Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers Review
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Who knew that there were so many uses -- albeit weird, horrific and mesmerizing -- to which the deceased human body can be subjected? Salon writer Mary Roach explores cadaver farms, the history of anatomical research, biomedical labs and more. Do you dare to follow?

Be forewarned. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, nor is this a Stephen King novel that you can shrug off as fiction. This is non-fiction at its most horrifically explicit. You know you're in trouble when you read a first sentence like this one:

"The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken."

Roach is in a university medical center and she's making the comparison because she's facing 40 human heads each in their own disposable aluminum roasting pan for plastic surgeons to practice on. And what does Roach want to know?

  
 
"Who cuts off the heads?" (Answer: Yvonne.)

If you're the type of person intrigued by the question, (and OK, that includes me), you'll jump into the book to learn what Roach finds out. For instance, did you know that to gibbet is to dip a corpse in tar and suspend it in a flat iron cage, the gibbet in plain view of townsfolk while it rots and gets pecked apart by crows"? Neither did I. There's much the living can learn about the dead and our history of their treatment here in Roach's book, some of which you may hope to forget as soon as possible.

What makes the book easier to read is Roach's sense of humor. For example, in that five-sentence paragraph about the history of gibbeting, she concludes:

"A stroll through the square must have been a whole different plate of tamales back then."

Her humor helps us get over the shock value of the material early on. Unfortunately, that sense of humor eventually becomes annoying. Her parenthetical comments intrude, like the jokes a teenager might make during a health class on human reproduction. At first we're all uncomfortable and the jokes break the tension. But after awhile the jokes call attention to the joker so much that you just want to turn around and tell her to drop it. Just tell me what you found out. So the blasť, I'm -just-curious voice she brings to this project sometimes misfires.

Despite my fatigue with the tone, I still recommend the book. Ms. Roach is a facile writer. And let's face it...the dead -- the dead whom we never knew as living -- are fascinating. In the end, that fascination with the topic kept me reading. So if you're intrigued now, Ms. Roach will keep you hooked until the end.

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