I wanted to like Stiff. I wanted Mary Roach to be an entertaining writer. Alas, she is not.
She’s judgmental and annoying. She writes too much about too little. She goes on long, pointless tangents.
Most damning of all (for me, as a journalist), are incongruities between what she’s written as either the truth or a semblance of the truth and the truth I’ve read from more credible authors. Meaning, she’s lying or being lazy or a combination of the two.
Once the first hole is poked in Roach’s credibility, I have no faith that her work is not riddled with holes.
At this point, I should put some caveats in my review: I am not easily grossed out. I’m a little bit morbid. While I do not deal with dead bodies extensively, I deal with death and the grieving on a regular basis as a cops and courts reporter for a newspaper.
This appears to be an issue for some reviewers. I did not find the book to be particularly gross.
Show me the money
First, my biggest problem with the book. Roach writes a little bit about the history of the body market, but not that much. When it comes to the modern body market, she writes, a costs $500. Who knows how much it sells for.
One single reference.
Yet, I can’t help but wonder, when a person is being kept alive to have his organs harvested, how much does the hospital charge for those organs? Where is the money going? All those corpses donated to science, or to certain scientific institutions, does no money change hands when bodies go from one to the other?
I don’t believe it, but, who knows! Mary Roach certainly didn’t research the financial side of the human cadaver.
Human blood sells for quite a bit (what’s the cost of a blood transfusion) but it’s a donated product. I have to think the human body sells for something.
Besides, she writes in an off-hand remark, that anatomy schools are picky about the corpses they use. Not too skinny, not too fat, etc. What happens to the rest?
No more credibility
So, here’s the big credibility gap. Roach writes, embalmment (via formaldehyde or other chemicals) doesn’t last forever. It lasts some time, but not forever. (Turning the flesh into plastic does last a really long time though, but, that’s different. At least for now.)
How long? She doesn’t know. But really, not that long once it’s in the ground.
Which sounds like a fine answer, unless one has also read “Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales “ by William Bass.
In it, one learns about William Bass’s greatest blunder, the one he always gets ribbed about: that one time he mistook the body of a guy killed in the civil war period to be a guy dead not even days. A couple hundred years, verses a couple days? Well, he’s been embalmed. In the south. Where it’s wet.
So, there we go. Mary Roach, who visited Bass’s “Body Farm,” isn’t competent enough to ask anyone with any knowledge about embalming. Credibility entirely shot through.
“And that is embalming. It will make a good-looking corpse of you for your funeral, but it will not keep you from one day dissolving and reeking, from becoming a Halloween ghoul. It is a temporary preservative, like the nitrites in your sausages. Eventually any meat, regardless of what you do to it, will wither and go off.”
Fantastic how she compares rotting bodies to preserved meat, outside of the context of cannibalism. Fantastic, too, how she answers the question about how long a preserved body lasts and under what conditions.
It’s a good day for bad journalism.
So, Roach visits the body farm. Which turns into a chapter where she narrates her guided tour through the place, and her lunch afterward.
I don’t know what publisher thought it was acceptable to let her get away with that, but, Iexpect more from a researched book than I do from a newspaper column. Newspaper reporter goes out, writes a first-person story about his tour of X, Y or Z? I think that’s perfectly acceptable. Puts it into a book, as a whole chapter on the science of the decomposition of bodies? Reeks of laziness.
Here’s another example, but more to the point of Roach’s worthless writing. She describes a the bugs under the skin of a corpse’s foot as being like expensive rice paper.
“You tell yourself these things.”
The first time she writes it, I get it. You’re depersonalizing the experience, you’re dehumanizing what’s happening by saying, it’s something inanimate. It only needs to be written once or twice. Not through the whole book. No. That’s just filler, which much of this book is.
Here we go again.
“With the radio playing and the three of us talking, the room has a feeling of late-night congeniality. I find myself thinking that it’s nice for UM 006 (a cadaver) to have company. There can be no lonelier state of being than that of being a corpse.”
Really, this presents a cognitive dissonance. Earlier, and later, Roach will talk about the cadaver being the shell of what was a human being. Yet here, well, we might just bring it back to life and make it human again!
Roach has it in for a few people, whom she makes judgment calls on. I disagree with her judgment calls and therefore, call BS on her putting them in her book. I signed up to read about cadavers, not about her moral opinions on the social status of those contracted to obtain bodies for science.
I also think some of her judgment calls are actually wrong. Like, entirely wrong.
Here she goes and bashes “body snatchers,” without any factual basis for her claims. Notice the character defamation of dead people.
“Body snatchers were common thugs; they motive, simple greed. But what of the anatomists? Who were the upstanding members of society who could commission the theft and semi-public mutilation of someone’s dead grandmother? The best known of the London surgeon-anatomists was Sir Astley Cooper. In public, Cooper denounced the resurrectionists, yet he not only sought out and retained their services, but he encouraged those in his employ to take up the job. Thing bad.”
Roach’s language here is really sad. Just sad. How does she know the motive was simple greed? Do teachers become teachers out of simple greed? They only work nine months out of the year for a salary equivalent to a person who works the whole year.
