“Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” by Mary Roach
Anyone who finds research of dead bodies particularly fascinating. Or anyone who would like to learn some science nuggets without being bogged down by a plethora of technical mumbo-jumbo and boring numbers.
When science is written down, the result can be very boring — as anyone who’s ever had to read scientific papers at length KNOWS. However, Mary Roach finds the balance between hard scientific facts and light, witty commentary in “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.” What’s even more impressive is her incredibly humorous yet factual and respectful handling of her chosen topic of the dead.
Roach takes on the task of finding out exactly what happens to bodies that are donated to science after the person has passed and how these practices came to be what they are today. Each chapter looks at different uses for the body — like being used in a medical school anatomy lab or serving as a car crash test dummy. While her writing is rife with scientific truths, she livens it up with her dry wit and makes sure to include personable details. She makes sure to include anecdotes about a particular cadaver or a stand-out instance from an interviewee. She personalizes her subject — almost making it feel like you’re not reading about dead bodies.
Aside from the interesting current information that the book gives, especially for those of us who have the mindset to donate our bodies to science posthumously, there are detailed historical accounts as well. Roach has clearly done her research and shows it through her scattering of references to Vesalius and other famous anatomists. These tales show just how far ethics and the need to be politically correct have come, especially when it concerns the bodily remains of a human being. Again, Roach does this with grace and ample humor so that the reading is not too dry.
Overall, we found this book to be a very insightful read that felt more worthwhile than a trashy book for the beach (not that there is anything wrong with a little delightful indulgence). Roach is able to cleverly convey her genuine interest and fascination with the subject, which we believe translates to the reader being interested as well. However, a word of caution: this book is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. There are plenty of imaginative illustrations of what exactly is happening, and not many details of gore are spared. And definitely think twice before bringing this book along as a meal companion.
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