Friday, April 5, 2013

Book Review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Yesterday, I finished listening to Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach and narrated by Shelly Fraiser. This high-interest work of non-fiction has been a part of my life for the most ridiculously long time. I'm glad that I finally read it, and sad that I didn't read it sooner.

I was first introduced to Stiff back in my library days as a circu-lady, about six years ago (sheesh, that number makes me feel old...). When you work in the circulation department of a library, you have a finger on the pulse of a community's reading heartbeat. This book was constantly being checked out, and every time I came across it during check-in it would catch my attention anew. What a morbid, but fascinating concept for a book!

Fast forward to a road trip to a wedding in 2010. Mike and I briefly opened an audible account, and purchased only: Stiff and everything ever written by James Herriot. Of course, we were ensnared by Herriot's charming biographies about his life as a veterinarian, and never even got to Stiff.

Eventually, an error in the library's computer system left me audiobook-less, which is not a state I enjoy much. Finally, my cadaverous questions would all be answered.

Roach, a journalist, begins her book with two crucial points. First, that death can, and probably should, be seen as a journey like any other. Second, that a cadaver is very separate from a person. A person lives, and then dies, leaving behind an empty shell. A person never is a cadaver. The way she explains all of this from the beginning makes what follows much easier to stomach, and, in many cases, appreciate.

Most of the book focuses on the roles cadaver have in several fields of science including: motor vehicle testing, crime scene investigation, weapons testing, cosmetic surgery practice, anatomy labs, and organ transplants. This is blended with horror film worthy, yet, very accurate, descriptions of the historical aspects of each field. Back when I used to go to Mike's anatomy class and take notes for him so that he could take tests for his other classes, I learned a bit about the gruesome stories of body snatching and grave robbing, but... there was much more to learn. And, although it sounds creepy, these were some of the most engaging parts of the book.

As I read, I found myself increasingly grateful for the role that these cadavers have played, especially in helping to advance safety features in airplanes and motor vehicles. Of course, it makes sense, the best way to test safety features are with actual people. Not many people would volunteer for that job, but these corpses fill the role and have directly lead to many industry improvements.

Death, decay, and the dead are disturbing topics to many. However, Roach does an incredible job of presenting things factually and scientifically, with just the right amount of humor to keep things from getting overwhelming. Here, I would like to note that Shelly Fraiser, the narrator of the audiobook, is spot on in her delivery. The most difficult chapter to listen to was about Roach's visit to a decay study facility. So, if you're squeamish, that's the one to skip.

Along those same lines... I would not recommend eating while learning more about the curious lives of human cadavers. The one really rough spot I had came when Roach described the decapitated heads that cosmetic surgeons use to practice new techniques. I suppose it wasn't her fault that they place the heads, like chickens, in large roasting pans for the procedure. Nor can I blame her for my lunch choice of a (usually) delicious chicken club toaster from Sonic. That meal + chapter combo is my only regret. But, happy hour prices on large Vanilla Coke's during the middle of my prep period ensure that it will not be a lasting one.

Overall, I would give this book 5 stars. It was engaging and educational, and definitely thought-provoking. What more can you ask for in non-fiction?