Reading with... Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

photo: Amal Bisharat

Judy Melinek, M.D., and T.J. Mitchell are the co-authors of the memoir Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner. Melinek was an assistant medical examiner in San Francisco for nine years and today works as a forensic pathologist and medico-legal consultant. T.J. Mitchell, her husband, is a writer with an English degree from Harvard; he worked in the film industry before becoming a stay-at-home dad and novelist. First Cut (Hanover Square, January 7, 2020) is their debut novel, launching a forensic-noir detective series.

On your nightstand now:

Melinek: An advance copy of American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics and the Birth of American CSI by Kate Winkler Dawson and The Vagina Bible by science writer Jennifer Gunter. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Pérez, a devastating read about how gender bias creeps into research and impacts women's lives.

Mitchell: A beaten trade paperback of Laura Lippman's novel What the Dead Know. I picked it up at a place I cherish, San Francisco's labyrinthine new-and-used bookstore Green Apple. Next is Milkman by Anna Burns, Kwei Quartey's Gold of Our Fathers and a noir classic I've never read, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Melinek: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, because of its funhouse use (and misuse!) of language, and the illogical absurdity of the plot. I've been re-reading it with our youngest daughter before bed, and enjoying it immensely once again as an adult.

Mitchell: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. The library in my home town of Nahant, Mass., had a reading contest for school kids every summer, and every summer I tore through book after book, trying to win it. I picked this one off the shelf in the course of one of those reading frenzies. It stopped me dead in my tracks, racked me with nightmares and called me to re-read it--which I did, a couple of times.

Your top five authors:

Melinek: Mary Roach, Kathy Reichs, Oliver Sacks, Atul Gawande, Henry James.

Mitchell: Kurt Vonnegut first. Then, in no particular order, Margaret Atwood, Ross Macdonald, Joseph Heller, Ed McBain.

Book you've faked reading:

Melinek: There are many books that I haven't finished, but I don't try to fake my way through talking about them, because I am by constitution a terrible liar.

Mitchell: Dr. Zhivago, as a high school senior. I got busted for that one, come class discussion time. Faking Ulysses as an English major in college was a much easier con, and I pulled it off.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Melinek: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Thoroughly and brilliantly researched, and written with so much empathy. This is one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time.

Mitchell: The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood. I'm a fan of all Marwood's mysteries, but this one especially. Marwood's books have a deep and steady noir rip current that pulls you right along from the moment you dive in--and when you're caught in a rip, there's no use struggling against it.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Melinek: The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin. Kimmery and I are both physicians and moms, and met on Facebook through a mutual-interest group. When she posted the picture of her book's cover, a graphic design of a heart with flowers that reminded me of antique wallpaper, I knew I had to read it. Turns out it's an excellent mystery, so it was a happy impulse on my part!

Mitchell: 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King. I sat up all night reading it as a kid, and (a theme?) carried weeks of nightmares as my reward.

Book you hid from your parents:

Melinek: Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, because I was a teen and it was the 1970s, and the book was then considered soft porn. My mom caught me with it, but wasn't bothered that I was reading it. Instead it prompted a discussion of women's empowerment and sexual pleasure--which was awkward--but a necessary conversation any mom should have with her teenaged daughter.

Mitchell: This question, which I've never pondered before, made me realize something wonderful about my upbringing. I never hid any books from my folks. Both my parents are great readers and lovers of learning, and no book was off limits, ever. So--thank you, Tom and Rita!

Book that changed your life:

Melinek: The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka had a direct impact on our family's ecology of daily living. It made me appreciate the appeal of a small, intimate living space, and provided me with a blueprint for creating a home for our family of seven in the city of San Francisco.

Mitchell: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I'm going to cheat and add Gárcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, because both books had the same effect--the author took me by the hand and led me away to worlds that were both completely real and wonderfully impossible.

Favorite line from a book:

Melinek: "So what if you are thirsty? Always be a river for everyone.... The translation from Persian to English is not technically precise, but the sentiment is unambiguous. Always try to comfort others, even if you are suffering. Offer compassion to your neighbor, to the stranger, to the roiling, boisterous masses of humanity. Share your gifts with the world, no matter how meager those gifts may be." --from An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice by Khizr Khan

Mitchell: "You know how it is, you're talking to somebody and he says something and the next fellow says something, and the first thing you know, you heard something." --from The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

Five books you'll never part with:

Melinek: Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama; My Only May Amelia by Jennie Holm; Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein; The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll; Spitz and Fisher's Medicolegal Investigation Death, edited by Werner U. Spitz

Mitchell: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett (1965 Knopf collection); Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley; Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood; Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien; Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Melinek: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. My daughter is reading it in school right now and I feel the need to read it again, as an adult, because I don't feel I got the most out of it as a teenager.

Mitchell: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. The steady and gentle but utterly inexorable revelation of the secret in this plot was more hair-raising to me than any red-herring double-cross before or since. Once you've seen it, you can't go back.

Your favorite screenplay:

Melinek: Without question it's The Princess Bride by William Goldman, from his novel of the same name. We're constantly quoting it to our kids. After all, that story explores the greatest of the great universal themes: love and loyalty--and revenge.

Mitchell: I was fortunate to work for many years as an assistant to novelist, playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter John R. Briley. I learned invaluable lessons about storytelling, just by osmosis while watching Jack at his craft. His unproduced screenplay I Remember, I Remember, about children's author and Polish national hero Janusz Korczak, is the most moving work of narrative nonfiction I've ever had the privilege to put under my eyes.

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