Retro Friday Audio Review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

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October 5, 2012 by Heidi

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time!

Stiff by Mary Roach book coverTitle: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Mary Roach [Website|Twitter]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Non-Fiction
Published: September 1st, 2003 by Tantor Media Inc.
Format: Audiobook; 8 hours. Read by Shelly Frasier.
Source: Borrowed from my local library.

An oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For 2,000 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.

If you’re sitting around drumming your fingers in indecision one of these fine fall days lusting after a book that will be all things humorous, creepy, and close to home, look no further than Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  With a rabid curiosity and unfailing sense of humor, Mary Roach uses Stiff to impart the nitty gritty details of everything that can and might happen to one’s corpse after death.

Shelly Frasier excellently narrates Roach’s voice, which comes across conversationally in the audio.  Stiff is written as, in my opinion, good Non-Fiction should be.  You feel as if you’re listening to each chapter being given as a lecture by your favorite college professor.  It’s relaxed, but incredibly informative; serious, but with just the right amount of humor to keep it from becoming dark or depressing.  Mary Roach at no time forgets that the subject matter she is discussing is one of grave (hyuk hyuk) import.  She treats the listener or reader with the utmost respect, acknowledging that many will be offended or upset by what she has to say in Stiff.  She talks about the body not as a holy vessel or object of reverence  but as a thing–an object that is left for others to deal with after one’s self has departed.  However, Mary Roach does so in a way that is factual, interesting, and full of respect for the feelings of those loved ones left behind.

Warning: this book is not for the faint of heart (or stomach).  In its pages you will discover:

  • The decomposition process in absolute detail (it is suggested one does not attempt to make dinner or eat it while consuming this chapter).
  • The history of body snatchers.  Hey–those of you who read Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (don’t worry, not a spoiler)–remember how the medical students couldn’t make advances on anatomy because it was illegal to dissect human cadavers?  Totally happened and there were ‘creative’ solutions.
  • There are women who professionally provide use of their vaginas for completely non-sexual reasons.
  • When a male or female heart is transferred to a body of the opposite sex it will continue to beat as a male or female heart rather than adapting to the new host’s gender (yes, male/female hearts behave differently).
  • Body transplants may be scientifically possible.
  • Women still commonly consume placenta to stave off postpartum depression.

Mary Roach’s Stiff caused me to put a great deal of thought into what I would like to have done with my own body after my death.  Do I want to be buried, cremated, or use one of the new methods of human body disposal slowly gaining ground around the world?  Do I want to donate my body for research?  Stiff made me realize how necessary and important it is for our medical development to have human bodies with which to work, however, I don’t think I’m quite ready to have mine used for plastic surgeons to practice on.  I am, however, a registered organ donor–but I told them not to take my skin.  I really have no real explanation for why that bothers me when my eyes don’t, but it does.  These are the things that Mary Roach discusses, showing us our options while at no point saying we must move in one direction or the other.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers taught me at least one thing I will never forget: cadavers are our super heroes.  The dead can do so many things we living cannot.  They have given us an incredibly fascinating past, and will likely have a profound affect on humanity’s future.  Stiff is not a book that every reader will enjoy, but for those interested in discovering knowledge of the dead with a journalist’s zeal, it is an excellent read.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  My non-fiction consumption tends to be incredibly random, but luckily, so does Mary Roach’s writing.  She’s covered sex, the afterlife, and space travel, and I’d be happy to pick up another.  Shelly Frasier, who narrated very well has also narrated Coal: A Human History by Barbary Freese which sounds right up my alley.

Recommended for:  I’ll say frankly that to enjoy this book you need to be able to mentally separate one’s soul and one’s body.  I realize this is difficult for many religious people, which is absolutely okay, but you may have a difficult time reading this.  Also, as stated, there are very detailed and graphic descriptions that may disturb listeners/readers, but, if you have an insatiable curiosity about the human body, Stiff could be your perfect read. 

Get a second opinion:  Have you reviewed Stiff?  If so, let me know and I’ll link you here.

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13 comments »

  1. Like you mentioned, I love how random Mary Roach is! For real, that is one heck of a list of subjects to research. It makes me want to read one of her books even more.

