Category Archives: Books

Journalist Hayley Campbell brings death to life in “All the Living and the Dead”

We are surrounded by death. It is in our news, our nursery rhymes, our true-crime podcasts. Yet from a young age, we are told that death is something to be feared. How are we supposed to know what we’re so afraid of, when we are never given the chance to look?

Fueled by a childhood fascination with death, journalist Hayley Campbell searches for answers in the people who make a living by working with the dead. In school, her questions about death were rarely answered, and when a 12-year-old friend drowned, the casket at the funeral was kept shut. Along the way, she encounters mass fatality investigators, embalmers, and a former executioner who is responsible for ending 62 lives. She meets gravediggers who have already dug their own graves, visits a cryonics facility in Michigan, goes for late-night Chinese with a homicide detective, and questions a man whose job it is to make crime scenes disappear.

In All the Living and the Dead: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life’s Work (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99), Campbell takes readers on a trip behind closed doors and speaks with people who have hands-on experience with the dead, fashioning long-running careers in the service
of the departed. These are the people who look after the dead so the rest of us don’t have to, and perhaps in doing so take away something about death that society needs to understand.

Campbell talks with funeral directors, embalmers, crematorium workers, and gravediggers to discover what insights their regular contact with the dead and the mourning has brought them; she meets with a man who makes death masks, a bereavement midwife, and a cleaner of crime scene sites, to learn what people’s reactions to death really tell us; she sits down with an executioner and with a homicide detective to discuss their careers spent confronting death, and attends forensics autopsies, one of which makes an devastating impression on her.

All the Living and the Dead is an absorbing panorama of the industry that dismantles the dead and puts all the pieces away. These are the people whose voices are rarely heard—oftentimes because many
people tell themselves they’d be more comfortable not hearing them—but who have intriguing stories to share and who contribute to an awareness of death that, according to Campbell, we’ve all been avoiding for a long time. The result is a fascinating book that offers much food for thought and brings readers closer to a workaday world focusing on life’s closing chapter. For Campbell, death is very much a thing that people can face, and her book will have readers sharing that opinion.

“Pack rat” doesn’t begin to describe Andy Warhol . . . Hoarder, indeed!

He wore a toupee and a girdle, suffered from bad, pasty skin and disdained physical contact. Yet he would be seen at all the big events and major openings, rubbing tuxedo-clad elbows with the rich and (in)famous, the high and the sober. He was a celeb’s celeb, posing with, then photographing, the likes of Liza and Dolly and Diana and Liz, then painting their portraits … then asking them for their autographs.

You and I know him as Andy Warhol, the Pop Art prophet whose posthumous profits have earned him first place among artists at auction and who is forever honored with his own artful museum.

Yet to paint an accurate portrait of Andy, we need to forget (just for a few paragraphs) Marilyn and Mao and those dollar signs he so obsessively silk-screened. The real star in Andy’s life was his obsession with “stuff.” He collected everything — and, after a recent visit to the Warhol archives proved — I mean everything.

He was the ultimate Pack Rat, and I don’t use the capitalization lightly.

Starting in 1974 and continuing through 1987, Andy would toss this and that into corrugated cardboard boxes — things he bought, things he was given, things he got for free, things he “borrowed” from hotels — “time capsules,” he called them.

Image 1 - Andy Warhol Signed Photo with Beckett Letter of Authenticity 8" x 11"

Armed with a $650,000 grant from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Andy Warhol Museum is embarking on an effort to photograph, digitally scan, catalog and preserve the contents of hundreds of capsules. They’ve already opened and begun to inventory 100, and have 472 more to go, a project that should take six years.

During a recent visit, I browsed through Time Capsule No. 20, the contents of which spanned 1982-85. The latter was the year Andy went to Los Angeles for a guest spot on “The Love Boat” — there’s a healthy stack of unused stationery from Beverly Hills Hotel, a box of bath soap, a pile of phone messages, one of which is from B-actress Mamie Van Doren.

Wearing ill-fitting white gloves that allow me to safely handle the “art,” I open a small sampling of the many letters and notes addressed to the artist (no gossip, no secrets, just cryptic missives from unknowns). There’s a rough skin scraper (bought in Manhattan at Duane Reade), hair dye, mascara, nail polish, lipstick, vials of perfume samples. There’s junk jewelry, a gay porno magazine, a promotional brochure from a Russian airline, several bottles of homeopathic drugs and enough pimple medicine to keep the teens of Fox Chapel acne-free for years.

