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Review: Stiff


Title: Stiff — The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Author: Mary Roach

Genre: Nonfiction (292 pages, paperback)

Two Sentence Summary: Once a person dies, what happens to their body? A whole host of different things, it turns out, if you donate your body to science.

One Sentence Review: If you are the kind of person that likes to know about odd things and you can handle watching CSI, then you’ll like this book as much as I did.

Grade: 95/100

Long Summary: In Stiff, journalist Mary Roach sets out to discover what happens to a human cadaver after death and explore the ways that, even after dead, people have made major contributions to science and our understanding of the human body.

Each chapter of the book explores a different facet of the answer, from bodies donated to human anatomy classes to bodies used for ballistics tests and new experiments about composting bodies instead of burying them. Throughout, Roach profiles the scientists who work with cadavers and tries to figure out some bigger questions about what our bodies are for after we’re no longer with them.

Long Review: I really love the kind of book that teaches me a bunch of stuff about something I didn’t know that I wanted to know about until the book convinced me that I did. In this case, Stiff got me totally absorbed into what happens to the human body after we die — something I am almost certain I had no interest in before reading.

The biggest question I think people will have about this book is whether it’s too disgusting — that’s the first thing my mom asked me when I told her a fun fact about how they sometimes use human cadavers in crash tests to see how hitting a windshield will impact the body. I told her it was a little gross, but the book is  no more disgusting than the stuff she loves watching on tv crime dramas.

The best part about the book is Roach’s voice. She’s funny without being mean and a little morbid without being depressing. Here’s the first few paragraphs of the book to get a sense of her style:

The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had the occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I see a head in a roasting pan. But here are forty of them, one per pain, resting face up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on. I’m observing a facial anatomy and face-lift refresher course, sponsored by a southern university medical center and led by a half-dozen of America’s most sought after face-lifters.

The heads have been put in roasting pans — which are of the disposable aluminum kind — for the same reason chickens are put in roasting pans: to catch the drippings. Surgery, even surgery upon the dead, is a tidy, orderly affair.

Although it’s not as apparent in that passage, I also loved that Roach approached all of her subjects — living and dead — with a sense of respect. You never get the sense that she’s making fun of the scientists profiled in the book who are, admittedly, doing some pretty strange work. And she’s equally respectful of the cadavers, who were, at some point, living people. I mean, she even thanks six of the cadavers she wrote about in the acknowledgments at the end of the book.

Stiff was the perfect sort of summer book for me. It was interesting to read, amusing to talk about, and left me feeling like I’d learned a little bit without trying that hard. I highly recommend Stiff for light nonfiction lovers with a slightly dark sense of humor.

Other Reviews: Rebecca Reads; bookshelves of doom; books i done read;

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Molly August 6, 2009, 11:07 am

    I think this is a fascinating subject for a book! Unfortunately I am not sure that I could handle all the details. GREAT review!

  • bermudaonion August 6, 2009, 12:32 pm

    I do like to know odd facts, but I think the subject matter of this one might be a little too much for me.

  • justicejenniferreads August 6, 2009, 1:27 pm

    Sounds interesting – I’ll have to try to pick it up.

  • Lori L August 6, 2009, 2:04 pm

    Even though I rated Stiff highly (4.5) I read it with equal parts fascination, amusement, and queasiness. I will admit that even while laughing at Roach’s witticisms and being totally fascinated with the information, I also experienced an almost constant feeling of nausea with hints of revulsion.

  • christina August 6, 2009, 3:27 pm

    This has been on my reading list for quite sometime. I’m finally glad to have read a review for it. Yay!

  • Dorte H August 6, 2009, 3:35 pm

    In my ears this book sounds fascinating. What surprises me is that a person who is not really interested in crime fiction loves it so much :)
    I´d like to have it on my small forensics shelf.

  • softdrink August 6, 2009, 9:14 pm

    I quickly learned this was not appropriate lunchtime reading…and I have a strong stomach. I also had to skip the plane crash chapter, because I prefer to not think bad things when I’m on a plane. 😀 Otherwise, I loved this one. I saw the author speak at Book Group Expo and she described a scene from Bonk…in which she and her husband volunteered for a sex study. She was hysterical, although I can’t believe the things she’ll do for her books!

  • Nicole August 6, 2009, 11:09 pm

    Oooohhhh thanks for writing about this book! This is totally a book I need to be reading. I’m extremely picky about my nonfiction–I prefer to stick to made-up stories–but this book falls into the very narrow category of nonfiction I would very much like to read!!!

    Just reading the part about the crash test dummies gave me a touch of the willies, even though it makes a lot of sense.

    Great review. I very much like that you addressed the question of respect.

  • Jackie (Farm Lane Books) August 7, 2009, 9:21 am

    This sounds so interesting. I’m sure I’d love it, but think I’d have to skip the plane crash chapter too though – I am really sensitive about that sort of thing.

  • Ashley August 7, 2009, 2:45 pm

    I have been wanting to read this book for a while now but I hadn’t read many reviews about it before. It sounds fascinating!

