too many words by laura lemay

stiff, a book review

After I finished Going Postal I got to the book I had intended to read: Stiff, The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach.

This is a book about dead people, or rather, the various things that human bodies are subjected to after we’re done with them. Its about autopsies, and putrefaction, and dissection, and execution, and cannibalism, and reanimation, and ballistics.

This is an utterly delightful book, and I am not being sarcastic. You would think that given the subject matter that this would be a dark book, tough to read, and very dry and clinical in its descriptions. These are human bodies, after all, and although we may decapitate them and shoot at them and run them into walls and boil them into goo and compost them etc etc they deserve respect. Death is a serious subject, she said, with a serious expression.

But no, Mary Roach’s book is a hoot. There are very few books that have made me laugh out loud this year — and this is one of them. Sure, it’s horrifying at times, with vivid descriptions that can be hard to take. But Roach’s writing style, the stories she tells, and the descriptions of the people she interviews in finding out about these stories are so fascinating and so brightly told that the balance between darkness and the light is just perfect. The more horrifying the subject, the funnier her writing gets. For a book about dead bodies, it is wonderfully alive.

For example, here’s a quote from when Roach goes to visit a funeral home to learn about embalming. She observes a body being “posed,” that is, arranged for an open casket funeral.

The last feature to be posed is the mouth, which will hang open if not held shut. Theo is narrating for Nicole, who is using a curved needle and heavy-duty string to suture the jaws together. “The goal is to reenter through the same hole and come in behind the teeth,” says Theo. “Now she’s coming out one of the nostrils, across the septum, and then she’s going to reenter the mouth. There are a variety of ways of closing the mouth,” he adds, and then he begins talking about something called a needle injector. I pose my own mouth to resemble the mouth of someone who is quietly horrified, and this works quite well to close Theo’s mouth. The suturing process proceeds in silence.

The book is also littered with random footnotes that lead to bizarre off-topic digressions. On the very next page from the suturing incident the Father of Embalming is mentioned, and there is a footnote that asks

Does everything have a father? Apparently so. A web search on “the father of” turned up fathers for vasectomy reversal, hillbilly jazz, lichenology, snowmobiling, modern librarianship, Japanese whiskey, hypnosis, Pakistan, natural hair care products, the lobotomy, women’s boxing, Modern Option Pricing Theory, the swamp buggy, Pennsylvania ornithology, Wisconsin bluegrass, tornado research, Fen-Phen, modern dairying, Canada’s permissive society, black power, and the yellow schoolbus.

At another point Roach apologizes for having stopped doing research about the weight of the soul because she was distracted by another article about the ancient history of medicine in the journal she was reading. But because of this distraction, she says, she can “hold forth at cocktail parties on the history of hemorrhoids, gonorrhea, circumcision, and the speculum.” And then there’s a footnote that starts “Since the odds of our meeting at a cocktail party are slim and the odds of my managing to swing the conversation around to speculums slimmer still, let me take this opportunity to share…” and then goes on for half a page on the history of speculums.

I love this woman.

But I will cease abusing the fair use part of copyright law at this point and tell you that you must read this book. I know, I have said this about every book I’ve reviewed here, but I mean it this time. (eventually I’ll review a book that isn’t that great.) It will probably spoil your dinner, but you’ll have a lot of fun going hungry. Go. Read it. Go.

Next up on my reading list: Quicksilver. Yes, I know, I am behind on my geek reading.