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Books: Stiff

"Hey, whatcha reading?"

"Oh, you know: a book about corpses."

I'm tempted to immediately reread this, just so I can keep saying that.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is 300 pages about dead people. Or, rather, it's not about the people at all, but what they leave behind. In fact, one of the first things author Mary Roach does is emphasize the distinction between the quick and the dead.

But once she has made her point -- that that "dead people" are best regarded as 100% dead and 0% people -- she launches into a gleeful account of what ghastly things are done to their remains. She begins by covering what most people think of when they consider life postmortem: medical research and organ donation. But from there she catalogs some of the more exotic adventures a cadaver could undertake during it's detour from the morgue to the graveyard. Car manufacturers, for example, have yet to build a crash test dummy that simulates a human body as accurately as a, well, a human body. And when trying to determine what kind of footwear mine sweepers should use, nothing works quite as well as an actual, severed foot.

The most interesting chapter, to my mind, covers about the role in corpses in determining the cause of plane crashes. By noting the composition (and decomposition) of the bodies, investigators can infer a remarkable amount about what transpired in the final moments of a doomed flight. If some (but not all) of the cadavers have burns, for instance and they can identify the remains, the can use the blueprint of the plane and the seat assignments on the tickets to determine where the charred passengers were located, and perhaps pinpoint where an explosion or fire began. And did you know that people who fall from a certain height or higher will have all their clothes knocked off when they hit the ocean, while people who fell from below that height will be recovered clothed?

Despite the macabre nature of the subject matter, Stiff is remarkably funny. Yes, you heard me: funny -- even, at time, snort-out-loud-while-riding-the-bus funny. Throughout the book, Roach employs a tone that's breezy and matter-of-fact, and throws a joke or two into every paragraph. But this doesn't mean the book is light: in fact, it struck me as so meticulously researched that I found myself questioning the sanity of any author would delve into a subject to such a depth. But by injecting liberal amounts of humor into her narrative, Roach makes what could have been a grim and depressing tome into a eminently readable page-turner, the kind of book you could read and enjoy on vacation. (In fact, I took Stiff along during my recent trip to D.C., and even wound up reading the chapter on plane crashes while on the plane.) More impressive still is the fact that the use of humor in no way detracts from the profound sense of respect for the people who donate their bodies that the author manages to engender in the reader.

By the end of Stiffed I kind of felt like Roach was padding the book a little (a chapter on cannibalism goes into an extended digression of how the author was sent on a wild goose chase by an urban legend, for instance), and the humor occasionally gets a little wearying, like reading a forensic textbook written by Dave Barry. But by and large Stiff manages to blend informative and entertaining prose into an engrossing read (emphasis on the "gross"), and it's the best non-fiction book I've read this year.

Posted on October 18, 2004 to Books


You made me curious about the book and I've checked here whether how can I get it: found out that it has been translated into hungarian and I can buy it here.
I hope not one joke has been lost in translation.

from Hungary

Posted by: PsycloneJack on October 20, 2004 1:06 AM

I felt the same way about the cannibalism chapter — it felt like the author was reaching a little. But other than that, I inhaled this book like so much mummy powder. Bonus points: it got repeated product placement on Six Feet Under! If it's good enough for the Fischers, it's good enough for me.

Posted by: Ariel on October 20, 2004 7:19 AM

But how did it make you feel about plastic surgery or donating your body to Vanderbilt University? Eeeewwww....

Posted by: Jill on October 20, 2004 7:37 AM

Reading it now. I enjoyed the plane crash tests too.

At the same time I bought Stiff, Amazon recommended I grab Death's Acre also. It is good read on the science behind dead people too - not as funny though.

Posted by: Ateo Fiel on October 20, 2004 8:38 AM

I read this a couple of months ago. I also read it on vacation and had a friend ask "whatcha reading?" It was fun to watch him slowly back away as I explained what the book was about...

Posted by: craig on October 20, 2004 8:49 AM

I bought this book over the weekend - what a coincidence. I'm not digging the writing style much, though - too jokey or something. Not that we need to be all serious about the dead, but the jokes suck. Still, it was worth it to freak out my parents and my fiance as I read it while preparing dinner.

Posted by: spygeek on October 20, 2004 9:37 AM

This sounds like a good gift for my FBI friend. She frequently tells joyous tales of her trips up to the "body farm" where the FBI plays "hide and seek" with cadavers for training purposes.

PS: why ask for an URL on your submission form when you reject it as "questionable content"?

Posted by: dunsany on October 20, 2004 10:50 AM

I read this book about 10 months ago when I got it as a xmas gift from my sister. It was truly a good book and an enjoyable read. I just have 2 suggestions about it:
1. Don't read it just befor you fall asleep, stanger dreams I have no had.
2. If you get it as a gift and it's not an easy to see joke gift then it will make you very, very paranoid

Posted by: bobthebaker on October 20, 2004 11:52 AM

I couldn't agree with your review more - Stiff is a fantastic book. I like how you describe the writing style - well researched, respectful, but funny at the same time. I never thought I'd laugh out loud reading a book aboud cadavers, but there it is.

Thanks for such a great review.

Posted by: Jennifer on October 20, 2004 12:04 PM

I couldn't even use the real skull in anatomy class...had to use the plastic one and it was hard to see the detail. I couldn't deal with real bones, so I'm sure I'won't be getting this book anytime soon.

Still, I liked your description of it.

Posted by: Miel on October 20, 2004 4:55 PM

I listened to the audio book (read by the author) and found it infinitely entertaining. There's something about her dry delivery that just kept me far more engrossed than I believe the book itself would have done. And hearing her read the section about cannibalism didn't leave me feeling as "stretched" as others have. Her delivery makes it all the better.

Posted by: Seuss on October 21, 2004 5:43 AM

I read this last winter. I had already decided to donate my body to a medical school, (I once made a promise to my grandfather that I'd go to medical school and I'm hoping this will get me off the hook), and was curious to see what lies in store for me.

I found her conclusion fascinating. Namely, it is the living that should decide what happens to their loved one's remains because it is they who have to live with it.

Posted by: bob on October 21, 2004 7:27 AM

Interesting book-it sounds like there is a lot of little known facts about the body after death!

Posted by: John on October 21, 2004 8:45 AM

Interesting? That would describe Stiff.

Speaking of stiff... from Stiff I learned that male mice' boners really are boners. They have a penis bone.

Meanwhile, a university hospital in the Netherlands observed a couple making love in an MRI. In the missionary position the penis assumes the shape of a “boomerang”.

And don't get me going about methods that used to be used to determine if someone really was dead.

Posted by: bob on October 21, 2004 12:55 PM

It's me again from Hungary.

It IS a good book in hungarian as well.


Posted by: PsycloneJack on October 26, 2004 12:39 AM

I agree...this is a great book....funny yet informative....tell everyone to read it!

Posted by: Tina on November 2, 2004 1:07 PM