those that conspire to make physicality itself a form of trauma. Time collects data to deliver the best content, services, and personalized digital ads.We partner with third party advertisers, who may use tracking technologies to collect information about your activity on sites and applications across devices, both on our sites and across the Internet.Cooley is on sabbatical from her teaching job in New York City, though the word she’s chosen for this leave of absence is , which refers to a break between words or notes in a line of poetry or music: “In life — mine, anyway — it’s a deliberate interruption, a chance to reckon with divisions imposed by loss.”The losses have been piling up.Cooley has lost friends to drugs and suicide and cancer and various other illnesses.
As a memoir, “Born Both” can be as difficult to pin down as its author’s identity.Valentine, who now curates a collection at Barts Pathology Museum in London, worked for eight years in Britain as a certified A. As a child, Valentine recounts, she tried to perform autopsies on her toys and was “enthralled by any dead animal I found on the street.” After university she pursued an advanced degree in forensic and biomolecular sciences and gets an entry-level gig at the mortuary, cleaning up after organ dissections (the job requires steel-toed Wellington boots). And it actually works spectacularly well, at least if you’re into that kind of thing.In a chapter focusing on the five stages of decomposition, she has no problem telling us about the preservatory effects of maggots — “many experts call them ‘the unseen undertakers of the world’” — or the time she cut into a distended abdomen and “the green, taut flesh rippled and burst like a balloon from hell and I was rewarded with a face full of the most hideous gas I’d ever smelled in my entire life.”If the book succeeds as a morbidly galloping parade of every possible kind of dead body, it falls short when it comes to the author’s life.Viloria also shows how gender privilege works both ways.
Despite enjoying the swaggering confidence that comes from presenting as male, Viloria tires of “the limitations around expressing my emotions and the tough veneer that I have to put on to protect myself every time I get around a group of young men.” Roughed up by cops while getting arrested at a protest in Berkeley, Viloria finds that the police suddenly become gentler when they believe they’re dealing with a girl instead of a boy.
“She was my age, 57, when back pain turned into rampant cancer,” Cooley writes.