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!
Title: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Mary Roach [Website|Twitter]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
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.