Book Review: STIFF, by Mary Roach

Probably there are only two or three people on the planet that could write a book about cadavers and do it well. Thankfully, Mary Roach is one of these two or three people. In STIFF, she researches what it is, exactly, that happens to our bodies after we're no longer in them, dedicating chapters to organ donation, several different sorts of research, embalming and cremation, the stages of human decay, and the experiemental "water reduction" and composting methods.

Also, there are chapters dedicated to human head transplants, the medicinal uses of corpses and cannebalism.

This is not the sort of book to bring up in discussion at dinner parties, sure, but I think you'd be surprised how quickly the subject ceases to be "gross" and becomes fascinating instead. After a few pages of stomach-churning detail, I felt myself effectively sucked in, and thus was able to read about jellified human remains with a sort of horrified interest that no longer involved any risk of upset stomach.

And I say that Mary Roach is the perfect one to write this book because, well, she is. She's quirky and funny, and just the sort of person you could envision actually watching some of these ghastly procedures and asking odd, slightly inappropriate questions. Roach brings a wonderful mix of humor, history, physics, science and opinion to an offbeat subject, and her engaging tone, plus the fascinating information, left me hard-pressed not to read passages on the medicinal uses of human body fluids in Ancient China/Greece/Rome aloud to my coworkers over lunch, or to hold forth on the amount of time that can elapse between decapitation and actual death (minutes! Whole minutes can pass before a severed head ceases to register expressions and respond to its surroundings. Ew) over dinner with my husband. This did not make me many friends, but honestly, STIFF is a brilliant book, I think, fun to read and fascinating (which I've said about three times so far, "fascinating," but that's the word for it, so I won't apologize).

I am curious what subject Roach will tackle in her next book. Or perhaps I'd rather not know...


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