Tag: book review
Review for the Brooklyn Rail of Down Among the Dead Men: A Year in the Life of a Mortuary Technician by Michelle Williams; 2010; Soft Skull Press
by Jeffrey Stanley
What lay in front of us was a headless body; fully clothed, but headless. Curiosity got the better of me and I just had to pull back the top of the body bag to see what other injuries this poor individual had sustained. Resting between his knees lay his motorbike helmet…‘Where’s his head?’ I asked.
Clive picked up the helmet with his gloved hands and said in a voice of perfect seriousness, ‘He had it gift-wrapped.’ Hanging from the bottom of it were ragged tatters of flesh and what appeared to be cervical vertebrae…looked into the visor and found myself fixated by the face behind it…As I was preparing myself to start the evisceration, I began to wonder how we could hope to make any difference to this man.
2010 was a year of the macabre in creative nonfiction. First came the popular The Poisoner’s Handbook by award-winning science writer Deborah Blum, followed closely by Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City which I reviewed in the Rail last September. Michelle Williams’s Down Among the Dead Men: A Year in the Life of a Mortuary Technician completes the grisly triptych and differs from the other two in that it’s not a history lesson but a you-are-there contemporary memoir. Set in suburban Gloucestershire, about two hours west of London, the book details Williams’s rise from somewhat passionless health care assistant for the National Health Service to medical technical officer working in a hospital morgue, to manager of her own hospital mortuary.
The most surprising element of the narrative is Williams herself, who is neither a serious physician, impassioned science nerd, nor weird loner. She is a young, attractive, CONT’D AT BROOKLYNRAIL.ORG>>
[image via realaspen.com]
Richard Poplak’s quick-witted survey of U.S. pop culture throughout the core of the Muslim world functions as a meaty, detail-laden addendum to Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus’s famed pop culture book. The latter claims to be a secret history of the 20th century, but nearly forgets that everyone has had a 20th century, not just a subculture of white people worshipping at the feet of Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McLaren. Punk rock is hard to take as anything other than really good rock-and-roll, and its so-called “philosophy of negation” is hard to take seriously when the music’s chief adherents are a bunch of white, middle-class kids shocked to discover that society is hypocritical. Really? It is?
The Sheikh’s Batmobile takes a step in the right direction, focusing on how U.S. pop culture, especially punk, heavy metal, and hip-hop, impacts upon and co-mingles with the cultures of the Middle East. The author is a Canada-based, white, South African journalist and director of music videos and commercials; he has a particularly keen eye and ear for the U.S.’s cultural influences, having been raised on a full diet of it himself.
During his two years of travels, Poplak dines with the Muslim world’s top CONT’D AT BROOKLYNRAIL.ORG>>
[image via richardpoplak.com]
My friend John tossed me this book to review for monthly arts and politics journal The Brooklyn Rail about one of the 20th century’s first women playwrights, crime reporter turned dramatist Maurine Watkins, author of Chicago, which was a biting, satirical straight play long before it was a Kander, Ebb & Fosse musical. Enjoy the review, or, more importantly, enjoy the book.
The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired ‘Chicago’
Close on the heels of Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (Penguin, 2010), comes Douglas Perry’s true crime history The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, which turned out to be a welcome companion piece.
The former is a dissection of New York City’s use and rapid improvement of nascent forensic medical techniques during the Prohibition era. Murder after murder is lovingly recreated—especially those involving poisons—and then deconstructed by über CSI experts. The latter book takes us to Prohibition-era Chi-town, where the weapon of choice wasn’t poison but pistols, and the bad guys were bad gals. **cont’d at the Brooklyn Rail>>