Final Chapters: How Famous Authors Died
By Jim Bernhard. (Skyhorse Publishing, 296 pages, $14.99 paperback.)
A person’s life is always more important than his or her death — but no one reads an obituary or biography without wanting to know how the subject died. British-educated Texas writer Jim Bernhard gives a respectful nod to the understandable fascination most of us have with death in this collection of essays about the ends authors have come to.
To his credit, he includes in each essay some of what the person in question said or wrote about death, giving us insight into his or her personal philosophies and fears.
Some of his subjects:
Aeschylus, killed by a turtle dropped on his head by a vulture; Thomas Aquinas, whose body was buried in France — except for his right arm, buried in Rome, and his left arm, interred in Naples (Bernhard writes: “Canonized in 1323, St. Thomas now rests in pieces”); Sir Francis Bacon, possibly poisoned by raw chicken he was experimenting with preserving; Jane Austen, dead at 41 of Addison’s disease, or maybe it was lymphoma, or possibly bovine tuberculosis; Margaret Fuller, drowned in a shipwreck with her husband and son; Thomas Hardy, whose ashes are in Westminster Abbey but whose excised heart, meant to be buried next to his first wife in Dorset village, was possibly eaten by his cat; Sherwood Anderson, who died of sepsis after he swallowed a martini toothpick, and Thomas Merton, electrocuted by a fan after taking a shower.
The book is an often morbid but sometimes merry reminder that all flesh is grass, no matter how talented or rich or famous the bones it cloaks.
Pamela Miller, night metro editor
And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East
By Richard Engel. (Simon & Schuster, 241 pages, $27.)
In his 20 years of reporting from some of the most volatile hot spots in the Middle East, Richard Engel has survived bombings and uprisings, been kidnapped and spent many nights sleeping on the floor, a mattress shoved against the window in case of an explosion.
Engel’s accounting of his two-decade rise from young freelancer to NBC’s chief foreign correspondent is often as exhausting and confusing as trying to keep up with politics in the Middle East. He jets from city to city, following political upheaval and unrest and building up an impressive amount of understanding about the people and countries he covers.
It’s clear that the Arabic-speaking Engel — often one of the few reporters who remain when the situation gets dangerous — has valuable insights to share about the Middle East. But in this narrative, he often resorts to the sound bites of television journalism, never lingering too long on a particular story.
He only hints at the details of what could have made for an equally interesting story: the one about what it’s like to spend 20 years without a permanent home, telling other people’s stories and hoping you’ll survive to do it again the next day.
ERIN GOLDEN, news reporter