Wednesday, February 03, 2010

fun with dead people: Mary Roach's Stiff

I am sure I have already yammered on endlessly to most anybody who will listen about what a fascinating and enjoyable book this is. But if you are one of the unfortunate few who has so far escaped my enthusiastic blatherings about Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, allow me to back you into the corner for a few minutes and give you my elevator pitch while you search desperately for a means of escape.

Stiff is not only one of the most enthralling books I have read in a long time, but also one of the funniest. Which is not exactly what you would expect from a book about cadavers. But with this book, Roach joins the ranks of those science writers who have become personal heroes of mine with their ability to explain complex concepts in such a way that even a dolt like me can understand them.

I have always been fascinated by the workings of the body (you can't stumble through a Master's in Physiology without some level of enthusiasm), and have never been particularly squeamish about the processes of decomposition. But even if you are bothered by the engrossing details of decay or by the thought of injury analysis of the human wreckage that is sometimes required to piece together the details of an air crash, I guarantee that you will be fascinated by the lengthy history of body snatching for the purposes of human dissection, by bizarre tales of medical cannibalism, and by a litany of attempts at human head transplantation.

Roach looks at the use of cadavers in medical school anatomy classes and as practice tools for plastic surgeons, as volunteers in body farms to pinpoint decomposition times and factors for crime analysis, at the use of body parts in crash injury studies and in ballistics and bomb analyses, and she ponders the concept of the human soul and the issues that arise in brain death.

Who knew that dead people led such busy and intriguing lives?

Did I mention that Stiff is hilarious? Somehow Roach manages to bring real laugh out loud humour to the subject, while still treating the deceased with dignity and compassion.

Personally I cannot wait to read Mary Roach's other books - Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.


Wandering Coyote said...

Wow. Great review. I hadn't heard of this before and the two other books sound just as intriguing going by their titles. I love CSI and I bet this book would would be a good companion to that show.

Jas B said...

Wow, seems like quite a read, Barb. I would sure add her on the list of authors to read...

Allison said...

I've never heard of this author, the books sound intriguing. I will have to add them to the list...oh it's getting long.

Doc said...

"...with their ability to explain complex concepts in such a way that even a dolt like me can understand them."

Honestly dear, they don't give a Master's degrees in Physiology to dolts. Your average Joe would have a hard time spelling Physiology, let alone explaining what it was. You sell yourself short dear.

The book sounds great, but I think I might skip ahead to "Bonk", thanks.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Certainly the chapters on body farms and on injury analysis would make great companion reading to a forensics show, WC.
Doesn't she choose the most intriguing titles for her books?

You would love this, Jas, with your massive scienve brain. Definitely worth reading.

I know, my list is getting crazy too, Al. I was going to say I am going to have to quit my job and take up reading full-time but then I remembered I don't have one! I am doomed, apparently.

My alma mater does give out Masters in Physiology to dolts, Doc. Truly. I look at what grad students are doing today and realise my research project was like an afternoon in kindergarten in comparison.
Looking forward to Bonk myself!

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Loved that book.

Remi said...

Sorry, far too squeamish. They have Bodyworlds going on at the Ontario Science Centre. I'm postponing my visit until after it's done.

The only thing I've ever enjoyed about surgery is that I get to be asleep while they open me up. By the time I come to, I'm already stitched back together.

Anonymous said...

I ordered Mary Roach's book from our library when you mentioned it awhile back...I'm looking forward to it, as only a CSI/Law And Order/House freak can.
Barb, you really have a way of influencing people...have you considered politics?

Charlie said...

"... a litany of attempts at human head transplantation."

Attempts? I must know at least a dozen people where it's worked: if not stitched on properly, they would have lost them years ago.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Have you read any of her other ones, Dr M?

I'll trade you, Remi! I would love to see Bodyworks!
I'm with you though on not enjoying surgery as a recreational activity. Not on myself anyway.

Oh my god NO, Berni! There are few pursuits I am interested in less than politics. I want people to like me, not despise me!
You're gonna love the book though.

I think I might fall into that category, Charlie.

mister anchovy said...

Oh, you zombie you!

Gifted Typist said...

Oh, that looks right up my alley. Thanks.
BT-Dubb, who are your other science writing heros?

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Mr Anchovy: mmmmm dead people!

Among my favourites are two of our own, Gifted Typist - Jay Ingram and Bob McDonald.

BeckEye said...

Eeeeeeyyyuuuck. I think I'll pass on this one.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Beckeye: Chicken!

John Mutford said...

I have this book! Now I'm really looking forward to it.