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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers [Paperback]

Mary Roach
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (921 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"Uproariously funny" doesn't seem a likely description for a book on cadavers. However, Roach, a Salon and Reader's Digest columnist, has done the nearly impossible and written a book as informative and respectful as it is irreverent and witty. From her opening lines ("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"), it is clear that she's taking a unique approach to issues surrounding death. Roach delves into the many productive uses to which cadavers have been put, from medical experimentation to applications in transportation safety research (in a chapter archly called "Dead Man Driving") to work by forensic scientists quantifying rates of decay under a wide array of bizarre circumstances. There are also chapters on cannibalism, including an aside on dumplings allegedly filled with human remains from a Chinese crematorium, methods of disposal (burial, cremation, composting) and "beating-heart" cadavers used in organ transplants. Roach has a fabulous eye and a wonderful voice as she describes such macabre situations as a plastic surgery seminar with doctors practicing face-lifts on decapitated human heads and her trip to China in search of the cannibalistic dumpling makers. Even Roach's digressions and footnotes are captivating, helping to make the book impossible to put down.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School-Those curious or brave enough to find out what really happens to a body that is donated to the scientific community can do so with this book. Dissection in medical anatomy classes is about the least bizarre of the purposes that science has devised. Mostly dealing with such contemporary uses such as stand-ins for crash-test dummies, Roach also pulls together considerable historical and background information. Bodies are divided into types, including "beating-heart" cadavers for organ transplants, and individual parts-leg and foot segments, for example, are used to test footwear for the effects of exploding land mines. Just as the nonemotional, fact-by-fact descriptions may be getting to be a bit too much, Roach swings into macabre humor. In some cases, it is needed to restore perspective or aid in understanding both what the procedures are accomplishing and what it is hoped will be learned. In all cases, the comic relief welcomes readers back to the world of the living. For those who are interested in the fields of medicine or forensics and are aware of some of the procedures, this book makes excellent reading.
Pam Johnson, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

Not grisly but inspiring, this work considers the many valuable scientific uses of the body after death. Drawn from the author's popular Salon column.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From The New England Journal of Medicine

Mary Roach certainly has an eye for the offbeat (and a stomach for the grisly). In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Roach, a columnist for Reader's Digest and the online news magazine Salon, surveys the uses to which corpses have been put over the centuries, along with some odd contemporary proposals. A selection of chapter titles and subtitles gives a flavor of the book's content and tone: "A Head Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Practicing Surgery on the Dead" (surgeons training on cadaveric heads), "Dead Man Driving: Human Crash Test Dummies and the Ghastly, Necessary Science of Impact Tolerance" (the use of human cadavers for crash-safety testing), "Out of the Fire, Into the Compost Bin: And Other New Ways to End Up" (a company that plans to use human remains for compost). Roach strives to be clear-eyed and matter-of-fact. "If you are inclined to donate yourself to science, you should not let images of dissection or dismemberment put you off," she says. "They are no more or less gruesome, in my opinion, than ordinary decay or the sewing shut of your jaws via your nostrils for a funeral viewing." The overall effect, though, is deflationary. There comes a point for all of us, Roach reminds us, when our bodies are no longer ourselves (the Boston Women's Health Collective notwithstanding). The well-being of the living depends in part on making use of bodies after death for physician training and the like. Roach's tongue-in-cheek approach to this material, however, makes it difficult to know why she has written the book and who her intended audience might be. This is not a scholarly treatment or the sort of book that one would take to the beach or display on a coffee table. Is she just out for laughs? Or does she have some more serious purpose in mind? Some of the material is informative, in a grim sort of way. For instance, the chapter called "Beyond the Black Box," about injury analysis, explains that studying the bodies of plane-crash victims may help determine the cause of the crash. Because the bodies of victims of the wreck of TWA Flight 800, which mysteriously blew apart in the air and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island in July 1996, were found to be largely intact, a bomb was thought to be highly unlikely. Other chapters, though, seem designed mainly to fill out the book or to play for cheap laughs. "Eat Me" focuses on what turned out to be a shaggy-dog story about cannibalism in a restaurant in Taiwan. It might have made more sense as a cautionary tale about why one should not necessarily believe what one reads on the Internet. In "Just a Head," about a series of weird attempts to transplant animal heads, Roach offers the following advice: "My recommendation to you is that you never eat baba ghanoush or, for that matter, any soft, glistening food item while carrying on a conversation involving monkey brains." You get the idea. It is not wrong to try to make a joke out of these matters. From Shakespeare to Philip Roth, comic artists have mined the graveyard for bitter laughs. Death is inconceivable; illness, among other things, often absurd. What physician has not felt an (embarrassed) need to guffaw about some dreadful event or condition? What these sorts of understandable responses call for, though, is an effort to get beyond dark comedy to some real emotional engagement. For instance, Sherwin Nuland's 1994 How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter (New York: Knopf), although filled with graphic accounts of painful and undignified deaths, sought to advance a humanistic understanding about an experience that had been overly medicalized. Roach's style, by contrast, seems sensationalistic. She correctly notes, "pus and snot, slime and gleet. We are biology." But composting human remains? Perhaps that is briefly amusing, but isn't the idea also just slightly bizarre, if not repulsive? I'm afraid that the author needs to come up for air. For Roach, "dignity is all in the packaging." Why the deep cynicism? Considerate care of human remains is not just about "the application of a well-considered euphemism." Human lives have significance beyond the mere sum of their biologic parts. Roach touches on the cross-cultural taboos against mistreating a corpse primarily as an opportunity to exercise sarcasm. Roach does regard with approval the thoughtful awareness that medical students display while dissecting. "Medical schools have gone out of their way in the past decade to foster a respectful attitude toward gross anatomy lab cadavers," she writes. "With no prompting on my part, the students spoke of gratitude and preserving dignity, of having grown attached to their cadavers, of feeling bad about what they had to do to them. . . . No one made jokes the afternoon I was there, or anyway not at the corpse's expense." Surprisingly, given the author's determined efforts to appear cool and unsentimental, Roach's care for her dying mother appears to have at least partly motivated this project. "I find the dead easier to be around than the dying," she admits. "They are not in pain, not afraid of death. . . . The half hour I spent with my mother as a dead person was easier by far than the many hours I spent with her as a live person dying and in pain." What I suspect Roach is admiring in the medical students she observed is a sort of unsentimental reverence for the human body. The same sort of reverence, the sense that we owe one another a certain intrinsic respect, may have sustained the author through those troubling hours with her dying mother and may right now be helping those medical students in the difficult task of being present to the sick. Alan B. Astrow, M.D.
Copyright © 2003 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Donating one's body to science sounds like an altruistic farewell for the betterment of humanity. Noble it may be, but most would prefer not to know what happens to a corpse in the name of research. Not our intrepid author. Some donors arrive at the expected places, such as anatomy classrooms, but would a person willingly assent to her postmortem decapitation so plastic surgeons could practice on her head unencumbered by the torso? Better not to wonder--yet Roach cheerily does as she attends to doings at medical schools, crash research labs, and mortuary schools. Her lab-coated guides seem delighted to see her come calling, which she reciprocates by praising the good that cadavers do (revealing the kinematics of car and plane crashes), along with (gulp) their appearance and olfactory condition. Roach writes in an insouciant style and displays her metier in tangents about bizarre incidents in pathological history. Death may have the last laugh, but, in the meantime, Roach finds merriment in the macabre. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“This quirky, funny read offers perspective and insight about life, death and the medical profession.... You can close this book with an appreciation of the miracle that the human body really is.” (Tara Parker-Pope - Wall Street Journal)

