Erica Ciccarone

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As many as 114,000 Americans who die each year are unclaimed by relatives. Their remains are buried without ceremony, often in mass graves, unwitnessed by anyone who knew them. What circumstances conspire for human beings to meet this end? And what do their deaths say about how we treat the living? Pamela Prickett and Stefan Timmermans unearth some of their stories, unpacking questions both existential and practical in their groundbreaking The Unclaimed: Abandonment and Hope in the City of Angels.

The authors spent eight years investigating the bureaucratic hurdles, legislative failings and social ruptures that contribute to 1,600 unclaimed people in Los Angeles each year. Los Angeles County law stipulates that only next-of-kin can claim remains, but 1 in 4 adult Americans report being estranged from close family members. When relatives can be located, the costs associated with claiming remains are often too steep for them to bear; other times, they have no interest in claiming at all. What’s more, “bureaucratic apathy” and a muddled system relies on three separate departments to investigate the unclaimed.

The Unclaimed follows the stories of four Angelenos who went unclaimed for very different reasons: a reclusive elderly woman whose few surviving family members refused to claim her; a middle-aged woman beloved by her church family who, by law, could not claim and bury her; a veteran who slipped through the cracks; and a quiet man whose assets granted him a funeral that no one attended. Prickett and Timmermans also portray the death investigators who try to locate relatives with varying degrees of success; these civil servants are frustrated and exhausted, their departments understaffed and under-resourced. And the portraits the authors paint of the two civil servants who inter the unclaimed at the Boyle Heights cemetery—the “potter’s field” of L.A.—are extremely moving. Relying on 231 interviews, direct observation of death investigations, extensive research into 600 deaths, attendance of dozens of funerals and cremations, and more, Prickett and Timmermans humanize the dead with aching specificity, granting these few the honor that so many others deserve.

“If you die and no one calls out for you, did your life have meaning?” the authors ask. As the subtitle of the book suggests, there is hope, because more and more people are answering that call. In 2017, a pastor began organizing a memorial service for the unclaimed that draws droves of witnesses; veterans congregate to send off their siblings in arms; a nonprofit buries unclaimed infants in a special cemetery. The writing in this last third of the book sometimes veers into sentimentality, naming conclusions that readers can recognize themselves. But on the whole, The Unclaimed is a gripping and compassionate account that leaves us with a feeling of social and personal responsibility for our kin, our community and ourselves.

Gripping and groundbreaking, The Unclaimed investigates the Americans who are abandoned in death and what they tell us about how we treat the living.
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Bob Dylan is an artist of many faces: poet, folk hero, rock genius, visual artist, writer, welder, songsmith, Nobel Prize winner. He is, perhaps, what we project onto him of ourselves and our world. Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine is a 605-page immaculately designed compendium that seemingly encompasses all possible sides of the legend. The book expands on the inaugural exhibits at the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which opened in 2022 and houses the complete Dylan archives. If you can’t get to Tulsa, Mixing Up the Medicine is the next best thing.

If you are expecting beautiful photos, art and memorabilia, you’ll find those here. If you want to read personal correspondence from Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Jack White and other luminaries, look no further. And if you’d like to attempt to decipher Dylan’s chicken-scratch handwriting, you have your work cut out for you. But what sets Mixing Up the Medicine apart from other books of its type is the writing. Authors, artists and musicians visited the Tusla archive and were asked to choose a single item that “enticed, beguiled, stirred, perplexed, or galvanized them,” and then write an essay about it.

Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo selects a painting of the first record that Dylan—as 15-year-old Robert Zimmerman—recorded, a breathless cascade of radio hits tracked in a music shop’s recording booth with two friends for $5. Ranaldo imagines that evening in the songwriter’s youth with aching specificity. Poet Gregory Pardlo uses a letter written to Dylan by Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton to explore Dylan’s relationship with Black activists and artists. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo chooses the Japanese album cover of Blood on the Tracks, lyrically riffing on “Tangled Up in Blue.” Author Tom Piazza takes inspiration from a typewritten draft of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” to pen a short play about a self-serious scholar who seeks the input of an exhausted, half-mad Dylanologist. And there’s more.

In the epilogue, Douglas Brinkley writes, “Dylan is an experience more like a meteorite than a mummified artifact of scholarly pursuit.” Mixing Up the Medicine, with all its heft and weight, keeps the man in motion—dazzling, beguiling and multidimensional. For Dylan acolytes, the joy of this tome is in combing its pages for the people we once were—our own changing faces, and those we will become.

Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine keeps the legendary artist in motion—dazzling, beguiling and multidimensional.
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To read Jesmyn Ward is to be carried by her epic, transformative language to the dark heart of the American South and, once there, to be surprised by the stark beauty of the region’s people. Let Us Descend, the Mississippi author’s fourth novel, brings Ward’s intimate knowledge of place to the pre-Civil War South, where her captivating narrator, teenage girl Annis, is enslaved. A two-time National Book Award winner (2011’s Salvage the Bones and 2017’s Sing, Unburied, Sing), Ward writes in the traditions of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison—but this story is unmistakably her own.

The journey begins at a North Carolina rice plantation owned by the enslaver who fathered Annis through rape. In a shady clearing in the woods, Annis’ mother teaches her to fight, yet their relationship is one of intense tenderness. When the enslaver sells Annis’ mother, our heroine is left grief-wracked. Before long, she too is sold downriver on a harrowing march to the slave markets of New Orleans. In North Carolina, she eavesdropped on her white half-sisters’ lessons about Dante’s Divine Comedy. Now, Annis recognizes her own descent through the circles of hell.

Let Us Descend is infused with the supernatural. Spirits approach Annis on her journey, offering protection and oblivion. Astute and intuitive, Annis steels herself against temptation, grounding herself in memories of her mother. The theme of mothering extends to the care Annis offers to and receives from the girls and women around her, which allows the characters to maintain their dignity and assert their humanity. These interactions are a balm not only to Annis but also to the reader. Ward constantly reminds us that oppressed people retain “soft parts” that the evils of slavery can never truly touch.

Though Annis seldom speaks and her dialogue often consists of single, short sentences, her thoughts sing with Ward’s signature lyricism. Ward’s choices of first-person point of view and present tense anchor us in Annis’ imagination. The narrator pictures her mother’s eyes “shriveled to pale raisins”; the ropes that bind her are “abrasive as a cat’s tongue on my open wrists”; a dying man is “a tunneling worm, shifting the earth above him.” These vivid observations and poetic interpretations express her resistance against bondage, her abiding understanding of beauty and her will to survive.

We sometimes forget that the descent in Dante’s Divine Comedy is a journey toward God. Ward’s reimagining of slavery is the profound manifestation of that possibility.

We sometimes forget that the descent in Dante’s Divine Comedy is a journey toward God. Jesmyn Ward’s portrayal of slavery is the profound manifestation of that possibility.

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