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The Ruby Slippers, Madonna's Bra, and Einstein's Brain: The Locations of America's Pop Culture Artifacts, by Chris Epting

The Ruby Slippers, Madonna's Bra, and Einstein's Brain
I remember looking at the test tube that purportedly contains Thomas Edison's last breath. It's on display in a case in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. And if you're wondering, as I was, how whoever collected it knew that it would be the great inventor's terminal exhalation, the placard explains. Edison's son collected several of his father's dying breaths, and gave the final one to his best friend Henry Ford.

Okay, it's just a test tube. The air inside is invisible, and no one will ever be completely sure it was ever drawn into Thomas Edison's lungs. It doesn't matter. The display itself is what arouses interest and connects us to the intellect that so fundamentally shaped our modern world.

Chris Epting's newest book, The Ruby Slippers, Madonna's Bra, and Einstein's Brain, is a treasure trove of such marvels. Well known for his guides to the locations of pop culture events (James Dean Died Here, Marilyn Monroe Dyed Here, and Elvis Presley Passed Here), Epting has this time tracked down the locations of hundreds of artifacts, mementos, and structures associated with the people and events of America's popular history. From the lantern Paul Revere used to warn colonists that the British were coming to Elton John's platform shoes, this book is both a guide for those who would actually like to stand in the presence of significant souvenirs as well as those who enjoy reading about all the weird and wonderful stuff preserved inside museums and along roadsides across the continent.

Not surprisingly, the Smithsonian "America's Attic" Institution has contributed a number of pop culture artifacts to Epting's lineup. The Smithsonian is where you'll stand in the presence of such greatness as Fonzie's jacket and the Howdy Doody marionette. But if you've been thinking this is the place you'll find George Washington's teeth -- which by the way were not made of wood -- you definitely do need this book. Washington's ivory choppers are on display in Baltimore. And when it comes to Einstein's brain, which really was preserved after his death and cut into a number of pieces, Epting's book is about as close as you'll come to setting eyes on a chunk. Some pieces are at a hospital in Princeton, New Jersey, but they're "not available for public viewing."

The Ruby Slippers, Madonna's Bra, and Einstein's Brain is organized into eight categories, including American Curiosities, Roadside Relics, Historic Artifacts, Criminal Remains, Celebrity Antiquities, Movie and Television Keepsakes, Music Mementos, and Sports Memorabilia. Whether you'd like to pay homage to the Easy Rider motorcycle, visit the water pump where Helen Keller learned to communicate, or check out legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's signature houndstooth hat, you'll find everything you need to know here, complete with addresses and phone numbers. There's also an index organized by state that makes it easy to find out what to look for when you're on a trip.

In the last chapter, Epting leaves his readers with a tantalizing challenge: Find the location of ten pop culture artifacts that are "missing in action." Epting found out where Lizzie Borden's axe is, but he's wondering what happened to the knife that was used in the murders O.J. Simpson was acquitted of committing. And what about Amelia Earhart's plane, James Dean's car, or the debris associated with aliens found near Roswell, New Mexico? Here's another mysterious loss -- the Partridge Family bus is now nowhere to be found after spending years in ignominious anonymity in the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant in East Los Angeles. Are these relics really gone for good, or are they hiding somewhere? Perhaps, if Epting's plea is successful, there will soon be a sequel to this volume. In the meantime, The Ruby Slippers, Madonna's Bra, and Einstein's Brain has enough to keep the most avid road trippers happily seeking out marvels, oddities, and icons for a long, long time.

Megan Edwards

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