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REVIEW: Stiff by Mary Roach

REVIEW SUMMARY: An entertaining and educational read


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Discussion of the various things that happen to human cadavers

PROS: Humorous, conversational writing style; interesting topic.
CONS: Gruesome at times.
BOTTOM LINE: Will hold your attention from beginning to end.

So a friend of mine says, “John, you’ve got to read this book.”

“What book?” I ask.

“It’s a non-fiction book called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.”

“Riiiiiight. And I would want to read this because??”

“Trust me, you’ll like it.”

And I did.

The book discusses various things that happen to a human body after death. Morbid? Yes. Grisly and dark? Sure. But it is also, as this book proves, a fascinating sub-field of biological science. Now, I consider myself to be a reasonably (as opposed to unreasonably) squeamish person. I have no problem with movie gore (thanks to growing up amidst a plethora of horribly done slasher flicks), but real live gore is a whole other ball of wax. A cut finger is OK, but can someone explain televised surgery? Anywho, I spent a good amount of time through the first chapter wincing. But then, much to my surprise, and much like first year medical students, I came to objectify the cadavers so I could logically deal with what was being described.

And what was being described? Well, a smattering of potentially-off-putting topics in this book include a detailed narrative of bodily decay, using human heads for plastic surgery practice classes, the fine art of body snatching (not to be confused with grave robbing where the only thing taken is stuff), impact tolerances (suicide jumpers, car and plane crashes), ethical issues of using cadavers in impact testing (Building a Better Seat Belt for You!?), the study of crucifixion, organ donations and transplants, the location of the human soul, decapitation (did you know a human head is alive and aware for 10 to 12 seconds after it is separated from the body?), medical cannibalism and human composting. Roach walks the reader through the anecdotal recounts of her investigations and research as well as giving each topic a historical perspective.

This is all gruesome stuff, to be sure, but the author does a fantastic job at carrying the reader through the process with interest and humor. You actually want to read the footnotes. The writing is conversational and adds to the enjoyment and educational value of the book. Samples of this book are available at the book’s website. You can also read some of the articles Roach has written for Salon (or here), Wired and Reader’s Digest.

Any biological sciences book that can hold my rapt attention for 300 pages, and make me laugh as well, is a winner.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

4 Comments on REVIEW: Stiff by Mary Roach

  1. mackenzie booth-hofacker // November 15, 2006 at 9:31 am //

    :)i heart this book…its not done but i fell in love all over again…thanks fans! you forever changed me

  2. Taylor B. // October 13, 2008 at 1:26 pm //

    I am being forced to read this for anatomy class….books always suck when you’re being forced to read them…

  3. Savannah Lush // April 13, 2009 at 6:37 pm //

    This book is amazing.


    I could read it 100 times and still enjoy every second of it.

  4. I hate this book. it made me vomit.

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