Body of Work, published by Penguin Press in 2007, was picked up by a friend at a dollar sale.  It is available new, in hardcover, on Amazon for $6.   Subtitled “Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab,” this is an extraordinary book in that the author takes us through her first year in med school from the time she met her cadaver, Eve, until she finally  removed Eve’s face and held Eve’s brain in her hand.  She says the book is about dissecting a dead body in the hope of one day making living bodies more whole.  She was older than most med students, having been previously “a poet, a university writing instructor, a high school English teacher to a group of troubled kids.”

This not a book for the squeamish and not something I would have bought on my own, but  I am particularly intrigued because at one time, in 1947, I too had my own skinny female cadaver which I shared with three other students during my first quarter in the University of Chicago medical school.  By the second quarter I was both married and pregnant, and that was the end of that.

Another point of personal interest is that at the time of writing Montross reports  “my grandmother recovers from her stroke and my grandfather begins to die.”    Her grandparents are in my age bracket and her comments about their illnesses and incapacities are touching and revealing.  She was very close to this grandmother who was a “truth-teller” who  had once told her that one of the best things about getting old was that she didn’t have “a speck of pubic hair” left.

This is a handsome book with beautiful woodcuts of various body parts, skin off,  from the 1500’s.  The author delves into the history of dissection, going back into medieval times when dissection  was forbidden out of respect for the human body.  She herself experienced a kind of visceral reluctance to cut into and invade the body of Eve, her cadaver, so-named because she had no belly button.  (We never do find out why not.)

It is a book about the dead and the dying, how a fledgling doctor  approaches and deals with these realities, how one  learns to both distance oneself and cope with feelings.  It is a sensitive tome about a macabre subject — recommended for those who can handle it, who want a better appreciation of the wonder of the human body and the making of a doctor.

In the course of her story Christine Montross refers often to conversations with her partner, Deborah.  Towards the end of the book she casually mentions that she hopes she is pregnant.  The very last sentence in the book reads: “And to Maude who is simply a dream come true.”  The back jacket flap tells us Dr. Montross lives in Rhode Island with her partner, Deborah, and their one-year-old daughter, Maude.  It would seem there is a whole other story here and Christine writes well enough that I’d like to read it.

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And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her to the man. — Genesis 2:20

And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living. — Genesis 3:20