- Fizzy Thoughts: Stiff

Stiff

Monday, February 16, 2009


Stiff
Mary Roach
2003
292 pages


Okay, this book is not for everyone. If you have a weak stomach, consider bodies sacred things, or even don't want to laugh about either death or what our bodies do after death, than this book is not for you. This review is also not for you, because it's going to be darn hard to review this book without being both as gross and as snarky as the book.

First, a few side notes. I have a pretty realistic view of death. And a lack of any beliefs about what happens after death. And I come from a family with both a sarcastic sense of humor and a tradition of cremation. All this to say that this book didn't offend me in the least. In fact, I'm guessing Mary Roach would fit right into our family.

Also, for all the snarkiness, this really is a fascinating book. I can't picture a better approach for a book that takes on a topic that can potentially be touchy. Despite the sarcasm, the author does have respect for the dead, and that also comes through in the writing.

So what does a book about dead bodies talk about? Well, here you go...a very brief synopsis of what is discussed:

Chapter One: A Head Is A Terrible Thing to Waste
In which the author observes a group of plastic surgeons taking a refresher class in face lifts. Their test subjects? Heads. Dead heads. With no bodies attached.

Chapter Two: Crimes of Anatomy
The disgusting, gruesome, crime-ridden history of the study of anatomy. Did I mention disgusting? Note to future readers of this book: don't read this book during your lunch break. Also, interesting fact: during the 1700's it was possible to pay your tuition with dead bodies.

Chapter Three: Life After Death
How bodies decay. Also not a pleasant lunchtime reading experience. Because somewhere there is a field strewn with decomposing bodies being studied by scientists. Also, embalming is discussed. Interesting fact: the father of embalming (Thomas Holmes) went insane. He also requested he not be embalmed after his death.

Chapter Four: Dead Man Driving
Just what it sounds like - (dead) human crash test dummies. If it makes you feel any better, there are also people who have volunteered to be (live) human crash test dummies.

Chapter Five: Beyond the Black Box
Plane crashes and what dead bodies can tell us about the crashes. La la la la la la...not reading this chapter. I like to travel too much, and I prefer to not think about plane crashes. This is also why I never made it past the first episode of Lost.

Chapter Six: The Cadaver Who Joined the Army
The study of how bullets and bombs...ummm, do what bullets and bombs do to human flesh. Interesting fact: there is such a thing as ballistic gelatin, which is made from the same gross stuff as regular gelatin. As a footnote (yes, there are lots of footnotes) says "other products made with cow-bone-and-pigskin-based gelatin include marshmallows, nougat-type candy bar fillings, liquorice, Gummi Bears, caramels, sports drinks, butter, ice cream, vitamin gel caps, suppositories, and that distasteful whitish peel on the outside of salamis. What I'm getting at here is that if you're going to worry about mad cow disease, you probably have more to worry about than you thought. And that if there's any danger, which I like to think there isn't, we're all doomed, so relax and have another Snickers."

Chapter Seven: Holy Cadaver
The various attempts that have been made to reenact the crucifixion of Jesus.

Chapter Eight: How to Know If You're Dead
The history of defining death, and the search for the soul.

Chapter Nine: Just A Head
Head transplants. Seriously. Although not human heads...more like monkey and dog heads. There's a lot of ewww in this chapter, too. And the next one.

Chapter Ten: Eat Me
It's too close to dinner time to go into detail. In short, all the different parts of the body that have been prescribed to cure what ails you. The author brings up an excellent point that the thought of ingesting many of these things would make a person sick, which probably helped to cure a few of the ailments.

Chapter Eleven: Out of the Fire, Into the Compost Bin
Alternatives to cremation and burial. In particular, the idea of freeze drying a body, shattering it into small bits, and then composting the remains. This is a very serious proposal, by a Swedish biologist/environmentalist. Although I'm guessing it's got a ways to go before Americans embrace the idea.

Chapter Twelve: Remains of the Author
In which Mary Roach divulges what will be done with her body after she dies. It might surprise you.

25 comment(s):

Literate Housewife said...

This would really make me want to read it if I were not squeamish and would prefer not to know what will happen to my body once my mojo has gone to the other side. You are a brave, brave reader my friend.

bermudaonion said...

Now, I don't mind snarkiness, but I'm not sure this book is for me after I read the chapter titles and descriptions.

Joanne said...

I'm very sarcastic, I enjoy snarkiness, morbidly dark humor and interesting facts about topics people don't talk about around company - and this book was frikkin' awesome!

The author gave so much information about things you would never think of. And I thought alot of it was valuable in an educational way, I like being aware of how things really are, I don't want a rainbows and butterflies approach to such an important aspect of life. I want the honest to goodness truth no matter how gross it may be.

Oh and in regards to Chapter Three, there is an amazing documentary about one of my favorite photographers Sally Mann, she visited the famous Knoxville body farm while working on her collection What Remains. The documentary is called What Remains: The Life & Work of Sally Mann.

sherry said...

Intriguing...will have to think about it for a while as to whether I'm up for this or not.

The author's snark probably helped to keep her from going a little crazy from the subject matter.

Chris said...

