Laughing at mortality

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When a friend recommended a book about the history of cadavers, I went to the store expecting to walk away with a few nights of dry but informative science-journal reading.

So I was surprised when I found myself laughing out loud during the first chapter.

¤ "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" ¤ by Mary Roach ¤ $13.95 ¤ 240 pages

Mary Roach, author of "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," is a layperson who became fixated by this morbid topic. Roach is a journalist and a quirky columnist known for her writing that appears on Salon.com and in Outside, GQ and the New York Times Magazine.

Although the book is a hilarious exploration of the fate of bodies donated to science, it is not for everyone. As a friend said during dinner a couple of nights ago, you have to be comfortable with death to read a book such as this. For the entire 240 pages, you are staring mortality in the face.

In it, Roach visits a "farm" where bodies are laid in the sun for forensic research about the various stages of decay. She goes to a facility where cadavers are used as crash-test dummies. She calmly watches as plastic surgeons practice new facelift techniques on severed heads.

Although the first half of this book is completely engrossing, the last half tends to wander. It seems as if her contract must have required a certain number of pages, because she keeps writing, even after her material seems to have run out. Much of what she writes about in the last half of the book has more to do with death than it does with cadavers, and I found myself skimming to the end.

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