And I haven’t even begun to snoop what’s on the other shelves.

Some people would call it junk. It’s a word at which archivist and project supervisor Matt Wrbican bristles. “Andy considered the capsules to be works of art — they are pieces of a larger historical timeline,” he  said, adding that the “strangest thing” found to date was a mummified human foot, analyzed by scientists at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and confirmed to be a relic from Ancient Egypt.

But sometimes even timelines show their age, and lines must be drawn. For a Time Capsule, that means destruction. Collections manager Allison Smith reveals the museum junked a “leaking half-empty bottle of Chloraseptic,” but not before the over-the-counter medicine was photographed and all pertinent info logged into the database.

Many people have trashed Warhol while he was alive, but this causes a lump in my throat. Maybe a spritz of Chloraseptic would help?

Matthew points to a sandwich bag of AA batteries that have leaked; they will also hit the garbage bin. “Actually,” he explains, “we’ll put them in a battery recycling program.” Once, of course, they are photographed and cataloged.

I ask nicely if I can have the batteries, sort of an awesome alkaline souvenir from my visit.

I also figure that in some circles, I could claim to have an original Warhol.

I am nicely told, “No.”

I leave empty-handed, but brimming with reminders to do some spring cleaning.

And have that garage sale.

IF YOU GO
The Andy Warhol Museum
117 Sandusky Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15212
412.237.8300
warhol.org

“Is This My Home”? takes a delightful, interactive look at a traveling nurse’s adventures

It’s just what the doctor ordered, a most delightful interactive children’s book that follows Nanette, a young nurse travels across the country caring for wee ones who find themselves needing a nurse’s love.
Is This My Home? (Made For Me, $16.95/$12.95) is the first book in the Tales of a Traveling Nurse series, a most welcome treat that gives young readers ages 4-8 a look into the adventurous profession of travel nursing. Kids will have fun searching for Nanette as she enjoys a new city while following the children who find themselves needing a nurse’s care, from California to New York, Texas to Hawaii and beyond. With her big smile and fun bubble necklace, Nurse Nanette helps make a scary ‘trip to the doctor” that much easier!Inline image
Is This My Home? goes beyond engaging educational adventures: Shay Larby’s colorful and interesting illustrations give kids a look inside hospitals’ pediatric emergency departments while highlighting the importance of child safety and accident prevention.
The book is based on first-hand experiences: Author Sheri Sturniolo has been a registered pediatric nurse for more than 20 years. She started her career as a traveling nurse and her many adventures became the inspiration for the Tales of a Traveling Nurse series.  She enjoys writing children’s books that help little ones better understand the world around them while opening up important conversations between the reader and child. (Sheri began her author journey with her first series, You Were Meant for Me, written for her own children.) See more at talesofatravelingnurse.com
A must-have prescription for fun, facts and educational filled journeys!

“Young Cyrano” introduces young readers to the teenage de Bergerac


We could toss about many so-little known (or unknown). We’ll choose two: Benoît-Constant Coquelin, Edmond Rostand. We’ll add a third: Sir Paul Cicchini.
Yet they all are related. Sort of.  Coquelin was a legendary French actor who originated the role of real-life Hercule Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac whose life was fictionalized in Rostand’s legendary play Cyrano de Bergerac back in 1897. Yep, he’s the Cyrano known for his large, misshapen proboscis; (mis)adventures of fighting, courageous sword fighting, action and, of course, the kiss given to gal pal Roxanne.
Cyrano was, and remains, hot. There have been many stage and screen adaptations. A new stage version starring James McAvoy takes centerstage at Brooklyn’s Academy of Music; little person and Big Star Peter Dinklage stars in the new big-screen musicalization.
And so enters New Jersey school psychologist Cicchini.
He has written
Young Cyrano ($12.99), a novel that takes a breezy look at Cyrano when he was an awkward teenager. Before he became a self-assured hero, Cyrano and his best friends Le Bret and Roxanne took part in many of those teenage exploits with which today’s teens find pleasure . . . and perhaps pain.
Young Cyrano is written with a  flair that guides those in grades 7 through 12 into  playful and perplexing periods of youth, mystery and mayhem with the welcoming and wonder of what is to become.
To learn more about Young Cyrano or its author Sir Paul Cicchini, visit
paulcicchini.com.


