Stiff by Mary Roach

“Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 303 pages.
Read from May 3, 2019 to May 6, 2019.

I don’t really understand how anyone could be offended in talking about dead bodies or their various uses in science, though I appreciate that it is a sensitive subject, death is a reality of life. I think it’s not that people are uncomfortable with the dead bodies themselves but of their own perceptions of death. Many people can’t fathom being a corpse or if it was their loved ones, regardless of what happens to us when we die.

“We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.”

Mary Roach personalises her experience and interest in death as she shares her own intimate experience with the passing of her own mother. Death may be an uncomfortable reality but it is an experience we all have in common. Mary Roach approaches cadavers in a very entertaining, informative and tactful manner. She observes and interviews the intricate lives of those doing the less-than-glamorous work with corpses while also exploring the strategies they use in order to cope and maintain their humanity with the surreal nature of their jobs.

Anything you ever wanted to know about how a body decays Mary details in her interviews with forensic pathologists that do studies on real corpses to help crime investigators in gruesome murder cases.  If you’ve ever wanted to know where your body goes after you donated it to the medical sciences, Mary can tell you, and it’s often not what you would expect. Mary also discusses how many of our scientific advancements are owed to the illegalities of body snatching through history.

“Many people will find this book disrespectful. There is nothing amusing about being dead, they will say. Ah, but there is.”

This book requires a healthy amount curiosity about death and a slightly open mind on the topic, especially if you’re not interested in how a maggot might sound eating human flesh during one of the many dynamic stages of decay. It also discusses the donation of cadavers to science and some very specific uses which many may not be comfortable with, as well as the sensitivities surrounding organ donation and its importance.

“It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more than half of the people in the position H’s family was in will say no, will choose to burn those organs or let them rot. We abide the surgeon’s scalpel to save our own lives, our loved ones’ lives, but not to save a stranger’s life. H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her.”

Mary also discusses the feelings and respect that we give our dead regardless of what use a corpse has after death. Whatever scientific purpose a cadaver has there is something sacred in keeping our humanity and due respect in its treatment, in that a dead body, while no longer occupied, was once a person who was loved and had a life like anyone else.

I loved this book. It’s my kind of book. Weird, interesting, factual, personal, and well-written. However, I could see it not being for everyone. For those who are science-minded and comfortable discussing the gruesome details of the body, this book is definitely for you. If thinking about the specific details of an organ transplant and knowing what a still beating heart looks like in an open chest cavity makes you queasy, you might want to pass on this one.

I Am No One You Know by Joyce Carol Oates

There are some real gems in this book if you enjoy something a bit more on the dark side. 

“I had forgotten that time wasn’t fixed like concrete but in fact was fluid as sand, or water. I had forgotten that even misery can end.”

3/5 stars.
190 pages, Hardcover.
Read from Oct 13, 2017 to Oct 24, 2017.

This book had been sitting on my shelf for way too long. I was only vaguely familiar with the author and unsure what the stories might be like it so I avoided it. I guess I was expecting some thought-provoking literary fiction as I was not prepared for the morbid and fascinating content that this book contained. Or for the cliffhangers. God damn, nearly every single story left you hanging.

The book is broken down into four parts and seems to carry similar themes: Part one looks at inward conflicts and decisions in relation to others; Part two delves into life-changing interactions with others; Part three looks at the intricacies of human relationships. Part four is the least morbid of the parts and focuses on kindness and strength in relation to the bigger world of human interactions. In fact, one of my favourite stories is in this section, Three Girls. The story starts by following two girls in a bookstore who recognize Marilyn Monroe, who is clearly attempting to keep her identity a secret, and the two girls decide to not approach her and allow her to keep her privacy.

The majority of the stories, especially the suspenseful and morbid ones often left you with a cliffhanger ending. Sometimes this approach worked and other times I found it aggravating and annoying. Just as some of the stories highly successful while others were completely unmemorable.  The story that stuck with me the most is The Instructor. A new teacher at a college teaching a composition class has an unusual and strange student who leaves her intriguing but highly personal and disturbing poetry for his assignments. He was a former prisoner who now appears to be stalking her, which, she strangely does not seem to mind.

The abrupt cliffhangers and the occasional boring story was just enough to stop me from giving this book four stars. However, there are some real gems in this book if you enjoy something a bit more on the dark side.