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Title: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Author: Mary Roach
Genre: Nonfiction/Science
Page Count: 304
Publisher: W.W. Norton & C



Basic Plotline Premise: Author Mary Roach explores the many things that happen to human cadavers, both and past and present, from medical research to the main ingredient in healing elixirs to becoming part of an innovative composting program in Sweden.


The Positives: I enjoyed the book over all. The author is part historian, part journalist in this piece, investigating the part of life most of us like to talk about least - death.

The author gives great dignity to the corpses she sees and always keeps a tone of respect and even affection as she cracks wise. Most of her snarky remarks and puns are directed at the silliness of the living and the many historical oddities of science rather than the dead themselves. In an odd way, by stripping away the solemnity and the somberness, she manages to afford a greater amount of compassion to the empty vessels of people who were once living and now departed.

The author's research is, for the most part, very thorough and she plunges forward into her subject with a tenacity and fearlessness that borders on reckless and morbidly curious, but never quite crosses that line.

The book is imminently readable and palatable for its subject matter, and far less creepy or depressive than one might expect. It's engrossing (having the second most entertaining footnotes I've ever read - Neil Gaiman wins the award for Most Entertaining Footnotes in Anansi Boys). I flew through this book in less than two days, which is a rarity for me as anyone who reads this blog regularly can tell you.



The Negatives: This book, while entertaining, is a littel too fluffy I think to be categorized as science, which it is on the back cover. I feel it's more a social, journalistic piece than a scientific exploration. Indeed, Roach quickly abandons any pretense of objectivity or removed perspective. Much of what we see in this novel is decidedly from her point of view and colored by her thoughts, emotions, and experience.

The authors inserts herself and her feelings, sometimes to my great irritation, in places where I wanted to read more about the historical facts or places she was visiting and the science behind them. Notably, when she went to the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee, I was more interesting in knowing more about the decomposition of the body and what that could tell scientists about time of death rather than hearing about how Ms. Roach felt about seeing it.

There were also places where Roach describes her travel (hotel room settings, airplane rides, etc) and I skimmed those bits because I felt a little insulted that Roach thought I'd rather spend a few pages hearing about her travels rather than focusing on the dead bodies. Sorry, Ms. Roach, dead people are more interesting than you.

I also felt that the book was a bit uneven in places, as though some chapters were tacked on rather than being a cohesive part of the whole. In some places it felt like this was less of an exploration and more of a book about writing a book.

While enjoyable, it certainly shouldn't be classified as science writing on the back cover, thanks.

CoC Score: 5. Not sure how to rate this book. Most of the details take place in either the U.S. or the Western Hemisphere (notably Victorian England). However, there is a chapter about a trip to China to research a tale of Chinese brothers who were - allegedly - cutting off the buttocks of corpses and eating them.

I felt there was a large swath of cultural insensitivity and outright idiocy in the fact that Ms. Roach believed the claim, which was sheer urban legend to anyone with common sense, enough to spend the money on the trip to China. The disrespect she showed the funeral home operator she visits is shown with a kind of amused "aren't I cute" tone that made me feel very uncomfortable - as well as Roach's generalized statements such as:

It seems to me that the Chinese, relative to Americans, have a vastly more practical, less emotional outlook when it comes to what people put in their mouths
.

This statement made me respect the author quite a bit less. Because I hardly think she has either the expertise or objectivity to make such a statement.

GLBT Score: 0. No significant GLBT persons or issues brought up in this book.

Gender Score: 8. Points for a female author and for mentioning that males are more likely to survive accidents because they push females out of the way to get to safety. Or: yeah, chivalry really is dead.

July 2013

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