on May 20, 2003
This is a book about dead bodies. As Mary Roach demonstrates in her new book, some bodies go on to do remarkable things, such as helping FAA investigators understand why a plane crashed or helping auto-makers design safety features that save thousands of lives. Others are asked to do nothing more than rot away quietly at a research lab where forensic scientists study decomposition in order to improve crime scene investigation techniques. Some are put to slightly more questionable uses, such as the severed heads used by plastic surgeons to practice their facelift technique (surely not what people had in mind when they donated their bodies to science). Others have had even more bizarre adventures. Cadavers have been nailed to a cross in order to prove the authenticity of the shroud of Turin. Severed heads have been poked, prodded, and given transfusions in an attempt to revive them long after they and their bodies have parted ways.
The anonymous cadavers that are the subjects of STIFF could hardly have asked for a livelier or more sympathetic chronicler than Mary Roach, who has managed to write a book that balances sensitivity and respect with a wonderfully sharp wit. In fact, STIFF is unexpectedly and quite blessedly hilarious, although the humor never comes at the expense at the dead bodies that populate its pages. Instead, Roach uses humor as a kind of psychic safety valve, a vital and much-appreciated tension release from what is, at times, some very intense subject matter.
The real highlights of this book are the sections that delve into some of the more disreputable uses of cadavers. There is a droll and utterly hilarious history of body snatching and a short overview of medicinal cannibalism (human mummy confection, anyone?). ThereÕs a fascinating catalog of the methods historically used to make sure that a dead body was in fact dead. This chapter culminates in what is surely the most spectacularly strange section of the book, in which Roach relates the story of Dr. Robert White, a neurosurgeon who in the mid-1960s performed a series of surgeries constituting what could be considered the first head transplant (or full body transplant, depending on your point of view). A wonderfully engrossing book on a subject most of us are reluctant to talk about.
on July 24, 2003
Mary Roach did her homework, and it shows. She has written and information packed, insightful, educational, respectful, and, yes, funny book on what happens to these bodies of ours when we get tired of hanging out in them. I have a newfound respect for all who have donated their bodies in the name of science. Not that I give it a lot of thought, but I figured cremation would be the most logical choice. After reading this book, heck, they can do whatever they want with me. I've always felt an obligation to help others, and if I can continue to do so after I have left this world, then HOORAY.
Meanwhile, expect some odd looks when you are sitting there reading a book obviously about the dearly departed, and you started sputtering, and can't help but laugh out loud! Quirky humour, but that's my favorite kind. Thank you, Mary Roach.
I recommend this book to anyone in healthcare, or the clergy, or anyone even dealing with people who experience loss. It gives you a new perspective.
On the other hand, I will have a hard time ever eating gelatin again...
on August 11, 2003
A few nights ago I made a weekend resolution that I'd tackle the much-neglected stack of fiction that teeters on my bedside table. However, while reverentially picking up 'The Body Artist' by Don Delillo, I was distracted by a misplaced reader's copy of Mary Roach's 'Stiff'. Evidently, despite my best intentions, a modest volume of non-fiction had managed to steal it's way into my fiction pile. As morbid curiosity has always been a personal failing, I cheerfully chucked aside 'The Body Artist' and eagerly cracked open Roach's book. For the first time in over two years, I read an entire volume in one sitting.
Roach opens her book with the comparison of death to a pleasure cruise: The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you....
Stiff is, without a doubt, a bizarre yet remarkably engaging read: not surprising since Roach is such a terrific writer. The author possesses the ingenious ability of being able to make digestible the most repulsive of subjects. Curious, yet not callus, Roach manages to ask-and yes, answer-questions often best left unspoken (keeping in mind public decorum). Furthermore, Roach is hilarious. Quite honestly I was surprised at how many times the author prompted (albeit sometimes guilty) laughter. A neat trick that, keeping in mind the grisly subject matter.
Roach gleefully covers merry topics such as: practicing surgery on the dead, embalmment, body snatching, the process of decay, human crash test dummies, crucifixion experiments, live burials, human head transplants, ecological (read: green) releasments, and everyone's all-time favourite- cannibalism. All the while Roach manages to honour the dead, yet simultaneously takes deliberate pains not to over-glorify the cadaver-science is science after all. One of the most remarkable aspects about Roach's book is her take on cultural definitions of `acceptable behaviour' in relation to the human carcass.
Tonight, inspired by Roach's second to last chapter: Out of the Fire, into the tissue digester: and other new ways to end up... I asked an agnostic friend if, following her death, she'd be willing to have her body ground into dog food. "No," replied my friend, despite her love for all things canine, "...I don't think so- it seems somewhat undignified." I then asked my friend if she'd be willing to have her remains tossed into the lion pen at her local zoo. My friend replied in the positive, "Most certainly, yes that'd be very cool. Maybe even a shark tank..." Vanity to be certain. Meat either way.
