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book review

One of the specimens in Body Worlds 2, an anatomical exhibition of real human bodies which are preserved using a process called plastination, is seen at the Museum of Science in Boston, Friday, July 28, 2006.MICHAEL DWYER/The Associated Press

The body: We can't live without it.

It is as wondrous as it is terrifying, as ridiculous as it is sacred, as familiar as it is ever-changing. Our relationship with our bodies could not be more intimate, and yet most of its everyday, ordinary functions remain deeply mysterious to us. We feel in control of our bodies, until suddenly we don't.

In their anthology, In the Flesh, Kathy Page and Lynne Van Luven gather together personal meditations on the body. "We had desperately wanted to create an enormous, encyclopedic book that encompassed even the toenail and the appendix," write the editors, who took their original inspiration from Klaus Theweleit's observation in his book Male Fantasies: "Historians have never been interested in what has really happened to human bodies – what bodies have felt."

What do bodies feel? Though we are made in common, each of our bodies constituted of matching parts, it is a question infinitely complicated by the uniqueness of individual experience. In the end, Page and Van Luven settle on 20 essays by 20 diverse writers, each addressing a different body part.

From hair to heart to hands, from breasts to blood to brain, the essays deliver personality along with tidbits of information. "The average human head holds 120,000 strands of hair," writes Caroline Adderson, but she knows that the real emotion is contained in the particularities of her own experiences: "A heart-shaped chocolate box, paisley-patterned in hot pink. Very 1970s." The reader cannot wait to lift the lid: "Three long, coppery brown hanks, each secured by an ordinary elastic. … Even now, decades later, the smell of Clairol Herbal Essence is heady.

These essays are at their best when the body part is fleshed out in story. Memorable images linger. Dede Crane writes about her feet bloodied in pointe shoes. Stephen Gauer stares at an image on a computer screen: "My kidneys looked beautiful." In Susan Olding's essay on blood, her alcoholic, dying father asks her to open the curtain around his hospital bed: "How tempting to read this as a metaphor – to see it as a sign that he had finally found a way to loosen his tourniquet of shame."

Olding makes creative use of the many blood images that inhabit our vocabulary, but not every essayist is so skilled. Tedious to read, though compelling to reflect on, are the lists that crop up in many of these essays – of words related to the body part under scrutiny. It seems as if our language is composed of the body itself, though not all parts command respect. Words related to the penis and the breasts are mainly euphemisms for the parts themselves, while other parts are so woven into our language we don't even notice. Can you give me a hand with this? Don't get your back up. No, really, I don't mind.

The most brilliant essay in the book skillfully combines facts, narrative and the language of the body. Lorna Crozier's poetical meditation on the brain contains images that shock and wordplay that delights, and finishes with a story you won't forget. Its depth and imagination reveal the weaknesses in a few of the other offerings, those that feel more purpose-written than necessary.

Nevertheless, the book's overall effect is powerful, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and, more often than not, deeply moving. We humans are vain, we decorate our bodies and we strive to alter them with diet and exercise and cosmetics. There's poignancy in this effort. Our bodies, after all, are not made to last. This is the simple fact of life, the pact we enter into quite unwittingly at birth. There is no life without death.

Despite this – or perhaps because of it – the pleasure we take from our bodies, and in them, can feel utterly transcendent. Effortless as breathing. Try capturing that in a history book.

Carrie Snyder's second book, The Juliet Stories, was published in March. As a runner and a mother, she is all too aware of her body's limitations. She lives in Waterloo, Ont., and blogs as Obscure CanLit Mama.

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