Getting Stiffed

 – for Elise

You can tell that I was crazy about Apollo’s Angels from the simple fact that I made six posts about it. Clearly, I think that is the way to write non-fiction. On the other hand, I just finished Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed reading it. The book is highly amusing, funny, brimming with gore, disgusting details of the most delicious kind, full of informative and obscure factoids, which I love, even contains some cool (if gross) science of decomposition. Roach has an iron stomach to have looked at everything she’s writing about here, yet she’s good at not going over the top with nauseating descriptions, she relieves the situation with humor frequently. She also talks about things that are in the public domain, meaning that the information is out there if you want to know it, but nobody ever brings up. For example, historic and current problems of obtaining (and maintaining) human bodies for anatomy lessons, and the attitude of students who have to train on them. She also brings up how use of cadavers for science is a much broader concept that most people think. Aside from medical lessons and organ transplants, cadavers are used for car crash tests, examinations of airplane crashes, and even the military uses them to test resistance to bullets and explosions.

It’s even interesting when she veers off topic to discuss medical definitions of death, the history of “the soul,” and the way the guillotine works in relation to the body (it turns out the widely held belief that one is still alive and conscious after decapitation is true).

Ultimately, however, the book is a loosely connected series of journalistic articles, admittedly with a little more detail. She knows she’s grossing her reader out and she plays that aspect up like a trick at a party to keep attention on herself. Instead of really delving into the significance of some of the facts she presents or human behaviors she describes, she remains on the surface, moving through the topics a little too quickly, and letting her audience off the hook a little too easily.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Homans’ Apollo’s Angels and Roach’s Stiff is its relationship with our own, familiar culture. After reading the book on ballet, I really felt humbled, like taking down the walls that encircle my own little plot of land to see that it’s only a slice of a much bigger field. Roach’s book serves to reinforce those walls. Every time she ventures into dangerous territory, where one might really start to question one’s beliefs, to see that the ways we do things is only one out of many, she cracks a joke and places things firmly back in the known and expected. Death, illness, the body are big subjects, and one ought to have a new perspective on them after reading three hundred pages. (Isn’t that why we read, to see the world with new eyes?) Instead, this is a long list of facts, trivia, and clever ways to gross people out at a party, to everyone’s amusement.

I have to mention that I got the book as a present from a friend of a friend, for whom I did a favor. She is a flutist and composer, so I had her sign the book by writing out a couple of bars of a composition of hers. I figured I’d share that with you.

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