Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book 23: Stiff

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

I've been meaning to read something by Mary Roach for ages now - in fact, I ordered Bonk a while back but when it arrived, realized I'd accidentally clicked on the audiobook. I tried to listen to it but every time I was in the car, I wanted to listen to music, so I never got past the introduction. Since I didn't want two copies of Bonk floating around my apartment, I decided to try again by ordering Stiff. Also, it's been a year or two since I watched it, but isn't this the book that Nate's niece gives David in Six Feet Under?

In the book, Roach explores the different things that have been done or might be done after to someone's cadaver once they have died. Not only does she discuss different science experiments and other projects that might occur to a body donated to science, but she also explores what exactly happens to people that decide to go the "natural" route of regular burial or cremation. Either way, it can get kind of gross. She uses historical examples as well and talks about some of the different views people have had towards bodies, dissection and mortality in the past. One big issue for medicine long ago was that dissection was outlawed in many places (people thought they would need a body to return to for Judgement Day) or that available bodies were just very difficult to find.

However, in addition to adding a lot of details and knowledge on a subject that people tend not to think about much beyond donating to science, cremation or burial, Roach also entertains. She has a very dry and sarcastic approach and while she is not disrespectful of the dead, some of her comments in the novel are hilarious. For example, in one chapter she talks about the soul and historically, there was a question as to whether the soul is located in the heart or the liver (this then became a question of the brain or the heart). This is her footnote about that philosophical question (after saying that the heart won over the liver):
We are fortunate that this is so, for we would otherwise have been faced with Celine Dion singing "My Liver Belongs to You" and movie houses playing The Liver Is a Lonely Hunter. Every Spanish love song that contains the word corazon, which is all of them, would contain the somewhat less lilting higado, and bumper stickers would proclaim, "I [liver symbol] my Pekingese." (176)

She also describes an experiment the military conducted at the end of the 19th century to determine the stopping power of certain rifles. At first they used cadavers, but then the person conducting the experiment decided to use livestock, causing Roach to comment: "And ever since, the U.S. Army has gone confidently into battle, knowing that when cows attack, their men will be ready (134)."

Basically, I'm really glad I finally read something by Mary Roach, and I was already telling people about it the day I finished reading it (I may also have called a friend of mine while reading it to read a passage or two to him that really amused me). I definitely recommend this (another thing that was kind of neat is that Roach talks about a lab that is of use to forensic science and criminal investigators - they experiment with how bodies disintegrate naturally and in different environments so they will be able to pinpoint time of death - a friend of mine had an internship one summer at a farm/lab that did something similar though in that case they used pig carcasses).


The Caustic Critic said...

I have this book on my to-read list, glad to hear that it's worth my time. Good review!

Kristin Dodge said...

I really liked this book, and if you enjoy her humor, wait until you read Bonk.

Jen K said...

I'll probably pick up Bonk as soon as I go to Barnes and Noble again - less than two weeks to go. I'm definitely looking forward to reading something else by Roach.