The title of Marion Winik’s new book, The Baltimore Book of the Dead, pulls no punches. This is a book about dead people, and lots of them. The subject matter, however, belies just how lively and joyous this collection of poetic remembrances really is. Winik, a longtime NPR host and contributor, published this book’s predecessor, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, a decade ago, while First Comes Love, a memoir about her first husband dying of AIDS, was published in the mid-1990s. That is to say, Winik has been writing about death for a long time, which is why it’s so impressive that her new collection of hilarious, heartbreaking, and tender vignettes feels so fresh.
When asked why she wanted to revisit this project—one she never thought she’d tackle again—she explains that it began with an especially difficult death shortly after Glen Rock Book of the Dead was published: her mother’s. “She had been dying the whole time I was writing the book, but I had gotten this attitude that, ‘I’m not putting my mother in this book, that’s for sure,’ as though that was going to keep her alive,” Winik says. “When this new book came around, she was number one on this list of people who’d died, so I knew where to start.”
Over the course of 10 years, another 60-plus names joined her mother’s name on the list of the dead. For many authors, writing about the dead would be a daunting task, or, at minimum, a melancholy one. But Winik’s playfulness, curiosity, and honesty about each of her subjects, as well as her own colorful past which is referenced often and forms the connective narrative thread for the book, makes what could be a heavy reading experience an effervescent one. “The process of remembering and memorializing people, well, it’s a very positive experience compared to all the other types of things that happen around death,” Winik proffers. “It feels good to try to bring that person into focus, and feel like you’re getting it right, and that there’s some essence of them that’s there forever.”
The structure for both this book and Glen Rock is a critical part of the experience, with no story being longer than 400 words. This brevity lends a charmed pithiness, as well as an unexpected momentum, to each story. And while this book was written in Baltimore, the project’s essence derives from Winik’s years living in Texas, where dia de muertos is widely celebrated. “Day of the Dead really encapsulates the attitude behind the whole project: Okay, the people are dead,” she states bluntly. “I had a lot of loss young—my husband, my baby, my father—I’ve always lived with a lot of dead people. When people first die, the grief and grieving and tearing about is so strong, and that’s one thing. But these books are about the tenderness, nostalgia, and inspiration of keeping the people alive in our hearts when they’re gone.”
An unexpected part of Winik’s writing process was how much there was to learn about all the people she was writing about. For every single story, she interviewed or talked with someone else about her subjects. “It’s one of the most fun parts of the book, connecting with long lost people,” she says. “I was getting to know the person I was writing about maybe even more than when they were alive. That was a wonderful feeling. I wasn’t really sitting down to write a story that I knew, I was sitting down to find out 61 stories that I didn’t know the whole story until I started.”
Alex Layman previously worked for the San Antonio Book Festival and the Texas Book Festival. He currently writes and lives in Boulder, Colorado. Marion Winik is a contributor to Kirkus Reviews.