Works

Lives in Ruins
For those of us who grew up wanting to be archaeologists and those who feel the pull of landscapes locked in time (Pompeii, Machu Picchu, the Parthenon), the profession of archaeology has a romantic aura and a battered-Jeep glamor. Archaeology is all around us, wherever humans once lived and wherever ground is turned, but actual archaeologists are elusive creatures, hard to spot in civilization and even harder to pin down in the wild. Their work is painstakingly slow and performed under brutal conditions; their work space is, as often as not, a garbage dump or a grave. And in the current bottom-line economy, who has time to indulge them and their piles of rubble? Ah, but in those piles of rot and rubble are a world of stories, like the discovery of the remains of a defeated British king under a parking lot, or the graves of Revolutionary War soldiers that one archaeologist in Lives in Ruins found on the site of a prospective strip mall.

I chased professionals through the buggy Caribbean and the scorching Mediterranean, into South America, under the sea and up a mountain, onto military bases, and behind crime scene tape. I found archaeologists who were expert in the Ice Age and colonial times, and had sifted ground in every part of the world from Africa, China, and the Middle East to my own backyard in New York. I rode in a series of battered vehicles driven by archaeologists who couldn't help pointing out the gaps in the landscape where pieces of history had disappeared. I excavated alongside archaeologists and learned how they try to reconstruct worlds that were buried and forgotten. It is precise and exacting work, and the last thing they need in their trenches is a dreamer who can’t tell a rock from a bone. (You know, human kneecaps look exactly like rocks.)

Who cares what we leave behind? Obituary writers care, though they capture the lives of only a tiny fraction of the people who die. Librarians and archivists care as well; they try to keep the records of our civilization available and organized, though their resources shrink even as their tasks multiply. And then there are archaeologists, on their knees behind a construction fence, studying the way a foundation collapsed or an ancient skeleton crumbled. They explore uncharted territory to piece together the fragments of an unknown or disputed past. They are the ants of history, combing the earth for crumbs of cultural significance that everyone else missed. The jobs are scarce. The pay is bad. It can be nasty, difficult work, and yet the archaeologist’s life is the dream of everyone in Lives in Ruins — and for a time, it was my dream, too.


This Book Is Overdue!
What is it like to be a librarian in a world of too much information? Talk about wild--constant change, exploding technology, shrinking budgets, and growing numbers of the baffled...could there be a better spot than behind the librarians' desk to watch the digital age unfold?


The Dead Beat
Enthralled by the fascinating lives that were marching out of this world, the author tumbled into the obits page to find out what made it so lively. The result is the true story of a flourishing art, with impassioned writers, addicted readers and a parade of characters we never quite appreciate until they’re gone.

The Dead Beat was a Barnes & Noble Discover finalist and a Borders Original Voice.

The Day the Fairytale Died: A Tribute to Princess Diana
She was the fairest of them all, this rogue princess, at odds with the court, and drawn to those who were afflicted. The dying, in particular, she felt, were "much more real than other people."

She Lived: A Tribute to Elizabeth Taylor
Note: I wrote this tribute to Elizabeth Taylor over a decade ago, before she filmed the TV movie "These Old Broads," before she outlived Rod Steiger and Michael Jackson, before she went on Twitter.

One of a Kind: A Tribute to Katharine Hepburn
This obituary of Hepburn was written seven years before her death for a special issue of Life magazine, but the monthly magazine died before she did. Life Books issued it in a coffee-table volume featuring the photographs of John Bryson, with a long version of this essay as its text.

Talk about Pain: A Tribute to Marlon Brando
As a beautiful and compelling young actor or a huge and tormented cross-dresser, Marlon Brando could not make us look away. His life is remembered, and puzzled over, in this tribute, written years before his death.

Four Funerals and a Wedding
Behind-the-scenes look at the excavation of the bodies of four leaders of Jamestown, from Smithsonian magazine