Review : Stiff : the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff : the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Pages : 304
Genre : Non fiction
Stand Alone
My Rating :

If you’ve been around my blog for a while, a review of a non-fiction book about the human cadaver is probably not what you’re expecting! And truly, though I have a certain curiosity for shows like C.S.I. or Bones, it’s not something I usually go out of my way to find information about. The positive reviews I had read of this one though really convinced me it was to be read, so when my sister let me borrow it, I couldn’t say no.

From crash test dummies to crucifixion experiments, with chapters on body snatching and organ donation, Mary Roach describes the life of the human cadavers now and before. The author’s approach is fortunately not hardcore science, but rather an historical one, which makes it a comfortable read for those who, like me, can’t remember the last time they had a science class of any kind.

The author also lightens the mood with a good dose of humor, which is particularly appreciated when the descriptions get a bit disgusting (and I’m not going to get into more details here, by respect for those of you who don’t want to read about this while drinking your afternoon coffee). However, I could have done without the author’s personal insights on some aspects, where she inserted personal remarks that had nothing to do with the subject at hand, probably in the hope of making it all a little less dark. Her humor generally worked for me, (and, in fact, was welcomed!) but since I wasn’t reading to hear about her personal life outside this specific research, these passages distracted me.

That being said, reading Stiff was such a fun experience. I learned lots of things that would do great weird small talk (let me tell you about head transplants!) and Roach’s style is really easy to get into. While some of her personal insights annoyed me, her personal approach to this research had a lot of heart in it. She showed a lot of compassion for the bodies, all the while keeping a respectful distance from their life before death. It really was about the material body, and not about the person they used to be. She also didn’t shy away from asking the questions we’re dying (ah!) to ask, making this a book that will satisfy even the most curious readers!

In the end, I kind of forgot, in a way, what I was reading about. I wasn’t too grossed out, as I had expected to be, and went through the book as quickly as I would have with any fiction novel. If you have any curiosity on the subject but haven’t really read on it before, this could be a great start 🙂

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12 responses to “Review : Stiff : the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers”

  1. Amanda says :

    I have to admit, I’m still really scared to read this book, even though I’ve *wanted* to read it for years, since a friend of mine was telling me about it. I’m afraid it’ll be too gross for me, though it sounds like the sort of nonfiction I’d enjoy if not for the gross-out factor. I still might get around to it one day (it helps that you said it’s not TOO gross)…

    I also prefer it when authors keep their personal insight out of the nonfiction. I recently finished The Omminvore’s Dilemma and while I loved it, the last section was far more personal and I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much.

  2. Shelley says :

    I’m studying Forensic Anthropology at Uni and this looks like perfect background reading. I find I learn far more when books are written informally and this sounds like a really good read!

  3. Meghan says :

    Mary Roach does a really good job with peculiar subjects, in my experience. Still, I’ve never read this one, mainly because dead bodies freak me out. Even though you’ve said it’s not too gross, I’m just not sure I could handle an entire book. Roach’s other books are fantastic, though, if you haven’t read them yet.

  4. Fyrefly says :

    I’ll second the Meghan’s recommendation for Roach’s other books; I’ve enjoyed all of them, even though only Bonk was on a subject that I was otherwise interested in. Bonk does have a fair share of personal tidbits, though, mostly because she got herself (and her husband) involved in the research in a way that isn’t really possible when the subject is corpses. It came off as mostly funny (especially the having-sex-in-an-MRI-machine vignette), so I didn’t mind it, but I don’t know if you’d still find it intrusive in a different context.

  5. Melissa says :

    I usually don’t read anything along there lines (bodies, medical science, etc.) and I loved this one. It was my first and is still my favorite of Roach’s books. She had such a fascinating way of approaching the subject. She made both accessible and informative, while at the same time finding a lot of humor in the situations her research put her in. Glad you liked it too!

  6. heidenkind says :

    Who could resist a book with a title like that!

  7. BermudaOnion says :

    I’ve avoided this one because I thought it would be too gross, but you’ve made me think I might like it.

  8. toothy says :

    i’ve heard so much about this book but i just never got around to reading it. it sounds like an interesting book and i should probably add it to my tbr after working on cadavers myself last semester. although i think i might take a break from dead bodies for now and read it in the far future when dead bodies are not so fresh in my mind.

  9. Kailana says :

    This book has been on my list for a while, but I still haven’t managed to read it. I am glad to see another review of it that makes me curious. One of these days I will have to read it!

  10. ophelia, darling. says :

    Oooh, glad to hear it was a good read! I remember hearing about this book on NPR maybe? and have wanted to read it since. Thanks for reminding me to try to pick it up!

  11. zibilee says :

    I read this a few years ago, and just loved it! Since then I have been working on reading all of Roach’s other books, and have just finished Packing for Mars. I think I am aiming for Bonk next. She just has a way of presenting the weirdest information in the coolest way!

  12. Ceri says :

    Wow, this is different. I almost don’t know how to comment! Haha. Actually this sounds really fascinating. I was always the dunce in science class but am fascinated with certain gruesome things like this so it sounds like a book I wouldn’t mind getting a hold of. 😀 Great review, Kay.

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