Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

A book about corpses should not be laugh-out-loud amusing, but Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is seriously funny.  Like Janet Evanovich's Plum books, it's not something you want to read on public transit.  In fact, I can see Grandma Mazur discussing it over pineapple upsidedown cake while Steph's mother reaches for a tumbler of whiskey.  I would love to have lunch with author Mary Roach, but perhaps not after she's visited the Body Farm.

Stiff covers serious topics - the history of anatomy, how cadavers are used to create safer cars, organ donation, burial - but Roach has a dry sense of humor and the ability to walk the like between irreverence and respect.  The professionals she profiles seem to do the same thing.  They may use humor to deal with their sometimes gory work but never forget that the bodies upon which they are working were recently living people and deserve a degree of dignity.  Gross anatomy students hold a memorial service for their cadavers at the end of the semester and engineers testing car safety equipment mask a cadaver's face in a white sock as if to protect his privacy.  Roach's wry impressions, often of how she imagines her serious but ghoulish questions sound, leaven what could be a morbid topic.

Throughout the book, Roach expresses her respect and gratitude for those who donate their bodies.  Every time someone walks away from a car accident or a medical examiner determines how long a murder victim has been hidden, it's because someone experimented on cadavers.  Hundreds of thousands of people have enjoyed extra decades of life because someone was selfless enough to allow surgeons to remove their organs after their often sudden and violent death.  Roach also shows respect for the survivors, pointing out that as noble as donating one's body to science can be, it's unfair to force one's survivors to do something with which they are not comfortable or which would be an undue hardship.  Keeping that in mind, she implies that while she's more than willing to have her cadaver used in an anatomy class or to develop safety equipment, if her squeamish husband outlives her, she will only donate organs, not her entire body.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fox Evil

Fox Evil is the fourth Minette Walters book I've read in the past few years, and it's structurally similar to Acid Row, with apparently disparate story lines colliding at the midpoint of the novel, shifting narrators, a strong professional heroine, the final third of the novel running in what feels like real time, and a happy ending.  Fox Evil is more of a whodunnit than Acid Row, which could have been named Anatomy of a Riot, and while I expected the happy ending, I didn't solve the mystery.

Fox Evil opens in August 2001 with a band of Travellers convening in Dorset.  Ten-year-old Wolfie lives with, and in fear of, his stepfather Fox, a psychotic bully with a mysteriously posh accent.  About the same time, Col. James Lockyer-Fox's lawyer Mark Ankerton tracks down his client's granddaughter, born to his then teenage daughter and privately adopted by a farm family.  Naturally Ankerton expects a family eeking out a bare living and an heir who will be impressed by her newly-found family.  Nancy Smith, however, is an Oxford grad who's a Captain in the Royal Engineers visiting her family's prosperous 2000-acre farm, and more impressed with the prospect of being the fourth generation (and her future children being the fifth) to farm the same land than with Col. Lockyer-Fox's wealth.  

Shortly before Christmas, the Travellers encamp near Lockyer-Fox's estate.  Mark Ankerton has decided to stay with his client during the holiday and discovers that someone has been making harassing phone calls  to the Colonel since his wife died.  Nancy Smith, on the way back to her unit after a holiday break, stops by the manor on Boxing Day and unexpectedly forges common ground with her newly-found grandfather.  Then the plotlines begin to intertwine.

I really feel I haven't done Fox Evil justice in this review.  It's a fantastic, fast-paced mystery with compelling characters and a believable outcome.  I stayed up well past midnight to finish it, but if I explain why, I'll be posting spoilers.  I will say that the happy ending doesn't seem tacked on as it might be.  Walters gave the secondary and tertiary characters just enough pages so that we not only want their lives to improve, we can think "That's nice," instead of "Yeah, right," when Travellers, army officers, policemen, and lawyers get together for a party.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Sticking to the Book Diet

Six or seven years ago, I read an op-ed about going on a book diet - don't buy any new books until you've read at least ten unread books sitting on your shelf.  Well, since I've usually got about 100-150 unread books on my shelf (damn you Daedalus Books!!), this should be easy, right?  

It's not.  Every year, I think about gaming the system.  Should I pick a few 200-page light reads?  Gravitate towards the authors I know I can burn through quickly?  Or should I just admit that no matter what I do, my boss will find a way to keep me chained to my desk so I won't read book #10 until at least President's Day.  

This year, it's worse.  I bought books in late December, as I usually do, but it's not the glossy paperbacks I see through shop windows or the Daedalus catalog tempting me.  It's the opportunity.  John & Linda gave me a Borders gift card for Christmas, but I didn't see them until the 29th so I didn't get a chance to use it.  The next day, I found out I have a $5 certificate from Borders but I have to use it by January 31.  Finally, I'll be 40 on the 28th, and I have to be able to buy myself a birthday present, right? So, naturally, I spent last weekend doing some desperately needed housework and have spent this week losing count of the emergencies hitting my desk.

It's January 9.  I've finished one book so far, and that involved staying up until 1 am last night (what else am I going to do when I get to the "I can't put this down" last 100 pages at 11:15?).  I'd talk about Fox Evil, but right now, I'm just too sleepy.