  • Sharon August 7, 2009, 4:51 pm

    I loved Stiff. It was so fascinating, but I did have to put it down a lot to overcome my queasiness. It’s not that long. Good review.

  • kay August 8, 2009, 7:31 pm

    My first thought was : eeek! Nor for me! But just reading your review makes me curious. I think I’d like to read it, because I’m a very, very curious person. And I do love shows like CSI, so a few cadavers shouldn’t scare me!

  • rebeccareid August 10, 2009, 7:50 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I too was surprised by how approachable it is. And I can’t handle the crime shows. They gross me out.

    I think what I liked most was the way it got me thinking about WHAT I CAN DO. I always just figured I’d be buried but now I realize that that is a pretty gross thing to do. I could still “make a difference” even after I’m dead (providing my husband is okay with it).

    Thanks for your thoughts — and for the link to mine!

  • luiggi September 16, 2009, 2:45 pm

    thank you so much it help lot for my book review i had to do for a class


  • Trisha April 18, 2011, 11:10 pm

    I love this book! It’s disgusting, yet intriguing. I can’t put it down!

    • Kim April 21, 2011, 7:13 pm

      Trisha: Yes, that’s exactly it. Gross and intriguing!

  • Kim August 6, 2009, 7:37 pm

    It can be sort of gory, I’ll admit, but not as gory as it sounds. It depends what your tolerance is though — I really don’t think it’s any worse than some of the stuff that’s on tv today. I’ve seen episodes of Criminal Minds that grossed me out a lot more than this did. But of course, everyone has their own gross tolerance :)

  • Kim August 6, 2009, 7:38 pm

    Some parts were — the section on cannibalism got to me the most, I think. And the crash test dummies. Something about using a cadaver to test windshield strength weirded me out.

  • Kim August 6, 2009, 7:38 pm


  • Kim August 6, 2009, 7:39 pm

    Yeah, I was sort of grossed out in some parts. Like I said, the cannibalism got to me. And actually, now that I’m thinking about it, some of the older stuff (unhygienic surgeries and corrupt body snatchers) was gross too. But not so gross that I didn’t really enjoy the book!

  • Kim August 6, 2009, 7:39 pm

    Great! I hope it lives up to expectations when you finally get to read it.

  • Kim August 6, 2009, 7:42 pm

    Ha ha, I know, right?

    I think I don’t get into crime fiction not because of the gore but because of the creepy factor. Books about grisly murders and insane criminals make me uncomfortable, I think because I have an overactive imagination and can think about that being me. I had to stop watching CSI and those other shows when I started living alone because they made it hard for me to sleep :)

    This book was a little gory, but not scary, which is a big distinction for me. I think this book would be great for a forensics shelf — there is an interesting section about people who study body decomposition that I actually liked a lot.

  • Kim August 8, 2009, 9:47 am

    No kidding, this book wouldn’t be great at lunch at all! I read it a lot before I went to bed, which probably wasn’t the best idea either.

    I got Bonk from the library last week, but haven’t been able to start it. Now I’m pretty excited — that sounds funny!

  • Kim August 8, 2009, 9:49 am

    Nice – what are your criteria for nonfiction you will read?

    The part on crash test dummies was interesting for me to. I would never have thought of using actual cadavers for it, but it makes sense. Roach wrote that they’re actually getting away from using cadavers as much because there’s enough data about how much impact most of the body can take that they don’t need them as much anymore.

    Respect is a huge issue for me in all nonfiction I read. When you’re writing about real people and events, I feel like an author has to be open-minded and somewhat accepting of what the subject is and is doing, otherwise the book can turn really mean. I’m not a fan of books that rail on people, no matter what they’re doing, so respectful authors is a must.

  • Kim August 8, 2009, 9:51 am

    The chapter is more about how the bodies of victims of a crash can often be used to help figure out what caused the crash, which I think is cool even though it’s a scary subject. If that sort of thing especially bothers you, just skip the chapter rather than skipping the book :)

  • Kim August 8, 2009, 9:51 am

    It was. Fascinating in a sort of gross way, but fascinating nonetheless.

  • Kim August 8, 2009, 9:52 am

    I didn’t read it in huge chunks, just a few pages or part of a chapter at a time. Then ‘d put it away and come back to it later, just because sometimes it was a little too much. But that’s how I am about crime shows on tv — I watch a little, but then need something lighter to cheer me up.

  • Kim August 10, 2009, 8:29 am

    I think your reaction is pretty common — the book sounds sort of disgusting and weird at first. But it’s very cool, and I honestly don’t think it’s any more gross than tv. I watch Criminal Minds occasionally, and that show creeps me out a lot more than this book did.

  • Kim August 11, 2009, 7:10 am

    I liked that a lot too — I forgot to mention it in the review. I thought the composting section was really interesting, actually. I can’t imagine what my family would think if I said I wanted to be composted and then used to fertilize a tree, but maybe. That can’t be more gross than just being buried, which sounds pretty unpleasant. I’m not sure I’d want my body donated to science, but maybe :)