Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, the May book club selection, is not for the faint of heart, as Roach discusses some of the most gruesome experiments and studies in science that involve cadavers. However, she does pepper her examination of these curious lives with humor that helps to break up the grosser aspects of the book.
“The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.” (pg. 9)
Through her — what some would call — irreverent humor, Roach explores the role that cadavers have played not only in scientific and medicinal research, but also in auto safety and military ballistics. Readers may find they need to take breaks from reading as Roach gets very detailed, but others may find that reading straight through is made easier by her asides and funny anecdotes. Even the people she talks to have to have a sense of humor so they can disconnect from the sadness of lost life, like one surgical student who said she didn’t have a problem working on heads, but she did find it uncomfortable to work on hands because they hold you back.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach is a sensational look at the role of cadavers in modern society and in our past, and is often the case, cadavers are not given their due. These cadavers, which were mostly donated, have given us insight into the human systems, the impacts the body can sustain before dying, and some of the wacky theories that scientists and doctors had about severed head reanimation and more.
About the Author:
Her most recent book, GRUNT: The Curious Science of Humans at War, is out in June 2016.
Mary has written for National Geographic, Wired, Discover, New Scientist, the Journal of Clinical Anatomy, and Outside, among others. She serves as a member of the Mars Institute’s Advisory Board and the Usage Panel of American Heritage Dictionary. Her 2009 TED talk made the organization’s 2011 Twenty Most-Watched To Date list. She was the guest editor of the 2011 Best American Science and Nature Writing, a finalist for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize, and a winner of the American Engineering Societies’ Engineering Journalism Award, in a category for which, let’s be honest, she was the sole entrant.
What the Book Club Thought:
Most of us enjoyed the book and its curiosities. I have no idea why this book sat so long on my bookshelf unread. A couple others were a bit put off by the author’s tangents, but they also read the book in a once-through fashion. As I read it in spurts, I didn’t find the tangents to be that off-putting. One member expressed that the book could have been improved by some editing to make it less wordy and more like the author’s published newspaper/magazine articles. Mostly, the members found the subject matter fascinating, though one member did mention that the part about animals seemed a little out of place. Overall, it seemed as though everyone enjoyed this book club selection.