I’ve got two reviews for you and have been (unintentionally) been flirting with the dead all week. My first, and this week’s top recommendation is, Stiff, by Mary Roach. The next is Dead Souls, by Nicolai Gogol. Other than the thematically similar titles, the two books are so very far apart I think that they would naturally repel each other like the wrong sides of magnets and shoot off either end of a bookshelf if placed together.
This is non fiction, and number 87/370 on my Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge. Despite it’s grisly premise – what exactly happens to our bodies after we die – I found it really entertaining. A bonus is that quoting a couple of pithy facts from Stiff is like an emergency exit for conversations I’d rather not be in for whatever reason. Here are my favourites:
- the parts of you maggots eat first
- what happens to your fillings when you are cremated
- the chances of your donated skin being used for penis enlargement surgery
I could go on but three cadaver facts over the water cooler does seem to be most people’s limit, and after overly friendly workmates have made their excuses and left, I can then get on with enjoying my day.
This sort of thing, you will be relieved to know, is not the type of knowledge I would actively seek out and I don’t think I ever would have picked up this book if it hadn’t been on the reading list. Having said that, once I got over the ick factor I started to realise how little you do know about what happens to your body once the rest of you has left the building. Which is strange, given how preoccupied you are with it while you’re still in residence. By the time I finished the book I have to say I felt more like a tenant than a landowner. It’s going to be here a lot longer than me and I think that it’s the responsible thing to do to make sure that it’s fairly well treated after I’m no longer in need. But that’s perhaps a chat for a different blog. I will finish by saying that maybe we do tiptoe around the subject and this book was a very good prospectus for the options that are available. For anyone who is interested I think I have decided to be compost for a tree.
While Stiff may not be the book you would naturally pick up if you are looking for an hour or two’s diversion, I highly recommend you give it a chance. The subject is morbid but the treatment is light, the research is thorough and Mary Roach asks the questions you may not like to the people who can give the most interesting answers. I actually feel a lot better about mortality as a result of reading this…With one exception. I would not read the chapters on air planes if you are planning on flying anywhere any time soon.
Next on my list is number 88: Dead Souls, by Nicolai Gogol. I have to say much of the attraction of this one lay in being able to say ‘Dead Souls, by Gogol’, should someone ask me what I am reading, and they could be in awe of my deep intelectualism. It was all I could do to not ostentatiously take it on busses while wearing a beret and polo neck.
Again, despite the morbid title, Dead Souls is a comedy, written in the middle of the 19th century about a man running a scam which necessitates buying the deeds for serfs who have died from Russian landowners. The first half of the novel is set in a provincial town. It’s a good idea to read this one if you have ever read Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes, because a lot of the themes he talks about are set out here. The obsession with France and St Petersburg, the idea of rural past versus urban future, open spaces and steppes, folklore…. anyway it’s all in there and for the first half, Gogol hangs around your ear like a bitchy friend at a party and points it out to you for laughs.
His sly asides are highly amusing and you can have a grand old time giggling at the foibles of Russian provincial society. Imagine Jane Austin without the husband hunting. If he does every so often go off on a monologue about the history of coach making then the rest is interesting enough and he’s a Russian literary great so cut the guy a break. Except that one of his digressions seems to encompass the whole of the second half of the novel. I finally gave up when I realised I had spent 10 pages reading about the history of a school which seemed to bear no relating at all to any of the main or secondary characters. I have a feeling that, when you spend more time checking the percentage read part of the kindle than you do reading the book, it is time to give up. So I did.
If you got past 77% or the part where a nice schoolteacher dies and leaves some boys in the care of not so nice a teacher please let me know what happens and if it picks up at all.
I am happy to say I gave it a shot though, and am happier that I got further through it than War and Peace. But my favorite Russian classic remains the Master and Margarita. What about you? Are you having a go at the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge, and if so did you get through Gogol? Or maybe you are just a fan of Russian classics, or maybe a fan of novels with dead things in the title… let me know if you’ve tried either Stiff or Dead Souls and what you thought.
I know I promised a review of A Passage to India this week. I am on it people – I’m about 3 chapters in. I’ll keep you posted guys….. In the meantime I think the cover of my version is about the prettiest I’ve ever seen – what do you think?