"By writing or reading obituaries, we can discover ways to make our time on earth more worthwhile, more productive, more meaningful to others."
Alana Baranick, "Life on the Death Beat"

"'I always read the obituaries in The Times,' I explained to her. 'They make me bloody glad to be alive.'"
John Mortimer, "Rumpole's Return"

Carlo Bergonzi

Tenor -- via the New York Times. While not often ranked with the Big Three tenors of the mid-20th century -- Corelli, di Stephano, and Del Monaco -- he was a supreme interpreter of Verdi.

Bella 'Bel' Kaufman

Verda Erman

Pianist -- via the Daily Sabah.

Tommy Mundon

Comedian -- via the Express & Star.

Rod Franks

Trumpeter -- via the Telegraph & Argus.

William Schoen

Violist -- via the Chicago Tribune.

FRIDAY BOOK REVIEW: 'The Book of the Dead'


The Book of the Dead: Lives of Justly Famous and the Unreservedly Obscure
John Lloyd and John Mitchinson
Crown Publishers
New York

When I was a kid, the most prevalent form of literature in our house was the Reader’s Digest and its assorted ancillary products, derivatives, and uncategorized spawn. Condensed Books. Spring 1961 through Autumn 1968? Check. Treasury of Great Operettas, Mood Music for Listening and Relaxation, Joyous Music at Christmastime? On my turntable.

One of these was what first spawned by interest in biographies, and eventually obituaries. “Great Lives, Great Deeds” is an out-of-print Readers Digest compendium of more than 80 little inspirational life sketches of heroic figures – sans warts, contradictions, controversy, or depth.
These mini-hagiographies first inspired me, and later confounded me. The chasm of cognitive dissonance between our official narratives and the textured, ambivalent truths of lives lived made me want to crack jokes, or read a corrective.

Subsequent journeys through Vasari, Plutarch, Suetonius, and modern counterparts such as Schonberg’s “Lives of the Great Composers” and the Durants’ “Interpretations of Life” have proven to be tasty samplers for me, gateway drugs that encourage deeper investigations.

How pleasant it was to find this gem in a street rack a few weeks ago. “The Book of the Dead” is a delightfully readable, completely disrespectful – and still thoughtful – mashup of bios from across the historical spectrum.

It helps that the authors are the redoubtable John Lloyd (Britain’s “Blackadder” TV series) and the master researcher John Mitchinson. Between the two of them, they subsume a plethora of fascinating facts about each subject into a charming, provocative, and sometimes silly narrative.

Rather than categorize their subjects by nation, vocation, or other criteria, the duo engages our minds by lumping them together under unlikely banners such as sex, food, questing, particularly rotten childhoods, imposters, and those who kept monkeys. Somehow, it all works. For those who might otherwise fail to consider figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Moll Cutpurse, St. Cuthbert and Bucky Fuller, or Oliver Cromwell and Frida Kahlo as people with something significant in common, well. (And for those intrigued by the outlandish details, there is a helpful list of sources for further reading in the back of the text.)

The unifying element of this brisk, absorbing read is its tone. “The Book of the Dead” is shot through with the sheer pleasure of storytelling, the high spirits that come from shedding light on dusty, musty old exemplars, and a kind of bitter optimism – the faith that mankind’s peculiarities lead as often to good as to evil, and that the unexamined life is not worth laughing at. This cheeky cynicism animates the book and makes it something to purchase, hold onto, share, and read aloud to someone who is easily upset by such things.

Saado Ali Warsame

Musician -- via the BBC.

Ariano Suassuna

Writer and playwright -- via the Folha de S. Paulo.

Louis Lentin

Film, TV, and theater director -- via independent.ie.