A warning to the queasy: Not for you.
on April 27, 2003
First, Mary Roach has a terrific sense of humor. She takes a challenging subject and finds ways to make you laugh just when you need it. Her humor is irreverent, but never disrespectful. She can laugh at some of the absurdity, yet still appreciate the pain dying can bring.
This is well written, well researched, and thorough. My one, very minor complaint is with the organization of the book. I feel as though it starts much more strongly than it finishes. So, for example, she might have considered organizing the chapters differently.
I don't think you need a particularly strong stomach to read this book. Only one item actually turned my stomach. But when it did, it *really* did.
The book succeeded in making me think about my own death. It also made me think about my mother's death and made it easier to accept certain events. ...
I hope this book will make you laugh and then think too.
Perhaps author Mary Roach thought the title of her book, STIFF, too ghoulish because she immediately begins in a festive mood:
"... being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you." Carnival, Viking, and Holland America, take note.
As a corpse, you can indeed, as on last summer's voyage to the Bahamas, veg out. Or, as the narrative reveals, be an integral part of other activities. Why, I didn't realize that being dead could be so lively.
First and foremost, your cadaver could become the prize of body snatchers, and subsequently be sold to a medical school for the instruction and amusement of students. Or perhaps you aspire to become a crash test dummy, fodder for the military's munitions tests, or the subject of experiments in composting, freeze-drying or plastination. If you're unlucky enough to die in an airplane disaster of unknown cause, investigators may scrutinize your body, or its widely scattered pieces, for clues as to where in the aircraft the fuselage cracked open or the bomb exploded. Your dissected brain or heart could fuel arguments over the seat of the soul, while other body parts serve as the raw material for disease remedies. Or maybe just be eaten by cannibals. And, if you're the outdoorsy type, you can recline in a grove on a grassy hillside behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center where the various stages of human decomposition are studied and recorded.
STIFF is one of the most fascinating books I've read recently, even after taking into account the "yuk" factor. (In ancient Rome, the blood of freshly slaughtered gladiators was thought to cure epilepsy, while modern day Web sites have recipes for Placenta Lasagna and Placenta Pizza for those who would consume the delicacy to stave off postpartum depression.) This is largely due to the author's chatty style and marvelous sense of humor, which is dry as a mummy. For example, when declaring the existence of a Central Park statue of a certain Dr. Sims, otherwise notable for describing a suitable patient position for gynecological exam, Roach writes in a footnote:
"If you don't believe me, you can look it up yourself, on page 56 of THE ROMANCE OF PROCTOLOGY. (Sims was apparently something of a dilettante when it came to bodily orifices.) P.S.: I could not, from cursory skimming, ascertain what the romance was."
I highly recommend STIFF for the not too squeamish adult, or as a scary Halloween gift for one who is. Or as a bedtime reader for precocious youngsters - they'll think it gross, but way cool, as children are wont to do.
In case you're wondering, there's no photo section.
"Stiff" is full of information that you not only never knew, but is liable to thoroughly gross out a moderatly-squeamish reader.
So an initial warning to the squeamish: If you're the type to throw down the newspaper and run out of the room in terror after seeing an ad for Orkin Pest Control services, then you might want to stay away from this book. Heck. You might want to stay away from this review.
Now, to those of you who find facts about death rather interesting, (and I'm guessing it's a pretty significant number, given the popularity of all of those forensics shows on A&E), you'll find "Stiff" pretty interesting.
Roach approaches what is very delicate subject matter with enough decorum to not seem as if she's making light of things, but she also has a very wry sense of humor, and I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion:
When referring to the ancient Egyptian practice of placing pearl onions into the empty eye sockets of the deceased, she states: "Speaking for myself, if I had to have a small round martini garnish inserted under my eyelids, I would go with olives."
Or, "Sharing a room with a cadaver is only mildly different from being in a room alone. They are the same sort of company as people across from you on subways or in airport lounges, there but not there. Your eyes keep going back to them, for lack of anything more interesting to look at, and then you feel bad for staring."
An interesting observation, to be sure.
The book is divided into chapters that discuss such death-related topics as body snatching (grave robbing, in the early days of anatomical investigation); the utilization of decapitated heads with which plastic surgeons hone their craft; how the victims of airline disasters help investigators figure out how planes crash; and there's even a chapter on crucifixion experiments that utilized cadavers to prove (or disprove) the crucifixion of Jesus.
I found the content of some chapters more interesting than others, and the final couple of chapters... for me, anyway... didn't live up to the first 4/5ths of the book. So by the end, I was a little disappointed, but only because my level of expectation was set so high earlier on.
