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"Hey, whatcha reading?"
"Oh, you know: a book about corpses."
I'm tempted to immediately reread this, just so I can keep saying that.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is 300 pages about dead people. Or, rather, it's not about the people at all, but what they leave behind. In fact, one of the first things author Mary Roach does is emphasize the distinction between the quick and the dead.
But once she has made her point -- that that "dead people" are best regarded as 100% dead and 0% people -- she launches into a gleeful account of what ghastly things are done to their remains. She begins by covering what most people think of when they consider life postmortem: medical research and organ donation. But from there she catalogs some of the more exotic adventures a cadaver could undertake during it's detour from the morgue to the graveyard. Car manufacturers, for example, have yet to build a crash test dummy that simulates a human body as accurately as a, well, a human body. And when trying to determine what kind of footwear mine sweepers should use, nothing works quite as well as an actual, severed foot.
The most interesting chapter, to my mind, covers about the role in corpses in determining the cause of plane crashes. By noting the composition (and decomposition) of the bodies, investigators can infer a remarkable amount about what transpired in the final moments of a doomed flight. If some (but not all) of the cadavers have burns, for instance and they can identify the remains, the can use the blueprint of the plane and the seat assignments on the tickets to determine where the charred passengers were located, and perhaps pinpoint where an explosion or fire began. And did you know that people who fall from a certain height or higher will have all their clothes knocked off when they hit the ocean, while people who fell from below that height will be recovered clothed?
Despite the macabre nature of the subject matter, Stiff is remarkably funny. Yes, you heard me: funny -- even, at time, snort-out-loud-while-riding-the-bus funny. Throughout the book, Roach employs a tone that's breezy and matter-of-fact, and throws a joke or two into every paragraph. But this doesn't mean the book is light: in fact, it struck me as so meticulously researched that I found myself questioning the sanity of any author would delve into a subject to such a depth. But by injecting liberal amounts of humor into her narrative, Roach makes what could have been a grim and depressing tome into a eminently readable page-turner, the kind of book you could read and enjoy on vacation. (In fact, I took Stiff along during my recent trip to D.C., and even wound up reading the chapter on plane crashes while on the plane.) More impressive still is the fact that the use of humor in no way detracts from the profound sense of respect for the people who donate their bodies that the author manages to engender in the reader.
By the end of Stiffed I kind of felt like Roach was padding the book a little (a chapter on cannibalism goes into an extended digression of how the author was sent on a wild goose chase by an urban legend, for instance), and the humor occasionally gets a little wearying, like reading a forensic textbook written by Dave Barry. But by and large Stiff manages to blend informative and entertaining prose into an engrossing read (emphasis on the "gross"), and it's the best non-fiction book I've read this year.Posted on October 18, 2004 to Books