'Obituary' is really about lives

It's hard to imagine overselling the importance of death to a person's life, but listen to author Michael Largo.

"The manner of death is the most concise summary and perhaps the true epitaph of a person's life," he writes in introducing his book The Portable Obituary. It's "the most poignant snapshot" of a life.

Come on. So when he tells us that Fred Astaire died of pneumonia and Ginger Rogers of a heart attack, what does that really reveal about the essence of these graceful dancers?

In truth, most of the hundreds of deaths covered here are humdrum - cancer, heart attacks, etc. - and not revealing about the lives that preceded them. Mr. Largo wisely reports these causes of death in just a few words, focusing much more on the people's lives, just like a newspaper obituary. Good idea.

Some of the causes of deaths Mr. Largo reports were ironic, such as the inventor of the smiley-face overdosing on drugs behind a public toilet, and the inventor of barbed wire done in by an infected cut.

Sometimes his attempts to connect a person's death to his life, even humorously, get pretty strained: "In 1998 Sonny Bono sang to Cher I Got You, Babe, and later did a rendition of it with a tree, which he crashed into, killing himself while skiing at age 62."

We take his reporting on faith, which gets shaken now and then. Mr. Largo says ulcers are "commonly caused by lifestyles filled with stress and worry." In fact, most ulcers are caused by bacterial infection, a discovery that earned a Nobel Prize in 2005.

He also has the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes running naked through the streets after a discovery in a bathtub and shouting, "It floats." Whether this famous story really happened, the standard rendering of Archimedes' cry is quite different: "I have found it."

Some of the lives Mr. Largo chronicles are apparently more interesting to him than to most readers. "Who wouldn't want to know what happened to the inventor of the bar code, or the Popsicle, or the disposable camera?" he enthuses. Don't all speak at once.

BY THE BOOK

Title: The Portable Obituary: How the Famous, Rich, and Powerful Really Died

Author: Michael Largo

Basics: Harper Paperbacks, 281 pages. $14.95

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