The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford

Once upon a time, straight out of college, I almost took a job in funeral sales. I'm glad I steered clear of that lucrative career path.  The money would've been great, but not at the expense of all that absurd psychological manipulation and sales shenanigans I'd of had to have conned the bereaved with, every day, 9-5.

"Wouldn't your loved one have wanted to be buried in this gold embossed coffin?  I understand he was a man of modest means, and made great personal sacrifices for you and your family, doesn't he now deserve the best now for his eternal rest?"

What shysters, just a small step removed from their sleazy, used car salespeople, next of kin. I wouldn't be caught dead working in the funeral industry, preying upon people's raw emotional weakness in their greatest -- and gravest -- time of need.  What a disgusting, self-serving industry the funeral business became in the twentieth century in the U.S.A., and remains so, even now, despite occasional promises of reform that have arisen in reaction to persistent whistle blowers like Jessica Mitford, whose American Way of Death elicited a similar (though smaller scaled) legislative response that The Jungle did for the meat packing industry.

Jessica Mitford wrote a wonderful, smart, and snarky exposé on the closed culture and shady sales tactics of these embalming-crazed bastards -- or "memorial counselors" -- as their business cards allege they are today, who don't bat an eye inside their posh offices insisting that embalming is "required by law" when in fact no such laws requiring the dead have to be embalmed exist on the books or have ever existed.  This lie has been so ingrained in U.S. culture, as Mitford observes, that these memorial counselors don't even ask the bereaved if they want "the deceased" to be embalmed; they just assume you do unless you say you don't.  And if you don't want embalming, but rather, refrigeration, the average memorial counselor will proclaim, because of health reasons, that "the law requires it."  But the law doesn't -- and never has -- required it.  It's a lie.

But as Mitford pointed out, if you're not an attorney or legal expert, and in your vulnerable condition (you may still be in shock), having just lost a loved one, you're probably not going to argue with them that it isn't the law, but will take their good word for it; because, after all, they're the experts right?, they're the authorities on the matter, and you automatically accept their authority unconsciously.  They're dressed in their Sunday best and their speech even sounds, the way they talk, if they're smooth at it, sympathetic.  Like they care about you.  Certainly they wouldn't dream of taking advantage of you at a horrible time like this!

But they do.  They have.  And will continue to do so.  They've been screwing all of us over, in fact, for almost one hundred years: first our great-grandparents, then our grandparents, then our parents, and now us, doing so when we're at our lowest, screwing us over with flowery lies.  How many poor people that the funeral industry has purported to serve have only been made poorer by exorbitant, debt-inducing price tags for services that are often unnecessary to begin with, such as embalming or air-tight coffins?  Bless Jessica Mitford for exposing the industry's collective ruthlessness and unprofessional practices throughout the last thirty-plus years of her life.


Ana Menéndez's autograph (Loving Che)

To Lina,

     With all my best
wishes   Happy Birthday
and many more.

Ana Menendez

I found this signed and inscribed first printing of Loving Che, the first novel by Ana Menéndez, at a local Goodwill last weekend. It was half-off; I paid one dollar for it, even though it's worth, minimum, fifteen times that. 

Ana Menéndez
I don't know why people get rid of, or donate, signed and inscribed first printings of first novels in almost brand new condition by talented writers like Ana Menéndez.  But I'm glad they do.  What they so carelessly toss, I carefully treasure.

Doris Lessing's autograph (The Grass is Singing)

Another serendipitous thrift store find: A signed copy of Doris Lessing's first novel, The Grass is Singing.  Adding to the serendipity and unlikelihood of the find (I do love that word, "serendipity," one of my all time favorite words, in fact) is finding out this Paladin edition of The Grass is Singing (the book cover is pictured below) is a UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada edition that was never for sale in the United States.

