Monday, October 20, 2014

WORKING STIFF :: Dr. Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

Chronicling Dr. Judy Melinek's forensic pathology residency at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner is a dream come true for anyone who has ever wanted to sit down and have a cup of coffee and detailed conversation with an ME. Filled with fascinating (and yes, often gruesome) case studies, the book reads like a grisly chat with a friend. Which makes some sense, as Dr. Judy Melinek wrote the book with her husband, writer T.J. Mitchell.

Although written in reader-friendly language, Working Stiff isn't dumbed-down and doesn't pull punches. It's part memoir, part documentary, part science text, and begins by setting out the author's road to pathology and the role of medical examination:

“'Autopsy' means 'see for yourself,' and it has more to do with figuring out what went wrong in the body than with exploring the anatomy."

An autopsy begins with a thorough external examination and proceeds from the outside in.  That's exactly what Working Stiff delivers, taking the reader on a visceral chapter-by-chapter tour through various categories of death and its aftermath faced on autopsy: accident, poison, decomposition, homicide, suicide, and medical misadventures. It also includes just enough in the way of personal anecdotes to give the reader a glimpse of the impact the job has on both the ME and his or her family, both negative and positive:
He feared that after a few months of hearing about the myriad ways New Yorkers die, the two of us would start looking up nervously for window air conditioners to fall on our heads. Instead, my experience had the opposite effect. It freed me—and, eventually, my husband as well—from our six o’clock news phobias. Once I became an eyewitness to death, I found that nearly every unexpected fatality I investigated was either the result of something dangerously mundane, or of something predictably hazardous. So don’t jaywalk. Wear your seat belt when you drive. Better yet, stay out of your car and get some exercise. Watch your weight. If you’re a smoker, stop right now. If you aren’t, don’t start. Guns put holes in people. Drugs are bad. You know that yellow line on the subway platform? It’s there for a reason. Staying alive, as it turns out, is mostly common sense.  
The final chapters deal with 9/11, subsequent anthrax threats, and the crash of flight 587. These were difficult reading. Even so many years removed, the emotions of 9/11 obviously remain and are brought to the surface quite easily. But those sections are important, for despite the horror and sadness, they highlight the respect and care with which the smallest piece of remains was and is handled by our pathologists, even in the most trying of circumstances.

Lest you think the book is too dark for you, rest assured there is humor to be found even in the ME's autopsy "pit":
I wrote the cause of death as “anoxic encephalopathy due to loss of consciousness of undetermined etiology.” This translates as “lack of oxygen to the brain from fuck-if-I-know." 
I also had a laugh at the many tools utilized in an autopsy that can be found in most any household: a stainless steel soup ladle bought at a housewares store, a butcher's knife that looked "exactly like a family heirloom his mother uses to carve roasts," long-handled pruning shears, a kitchen-variety plastic cutting board, and metal mixing bowls. But as they say, "Please don't try this at home."

STREET SENSE: Highly recommended for anyone curious with or fascinated by the art and science of medical examination and autopsies who isn't looking for a formal medical-science text.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: Learning to handle human beings who have begun to return to the soil cycle has, more than any other aspect of the job, made me more comfortable with death—though it’s made me much, much less comfortable with houseflies, and leery of cats.

COVER NERD SAYS: Simple and to the point, functional rather than arty, the cover imagery and subtitle provide the reader with a clear message about what's inside. The cover didn't wow me, but the message it provided definitely drew me to the book.


Chris said...

I bet I'd love this. I know Julia would.

Jen Forbus said...

I'm sure the pathologists have to have a sense of humor like would be hard to get through life without it.

And darn you, I'm challenged to keep up with the books I already know about. Now I need to add this one...and your other reviews to my future reading list. I should be covered for life at this rate. :-)

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

It was a "fun" and fascinating read. Some really grodie accidents. Plus: people are stupid.

Also, for some reason I'm not getting emails about your comments (get all the others, weird). So if you're even tracking my response to your comments, sorry for missing them until late! I appreciate you dropping by.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I owe you for all the damage you've done to my list. :)

Chris said...

I'm getting mail bounce messages, which is weird, but also explains why you aren't getting updates. I just figured you don't like me.

Also, I got followed on Twitter by Dr. Melinek last night, which makes me wonder if maybe she read your review? I hope so....

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

She and her husband both re-tweeted it, which I thought was pretty nice of them. I kinda figure I'm shouting into the void for the most part (which includes you and Jen and Rhonda, so it's ok by me). I just enjoy writing about it, which I'm sure you understand. But at this point I can't afford to dislike you, you're a good reader.

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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