Stiff : The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

A journey by the author to various countries, institutions, libraries and websites to find out more about what happens to human bodies after death. The book covers :

Unlike Opening Skinner's Box, this author has very little prior experience of her subject matter, and so this is not such a reflective book; many of the things she discovers are as much of a surprise to her as they might be to us. And it is interesting to hear of the ways that human cadavers can be so useful; as she says after an operation for a heart transplant, "H [the donor] has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you'd call her".

Throughout, she writes in a humourous tone, which is sometimes funny ("What do you mean?" he asked me back. "You want a vivid description of what's going through my brain as I'm cutting through a liver and all these larvae are spilling out all over me and juice pops out of the intestines?" I kind of did, but I kept quiet) but felt a bit laboured. She also has the habit of being diverted from her topic into anecdotes which may be quite interesting but feel like they're being used to flesh out the book a bit (e.g. the story of her journey to China to verify a Reuter's report that a morgue-worker was selling body parts to his cousin's restaurant).

In fact, this wasn't quite as interesting as I think a book on this topic could have been. The author herself admits that a fair amount of her information is gleaned from library books and Google searches, and while she does interview quite a lot of experts, there's not a lot of analysis and criticism of what they say. One instance in particular of this was her opinion of medical students, who she reports as having an almost reverential attitude to the bodies that they dissect: she takes their word for it that such sport as football being played with heads, or intestine used as skipping rope would never be tolerated.

So maybe not as informative as I hoped, but quite an entertaining read all the same.

Completed : 01-Aug-2004

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