Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
WW Norton & Company, 2003
My Rating: 4 Stars (Add to Your TBR List)
This was the fourth book I read for the RIP V Challenge. Because I don’t want to get too far behind in writing these reviews, I decided to review all my RIP books by answering the 5Ws―Who, What, When, Where, Why.
7 screams out of 10
… or as a scary as a dead body found in the woods. (Because, you know, that is what this book is about. And Roach doesn’t spare you any of the gory details. Oh, and by the way, NEVER do a Google image search for “dead body” or “cadaver” because you will see things you wish you hadn’t. Trust me. How do you think I found the photo to the left?)
WHAT is this book about?
In a nutshell, this is a book about dead bodies (or, as scientists prefer to call them, cadavers). In this book, we learn about the many ways human cadavers are used. Here are some of the topics Roach explores in the book:
- Practicing surgery on the dead
- The ethics and realities of donating your body to science
- A brief history of body snatching
- Understanding human decay (for help with forensics)
- Studying the impact of car crashes on the human body
- Determining the cause of a plane crash by studying the bodies
- Assessing the impact of ballistics on the body
- Crucifixion experiments
- Determining the precise moment of death
- The history of human head transplants
- Medicinal cannibalism.
WHO do we meet?
- Mary Roach—the author of the book. Roach is not afraid to insert herself into the story—never holding back on her personal reactions, feelings and thoughts as she conducts her various interviews. Lucky for us, she has a terrific sense of humor, which makes her an ideal guide through this often disturbing subject.
- A variety of scientists, physicians and professionals who work with human cadavers. These are the people who Roach visits and interviews for the book, and I imagine they were either thrilled for the exposure or regretful at the reactions their friends and families might have had once they found out what they are really do all day.
- Ron Walli—a public relations guy for Oak Ridge National Lab. Ron isn’t really an integral part of the book (he comes along on a tour of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility with Mary), but his appearance stood out for me because (in my earlier professional life), I talked to Ron on the phone quite often as part of my job. I’ve never read a book that mentioned someone I had talked to in real life, so it was a nice surprise to come across Mr. Walli’s name.
WHEN and WHERE does the book take place?
Mary traveled around the world conducting various interviews and research for this book in the early 2000s.
WHY should you read this book?
Would you believe me if I told you this book is funny, fascinating and oddly informative? I know it sounds like such a horrible subject, but Roach manages to make you simultaneously interested and amused by her explorations into the world of the human cadavers. I’d previously read Roach’s book Spook (about the afterlife) and enjoyed this one just as much. Mary Roach has a talent for researching oddball topics and writing about them in a way that is both funny and educational. If you’ve ever considered donating your body to science, this is a book you will probably want to read (or, on second thought, maybe not). I was interested to learn all the different ways that scientists are using human cadavers to make the world of the living safer. Although there are definitely sections that are disturbing and graphic, there are just as many that will either make you laugh or think deeper about a subject most of us don’t think about too much. If you’re looking for an offbeat nonfiction read with a sense of humor and an attitude, any book by Mary Roach would be a good choice.
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