“'Uproariously funny' doesn't seem a likely description for a book on cadavers. However, Roach... has done the nearly impossible and written a book as informative and respectful as it is irreverent and witty.” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

“A laugh-out-loud funny book... one of those wonderful books that offers up enlightenment in the guise of entertainment.” (Michael Little - Washington City Paper)

“As weird as the book gets, Roach manages to convey a sense of respect and appreciation for her subjects.” (Roy Rivenburg - Los Angeles Times)

“Roach's conversational tone and her gallows humor bring her subjects to life.” (Alex Abramovich - People Magazine)

“Roach seems intent on helping us (and herself) get a better handle on the meaning of death, or, at least, on making one's own death meaningful.” (Steve Fiffer - Chicago Tribune)

“Roach is authoritative, endlessly curious and drolly funny. Her research is scrupulous and winningly presented.” (Adam Woog - Seattle Times)

“Mary Roach is one of an endangered species: a science writer with a sense of humor. She is able to make macabre funny without looting death of its dignity.” (Brian Richard Boylan - Denver Post)

“Roach writes in an insouciant style and displays her métier in tangents about bizarre incidents in pathological history. Death may have the last laugh, but, in the meantime, Roach finds merriment in the macabre.” (Gilbert Taylor - Booklist)

“Acutely entertaining, morbidly fascinating.” (Susan Adams - Forbes)

About the Author

Mary Roach is the author of four previous books: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Her writing has appeared in Outside, Wired, National Geographic, and the New York Times Magazine, among others. She lives in Oakland, California.

From AudioFile

In case you were wondering, some human cadavers do lead active lives after death. For centuries, many have served medicine, magicians, and cannibals in various noble and grossly ignoble ways. Reader Shelly Frasier captures the trenchant wit of Roach's text, which at times is hilariously funny and always appropriately sardonic. Whether we're attending a gruesome autopsy or wandering down a memory lane of corpses, we find ghastly factoids and the people responsible for them around every corner. Not recommended for dinnertime listening, but a must for the curious living, who will find a jocular companion in narrator Frasier. D.J.B. © AudioFile 2004, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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