Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - Mary Roach

Deeply unsettling, morbidly funny, weird and disturbingly fascinating, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach is an unvarnished, questions-that-most-dare-not-ask, slightly off the wall examination of ...well, the practice and usage of human remains through history.

If it sounds like a bit of a reach, delving into a subject that most writers (and readers for that matter) would not care to visit, Stiff is a surprisingly good read. Skillfully written, tactful, sympathetic, respectful without being dull and heavy, strange without quite being off-putting, author Mary Roach weaves the ins and outs of such subjects as mortuary science, the history of surgery, autopsies, where plastic surgeons go for practice, medical experimentation, jello and gunshot wounds, crucification, human crash-test dummies, mummification and more into a riveting stew...just don't read it over your lunch hour. Seriously.

Stiff, despite its title, is anything but. Roach has a disconcerting habit of asking the people in charge questions that we all would have liked to ask, but were either too polite, too self-conscious or squeamish to ask. These queries, although they seriously make the reader question whether Roach would be someone to invite to a cocktail party, serve to beatifully illustrate the quandaries that we ourselves face, when confronted by the implacable certainty of The Father of Time.

My particular favorite moment was when the author was observing the "harvesting" of a doner heart from a brain-dead patient. Seeing the slippery, still-beating muscle being extracted, Roach promptly asked the doctor if they had ever dropped one on the floor...

Overall a well-written, excellent (if somewhat nausous) read. Remember to read outside of mealtimes...

For a look at the Internet's resident cadaver, check out The Virtual Man Project at the National Library of Medicine. Researchers froze a cadaver, then sliced it in ultra-thin slices creating an anatomically detailed virtual representation of the human body....For an added bonus, visit The Virtual Autopsy here or HBO's Autopsy website.

Just so you don't think it's just people under the surgeon's knife - someone autopsied a furby...

Here's some real Crash Test Dummies....and some more (especially 50th Percentile Hybrid III).

Lastly, here's the most famous cadaver of them all....It's Alive! ALIVE!

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