Friday, December 2, 2011

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (Audio)

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
by Mary Roach
narrated by Shelly Frasier
Tantor Audio, 2004
7 hours 59 minutes

Publisher's Summary:
An oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem.

For two thousand 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.

My thoughts:
It seems like Stiff has been in my library forever. I downloaded it sometime in 2004 and vaguely remember listening to a few minutes before deciding the timing wasn't right. When I began again last month, I wondered if perhaps that elusive 'right time' would never arrive.

The introduction posed no problem but then, in the opening chapter, Roach visits a face lift refresher course for plastic surgeons. A new technique is to be practiced on cadavers. Roach finds herself gazing upon a classroom of cadaver heads draped in lavender cloths, propped in roasting pans at individual work stations, awaiting face lifts. This image literally made me shudder!

However, I'm glad I persevered. Mary Roach is an extraordinary science writer. A natural curiosity drives her to ask questions that might not occur to you or me. She then conveys the answers in an immensely readable manner, and her slightly irreverent, sarcastic sense of humor makes it all fun. Yes, a study of the lives of human cadavers can actually be a lot of fun.

Roach explores 'cadaver life' possibilities that reach far beyond traditional medical research or an anatomy lab for first year medical students. {The section of medical students' reflections on their cadavers was truly touching, and mirrors conversations I've had with medical students over the years.} Cadaver involvement in automobile crash tests has lead to significant safety improvements. Cadavers have taken part in decomposition studies which have aided crime investigation. Roach also talks about funeral practices ranging from traditional embalming and cremation to more experimental techniques such as human composting.

Stiff provides an interesting look at a topic many of us (myself included) tend to avoid. I look forward to reading Roach's other work.

A note on the audio production: Frasier is a new-to-me narrator. She did an excellent job of capturing Roach's slightly sarcastic sense of humor and I would be happy to listen to her again.

My rating:

Bottom line:
Stiff is very interesting and, at times, even funny, but definitely not for the squeamish.


  1. I absolutely loved this book and love Roach's work. I too listened to the audio edition. Roach spoke at a BEA event I attended and she is just as interesting, informative, and funny in person as she is on the page.

  2. I am glad you were able to get into this one. I thought it was so fascinating. I really need to re read it!

  3. I loved this book too. Along with the sarcastic humor, I also loved the occasionally sadder moments, like the discussion of crash-test dummies and why no one really knows if child seats really work.

  4. I liked this book a lot, but I can't imagine listening to an audiobook version. This book makes me want to be composted after slipping off this mortal coil. Or used for research. All those things that families are squeamish about letting happen to their dead relatives, I say, bring it on. I think the most surprising thing to me in the book was that cadavers are used for crash test dummies.

  5. the premise sounds marvelous and quite fascinating, but I can't stop shuddering just reading your review. I'm too weak-stomached for this one, I think, which is too bad!

  6. I have the book on my shelf at home but haven't cracked it open yet. I've had it for 3 years now! I think your review might make me pick it up sooner!

  7. A book club member friend of mind read this one and she thought it was pretty spot on. That says a lot since she works for the Country Coroners office.

  8. This has been on my wishlist for a long time, but I'm too scared to actually buy it. I can't imagine listening to the audio version - I think that would just be too much for my squeamish little self!

  9. Interesting that they were used to test the guillotine. Thanks for the review - I've seen this and wasn't sure if I wanted to read it.

  10. this is one that's been on my radar for a while, but I just never seem to get around to it. It sounds like one I would really find fascinating.

  11. Beth F - Would love to hear Roach speak! I imagine her to be both funny and fascinating.

    Reviewsbylola - Wasn't too sure at the beginning, but I'm so glad I stuck with this one.

    Amy - The crash test section was very moving, but I just loved the tributes from the medical students!

    Thomas - Composting actually appealed to me, too, but I'm sure the family would never go for it.

    Audra - Well, this definitely isn't for everyone. The decomposition studies got a little graphic for my taste, too.

    Linda - Now I don't feel so bad for taking 7 years to get to this book! Hope you decide to give it a try soon.

    Ti - That's a pretty impressive endorsement! Do you think you'll give this a try?

    Jackie - I think the audio version is probably worse for the squeamish. I seriously almost lost it with the face lift description!

    Cozy in Texas - It's pretty amazing to learn of everything cadavers have done!

    Carol - It's hard to believe Roach could make such a topic both fascinating and funny. Hope you get a chance to read/listen soon.

  12. I read this one a while back and honestly really enjoyed it...odd, considering the topic but that just shows to me that the author is very talented.

  13. Staci - Definitely an odd topic, but I agree it's a great book!

  14. I loved this book! Although I had to skip the chapter on plane crashes. Her last book, Packing for Mars, is just as good. Funny and interesting all at the same time.

  15. Softdrink - Yea, that plane crash chapter was a tough one, too. Packing for Mars is on my wish list (thanks to your review). Sounds like it will be gentler in terms of subject matter.

  16. The thought of a TBL pile makes me laugh a little. I've started my own little "to be listened to" pile--something I would have never thought I'd do.

    Like the idea of this one being short--sometimes I need a short audio to help shake things up a bit.

  17. Trish - I know that feeling! After several long audios, this was refreshingly, relatively short. I'm really trying to avoid accumulating a TBL pile ;-)


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