Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Why I Read It: I think I was hooked on the concept of the author's series-like titles (Stiff, Gulp, Bonk, Spooked...), though they're just so named for marketing purposes, really. But I'm always up for a new science title.

Summary: A million ways to be used after you die.

My Thoughts: The underlying message the author is trying to get across is that if your body is "donated to science" it doesn't mean that it'll end up as a skeleton hanging in a classroom. It's not a cautionary tale, though, but a journey - through blood, guts, bones, brain matter, etc. - through the realities of today's various forms of cadaveric research.

It really is amazing how many ways human cadavers are used in this country alone, especially when one considers our general squeamishness, and our still somewhat Puritanical thoughts on the sanctity of the entire body as the vessel of the soul. The Swedes are experimenting with turning people into fertilizers (could have happened by now, the book was 12 years old when I read it). Several countries have spoken to an American doctor who successfully transplanted monkey heads onto other monkey bodies, and thinks he can do so for human heads (onto other human bodies, of course).

The author attacks the story with humor, which, of course, was the only way to do it. There's fatalism ingrained in us now, in ways we never had it before. We can at least mildly joke about the idea and the utterly unavoidable finality of death, if not about death of specific people around the time they die. It certainly helps balance out the goriness and gruesomeness of the details of human decapitated cadaver heads being used as stand-ins for...well, living human heads in plastic surgery training classes.

Toward that end, that's one of the earliest questions posed in this book. When someone checks off "donate my body to science," is it fair for them to end up as body-less cosmetic surgery mannequins? or crash test dummies? In the case of the former, I say, sure. Just give them free face lifts for life. Throw some perks at them.

Another question is, should we know? And by we, I mean friends and family. Should we have any inside information as to how the body of a deceased loved one is used? Should we be privy to the dissection at the medical school? Should we see the body decomposing at a cadaver farm? Should we know that the body of Uncle Frank was struck in the clavicle by a machine replicating a car/pedestrian accident?

The book is not for the faint of stomach, but I will say that it is, scientifically, one of the most fascinating tomes I've ever read. Good books make you think, and boy, do I have some thinking to do.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Why I Read It: Had to remember how they laid out the whole lunar eclipse thing, having read it in college.

Summary: An adventurer joins a party looking for a man lost in Africa, and ends up wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but only after much, much more adventure!

My Thoughts: So, we have to put ourselves in 1885 when we read this book. Cool. I dig mental time travel. I can do that.

We have to not only take with a grain of salt the simplicity of the tale compared with today's standards, we have to also live with the fact that this was a man's adventure. Although Allen Quatermain, our hero, from time to time surprises us with a slightly open view of the world (hinting that he would accept a mixed black/white relationship while the rest of the world might not be ready for it), there are no women involved in the story as far as the main effort goes. There are witches, there is Gagool, and there are young handmaidens of the fairest kind, but there is no heroine.

We also have to remember the excitement the "opening" of Africa meant in the 19th century. We have to remember that popular adventure fiction was generally young. In fact, this book kicked off the "Lost World" genre. Suspension of disbelief was in its infancy in the English-speaking nations (though I would say that anybody who had their hands on a copy of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from 1818 was probably already in practice).

So what sticks today? The names, for one. What a fantastic job by Haggard! "Allen Quatermain" sounds like a man wearing cargo shorts and a pith helmet. Sir Henry and Captain Good as companions round out the British trio. They may as well have been in the opening scene of a Commander McBragg cartoon ("Quite.") Umbopa becomes Ignosi, the names of the man who returns to become king of Kukuanaland (all great names!), and the evil witch doctoress Gagool, well, doesn't it just send shivers right up your spine? The only name of which I wasn't really enamored was Twala, the reigning king, who just didn't seem evil enough, but his son more than makes up for it. Would you trust someone named Scragga?

Then, there is the total manliness of the story: plunging headlong into the journey knowing it would end on the death of all three; survival against all odds; donning ancient chain mail to participate in an epic battle that reshapes the world of the Kukuanas; the overthrow and installation of kings; the search for the treasure; the blatant use of sexual imagery (pointing to two distant mountains and calling them Sheba's Breasts, then charging into a cave at the base of them); the dramatic manner in which two of the three native guides die; the ruse of pretending to be from the stars, and happening to be in the exact right place for viewing a total lunar eclipse when you're in need of a sign of your other-worldliness; being trapped by Gagool in the mines, getting down to a single ignitable match, then finding your way out in the darkness; I could go on. About halfway through the story you just learn that anything is possible.

Man, do I love this story. It's so deep that I don't think I'll bother to ever watch a movie rendition. Why ruin it?

Gilgamesh, A Verse Narrative by Herbert Mason

Why I Read It: Flashback to 5th grade; I'll explain.

Summary: The epic story of the hero Gilgamesh, as told in this one man's translation.

My Thoughts: Yes, 5th grade. Mr. McSweeney read the narrative (a narrative; for some reason I assume that it was this one) to us as a group, as part of our social studies exploration of the cradle of civilization, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. You know, the Fertile Crescent. It's amazing how much has stuck with me since that time.

Anyway, I have vivid memories of the reading, because one of my classmates, a true goofball if there ever was one, stood at the front of the class and acted out the narration. Every time Mr. McSweeney read the word "Humbaba," the name of the early enemy of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, my classmate would furrow his brow, suck in all the air he could, move his shoulders up and out in the "I'm HUGE!" pose and stomp clumsily around the room. And so, recently, while cataloging my book collection, I came across a paperback copy of the Mason narrative, which I probably purchased more than a decade ago with the intent of reading through the entire story, refreshing my 9-year-old experiences. It took until 2015 (I was in 5th grade in 1980-81) but here we are.

There is so much about this story that is simply amazing, and I mean that in the sincerest way. Consider the age of it. Sorry, trick question - we don't know how old it is. What we do know is that the story is timeless, a theme that carries through the ages and relates from the ancient Mesopotamians to today. That, in itself, is worthy of an "amazing" in my eyes.

But take the second piece, that the text wasn't even found until the mid-1800s, on tablets, and the story appeared only in fragments at that time. Parts had to be chased around the world from other sources to make it all come together, and in the end, it came to this one man - a Massachusetts man, I might add (proudly) - to create the beautifully flowing epic narrative that I have just read.

This story was saved. What has been lost?

The transformation of Gilgamesh is invigorating, and then heartrending, from hated ruler to beloved friend, to sorrowful and vulnerable man. He, as a part-god, faces death for the first time in his life when Enkidu is taken from him. It haunts him, causing him to go to the ends of the earth for answers, first, for how to get Enkidu back, and then for why he can't. This is pre-U.S. sitcoms. There is no happy ending. We are left with his despair, and it stings.

One odd note that struck me during the reading was the mention of Uruk, an important city of Sumer and Babylonia, ruled at one time by Gilgamesh. Tolkien's nastiest orcs are called Uruk-hai; a tribute to the Gilgamesh? It would be interesting to go back and peek into his mind. He could have intended it for their fierceness as warriors, but I am totally conjecturing.

Finally, I think I'm learning that I love epics. Beowulf is still my all-time favorite, but Gilgamesh pulled at my heart. I think I need to read a few more.