    • Heidi says:

      Right? I love that she throws herself into anything that she does whole heartedly, but that she chooses to do such a wide variety of things! I’m definitely looking to read (or listen to) more of her work.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I have yet to read this (non-fiction is one of those things I’m rarely in the mood for), but I know I will really enjoy it as I find the human body a pretty interesting thing. Glad to know the audio is good, too. This might be something that would work for a future road trip, as my husband is far more likely to care about non-fiction than he is fiction.

    • Heidi says:

      Then this sounds like it could be the perfect book for a husband-wife road trip! I found it absolutely fascinating–just don’t plan on snacking through certain more nauseating bits. 😛

      I only read about 3-5 non-fiction books a year myself–it’s not a common craving for me either, but I’m usually very happy with those I do choose!

  3. I love how diverse you are as a reader Heidi:) Non fiction isn’t my cup of tea either but I’ll be darned if you haven’t made me curious about this book!

    i really like this Angieville mem, I’m going to have to participate one of these days because I have a mountain of older reads I need to get on:)

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Heather! I do sort of have extremely random tastes, but I find that make my reading life more fun. I only read a few non-fiction books every year, but the ones I usually do are great!

      You should participate in Retro Friday sometime! Angie’s awesome, and it’s a lot of fun to look at some older books.

  4. Woah, this sounds crazily innovative and unique! Although my nonfiction is limited to historical biographies (don’t ask, I write historical papers and need 70+ sources in my bibliographies and somehow I enjoy reading nonfiction history books…I’m very strange, I know), I think this is something I’ll definitely have to try. It seems to be something I’ll either love or hate and trying out new fields is definitely something I want to do. Plus, you enjoyed this so the chances I’ll like this are veryyy high! 😉 Beautiful review, as usual, dear! 😀

    • Heidi says:

      That’s not strange, Keertana–I love historical biographies!! I’m kind of dying to pick up my copy of The Black Count, it’s been far too long since I read one. My non-fiction tastes tend to be incredibly random though–it’s one of the reasons I was interested in librarianism. Who knows more about random stuff than librarians? 😛

  5. I used to look at this one randomly at the school library, but never picked it up because corpses scare me, but your assessment of the audiobook is making me reconsider that stance.

    ALSO. I had no idea that female and male hearts were different.

    • Heidi says:

      I had no idea they were different either! This book was fascinating, April, I learned so many interesting things. This is one that would be really easy to just read which chapters interest you and skip the ones you’d find potentially bothersome. It’s very cleanly organized.

  6. A few of my family members (doctors) read this and totally recommend it. Once upon a time, high school Flann also wanted to be a doctor and I got to go to my sister’s med school cadaver class. It was seriously SO interesting. I cannot imagine what it would be like for them not to have access to actual bodies to see what everything actually looks like in practice. I also went to see a pancreatic transplant and watched my dad do a few bone marrow biopsies. The last one was the creepiest to me as the person is totally awake as it happens. By far the grossest operation I watched was corn surgery that I watched when they used to show operations on television in full–what the heck happened to that, anyway? Feet and hands are just disgusting to me.

    I’m so happy you reviewed this in audio. Nonfiction can be a slog sometimes to read in book form but it is easier to just put a disc on and listen in the car. I’ve seen this a few times at my library and I’m definitely getting it after I finish these Cybils nominees.

    • Heidi says:

      Bwahaha…”Feet and hands are just disgusting to me.” Love that random finish after your fascinating gore descriptions. It is totally fascinating though! If you dug watching surgeries and cadaver class, you will totally dig this book. I agree that non-fiction often goes easier on audio–it’s the way I prefer reading it! This one was excellent.

  7. […] This month I’m most excited for Dark Triumph, Quintana of Charyn, and The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle, but I’m also quite interested in Lauren Willig’s new book, as well as Patrick Ness’ The Crane Wife.  I’ve also heard awesome things about In the Shadow of Blackbirds that have me completely sold, and even have my eye on Mary Roach’s new non-fic since I was a fan of Stiff. […]

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