Summary and book reviews of Stiff by Mary Roach

Stiff

The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Mary Roach

Stiff
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2003, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2004, 304 pages

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About this Book

Book Summary

An oddly compelling, often hilarious, forensic exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem.

For two thousand years, cadavers - some willingly, some unwittingly - have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. They've tested France's first guillotines, ridden the NASA Space Shuttle, been crucified in a Parisian laboratory to test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and helped solve the mystery of TWA Flight 800. For every new surgical procedure, from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery, cadavers have been there alongside surgeons, making history in their quiet way.

In this fascinating, ennobling account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries—from the anatomy labs and human-sourced pharmacies of medieval and nineteenth-century Europe to a human decay research facility in Tennessee, to a plastic surgery practice lab, to a Scandinavian funeral directors' conference on human composting. In her droll, inimitable voice, Roach tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.

Introduction

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.

If I were to take a cruise, I would prefer that it be one of those research cruises, where the passengers, while still spending much of the day lying on their backs with blank minds, also get to help out with a scientist's research project. These cruises take their passengers to unknown, unimagined places. They give them the chance to do things they would not otherwise get to do.

I guess I feel the same way about being a corpse. Why lie around on your back when you can do something interesting and new, something useful. For every surgical procedure developed, from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery, cadavers have been there alongside the surgeons, making history in their own quiet, sundered way. For two thousand ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

Outside

Mordantly witty

The Denver Post

Squeamish readers beware! But for the rest, this is an outrageously funny, irreverent (but respectful) account of what happens to the human body after a person has died, and that's far more involved than simple burial or cremation.

New City Chicago

Roach's deliberate carefulness diminishes the topic's gore and sets a comfortable, comic tone that finds solace in its own oddity. Certain sections of the book are nothing short of mesmerizing, namely the portions dedicated to the University of Tennessee's body farm, and the analysis of remains after plane crashes. By and large, the dead aren't very talented, Roach writes. They may not be talented, but in Stiff, they sure are fun.

Baltimore City Paper

What's so funny about being dead? Nothing, of course, if it's Grandmother. But those who work with dead bodies frequently, such as the detectives in Homicide, tend to adopt a gallows humor. Mary Roach, who saw her share of corpses by the time she was done researching Stiff, has learned how to cut the tension with a good joke. It turns out that Stiff is one of the funniest, best-written, most thoroughly researched books of the year--a constant pleasure, even when Roach is describing, in graphic detail, exploratory surgery on a cadaver.

The San Francisco Chronicle

Roach has done her homework so we don't have to. Her book's a winner.

The Chicago Sun-Times

One does not skim this book. Every detail is riveting. It is impossible to tear one's eyes away from Roach's description of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, where at a body farm--a bucolic meadow--scores of donated cadavers decompose noisomely outdoors so that forensic scientists can better learn to sniff out clues from the bodies of murder victims.

Entertainment Weekly (Editor's Choice selection)

Because she always draws a distinction between you and your smelly carcass (not the same person, she argues), Roach gets away with the cheerfully morbid smart-ass commentary that abounds throughout. She's written one of the funniest and most unusual books of the year.

Library Journal

Despite the irreverent, macabre title, this is a respectful and serious examination of what happens to cadavers, past and present.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Fascinating, unexpectedly fresh and funny…. informative, yes; entertaining, absolutely.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Roach…has done the nearly impossible and written a book as informative and respectful as it is irreverent and witty….Roach has a fabulous eye and a wonderful voice…. impossible to put down.

Author Blurb Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief
Droll, dark, and quite wise, Stiff makes being dead funny and fascinating and weirdly appealling.

Author Blurb Joe Queenan, author of Balsamic Dreams
Mary Roach proves what many of us have long suspected that the real fun in life doesn't start until you're dead. I particularly enjoyed the sections about head transplants, black-market mummies, and how to tell if you're actually dead.

Author Blurb Caleb Carr, author of The Alienist
As fascinating as it is funny.... The research is admirable, the anecdotes carefully chosen, and the prose lively; and they combine to produce a book that everyone in the health care field should have to read, and everyone else will want to.

Reader Reviews

Becky H

Macabre, but fun too
For anyone interested in the “messy” part of human science, this is the book for you. Mary Roach has a unique sense of humor that makes her off beat topics fun to read. You will learn many facts while being amused and bemused. STIFF tells what ...   Read More

A student from St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, IL

Stiff
Stiff was an excellent book which even caught the attention of someone who doesn't read often. It's charm, wit, and history make up the perfect combination for anyone in need of a tale to remember. It challenges the reader, almost, to think what they...   Read More

Emile

Stiff-Mary Roach
All I can say in addition to what's already been written is: Buy this book, you won't be sorry! I damn near died from laughter just reading the preface. This is without a doubt one of the ten funniest, most cleverly-written books I've ever read, bar ...   Read More

Sara

STIFF The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
This is one of the most intersting books that I have ever read. However, I did get odd looks from strangers who noticed the cover of the book as I was reading it in public. I especially was given strange looks when I would start laughing out loud ...   Read More

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