Lissa's Reviews > Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff by Mary Roach
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Sep 26, 2007

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Read in February, 2007

I bought this book when I first taught my class that has a foresnic anthropology component. I thought I could pick out a chapter of this book to assign to them, and it would be a nice, informative, lay-person account that would be entertaining, yet informational. However, due to time constraints, I never got around to reading the book. In that time, several people have borrowed and returned this book to me, so my copy is a bit tattered and dog-eared, as if I'd read it many times. I can safely say, having read it once, that I will not be going back to read it again.

Stiff is a non-fiction, "science" writing book. Roach chronicles the different processes that happen to a human being after it dies. Each chapter tackles a different possible outcome for a person's corpse. She goes through chapters about anatomy labs, decay, crash-test and military trials (for safer vehicles, or more effective bullets), plane crashes, transplants, burial and cremation, and even cannibalism. The material for this book is endlessly fascinating and I feel like it has a lot of potential.

That being said, I find Mary Roach's style of writing intensely irritating, which took away from the overall effectiveness of the narrative. Much of her writing is sort of falsely funny, as if she is very intentially trying to inject humor into a situation through the use of ridiculous asides that do nothing to add information or further her point.

She also continually resorts to forced bathroom and genetalia jokes in order to articially infuse the book with humor. On many occasaions, she asks the scientists she interviews about what happens specifically to penile tissues. She then describes the patient if annoyed air that some of the scientists take with the assumption that the readers will all be tittering with her on her side. Well, I'm sorry, I'm with the scientists. I find that kind of thing immature and irrtating, like many of the jokes in this book. The last way that she commonly tries to inject humor into her writing is by pretending squeamishness for the sake of her readers.

What kills me about this is that there are parts of the book that are legitimateuly funny, where the humor is not forced but just found in the situation. There is a description of her first visit to a very small town in China that strong reminded me of some of my problems getting around in small towns in various African countries. There is also a funny commentary about a woman who volunteers to get multiple pap smears so that future ObGyns can practice (a job that I hope pays very. very. well). Additionally, there is some really interesting information in this book. I knew a lot about the use of bodies to determine what happened in plane crashes and the sort of things that happen in gross anatomy labs. But did you know that males and females have slightly different EEG profiles? And, after a heart transplant, those do not change. Also, did you know that there have been many proven ways to make riding in aircrafts safer, including shoulder harness seat belts, more emergency exits, sprinkler systems and side airbags for impact, but none of these are being implemented because the airlines don't want to have to incur the extra costs? There are plenty of little factoids like these that are quite interesting.

The bottom line for me was that there was simply not enough actual science in this science book. I've read plenty of popular science books that have managed to do a much better job walking the line between entertainment for the layperson and providing good information. As far as book that tell stories about cadavers, I would recommend any of the popular science books by William Bass or Douglas Ubelaker over this book as both fascinating and more informative.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Andrew (last edited Jul 12, 2008 09:49AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Andrew Different EKG patterns. ;)


Vesmé This review perfectly sums up how I feel about this book, thank you.


Sarah I thought his book we great, perhaps science and sarcasm escape you. Too bad.


Fred Interesting take on this book. I enjoyed it, but I do see your point(s)


Nicola Brown Wow this review is practically a book!


message 6: by Kat (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kat Davis yeah...this book is clearly 'popular science' since it was written by a journalist. I'd not be sticking it on the reading list of any legitimate course work, but suggesting people may like to read it for a laugh and perhaps the bibliography.


Chip I love Roach's sense of humor, and I learn many things from her books. I love you, Mary.


WendyJo Believe it or not, an morbidly entertaining read!


message 9: by Sakuni (new)

Sakuni Sorry that the humor utilized in this book can't penetrate your cold, fact-based soul.


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