The Bookworm: Death becomes her (and her)
“They Lost Their Heads! What Happened to Washington ’s Teeth, Einstein’s Brain, and Other Famous Body Parts”
By Carlyn Beccia
c. 2018, Bloomsbury
$18.99, $24.99 Canada; 182 pages
Your neck bone’s connected to your back bone. And that’s a good thing. You want to be the most together person around, in more ways than one. No sense in having your body parts lying scattered when you really need them all in one place. Disconnection could be a problem, as you’ll see in “They Lost Their Heads!” by Carlyn Beccia.
So you’ve lost your place in a book before. You’ve lost your thoughts in class. You might’ve lost your glasses or gloves but have you ever lost your arm or leg or worse? Throughout history, it’s happened, and it wasn’t pretty.
Take, for instance, George Washington. When he was a young man, Washington was prescribed medicine that was bad for his health and his teeth all fell out. These weren’t baby teeth that would be replaced; they were adult teeth and so he had to have dentures. Legend says that his new teeth were wooden but the truth is much more disgusting.
And then there’s Ines de Castro, a beauty who fell in love with the wrong guy. She lost her life but she got the throne anyway, years after her death.
Once, there was a time when it was cool to have someone’s skull sitting around in your living room and mistakes were made when putting that noggin back with its rightful owner. Accidents happen, too, just as they did with Phineas Gage, who had an iron rod blasted through his cranium.
In this book, you’ll read about odd burials and strangely-used coffins. You’ll learn about the mystery surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. You’ll see if Vincent Van Gogh really chopped off his own ear. You’ll read about how old hair follicles offer new clues to disease and genetics. Find out why you should be glad you never dined with William Buckland; why people might collect body parts; how vampire killers were basically right in their weird ideas; why bumpy heads were once important indicators of moral character; and how you can gaze today upon the face of a woman who died more than 120 years ago.
Before you hand “They Lost Their Heads!” to your teen, there’s one thing you need to do: turn to page 69 and read the footnote at the bottom. The warning is a little late, but heed it if your child has tender feelings and a weak stomach.
You’ll be glad you did because, while this book is funny and as lighthearted as the subject can get, it’s not for the squeamish. Instead, author Carlyn Beccia tells page after page of don’t-read-this-before-lunch tales that will gross a right-minded kid out so delightfully well that he’ll absolutely have to come back for more. Skulls, maggots, and skeletons rule here, but so do historical events and authentic science.
Be mindful that, while they don’t diminish the eeeeeuuuwwww factor, edgier footnotes in this book lean it more toward big-kid readers. So beware, but know that if your 11-to-16-year-old loves that which is gruesome, “They Lost Their Heads!” will make him lose his mind.
“The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster”
By Sarah Krasnostein
c. 2018, St. Martin’s Press
$26.99, $34.99 Canada; 291 pages
Wash your hands thoroughly. That’s good advice, no matter where you are. At the risk of sounding germophobic, you never know what lurked on that which you just touched. Stay healthy, keep clean, be tidy, and wash your hands because, as you’ll see in the new book “The Trauma Cleaner” by Sarah Krasnostein, messy life, messy house.
The woman didn’t seem very old, but it was really hard to tell. She wouldn’t let anyone past her screen door – as if the stench wasn’t enough to keep most people away.
Hoarder situations like that, suicides, undiscovered deaths, and accidents are business-as-usual for Sandra Pankhurst, 60-something owner of Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) in Australia. But as author Sarah Krasnostein learned when she befriended her, Pankhurst extends to those clients compassion, and nothing less.
There was ample reason for that.
Although many of the questions Krasnostein asked Pankhurst were waved away with claims of disremembering, it’s true that Pankhurst was born a boy, raised as a boy, became a man, married a woman, and fathered two sons. But “Peter,” as Krasnostein pseudonymously calls Pankhurst then, was hiding a part of himself so, soon after his youngest son’s birth, he left his family to live as a woman.
Though “her reality is as conflicted as it is real,” Pankhurst told Krasnostein tales of being a sex-worker and a madam. Dates and locales may’ve been incorrect and names forgotten, but it’s also true that Pankhurst eventually fully transitioned, and continued to work in the sex industry until she was raped and almost lost her life. She fell in love, fell out of love, fell in love again, married an older man, and divorced.
It was because of her ex that Pankhurst founded STC.
“As a boss,” says Krasnostein, “Sandra is, variously, mother hen … bad cop … and hanging judge.” Her business cleans up sites affected by hoarding and death, and she’s matter-of-fact about bugs, vermin, and smells as her staff hauls away pathogen-soaked furniture while ensuring that next-of-kin are treated with kindness.
Says Pankhurst, “None of us know what tomorrow’s got in store.”
As enjoyable as this unique tale is, there are a few things you’ll need to know before you sweep through “The Trauma Cleaner.”
First of all, in her get-to-know-you time, author Sarah Krasnostein became close friends with her subject, which is good in most cases. Here, though, Krasnostein uses familiarity to gush about her subject in a way that could make readers wince uncomfortably. She’s also exceedingly, perhaps needlessly, explicit in details of a sexual nature while largely ignoring big opportunities for enlightenment on the business side of the book.
And yet ...
The goodness – and there’s an industrial-sized dustpan full of it – comes between the lines. This is a biography of cringing, compassion, and somebody’s-got-to-do-it resourcefulness, plus irritations, but with a breezy heft of fabrication built in. It’s so singular that it’s almost irresistible; indeed, if you can get past the gushing and the gruesome, “The Trauma Cleaner” is a book you shouldn’t wait to get your hands on.
The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.