Monday, February 16, 2009
Okay, this book is not for everyone. If you have a weak stomach, consider bodies sacred things, or even don't want to laugh about either death or what our bodies do after death, than this book is not for you. This review is also not for you, because it's going to be darn hard to review this book without being both as gross and as snarky as the book.
First, a few side notes. I have a pretty realistic view of death. And a lack of any beliefs about what happens after death. And I come from a family with both a sarcastic sense of humor and a tradition of cremation. All this to say that this book didn't offend me in the least. In fact, I'm guessing Mary Roach would fit right into our family.
Also, for all the snarkiness, this really is a fascinating book. I can't picture a better approach for a book that takes on a topic that can potentially be touchy. Despite the sarcasm, the author does have respect for the dead, and that also comes through in the writing.
So what does a book about dead bodies talk about? Well, here you go...a very brief synopsis of what is discussed:
Chapter One: A Head Is A Terrible Thing to Waste
In which the author observes a group of plastic surgeons taking a refresher class in face lifts. Their test subjects? Heads. Dead heads. With no bodies attached.
Chapter Two: Crimes of Anatomy
The disgusting, gruesome, crime-ridden history of the study of anatomy. Did I mention disgusting? Note to future readers of this book: don't read this book during your lunch break. Also, interesting fact: during the 1700's it was possible to pay your tuition with dead bodies.
Chapter Three: Life After Death
How bodies decay. Also not a pleasant lunchtime reading experience. Because somewhere there is a field strewn with decomposing bodies being studied by scientists. Also, embalming is discussed. Interesting fact: the father of embalming (Thomas Holmes) went insane. He also requested he not be embalmed after his death.
Chapter Four: Dead Man Driving
Just what it sounds like - (dead) human crash test dummies. If it makes you feel any better, there are also people who have volunteered to be (live) human crash test dummies.
Chapter Five: Beyond the Black Box
Plane crashes and what dead bodies can tell us about the crashes. La la la la la la...not reading this chapter. I like to travel too much, and I prefer to not think about plane crashes. This is also why I never made it past the first episode of Lost.
Chapter Six: The Cadaver Who Joined the Army
The study of how bullets and bombs...ummm, do what bullets and bombs do to human flesh. Interesting fact: there is such a thing as ballistic gelatin, which is made from the same gross stuff as regular gelatin. As a footnote (yes, there are lots of footnotes) says "other products made with cow-bone-and-pigskin-based gelatin include marshmallows, nougat-type candy bar fillings, liquorice, Gummi Bears, caramels, sports drinks, butter, ice cream, vitamin gel caps, suppositories, and that distasteful whitish peel on the outside of salamis. What I'm getting at here is that if you're going to worry about mad cow disease, you probably have more to worry about than you thought. And that if there's any danger, which I like to think there isn't, we're all doomed, so relax and have another Snickers."
Chapter Seven: Holy Cadaver
The various attempts that have been made to reenact the crucifixion of Jesus.
Chapter Eight: How to Know If You're Dead
The history of defining death, and the search for the soul.
Chapter Nine: Just A Head
Head transplants. Seriously. Although not human heads...more like monkey and dog heads. There's a lot of ewww in this chapter, too. And the next one.
Chapter Ten: Eat Me
It's too close to dinner time to go into detail. In short, all the different parts of the body that have been prescribed to cure what ails you. The author brings up an excellent point that the thought of ingesting many of these things would make a person sick, which probably helped to cure a few of the ailments.
Chapter Eleven: Out of the Fire, Into the Compost Bin
Alternatives to cremation and burial. In particular, the idea of freeze drying a body, shattering it into small bits, and then composting the remains. This is a very serious proposal, by a Swedish biologist/environmentalist. Although I'm guessing it's got a ways to go before Americans embrace the idea.
Chapter Twelve: Remains of the Author
In which Mary Roach divulges what will be done with her body after she dies. It might surprise you.