Ah! You've got me wanting to go take this one off of my TBR shelf right now!!! I loved Bonk (her book about sex) so much and went and bought this one right away. Still haven't read it though :(

softdrink said...

LH and Kathy - a strong stomach comes in handy with this book.

Jo - of course a Zombie would like it! But visuals of Chapter 3? I'll have to think about that.

Sherry - It's worth it. Really.

Chris - Go. Read. Now. :-D

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

Is it really creepy of me to say that I NEED to read this book??

girasoli said...

You have me intrigued. I would also skip the flying chapter and would have to skip the Eat Me chapter. I am very curious about the remains of the author.

Louise said...

This is definitely a book I would read.

A few years ago, me and my better half went to Berlin (its just a few hours drive from Copenhagen, so I actually do not know why we don't visit more often). We saw a lot of museums and all that, and then I read in my guidebook, that they had this medicine-museum, where people under 12 were not allowed, photography was not allowed and other interesting things that made me say: I wanna go there! It sounds interesting and gross.

So we went and I spent hours in there, while my better half spent his time outside, sitting with his head between his knees, trying not to pass out. I was wildly fascinated with all those dead bodies, various bodyparts with various illness'es and so on.

Its a pretty large museum and I know there are medicine museums everywhere, even here in Copenhagen, but I mean, this one in Berlin was THE BEST ;o)

So I will look for that book soon.

Anyone wanting to know how the ancient Egyptians embalmed their dead? LOL....

Anne said...

This sounds fascinating. The irreverance would totally not bother me, not sure about the squeamish bits though! Ooo, I might have to get this for my best friend's husband...judging from your review, I have a feeling he would get a kick out of this book. Being surrounded by so much death themselves (he's an Anglican priest, she's a United Church minister and they do a lot of funerals), they have to have a sense of humour about death or their lives would be unbearably dark! Thanks for posting about this, Jill.

Beth F said...

I absolutely LOVED this book. But, ok, so I taught anatomy labs in a former life and I'm not squeamish. This was just fascinating. I'm a bit weird I guess.

Kristi said...

Ok - you made me read through this post because of your beginning - I had to know! I agree with the plane crash chapter (and the first episode of Lost)- I couldn't go any further than that either! In a younger life I had plans of being a doctor - might have to check this one out!

Fyrefly said...

I loved her other two books (Bonk and Spook), and have this sitting on my TBR pile. There's very little I'm squeamish about, and I love snarky narrative non-fiction, so I think Stiff looks fascinating... although admitting that makes me feel a little morbid and creepy. :)

Lisa said...

I loved this one. It was gross, but fascinating. I also liked Bonk but haven't gotten around to Spook, which seems to have the worst reviews.

Annie said...

I don't think I have the stomach for this but I sure enjoyed reading your review!

Ti said...

This book could also be called "1001 Things to do with a Dead Body". LOL. I am so going to read this!

Michele said...

This is a great book for mystery lovers, CSI lovers, etc. I read it a few years ago with my book club. While we all found some parts a bit creepy, it was fascinating! I just loved reading the reality of things that are part of my favorite types of books and tv shows. Highly recommended!

We had our book club meeting in the hospital cafeteria - couldn't swing a tour of the morgue though.

Nymeth said...

Definitely sounds like my kind of book. I'm pretty hard to offend too :P

lisamm said...

I have sort of a sick fascination with this kind of stuff. Will be seeking this one out soon.

softdrink said...

Michele - nope, not at all. In fact, sounds like you're not alone.

girasoli - Michele's a pilot...I wonder if she'll read that chapter??

Lou - judging by the response to this post, yeah, lots of people are interested in the embalming techniques of ancient Egyptians!

Anne - I think it would make an excellent (and unique) gift!

Beth - looks like there are a lot of us weirdos. :-D

Kristi - yay! a fellow Lost ignorer...now I don't feel so alone.

fyrefly - I heard the author speak about Bonk...and oh, the stories!

Lisa - Stiff was so good I'm almost afraid to try the others.

Annie - probably a smart move. ;-)

Ti and Nymeth and Lisa - hah! more converts to the dark side.

Michele - at the hospital??? Way cool! Although the morgue would have been the best ever.

Ladytink_534 said...

Yeah, I won't be reading this!!! Ew!

Wrighty - said...

I think this information is fascinating. I couldn't read it if it were disrespectful (I don't mind a sense of humor though, I even prefer it) or even too personal but the science of it is so interesting and yet seems so taboo. There is so much fear and the facts can be helpful. I do want to know about (most of) those things and CSI and books about the Body Farm get my attention. I'll have to look for this book. I never heard of it before I read your review. Thanks for the info!

mari said...

I must get my hands on this book. Thanks for this review.

bookoholic13 said...

I'm all for becoming a crash test dummy!! Or, if I can't do that, I'll do the freeze-dry thing - it'll be convenient since I'm Swedish... :)

Rebecca Reid said...

I am totally a queezy-at-the-site-of-blood person and I loved listening to the audio. My review is here if you're interested.

In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish. ~S.I. Hayakawa

The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.
~St. Augustine

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
~Mark Twain

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