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Books In Brief

Look at life of Tudors and dad of a suicide victim

HOW TO BE A TUDOR: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life

By Ruth Goodman

Liveright, 336 pp., $29.95

Much as she did in 2013’s “How to Be a Victorian,” Ruth Goodman approaches history by tracing the events of a typical day. Here, she begins by describing daybreak as most people in agricultural Tudor England would have experienced it: “Just before dawn the cockerels began their morning chorus and people clambered out of bed.” Those with some wealth would have slept in a foursquare bed kept warm and private by heavy curtains all around; for poorer folks, a “warm, dry and comfortable” spot on a floor covered in rushes was their resting spot.

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Goodman, a historian who has consulted on a number of BBC television series, has slept in both. She has also made cheese, bread, and ale using 16th-century recipes; finger-knit braided decorations for Tudor clothing; and brushed her teeth with soot, a preferred method of dental hygiene in the days before Crest. Besides all that, Goodman also writes about how the Tudors studied and prayed and the entertainments with which people diverted themselves from a life that could be rather grim. Her enthusiasm is exhilarating and contagious; her writing is clear and clean, sharply observant of tactile details and what they reveal about 16th-century life. Goodman delights in old ways and old words, as in this list of the weeds that a ploughman of that era would have encountered: “plants such as thistles, docks, marigolds, poppies, corncockle, dog fennel and kedsokes.” Writing of the marks left by those old ploughmen, some still visible today, Goodman approaches a plainspoken lyricism, a prosaic celebration of her ancestors and the world they made.

THE GIRL BEHIND THE DOOR: A Father’s Quest to Understand
His Daughter’s Suicide

By John Brooks

Scribner, 224 pp., $24

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Adopted from Poland as a baby, Casey Brooks was smart, charismatic, and beautiful. She was also intense and difficult, prone to emotional outbursts, quick to retreat behind her bedroom door. “She seemed to have a never-ending reservoir of tears,” writes John Brooks in this memoir of his daughter. When she was 17, Casey left the house early in the morning, parked the family car at the lot near the Golden Gate Bridge, walked onto the bridge, climbed over the safety railing, and stepped off.

“I had failed in my first duty as a father, to keep her safe,” Brooks writes. His remorse and regret led him to learn more about suicide and suicide prevention — especially at the Golden Gate Bridge, site of more than 1,600 suicides since it was built in 1937. He also sought to understand how Casey’s early life in a Polish orphanage deprived her of the intense care babies need, and how deeply buried and unendingly painful the wounds of infancy were. At times, Brooks’s unflinching self-examination can be grim — of his and his wife’s blithely confident care for their new daughter, he writes, “We treated Casey as if she were our new pet. She was in good American hands” — but this is also the book’s strength. In untangling the threads behind his daughter’s suicide, Brooks has transformed his grief into something useful: a warning and a testimony, and, one hopes, a start toward more sensitive treatment of adopted children.

HAIR: A Human History

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By Kurt Stenn

Pegasus, 368 pp., $26.95

Why do we have hair? Why, even more troublingly, does it grow and then fall out — whether in the regular daily shedding of 50 to 100 head hairs, or in the inexorably receding hairlines of male pattern baldness? And what effect did our evolution from hair-covered, pre-human primates to our current form have on our formation of human families and societies? Kurt Stenn, a scientist who has studied hair for the past three decades, proves in this lively new book that even the lowliest whisker merits attention.

Stenn is at his best when it comes to the science of hair; he’s a clear and enthusiastic explainer of follicles and shafts, the genes and growth patterns behind our fur, and all the strange things that can go wrong — so-called “Rapunzel syndrome,” in which a nervous hair-eating habit causes patients to amass enormous hairballs in their stomachs, is one of many. But the author stumbles when he turns to culture. A romp through the various meanings of haircuts and beards — what we communicate to others by the way we style ourselves — is interesting, if a bit oversimplified. But the antiquated worldview betrayed by his mention of “more primitive cultures, such as those in South Central Africa” is both shameful and difficult to look past.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.