 

The problem with ‘The Art of Bob Mackie’? The book was already written, back in 1979.

It’s a large, lavish coffeetable book, this expensive ($50) book that celebrates the fashions of Mackie and the women he (un)dresses. The Art of Bob Mackie (Simon & Schuster) has Mackie’s approval, but it was written by two die-hard fans.
Yet nearly 50 years, Mackie himself wrote (with co-author Gerry Bremer) Designing for Glamour (A& W Publishers), a smaller $14.95 volume that is packed with lots of color BM costume photos,

scores of dos and don’ts for fashion-driven success, even a (first) foreword by Carol Burnett. Sure, the book is long out of print,. but I stole a copy on eBay for $5, postage included.
The Art of Bob Mackie is an embarrassment of riches. Balancing the book on your lap is tough enough, but after a while, page after page after page of Mackie illustrations look that same, as seen below.

Most of the same  ladies are covered in both books (Carol, Cher, Diana, Ann, Mitzi, Bette, Barbra) and some of the photos are duplicated.
Perhaps if Dressing for Glamour was updated, and there was less Carol Burnett gab and more of Cher’s (or reversing the two). The Art of Bob Mackie would have more style.

History As It Happened: Carole Estby Dagg’s New Book Recounts a ‘Walk Across America’

As Santa’s elves—sometimes known as book publicists—continue to drop “gifts”—sometimes known as review copies—under our tree, we remain steadfast, promising to find the best of the best.
And then recommending those titles.
When we stumbled across Carole Estby Dagg’s new book, The Year We Were Famous: Helga and Clara’s Estby’s Walk Across a Changing America ($15.49), we were as impressed not only by the subject (more in a bit) but by her professional tagline, that she spends her time “writing about history as ordinary people  lived it”.
In this, Estby novelizes the true tale of her her suffragist great grandmother, Helga Estby, and Helga’s daughter, Carole’s grand aunt Clara, who walked 4,000 miles from their farm in Mica Creek, Washington, to New York City in 1896 in a heroic attempt to win $10,000 that would save the family’s farm . . . and prove women were invincible.
Inline image
Equipped only with satchels containing compass and maps, first-aid supplies, journals, pistol and a curling iron (!), they headed east along the railroad tracks. The walk began on May 6, 1896 in Spokane, Washington, and ended in New York City  232 days later, on December 23. The women  crossed mountains, deserts and plains; survived a highwayman attack, a flash flood and several blizzards; and went days without food and water. Let’s not forget that Helga and Clara wore out a total of 32 pairs of shoes.
During the year they walked and talked, they became famous, meeting governors and mayors, camping with Indians, and visiting the new president-elect, William McKinley.
Helga and Clara intended to write a book about their adventures, but the publisher reneged on her big-buck promise. Fortunately, newspapers across the country reported on their travels, so Carole was able to write her book based on those articles, with her imagination filling the gaps between facts.
By the way, we aren’t the only ones who were pleased by such a gift from the Jolly Fat Man’s helpers: The Year We Were Famous
won the Will Rogers Medallion; the Sue Alexander Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; and the Willa award from Women Writing the West. It was also selected by the American Library Association for its 2012 Amelia Bloomer List of Best Feminist Fiction.
Santa’s elves have delivered a perfect pick for gift giving.
To order the book and for more info on the author, click caroleestbydagg.

George Chakiris’ autobiography will leave some readers (dis)pleased

Read it. Digest it. And after coming up for air after a whirlwind read of George Chakiris’ autobiography, My West Side Story: A Memoir (Lyons Press, $24.95), you realize you were dazzled.

And duped.

We will explain.

It’s obvious Chakiris loved dancing, a skill so streamlined and stylized that it launched him into a pretty nice career, most notably for West Side Story.

The actor/dancer was first cast in the London production as Riff, gang leader of the Jets. The musical premiered in London in late 1958, and Chakiris received rave reviews, playing the role for almost two years.

The actor, who is of Greek descent, then auditioned for the film version, but the producers thought Chakiris’ dark complexion made him more suitable for the role of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. (Russ Tamblyn got the role of Riff.)

