Stiff: The curious lives of human cadavers by Mary Roach

Sept. 9, 2014

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.

That’s it.

One single reference.

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Reno’s got film: This is Martin Bonner

I may begrudge Santa Fe a lot of things: the lack of a Costco (marinated artichoke hearts by the three quarts), the over-all expensiveness, the lack of decent things offered on Craigslist and the subsequent over-pricing of thrift stores and ridiculous costs of things offered. Everyone seems to think torn-up couches are worth hundreds of dollars. Thrift stores, especially Good Will, think that coffee makers that cost $8 new at Walmart are worth $12-15 used.

That and the old white people. Going through Trader Joe’s is always some kind of terrible gauntlet, yet, I love Trader Joe’s, the wine, the tahini sauce, the pita bread. The gin.

All those gripes aside, Santa Fe has a pretty incredible movie scene, especially for a town so small. Hell, even for a large town. One movie theater is situated inside the university, another is a “United Artists” inside of a mall, yet a third was revamped and now owned by George R. R. Martin, although the screen is smaller than many in-home projections. And there’s another, one I have yet to go to, is the Center for Contemporary Arts.

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Skinny Bitch gets Hitched by Kim Barnouin

Sloppily and condescendingly written, “Skinny Bitch Gets Hitched” asks the reader to suspend the disbelief, not in aliens or artifacts or magic but rather, in how people act and how the world works.

Personally, I don’t understand the appeal of the “skinny bitch” moniker.

The “skinny bitch,” Clementine Cooper (Clem for short) is a vegan. And don’t forget it, because if you’re not a vegan, well, prepare to be preached at with flimsy arguments and pointless rhetoric.

So Clem, at an improbably young age, runs her own restaurant and is dating the millionaire-owner-chef of a steak house.

So, Barnouin (author) set up the tension for us in the structure. Lest ye be interested in people who make only moderate amounts of money, the aforementioned millionaire boyfriend is, well, a millionaire. Tapping into the shades of money without the sex, submission or anything even remotely fun.

The millionaire (who will propose to Clem, hence the title of the book) has a horrible, horrible mother whom he wants to reconcile with. He is, of course (please, start parading out the tropes so they may strut their stuff on the catwalk) blind to his own mother’s idiocy.

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Irish Girls About Town, an anthology

I figured, I should read more Irish authors and I figured, I should read more female Irish authors. So, I picked this book up, along with a few others, trying to fill a 4-for-3 quota. I read it all the way through.

(I adore short stories.)
These stories are utter rubbish.
Had they been written by men, the book and the authors would be excoriated for being misogynistic cretins obsessed with their own gender. As such, the book is filled with un-ironic slut-shaming, un-ironic figure-bashing, god-awful romance, some staying in an abusive relationship. Almost every single story is about or has a strong component of, why women need a man in their life.
Just one. And he’s the empowered one. He may screw around. She may not.

With that being written, here is a review of each story, in the order they appear:

(Click link to read the rest of the review):

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The Ghosts of Nagasaki by Daniel Clausen

Reviews aren’t done in a vacuum. This is especially true when a book has been out for a while and has been reviewed for a while.

Most of the reviewers make great hay of the surrealism, of the book, its conceit of a person’s personal spirits both existing and being visible by others who, likewise, have their own spirits. Or personal demons. Or, baggage, as many of the more knowledgeable characters point out to the main character, a former English teacher turned businessman.
This making of hay (the author, in his email to me asking if I’d be interested in reviewing the book, also made great hay) over the use of personal spirits, metaphors and an expanded consciousness (There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy) is ridiculous.
The book has spirits. Enough said. Suspend your disbelief. We do it for Shakespeare, I think we can do it for Clausen.
I don’t see anyone making hay over the dead king’s ghost (was it really the ghost or a demon sent to tempt Hamlet?) so I don’t see why a few spirits and a metaphysical island should send every reviewer into a tail-spin tissy.

The main character, he’s a poor broken boy from a broken home who makes his way in Japan.
Him being broken, and his broken home, follow him, literally and metaphorically, until the dénouement of the book.
It’s very well written, engaging, and rarely dull.

The problems
The Ghosts of Nagasaki is not without its own problems. First and foremost, a choice of typography. Every paragraph break has a space underneath it. No, the book isn’t double spaced, but the paragraphs are. Makes for a jarring read, especially when double spacing between paragraphs, or quadruple spacing, is meant to signify a certain level of break in the context of the read. Then, there’s breaks marked by asterisks.
The second problem comes from the plotting of the book itself. The orphan did get shown some love, later on in his orphan time, and is now haunted by his past.

(Click link to read the rest of the review):

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Professor Kompressor by Nils Andersson

Professor Kompressor gets visited by agents with an agency so secret, they refuse to name it. He makes a series of inventions, visits a foreign country, flies over a bunch of others, and makes a bunch of inventions.
Professor Kompressor under cover (sic) certainly has a little charm, but glaring errors take away from that charm. In short, the book either needed an editor or, a much better one. And a couple of proof-reads. (For the record, the professor is not under the covers, rather, he is undercover.)
The biggest issue is the use of direct quotes. Most style books, and readers’ sanity, dictate the following: If a quote goes over a single paragraph, the end of the first paragraph, and all subsequent ones except for the last, do not have an ending quotation marks. Each quote encapsulated on both ends by quotation marks is supposed to mean the end of the quote: the next should be a different person’s quote.
Example, page 121:

“What are you doing with this battered old car, though?”
“Are you training to become a mechanic?”
“Doesn’t quite match your usual invention, does it? A bit too down to earth”

Because all this dialogue, in a row, is said by the same person, the quotation marks at the end of “though” and “mechanic should be left off, to mark it’s the same speaker. This lack style adherence makes the book much harder to read than it should be.
As a person who works in print, spacing issues equally struck me with chagrin. Indent-long spaces between words in the same sentence seemed like the paginator feel asleep at the keyboard.