On the dedication page, the next page after the title page, in the top right corner, in beautiful cursive script (though the pencil lead has faded over the years), the previous owner -- perhaps the original owner? -- left their own mark for posterity:

"P D Beach
Aug. 1993
illustration by Ruth Rivers

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Joseph Brodsky's autograph (To Urania)

Joseph Brodsky by Alexey Kurbatov

Inscription & signature from my copy of To Urania (1988)

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Keep at it



Joseph Brodsky
3 . III. 1990



Joseph McElroy's autograph (Ship Rock: A Place)

I suppose I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure the bookseller I bought my limited edition, signed copy of Ship Rock: A Place, from -- an online book seller based in Albuquerque, New Mexico -- did not understand the true value of the slim volume by Joseph McElroy that he'd listed for sale.  Understandable.  Suppose you were a book seller without an appreciation for, or knowledge of, the so-called-critic/academic-labeled "postmodern movement" in U.S. literature of the 1960s-90s, why wouldn't you think automatically to yourself at first glance that this diminutive book, if it can be rightly called a "book" at less than fifty pages, was not in fact just a local guide about the real place, Ship Rock, a mere 160 miles as the crow flies from Albuquerque.  After all, the book, Ship Rock, even has "A Place" in its title, right? so why wouldn't you think it anything more than some touristy spiel regarding that mysterious rock outcrop in New Mexico's northwest corner that, for like the last forty years or so, the overseers of the reservation up there whose property rights include every rugged inch of it, Ship Rock, have seen fit, in their wisdom and because of its historic sacredness in their religion and native culture, to ban access to it to everyone forever, most notably daredevil climbers but also including other kooky looky-loos such as yours truly, who, if they were just a kooky looky-loo like me, were perhaps first inspired to take the journey to Ship Rock by Joseph McElroy's Ship Rock: A Place itself, and so went and made that long-day's drive from southern California to that remote corner of New Mexico in order to see Ship Rock themselves?

Add to the fact that this hard cover edition of Ship Rock: A Place, came as issued without a dust jacket or isbn, and was published by ...  William B. Ewert? ... whom you'd probably never heard of before, and was published, moreover, in a limited run of only "226 copies printed letterpress from Caledonia type on Mohawk Superfine text"... why wouldn't you think it was, sure enough, just another vanity press publication, certainly valueless, a locals-only-commentary about an eccentric example of New Mexican geography that no one outside the Four Corners region would ever give a hoot about?  I get it.  How could you, online book seller based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, possibly guess that the little book you had in your possession was the earliest published excerpt -- and arguably the most obscure (though there are others*) -- from Women and Men, the classic postmodern novel that was then, at Ship Rock: A Place's date of publication (1980) in your hands?  Little did you know that Women and Men's spine, when it rests on its side in the supine position (how could you have ever imagined this?) sits as thick as Ship Rock is high! (no hyper-hyperbole intended), and that after almost thirty years since its original (complete) publication in 1987 -- Women and Men's publication, that is -- during which it has become one of the priciest, scarcest, most sought after gargantuan novel of the postmodern era in U.S. history, commanding sums deep into three digits -- and that for a copy that hasn't even been signed by the author!?  Of course you didn't know this, beloved online bookseller based in Albuquerque, New Mexico; otherwise, you would've had to have been crazy to sell me that signed excerpt, subtitled "From Women and Men: A Novel In Progress by Joseph McElroy" for the humble sum of $9.49 including shipping, right!?


*  Another early excerpt from Women and Men that I've either lucked into over the years or been fated into obtaining, perhaps, is ... a copy of Conjunctions: 6 (1984) ...

It's not nearly as unique as Ship Rock: A Place (but it's still nice to have, if for anything else than examining what McElroy later cut or revised and kept), though it comprises a twenty-eight page chunk from Women and Men opening the issue.  In the prefatory NOTE, "J.M." explains:  "The following sections of Women and Men come from a long chapter entitled "The Hermit-Inventor of New York, the Anasazi Healer, and the Unknown Aborter."  These are unlike any of the chapters of Women and Men elsewhere published in being far from self-contained.  But they are unlike those other sections also in their style, which, in its memorial juxtapositions and sweep of feeling, is even more of the style of the book."

I've not yet acquired the many more chapters of Women and Men "elsewhere published" in journals prior to the book's publication, but I've had fun hunting for them in Very Good+ to Like New condition, scouring indie brick-and-mortars around town.

