Thursday, July 23, 2009

#96 - "Stiff" by Mary Roach

Stiff (2003) by Mary Roach is another book that was recommended by a number of people, including a Cannonball Reviewer, and I was not disappointed. Fascinating, maybe a little morbid, insightful, and funny, I really enjoyed reading this book and I'm looking forward to reading Roach's other books as well.

A couple of years ago the "Body Worlds" exhibit came to Denver, and I got a chance to see it. Somewhat controversial and mentioned in Stiff (although it had yet come to the United States at the time), it involves the display of real dead bodies which have been "plasticized." I thought the exhibit was fascinating and not particularly disturbing. There was one body, however, that had been sliced in long, two inch slices, from head to foot and spread apart with the skin, face, and hair still intact. That one was hard to forget. And even though I didn't think I had been particularly affected by the exhibit, I had some pretty vivid dreams for a couple weeks afterwards. I guess it's easier to understand intellectually that once the person is dead, the "soul" is gone and all that's left is tissue, but emotionally there's always something more to it.

Stiff is a book that takes a look at what happens to bodies after we die. From scientific research (including the grisly history of precursors to gross anatomy), to driving experiments, army experiments, religious experiments, and personal burial/disposal options, Roach pretty much covers all the interesting/gross things that can happen to your body once you're gone. She defies taboos about death and delves into our options. I often read this book while eating, which I sometimes found somewhat disconcerting with her frank descriptions, but Roach managed to be both thorough and honest without being offensive (at least to me).

Mary Roach dares to ask the difficult and somewhat unorthodox questions that many people would rather avoid. Her enthusiasm for her subject and learning in general is contagious and enjoyable. She treats her subjects with dignity and deference but consistently lightens up the talk of rotting bodies with humor. Stiff did seem to jump around a bit as Roach went off on little tangents, but it was all so interesting that I didn't mind. I'm definitely going to be reading Roach's other books.

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