One last thing. You'd better hope that Roach hasn't sold the movie rights for this book!
on May 7, 2003
A book about cadavers (well, it's really about death itself) was the last thing I thought I'd ever pick up. But after reading the first few paragraphs, I knew I was in good hands. Sure, the content is fascinating in its own right, but Mary Roach's gift for writing is just as noteworthy. As has been noted elsewhere, she approaches a grisly subject with, alternately, humor, curiosity, forceful opinion (directed mainly at the quacks from previous centuries and their butchery in the name of science), graphic (but not gratuitous) detail, and unfailing respect for her subjects.
Thanks to "Stiff," I'm not so squeamish about issues surrounding the deceased anymore.
Mary Roach is a great writer. This book is a keeper.
on June 21, 2003
The night before I started STIFF I was at a Philosophy class where the instructor said something like, "One of the strange things about humans is that they are the only animal that knows that all living things die, yet they think that they themselves never will."
The next day I started Stiff and began to learn what happens to your corpse after you stop using it. This is a science book that happens to be entertaining, not an entertainment fiction book that has some science in it. Still, it is very entertaining. There is no (or very little) gratuitous gore, but there is gore by the boatload. If you are easily queased, (or should that be very queasy?) this book will be hard to get through in spots in spite of the matter of fact tone and very humorous style. If you have a reasonably strong stomach this is (mostly) no problem. I had to put away the guacamole and chips when I read one of the earlier chapters on cadaver decomposition research for a University forensic anthropology department. But, by the time I got to later chapters on bullets, bombs and their impact on flesh I was able to read while nibbling on leftover ribs from yesterday's barbeque.
Why do you need to use real live cadavers for experiments when a substitute will do? Why not a pig or a chimp or a crash-test dummy? This question is addressed early and easily. The dead are very useful in telling us what limits the living can tolerate. Before you can strap a dummy into a car crash to measure impact, you need to use a cadaver to learn how much impact is ok. Thank someone's dead Grandparent for windshield safety glass, air bags, seat belts and a thousand other innovations that keep our soft pink fleshy parts breathing and alive after a 60 mile an hour wall impact.
I gained a lot of respect for the donated dead as "heroes", directly, for donating their organs and body parts so that a living person can go on doing that, or indirectly, from research so that researchers can learn, for example, which are the most effective shoes to wear for land mine removal. The researchers also come off as courageous for asking their questions and using the appropriate yet taboo material to get at the answer.
The writing style is easy, clever, educational and funny. In a chapter devoted to the history of searching for the location of the soul within the body comes this description of the liver:
"The human liver is a boss-looking organ. It's glossy, aerodynamic, Olympian. It looks like sculpture, not guts.... The liver gleams. It looks engineered and carefully wrought. Its flanks have a subtle curve..."
A couple of shortcomings though; one, I wish she had taken her story a little further and revealed the results of some of the testing using cadavers. For instance, what IS the preferred footwear when clearing minefields? The second issue I have is that my conversations were tainted for a couple of weeks after reading the book. As interesting as the topic is, no one really wants to hear about testing fragmentation bullets on cadavers at a barbecue.
Would I will my body to medical research now that I've read STIFF? I do have an organ donor card and I used to assume that once I'm dead, I'm dead, so take my organs and transplant them and save lives! Now, however, I don't think I want my severed head, no neck, sitting in a disposable turkey-roasting pan being used for plastic surgeons to practice face-lifts. I mean, come on, a dead guys got to have limits!
on April 4, 2004
I first opened the book to the middle and read something about what happpens to bodies when they are donated to science. It was a little hard to read but fascinating information. Then I turned to another page and read about what happens to a human body even after embalming. By then I didn't feel so good. Was it the book or the Mandarin chicken I had for lunch? I kept reading.
I decided I might not be ready to read this book after all. I meant to put it down put somehow found myself starting from the beginning and reading every word. By the time I got to page 22, "You cut off heads. You cut off heads. You cut off heads." I decided that I wanted the author, Mary Roach to be my best friend. The book reads like an histerical conversation between friends about an absolutely morbid topic. The humor helps you through the information you need to know.
The book made me feel a lot better about donating my body or body parts to science. And, I feel a lot better about being a journalist and writing as well. A fascinating read.
on June 18, 2003
I Saw this book on the shelf and the minute I read the first few sentences I was hooked. I read it at work,on the train and at home. This book was so good. Mary Roach is amazing. She is respectful and yet she adds sarcasm and such great humor on a subject matter that many people avoid. I am an avid reader on
forensic science and true crime. But, Ms.Roach opened up a whole new world to me with this book. As a reader you will discover things that will amaze and suprise you. Stiff gives the reader an insider look to what scientists and doctors do in order to try and improve the lives of the living. These people are the brave and silent ones who do what many cannot.This book is definitely a must read for not just the summer but for the year and the year after that.