Switching sides to play Bernardo, brother to Natalie Wood’s Maria and partner to Rita Moreno’s Anita, secured him the role on Broadway after seven months of filming. The film (also co-directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins) returns to theaters for two days only as part of Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies’ TCM Big Screen Classics series with an introduction from TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. The beloved movie musical will play in select theaters June 24 and 27 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. local time both days.

The movie not only gained Chakiris a huge  following but also the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in Motion Picture.

West Side Story, all three versions, made him a star.

“I know exactly where my gratitude belongs,” Chakiris writes, “and I still marvel at how, unbeknownst to me at the time, the joyful path of my life was paved one night in 1949 when Jerome Robbins sat Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents down in his apartment and announced, ‘I have an idea.'”

It’s obviously Chakiris was not best friends with Jerome Robbins, the legendary choreographer who was a former Communist Party member and named 10 communists in his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robbins did propel Chakiris into WSS stardom and the actor dishes Robbins. Up to a point. He doesn’t tap dance the legendary truths about the mercurial, relentless Robbins, but in a few breaths he credits him with shaping Bernardo into such a memorable character.

Yet, before his became known for his stage work, Chakiris  had made a bunch of films—dancing, of course, but unbilled and in teeny roles He was one of the dancers in Marilyn Monroe’ “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

It’s sad to know that, though Monroe was 23 years old and Chakiris was 19, they did not became friends, something he misses.

As he writes: “Marilyn had a quality that can’t be taught, or created with wardrobe and makeup, a quality you’re either born with or not. . . . Many decades later I accepted an invitation to participate in a documentary about her.  I said then what I’ll always say—I’m sorry I didn’t get to know her, but I’ll always be grateful I had the pleasure working with her.”

Can you spot him in the snippet below?

He appeared as a dancer alongside Rosemary Clooney, as she warbled “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” in White Christmas (1954). See him?

TV shows, two record albums, sundry stage work and more films were wedges between his years. It’s sad that his film career was so spotty. Two films made in France—Is Paris Burning? (1966) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort  (1967) are really good and still hold up; The Big Cube (1969, watch Lana Turner on LSD!) and Jekyll and Hyde…Together Again  (1982) are jokes.

Today, the 86-year-old thespian still creates, this time making sterling silver jewelry—pendants, bracelets, earrings. What started as a hobby blossomed into a full-time business. Chakiris’ stunning works can be seen (and bought) at georgechakiris.com/jewelry.

And before you ask, the answer is no. In the book, Chakiris refuses to confirm his sexual orientation.

He has kept details of his love life hidden from the media’s attention, yet it is widely believed among Hollywood actors and actresses that he is gay – even the popular movie and TV series rating website IMDb has featured him  in their “500 Gay Actors & Personalities” list. Some have even claimed that George secretly married his long-term partner sometime in the 2000s, but no proof has been provided to support the claims.

His is a terrible bother to me, born one day after Chakiris came out (of his mother) and into the world. If he is gay, it would serve as a great benefit to those boys and girls, men and women, questioning their sexuality, fighting the bullying, dancing around suicidal thoughts. I have the same feeling about Lily Tomlin and Barry Manilow’s queer denials—the singer especially. Everyone knew he was gay yet for decades he made up girlfriends and excuses. When he finally married his long-time partner and manager Gary Keif in 2004, his excuse for the delay: “I thought it would hurt my career.”

That’s why my Manilow CDs have been destroyed and why Chakiris  book was given away.

Not all acting succeeds.

 

How and why Dolly and I are bosom buddies and breast friends…from 9 to 5 and beyond

I knew Dolly Rebecca Parton and I would become fast friends when she let me hold her left breast. Before you start calling the tabloids or TMZ, let me explain. It was 1987, and we were in a photographer’s studio on the Upper East Side where Dolly was being photographed for the cover of Redbook.

She was dressed in a handmade denim blouse (size 0), the wig was perfectly placed, the makeup flawless. She eyed the catered buffet and picked up a piece of chicken with her two fire-engine red (fake) fingernails, brought it to her mouth and, plop!, the sliver landed on her blouse, smack-dab on her left . . . well, you get the picture.

