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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers   book icon  
by Mary Roach (2003)

read: 31 July 2003
rating: [+]
category: uncategorized

My family has always had a predilection for weird medical stories, so it’s no surprise that I got this in an envelope from my Mom with a note saying “send this on to your sister when you’re done.” It was sort of a sure thing that I would like this book -- Roach is a good and accomplished writer and the topic is just endlessly fascinating. My only beef with it, and it’s a small one, is why does it also have to be funny?

Roach tackles this topic in picaresque fashion, going from one dead-guy topic to another with only the vaguest of segues or chronological patterns. She talks to people who set-up stiffs for car crashes, who leave them in the field to see how they deompose, who harvest their organs, make up their faces, or sometimes even dig up their corpses. It’s captivating, it couldn’t not be. Roach interjects herself and her little asides [often for the expense of jokey bon mots] more than seemingly necessary. At the end of the day you’re well aware that she goes back to her word processor but a lot of these people work with dead folks day after day. She tries to get some philosophical assesment from many of them but often their responses range from “hey, it’s a job” to “I like to do what I’m good at” She seems like she’s bugging people by being a bit too morbidly fascinated with their jobs, and yet the book works because most readers will also share her fascination.

This seems like a dorky wrap-up, but if you’re already pretty well-versed in the life of corpses, this book will not cast terribly much new light on them. With the exception of the crash-test dummy chapter and the plastic surgery chapter, I was already pretty familiar with most of the scenarios related by Roach and while it’s worth digging in just to see her personal take on them, or to read her well-crafted sentences, most of the information is not super new.

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