Books in Brief

Faking death and normalcy but loving chicken

PLAYING DEAD: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud

By Elizabeth Greenwood

Simon and Schuster, 272 pp., $26

Drowning in student loan debt with no relief in sight, a friend’s stray comment got Elizabeth Greenwood thinking: Could faking her own death be a viable solution? “Faking death could be a refusal, a way to reject the dreary facts, a way to bridge the chasm between who you are and who you want to be,” she writes. “From bit player in your life, you become the auteur.” The concept fascinated Greenwood so much that she began researching the not-quite-crime of pseudocide (apparently it’s not illegal to fake one’s own death, but nearly everything you do afterward is likely to be fraud).


Greenwood takes readers on a lively romp through the world of false death. She talks with people who tried it, those who helped (often in countries like the Philippines, where fixers can source an inexpensive corpse for burial needs), and those who caught them (usually investigators for insurance companies). Greenwood maintains, not entirely seriously, that she herself is considering it — even going to Manila and snagging a fairly plausible looking death certificate in her own name. Despite some juicy stories, she soon realizes that it’s a fool’s game. In the end, Greenwood concludes what any reasonably thoughtful person would. “We are who we are. Even though we fantasize about leaving ourselves behind, we don’t know how to be anyone else,” she writes. “There is no such thing as getting away with it.”


By Steven Gaines

Delphinium, 272 pp., $24.95

Steven Gaines grew up on a Brooklyn block he knew intimately, step by step — from his grandparents’s bra and hosiery store to the theater where he watched movie after movie, let in free every day by the owner, a quid pro quo for the support hose Gaines’s grandmother gave his diabetic wife. This isn’t one of those sepia-toned elegies for a long-lost 1950s Brooklyn, though. Everyone knew Gaines was different, from his father to his classmates to the ladies who worked in the lingerie shop. He was gay (though that’s not one of the words any of them used), prone to obsessive-compulsive counting and touching objects, and dogged by both anxiety and a kind of outsize pretentiousness. “Without any doubt I was insufferable,” Gaines writes. By the end of middle school, he was spending hours hiding in a large corrugated box behind a rack of clothing in the family store, “furious with myself, thinking about suicide seriously for the first time.”


It wasn’t until after he attempted to kill himself at 15 that Gaines found a measure of peace and belonging — at Payne Whitney, the private mental hospital he begged his grandfather to pay for, after having seen a news item about Marilyn Monroe being committed there. In this humane, generous memoir, Gaines sketches fellow patients, from the “Seven Sisters spinster” who “owned a small savings and loan in Vermont and shoplifted at Bergdorf Goodman” to his closest confidant, a troubled Broadway producer married to “Peter Pan’’ star Mary Martin. Coached by his new friends to improve his table manners and wardrobe, Gaines writes, “I felt like Eliza Doolittle at the psycho country club.” A longtime journalist and artful chronicler of New York lives, Gaines’s look back at his own is shocking, funny, and sometimes shockingly funny. A real treasure.


TASTES LIKE CHICKEN: A History of America’s Favorite Bird

By Emelyn Rude

Pegasus, 272 pp., $27.95

Americans eat a ton of chicken. Not literally — it’s more like an average of 90 pounds of chicken per capita annually (we eat around 50 pounds each of pork and beef). We might assume, if we hadn’t read Emelyn Rude’s book, that chicken was always a favorite meat here in the USA. We would be wrong. Just a century ago, our per capita chicken consumption averaged around 10 pounds per year — and many people, including cooks and food scientists, didn’t even categorize chicken as a meat at all. Advances in technology and breeding, coupled with new concerns about the health impact of red meat, vaulted chicken to its current ubiquity.

In “Tastes Like Chicken,” Rude lays out the fascinating history of how a once-maligned bird became a staple of the American dinner plate. Rude has a great eye for the strange moments along the way, such as how “collecting and breeding the bird quickly grew to a mania, exhibited with much ado at the 1849 Boston Poultry Show,” a fad that fizzled, as “almost inexplicably the fancy chicken bubble burst.” Studded with antique recipes, Rude’s book is a fine window into how our ancestors cooked, ate, and thought.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.