384 pgs. | $29.99 hardcover
Ever since his earliest days as a helmet-haired correspondent for The Daily Show, Mo Rocca has excelled in finding the wackiness within his ordinary subjects and the ordinary humanity within the very wacky. Since moving to that gentlest of soft news shows, CBS Sunday Morning, Rocca’s wackiness is somewhat toned down, but his curiosity and attention to detail serve him well whether he’s covering the rich and famous or the unfamous but noteworthy.
Rocca puts his curiosity and storytelling acumen to perfect use in Mobituaries, spinning out of his CBS News-sponsored podcast of the same name. Don’t go into Mobituaries expecting dry, stuffy just-the-facts-ma’am remembrances, but also don’t expect it to be wacky or jokey either. Rather, it is a collection of essays on people whose unusual life circumstances make them, for some reason or another, worth reading about. Some are people whose historical importance we should learn about in school but don’t, such as Elizabeth Jennings, a Black woman whose protests led to the desegregation of New York City streetcars 101 years before Rosa Parks. (Noteworthy tidbit: her lawyer was future president Chester A. Arthur!) Others are simply noteworthy for their unusual circumstances, such as Chang and Eng Bunker, the conjoined twins who inspired the phrase “Siamese twins,” who used the ample fortune they earned crisscrossing the country in circuses to retire to North Carolina, marry two White women (an interracial marriage in the pre-Civil War South!), and father twenty-one (!) children between the two of them. Still others are legit already-famous people like Audrey Hepburn, Sammy Davis Jr., and TV variety show host Lawrence Welk. And yet others aren’t about people at all, such as essays on the death of the country of Prussia, or the “death” of the psychiatric establishment considering homosexuality a mental illness.
Befitting something that was first born as a podcast, the tone of Mobituaries is easygoing and conversational. If you’re familiar with Rocca’s reporting style, you’ll find it easy to read the book in his voice (and it is all penned in his voice, though he does have a credited co-writer in Jonathan Greenberg, an Emmy-winning screenwriter for cartoons like Rugrats and Hey Arnold!). Some of the entries are told more like straightforward stories, while others find Rocca revolving the story around his own life—the Welk chapter, for example, begins with a rundown of young Rocca’s TV habits and how Welk entered them during visits with his grandparents, while the chapter on Fanny Brice is mostly about Rocca’s obsession with Barbra Streisand, who played Brice in the musical Funny Girl on stage and screen. Each entry is 20 pages or less, and many chapters are appended with extra related entries that run just a paragraph or two; Sammy Davis Jr.’s entry features a post-script of other famous one-eyed dead people, for example, while presidential brother and beer entrepreneur Billy Carter is paired with a short list of other famous black sheep siblings. Just don’t let the chummy tone of the book fool you: it’s still a meticulously researched work of history, with a whopping 35 pages’ worth of “works consulted” listed in the appendix.
Rocca has such a keen eye for a good story that there is not a single entry that disappoints, and the variable chapter length keeps any one story from overstaying its welcome. (On the contrary, some of the one- or two-paragraph secondary writeups had me wishing they were fleshed out into full chapters.) Literally my only complaint is that the book ran out of pages before I ran out of interest in it. Mobituaries is the perfect coffee table book, chockful of conversation starters served up in bite-sized morsels perfect for browsing when you have a spare minute or two. It will also probably do you wonders at your next trivia night. | Jason Green
Check out the podcast and a preview of the audio book (read by Rocca himself) at www.mobituaries.com.