The adrenaline kicked in. “Quick, Dolly!” I said. “You hold and I’ll wipe.” I poured water on a paper towel and began to very gently dab the spot. Dolly grabbed a portable hair-dryer and with that infectious giggle cooed, “Now quick! You hold and I’ll dry.”

With those seven simple words, my entry into the dizzy, delightful world of Dolly Parton—40DD-17-36—had begun. “One day,” I thought to myself, “I will live to write about this.”

The shoot was a success, and as Dolly climbed into her limo, I whispered, “I feel like your bosom buddy.” Without missing a beat, she said, “And my breast friend.”

And so Dolly—so surgically streamlined so many times she’s starting to look like a Siamese cat—continues to be honored and remembered, in books, TV specials, films, a failed Broadway musical, a Time-Life super-duper (and expen$ive) DVD box set and the marvelous PBS program Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Opry.

The Queen of Country Music celebrates 50 years as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Recorded live in Nashville, this amazing special pays tribute to her songs and career with special performances from Dolly and her star guests, including Lady A, Emmylou Harris and Hank Williams, Jr. This incredible concert brings together five decades of hits & memories into one unforgettable evening of entertainment for everyone to enjoy.

Henry Louis Gates hosts essential “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song”

Henry Louis Gates Jr. hosts some pretty heady programs.  His latest: The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song (PBS Distribution). This powerful history of the Black church in America takes us from his own experience onto a 400-year journey throughout which the church has been the Black community’s abiding rock and its fortress. As Gates brilliantly shows, the Black church has never been only one thing, and its story lies at the vital center of the civil rights movement, having produced leaders such as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Gates

also penned an essential companion to the series of the same name (Penguin Press, $30); a tome loaded with countless photos, as written as the special is hosted.

Also hosted by Gates: Gates Finding Your Roots: Season 6 (PBS Distribution).

Save the date! “Forever Free” calls necessary attention to the iniquities in public education

Another essential tool in how we can breakdown the long history of systematic barriers, both racial and socioeconomic, that have hindered equity in educational opportunity within America’s public schools.

Tracy Swinton Bailey’s Forever Free: A True Story of Hope in the Fight for Child Literacy (Other Press Hardcover) doesn’t go on sale until August 3, 2021—save the date!) offers an intimate look at the those barriers that have hindered equity in schools; forces, which undergird the modern policy debate around education in the United States. The gap between white academic achievement and that of students of color is widening, and that statistic holds true even when data from upper social economic levels are examined.

At the root many of the important problems we face, from mass incarceration to income inequality, is an education system influenced by our nation’s flawed history. Just as we saw the assertion of power by black voting blocks helping to determine the political direction of our country in the last election, a result of a long and relentless push for voting rights, so too, in Bailey’s view, must we rally tirelessly to move forward an educational agenda that promotes equity and inclusion.

Children of color are being suspended and expelled at higher rates than white children. African American girls are perceived to be adults and treated as such by school officials long before they are ready to make adult decisions. Punishments are harsher. The stakes for children of color are indeterminable. With echoes of Nikole Hannah-Jones, Dr. Eve L. Ewing and the work of Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, Director of Educational Equity & Senior Counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, Forever Free begs the essential question, how to get a nourishing education to all? A large part of the solution lies with the willingness of our nation to recognize the darkness and then take steps to shine a light.

The book is an urgent call to action for racial and socioeconomic justice by way of education policy reform for vulnerable populations that have long been exploited and underserved. As a part of this call to action, Bailey relates the creation of her childhood literacy nonprofit Freedom Readers, that began in an affordable housing development in Conway, South Carolina; an after-school and summer program designed and implemented to support families in low-income areas and assist children in achieving their academic goals in reading. Bailey has seen it work firsthand in rural southern communities, and is convinced that it can work around the country.

Here, Bailey explains that a person’s literacy level is inextricably tied to their prospects and highlights the tactics employed by Freedom Readers, such as one-on-one tutoring and habitual reading engagement, offering a proven roadmap and template for sustainable advancement.

Timed to publish just as back-to-school season approaches, the book calls necessary attention to the iniquities in public education, delineates actionable steps classroom teachers and extracurricular educators can take to close the achievement gap, and illuminates why overcoming these barriers is critical, not just because of the moral and humane imperative to serve those that have been disenfranchised but because it points to a direct line between the achievement in our public schools and the economic, social and political fate and the future of all Americans.