What about accountants? Or lawyers? Or doctors? Or construction workers? Or demolitionists? Or fireworks makers? Brewers? Candlestick makers? Writers?
Everyone does their job, on some level, for financial gain. We live in a capitalist society. There is no reason to work at a job (different from a volunteer position) to do so for no money.
How are we to know Roach’s motive isn’t greed? I always figured that’s why she keeps on writing books. I figured that’s why she pads them with useless tangents and descriptions of her tours.
But the anatomists, who are of a higher class, well, they’re doing something noble.
Furthermore, I would bring one’s attention to her use of the dead grandma, as if a cadaver (it is a corpse, after all) should somehow have the same value as a human being.
A grandmother is a human being. A dead grandmother is the corpse of what was a person who had a title. It is not the grandmother. It is a corpse.
Here’s another example of her mean spiritedness:
“One fine day in 1861, a twenty-four-year-old colonel named Elmer Ellsworth was shot and killed as he seized a Confederate flag from the atop a hotel, his rank and courage a testimony to the motivating powers of a humiliating first name.” Emphasis added.
That’s just mean.
Wait, Mary Roach has an unpleasant name, Roach! No wonder she writes books. It’s because she wants us all to be constantly grossed out by the association of her name with the bug.
Mary Roach: Moral titan our of time
So, here Mary Roach opines some pretty fantastic assumptions. Can you spot what’s a fact and what’s just her trumped-up opinion?
”Who decides when it’s okay to sacrifice human lives to save money? Ostensibly, the Federal Aviation Administration. The problem is that most airline safety improvements are asses from a cost-benefit viewpoint. To quantify the ‘benefit’ side of the equation, a dollar amount is assigned to each saved human life. As calculated by the Urban Institute in 1991, you are worth $2.7 million.”
Part of the problem here is the singling out, part of the problem is the assumption that government regulations are the ones solely responsible for advocating for safety measures in transportation.
I don’t see Roach advocating for stricter car regulations, which kill far more people. I don’t read her demanding that car companies install interlock devices on all cars so they can only be turned on once someone sober has blown into a device. I don’t see the demand to take older drivers off the road. I don’t see the demand for better driving education.
I do see a ridiculous statement.
It’s not government regulators who decide what the value of a human life in a plane wreck is. It’s the consumer. The consumer wants cheap, fast transportation, which is far safer than a car.
Totally ridiculous and fallacious statement.
Roach (ick! roaches! or, fantastic! Let’s smoke.) makes the argument that we shouldn’t do what the soviets did and use corpseblood for (blood) transfusions. She’s not OK with that.
Yet, she wants more regulation for air flight. Corpse blood or the occasional air crash not caused by surface-to-air missiles . . .
Roach is great in another passage, where she admits the things she thinks, the moral agreements she makes, are based on her, on our, culture. Yet she’s still against corpseblood.
“We are all products of our upbringing, our culture, our need to conform. There are those (okay, one person) who feel that cannibalism has its place in a strictly rational society:”
She then quotes Diego Rivera, who says, we should eat human flesh.
Notice how she denigrates his position by stating, he’s the only person who thinks this way. Notice how, after she writes that we are products of our society: society tells us cannibalism is taboo, it’s not inherent, it’s not a natural law, it doesn’t hurt anyone.
(Assuming no one was killed for the purpose of being eaten.)
Yet, again, she throws all that out the window to make her judgments.
She then goes into a long, pointless tangent about trying to track down a story in China that’s basically Sweeny Todd but with a mortuary in China. I think it’s just filler.
Like this paragraph!
“Supper on China South Airways was an unsliced hamburger bun and a puckered and unadorned wiener, rolling loose in pressed aluminum container. The wiener was too small for the bun, too small for any bun, too small for its own skin. Even for airline food, the meal was repugnant. The flight attendant, having handed out the last of the meals, immediately about-faced, returned to the front of the plane, and began picking them up and dropping them into a garbage bag, on the just and accurate assumption that no one was going to eat them.”
That’s 95 words. Ninety-five entirely pointless, useless, filler words. If you read it, you wasted the time it took to read those words. And I am sorry.
The one positive thing
There is one incredible chapter in the book, which many reviewers find to be the most repugnant. It’s about putting heads on others’ circulatory systems.
Chopping heads off and putting them on other bodies, either in addition to the current head or instead of.
This can be done, even with dogs, and it works. It’s beyond cool.
Also, we’re probably alive for a little bit after the head is chopped off. Creepy.
That one day, if we ever figure out how to make the spinal cord work after it’s severed, we can put someone’s head on someone else’s still-functioning body is just so cool.
Too, that our hearts are little machines that, with a little blood, just start pumping. That, too, is cool to know.
Writing this review, I downgraded my original rating from three stars to two. I did this because I realized how much was missing, how much was filler, how much was pointless in this book. How much was disrespectful, and how much was blatantly hypocritical, and how much Roach never stepped outside of herself.
Not worth it.