BOOKS
12/10/2012 02:02 pm ET

'The Socialite Who Killed A Nazi With Her Bare Hands': The Book We're Talking About

The Socialite Who Killed A Nazi With Her Bare Hands (and 143 Other Fascinating People Who Died This Year)
Workman, $12.95

What is it about?
144 of the best obituaries published by The New York Times between August 2011 and July 2012.

Why are we talking about it?
Every year, the obituaries page in The New York Times reveals life stories of the famous and forgotten, the everyday and the extraordinary. The obits page is sometimes called “the first draft of history” by obit writers themselves, and so this collection proves, with remarkable miniature biographies of people ranging from Nora Ephron and Steve Jobs to John Fairfax, who “at 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol… at 20 he attempted suicide-by-jaguar. Afterward he was apprenticed to a pirate” following which he successfully rowed solo across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. And, of course, we have Nancy Wake, the titular socialite. If you’re looking for inspiration for a fictional character, this book will provide you with factual details that readers will barely find credible.

It also, unfortunately, includes a hagiographic obit of Jimmy Savile, recently discovered to be a serial pedophile. Clearly the book went to press before these revelations came to light, making that entry, and its photograph of the man surrounded by children, poignant for reasons other than those intended by the editor. “By his own account, he did not care for children,” it reads. Sometimes history needs a little redrafting.

Who wrote it?
New York Times staffers and freelancers, with a foreword by novelist Tom Rachman.

Who will read it?
This is a great gift book. It will likely be the kind of book from which phrases are read out loud to the family by the delighted recipient. Also, people who love short biographies, quirky characters and The New York Times.

Impress your friends
A handful of obituary writers have become known for high-quality literary obits, including Hugh Massingberd at The Daily Telegraph between 1986 and 1994, Robert McG Thomas at the New York Times in the late 1990s and Jim Nicholson at the Philadelphia Daily News in the 1980s and 1990s.

Opening lines
An obituary is the news column most brimming with life: full of endeavor, blunders, repentance and humor, and the industry of those you’ll never meet but perhaps with you had.

Typical passage
His exploits were legend, involving an eclectic and decidedly resourceful collection of tools in the service of sabotage and escape, including loaves of bread, a stolen limousine, the leg of a table, a bicycle and a nun’s habit – not to mention more established accouterments of espionage like parachutes, explosives and a submarine.

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