The sky is gray, we received an overseas phone call at 6:45 am (really, people, learn about time zones!), and I’m a little too draggy to put on sweats and shoes and go for an invigorating walk by the sea, as is my wont most weekend mornings. So instead, I’m hiding away in my office nook/basement computer room, hoping that my family won’t complain too much if I ignore them temporarily while I write and muse about… whatever.
First up, I finished reading Stiff by Mary Roach! I stayed up until 12:30 last night (had I known about the upcoming 6:45 am wake-up call, I might more wisely have chosen to go to bed), and can proudly say that I know a lot more about cadavers than I did a few days ago. So herewith…
Book Review: Stiff by Mary Roach
Mary Roach is to science what Christopher Moore is to religious history. Both are knowledgeable writers with a deep understanding of their subject matter — yet they manage to make these subjects absolutely hilarious. (Granted, the comparison isn’t entirely apt, but any chance to make a Lamb reference works for me).
In Stiff, Roach investigates what happens to human bodies after death. She gives a comprehensive look at what happens to bodies donated to science, and devotes chapters to the use of cadavers in automotive testing, ballistics testing, and more. Further chapters cover the purported healing powers of mummy parts, the question of whether decapitated heads remain alive and aware for brief moments post-beheading, methods of preserving bodies (embalming and plastination), and covers the unsavory history of anatomists and body snatchers.
The author certainly does not shy away from disgusting details, and she’s there first-hand to tour a decomposition study as well as to witness the harvesting of organs for donation. Her research is thorough, and she clearly is not afraid to ask the questions ordinary people might wonder about but would feel undignified asking.
Mary Roach has a way with words that never fails to entertain, even while covering incredibly morbid topics. And yet, it’s clear that she has the utmost respect for the scientists and researchers whose work she describes, as well as for the deceased and their families.
Her chapter on organ donation is especially lovely and inspiring, as was her description of the newer standards in medical school anatomy classes, in which students are encouraged and expected to show gratitude toward their cadavers and find ways to honor them, as in this passage describing a memorial service held by anatomy students at UCSF for their year’s cadavers:
One young woman’s tribute describes unwrapping her cadaver’s hands and being brought up short by the realization that the nails were painted pink. “The pictures in the anatomy atlas did not show nail polish,” she wrote. “Did you choose the color? Did you think that I would see it? I wanted to tell you about the inside of your hands. I want you to know you are always there when I see patients. When I palpate an abdomen, yours are the organs I imagine. When I listen to a heart, I recall holding your heart.”
I learned a lot from reading Stiff — on a subject that I never would have thought I’d want to explore. My only quibble is that perhaps it went on a bit too long. Sure, it was fascinating, and in Roach’s talented hands, quite entertaining as well. Still, by the end, I had definitely had enough and was ready to be done. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes look at science, told from the perspective of someone just like us, someone who’s not a scientist but just wants to know what happens. Mary Roach has a way with words that’s funny, sarcastic, and hard to predict; read her work and you’ll find yourself laughing at things you just can’t believe you’d laugh at. I loved her more recent Packing for Mars, and I’m very glad to finally have gone back and read Stiff as well.
My plans for today including continuing my incredibly satisfying project of building Ikea bookshelves and installing them in what is currently a spare room — I’m hoping the designation “library” will catch on. Let’s respect the books, people! I have high hopes for my new little reading nook, and even my kid is getting into the project. He’s quite handy with a hammer and screwdriver, and has been asking all morning if he can help put the shelves in. (My answer: Shelves, yes. Books, no. The placing of books on the shelves has taken on a practically religious significance for me, and I plan to meditate on careful placement for quite some time).
The Sunday book review section didn’t have all that much that grabbed me this week, although it did mention a new collection of stories in tribute to Ray Bradbury which sounds quite good. Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman have contributed stories, among other terrific writers, so methinks this will be a good one to pick up and read in small pieces.
Now that I’ve finished Stiff, and after reading Jaycee Dugard’s powerful memoir earlier this week, I’m ready to dive back into fiction! As usual, I have a stack of library books begging for some love and attention, and I can’t wait to dig in!
Finally, I’ll just add that my son and I are really enjoying Chomp by Carl Hiassen as a read-together bedtime story. I’d never read any of his kids books before, but based on our experiences with Chomp so far, we’ll be reading a lot more of his books in the future. Chomp is funny and exciting, with lots of elements to appeal to a 10-year-old boy (and his mom). I’ll be back with a review once we’re done.
Happy weekend! And for those who celebrate the Jewish new year, l’shanah tovah! May you have a sweet and healthy new year — filled with lots of great reading, I hope!