(Click link to read the rest of the review):

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On the far side, there’s a boy by Paula Coston

According to the book blurb, this is an “exotic fable for anyone who has ever longed to have, or adopt, a child.”

It is more accurate to understand, this is a book about a pedophile who desperately wants a Sri Lankan boy.
I have no idea if the author was entirely conscious, or conscious at all, of how strongly this theme permeates, then pulsates, through the book. I doubt she was much aware.
This pedophiliac desire of the main character/narrator is masked as the aforementioned longing to have a child of one’s own.
When one reads the text, the desire is clear. This is not the desire to have a child. This is the desire to have a child to have sexual relations with. Specifically, a boy. It’s creepy. Reverse the gender rules and one would not even hesitate to cast stones or see the pedophilia for what it is.

Make it end
The book is bad for a variety of reasons. I will admit, Paula Coston is not a terrible writer. Her prose is palatable, just, her content is not.
At 374 pages, the book goes on and on and on without any, actual, discernible point. I wish Coston’s editor, assuming she had one, would have stepped in and asked her to tighten the book up. There are so many scenes that have no discernible point. So many pointless plotlines. So much pointless writing.

(Click link to read the rest of the review):

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Happily Ever After by Elizabeth Maxwell

Crafty
Elizabeth Maxwell, the author, uses two separate devices to tell her story. The first, which is only used to get the story started although it becomes the plot, is a writer telling a story, switching back to her life, story.
The second one, which works but I doubt will ever work for any of Maxwell’s readers a second time, is the use of craft to tell a story.
That is to say, using information about the craft the narrator is engaged in to further propel the story. Think USA’s “Burn Notice.” In that instance, a spy of sorts engages the viewer with it, with its background, with its creation and destruction, as a means to further his own narrative. Maxwell does the same, but for something she engages in: the writing of the romance novel.
This isn’t a knock on Happily Ever After (which is a terribly generic title.) It works in the context of the book. It’s fully enjoyable. The problem arises with, it’s a one-use-only kind of device, and one that used in this more narrowed instance, ruins all future uses by any other authors for readers.
That is to say, I don’t ever want to read another book that uses a telling of the craft of romance writing to propel a novel because, how many novels worth of craft are there to write about? There is a certain plateau, beyond which, everything is just jargon.
Others have made comparisons to the film “Stranger Than Fiction.” Certainly, the comparison is apt. They’re the same kind of stories, the same sub-genre of sorts. Really, that’s where the comparison should end.

Exceeded expectations
I assumed when I started the book, but after I had read the reviews, I would hate it. I don’t trust the overly positive, but short, reviews and the negatives one seemed to parrot what I’ve seen as warning signs for other books.

(Click link to read the rest of the review):

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Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Despite all the praise “Half a King” has been receiving, I found it to be sorely wanting.

My tendency is to blame it on being a young adult novel, something I only realized after I finished the book. That’s not fair to the genre.

“Half a King” is really half a novel.

It’s a mediocre start to what promises to be a series of some king, although what that will entail is unknown.

When it comes to the fantasy part of “Half a King”, there’s almost nothing at all. There’s writing of Elfen structures and some religious talk of the time between now and then, when the gods were shattered. There’re also some plotlines of the coming of a monotheistic movement.

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Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

A book as well played as the ballet depicted in it, Astonish Me hits every single mark, just as its master-level ballet dancers do in their performances.

Maggie Shipstead’s second novel, Astonish me, leaves few questions unanswered in a humane and relatable tale set over two generations.

The novel’s strength is not just its writing, which is very, very good. The strength, the brilliance, comes from the use of medium in which the tale is set, paced with the elements of the plot.

In other words, telling the story of the ballet is telling the story of the characters.

More viscerally, Shipstead matches the staccato of the ballet, of the action, with her writing and plot.

“When rehearsals start, she sees quickly that the promise will be less easily kept than she thought. Phoenix, a tall, elegant, low-jawed black woman who always dresses in pristine white layers, had an idea for a dance that is slinky, jazzy, loose, juice. Arslan struggles. He has difficulty unlocking his hips to allow for the Latin figure-eight movement Phoenix wants; he has difficulty letting his body curve forward, like a sail filling with wind, until he falls off balance and must catch himself; he has difficulty being light and sexy, not intense and passionate. She asks him to turn one leg while the other and his torso are extended parallel to the floor, counterbalancing each other. Elaine, who has more training in contemporary fane, finds herself in the unexpected position of offering reassurance and advice.”

The book is broken up to chapters, specific scenes in time, a month and a year. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the characters. Most of the book is in present tense, something I did not realize until I was half-way through the book.

Ultimately, I was incredibly saddened to be leaving the world Shipstead created and she glued me with plot twists to the end.

The only real plot twists come at the end as the story doesn’t so much as plod, it is far too interesting and exciting for that. No, it unfurls. Each chapter, each scene, leads up to the next, is interesting in its own right. Each character’s trajectory is fascinating in its own right.

Don’t believe the more negative reviews. This is one book to keep on the shelf.

This book was received, free of charge, through the Goodreads Firstreads program.

On Goodreads