Non fiction is something that I really struggle with. I don’t mean memoirs and autobiographies, I mean anything that’s well neither of those. If there were any breed of non fiction that I thought that I would really struggle with then I would say that it is science. So imagine my joy when I discovered Mary Roach, a new writer to me though I have all her books on the TBR, who not only makes science interesting they make it funny… even in death with ‘Stiff’ a subject which is something that scares me, erm, to death.
It might not be a subject that you would think you would want to read about but death is really the only guarantee that we have in life, and though we might not openly admit it aren’t we all a little bit fascinated (in a morbidly inquisitive or scientific way) by it? Well in ‘Stiff’ Mary Roach is very intrigued by just that and meets all the people who have dealings with us when we die and asks all the questions that we would if we honestly could.
I thought this would simply be a look into what happened to us in the now after we die, which is quite enough of a subject to contend with. However Mary Roach takes it further finding out what happens not only if we are cremated or buried but what happens to peoples bodies donated to science and research. The opening chapter showing how heads can be used by plastic surgeons as practise, something I would never have considered would be an option for someone dearly departed.
But it’s not just for anatomy lessons for doctors that our bodies can be used, there is so much more. For example how bodies have been used by the army to design the best shoes in land mine filled fields, or how they are used to design weapon proof attire for policemen saving peoples lives. Some of the stories are quite horrific (you might not want to be munching whilst having this book in your hand), some are fascinating and some are funny. I didn’t think, despite it being about death, that I would find it emotional in any way, wrong! In fact one particular tale of ‘H’ a woman who is brain dead and is being used to collect her internal organs to save the lives of four different people across America really, really moved me. No, I wasn’t expecting that either.
Through all her subjects from anatomy to cannibalism and everything in between Mary Roach looks at the history and some of the legends that surround death. There is the tale of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh, the gravediggers in London, sacrificial old men in China who ‘honey’ themselves (has to be read to be believed like most of the book actually) and so on. You get history, you get insight, you get emotion and laughter – yes I was in hysterics at some points – and you get reassurance in a strange way. All the while in the company of Mary Roach who by the end of the book I felt I was firm friends with, if only all non fiction whatever its subject could be as readable as this.
A book that will: open your mind and make you think, it will also demystify death a little in a slightly bizarrely comforting way. Not one to be read anytime near eating, especially if you have Rice Krispies or Chicken Soup in front of you… that’s all I am saying, you’ve been warned but do read this book, its ace 9.5/10
I know it might not be a subject you think you would want to read about but I cannot recommend this strongly enough – read it. Who else has read this and can back me up? Or did anyone have the completely opposite response to this? Have you read any of Roach’s other books? Which other non fiction books have impressed you? What would you recommend to someone really unsure of non fiction like me?