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Reyna Grande's autograph (Across a Hundred Mountains)

Reyna Grande (by Ibarionex Perello)

Having grown up and lived within ninety minutes of the Mexico-California border for most of my life, I'm drawn innately, it seems, to movies, novels, or true life accounts involving border/immigration issues in what are typically sad, harrowing, and sometimes tragic, stories of survival and rescue.  Reyna Grande has one such harrowing (though ultimately hopeful) long story to tell, forged from her own hard times as an orphan and undocumented immigrant, in her debut novel--a 2007 American Book Award winner in fiction--Across a Hundred Mountains.

I salvaged this autographed copy yesterday afternoon from one of the local thrift stores I regularly haunt.  I had never heard of Reyna Grande before until yesterday, drawn to the book both by its title and its rugged, southwestern cover featuring what appears to be a VW bus (but may just be a regular city bus) attempting to navigate what looks as much like an impossible rocky arroyo as a so-called "road".  Terrible terrain and more terrible odds not unfamiliar to Grande or the roughly 300,000 human beings attempting to cross the U.S. border from Mexico every year.

Imagine my surprise when I pulled Reyna Grande's first novel off the shelf, opened it to the title page, and beheld her signature in purple felt ink.  Pretty cool.  Serendipity, I'd say.  Better yet knowing I've still the future pleasure (soon soon) of reading Across a Hundred Mountains ahead of me.  For more information on Reyna Grande, visit her website here.

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Up Above the World by Paul Bowles

Been in a recent Paul Bowles bender of late -- just his novels, autobiography and letters -- not the smoke of incense or hashish wafting out of the waiting pages of, say, Midnight Mass or A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard, two of his story collections.  Perhaps its the close proximity of svelte palms ensconced in the seagrass'd hollows of sand dunes, the drowsy ssh of the evening waves, the warm aroma of Lamb Tagine carried on the offshore breeze from the Moroccan take-out just down the beach -- "Tariq's" -- that makes Bowles so resonate with me this past relaxing week on holiday.

"At lunchtime the hotel's dining room was crowded with the sleek upper-class local population.  Here where they don't need it they've got air conditioning…"

So true, Mr. Bowles, even here on the California coast, half a century later, our balcony sliding glass door is open to the ocean with the air conditioner going…

"You'll never be happy until you do what you know's the right thing.  That's what life's about, after all."

"What life's about!" he cried incredulously.  What is life about?  Yes.  What's the subject matter?" He stirred the sauce.  "It's about who's going to clean up the shit."

"I don't know what you mean," she said, her voice hostile.

Life, I've found, is about stirring the shit just right so that it's palatable to both sides, be it protagonist and antagonist, husband and wife, politician and constituent.  Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Bowles?

"Words were deceptive, the very short ones most of all."

A short deceptive novel -- Up Above the World -- from which the above italicized quotes, excerpted with purposeful obfuscatory intent, were taken.  Overshadowed by The Sheltering Sky, Bowles' iconic first novel, this last novel by Bowles, published in 1966, regardless looms high like a dark cloud above a Spanish villa with a panoramic view of both the Atlantic and Pacific from its prominent, though precipitous, perch above the proletariat jungles of a slender, unnamed Latin American nation.  Panama, anyone?  Or a panorama, that is, except when it rains.  And it rains down cats and death -- and literal rain indeed -- in Up Above the World, a book whose outlook might be even bleaker, its relationships stormier, than Bowles' desolate, Saharan debut.

I've said enough (or not nearly enough) about this novel already, except the bit about the arson, curare, matricide, the "Slade" couple whose age difference was reminiscent to me of the late Anna Nicole's and J. Howard Marshall IIs -- around half-a-century (though in the former's case perhaps I exaggerate, but first impressions are genuine impressions after all) -- and that the novel was good but not quite great.

And I don't care if, like Luchita -- shrewd teenage duper of the alleged good doctor and his barely legal, brittle bride (and whose hostile voice is quoted above) -- you don't know what I mean.