Sunday, June 28, 2009

Stiff by Mary Roach

Stiff was Roach's first book; she's since written Spook and Bonk, settling into a career as a writer of science books about odd things (after a previous career as a travel writer for magazines). Spook was about the afterlife, Bonk about sex, and Stiff investigates the various things that can happen to a human body after death -- in all cases, for primarily scientific purposes.

Roach has a jokey tone throughout, whether she's writing about the forty decapitated heads for a plastic surgery refresher seminar or the phenomenon of "beating-heart cadavers," brain-dead bodies kept alive so that their transplantable organs can be removed and implanted into other bodies. Cadavers, and pieces of cadavers, get shot, smashed in car wrecks, dissected by med students, burned, buried, treated to a "water reduction process," crucified, and even eaten as Stiff runs through its fairly comprehensive list of scientifically-useful things that can happen to a dead body. (Along with a few that are less scientific, along the way.)

I wouldn't suggest Stiff for anyone of a nervous disposition, or with a weak stomach. Roach doesn't traffic in gross-outs, but this is a three-hundred page book about dead bodies, and all of the consumers of cadavers she writes about here use cadavers because one can do various traumatic things to a dead body without killing it. So, strictly speaking, there's very little gore -- since blood is drained from these bodies, as Roach explains in an early chapter -- but a lot of blunt-force trauma, careful incisions, and examinations of the innards of a large number of the formerly living. Roach is a lively writer who can whistle past the graveyard for her country, and she does so here -- you may be disconcerted or made uneasy by parts of Stiff, but you'll never be bored.

Listening to: Oingo Boingo - Fill The Void
via FoxyTunes

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