I recently had my first Mary Roach experience with "Spook", and finally got to see why so many people love this woman's work. I found this mixture of science and snarky commentary enlightening and entertaining! This is the kind of book that makes you want to run around spewing crazy facts to your family and friends! Which is the best kind.
So my library only had one other Mary Roach book on audio (my format of choice), and that was "Stiff". The subtitle is "The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers", which made me chuckle. I knew I was in for another fun ride.
Synopsis: Mary Roach is back with her Nosy Parker hat on, and dives head first into the research of dead bodies, and all the action that these bodies get once they are no longer breathing. She leaves no stone unturned, with some of her topics including the study of decomposition (you've heard of the Body Farm?), bodies used as crash test dummies, practice for plastic surgery, or army ballistic experiments. She pokes into early practices of body snatching, and use of dead body parts to cure various ailments. Or analyzing body parts that fly out of an airplane to determine exactly why the plane crashed. Decapitation and head transplants! Crucifixion experiments! Options for burial and cremation! Everything you ever wanted to know...and more.
My thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed this book, decidedly more than "Spook" even. I know it sounds pretty morbid, reading about dead bodies. But it was impossible to be saddened or creeped out because Mary approaches her topic with a healthy attitude of respect and fascination, and of course, humor.
With "Spook" there seemed to be times when the author slipped into a mire of fact now and again, and I felt my mind wandering. This did not happen here. It is impossible not to be completely absorbed with talk of studying plane crash sites, or how there is an option to have your dead body freeze-dried, or the mean lady who cuts off heads so they can be used by medical students. I can't even BEGIN to tell you how bizarrely amazing this all was.
At the same time, I found this book had fewer laugh-out-loud moments than "Spook". The humor was more subtle and sarcastic, maybe in deference to the dead? I don't consider this a fault though. Shaking my head and muttering "wow" under my breath every 2.5 minutes is just as good as laughing about ectoplasm coming out of a medium's lady parts. Here are some examples of what was going on in my ears:
“I walk up and down the rows. The heads look like rubber halloween masks. They also look like human heads, but my brain has no precedent for human heads on tables or in roasting pans or anywhere other than on top of a human bodies, and so I think it has chosen to interpret the sight in a more comforting manner. - Here we are at the rubber mask factory. Look at the nice men and woman working on the masks.”
“Here is the secret to surviving one of these [airplane] crashes: Be male. In a 1970 Civil Aeromedical institute study of three crashes involving emergency evacuations, the most prominent factor influencing survival was gender (followed closely by proximity to exit). Adult males were by far the most likely to get out alive. Why? Presumably because they pushed everyone else out of the way.”
Small digression: One surreal moment that I had while listening to this book is worth sharing. While enjoying this audio, I was also reading Jeff Ashton's "Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony". The doctor that was supervising the decomposition experiments at the Body Farm (Doctor Arpad Vass) and was interviewed by Mary Roach was the same doctor that testified at Casey Anthony's trial with regards to the smell of death in her car trunk. These two worlds, separated by 8 years, collided before my eyes. Even more poignant was that in Roach's interview of Vass in 2003, they were discussing the development of the technology (chemical analysis of smell) that would ultimately be used in Anthony's trial.
A few words about the audio production: Shelly Frasier was the narrator for this audio, and is a different voice than the one in "Spook". While I didn't mind listening to "Spook", I thought Shelly did a better job of capturing the essence of snark and dry humor.
Listening time: 7 hours and 59 minutes (303 pages)
4.5 out of 5 stars