Pick up eggs. Milk. Macaroni. Bread. If you don't jot down a list of things you need to find, you'll forget something.

Apples. Light bulbs. Flour. Putting things on paper helps you to remember what you need and what's missing. But in the new book, "Personal Effects" by Robert A. Jensen, the pick-up is more personal; the items, more heart-wrenching.

Robert Jensen's growing-up years were not what you'd "call a normal childhood." His mother suffered from mental illness; his father treated him as "a secondary concern." It perhaps didn't help that there was no room for discussion about Jensen's being a boy "who liked boys as much as girls."

Says Jensen, "I hope you never have to see the things that I've seen..."

He doesn't say that because of his personal life, though, but because of his job: Jensen is an expert in recovering human remains and personal effects when disaster, accidents, murders, and battles occur. He says it's not even his "first weird job," but as the Chairman of Kenyon International Emergency Services, he knows that it's one of the most important.

Jensen, for instance, was called to work after the Murrah Building was bombed in Oklahoma City. He's recovered the dead for the U.S. government in Somalia; helped recovery efforts in places such as Haiti, New Orleans, and New York, and he's worked to resolve what happened in devastating plane crashes around the world. He's brought back the remains of loved ones to their grieving families, and he's also been involved in the efforts to recover valuable cargo for insurance companies.

"Being prepared for a disaster is really not that hard," he says.

Just "don't prepare for the last disaster that just occurred."

Something bad is going to happen to you. If not now, tomorrow; if not then, soon. Disasters happen, as author Robert Jensen indicates, and there are things you can do to minimize the damage and hassle. But getting the information you need to do so won't be easy, if you want advice from "Personal Effects."

The thing is that this book is solid. For fans of the unusual, you can't get any more unusual than the story, both personal and professional, of a guy who searches for body parts. Jensen's tale is thrilling, cringe-worthy, and heroic; there's advice and little-known minutiae that only an insider would know. You won't be able to forget the gist of this book.

And yet, man, it's a rough read. "Personal Effects" is laden with choppy half-sentences, errant punctuation, and too much repetition – things which are relatively common, and forgivable. But then there's the irritatingly incorrect homonym usage, a maddening assumption of readers' prior knowledge, and an extremely unfortunate quotation from a grieving mother that really could've been told better, and you've got a book that'll make you sigh but not in a satisfying way.

For most readers, that'll be a deal-breaker and that's too bad. "Personal Effects" is basically very, very fascinating, but its errors might not make it worth picking up.


"Personal Effects: What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me about Caring for the Living" by Robert A. Jensen

c.2021, St. Martin's Press $28.99 / $38.50 Canada 294 pages

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