Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

I have been making random comments about dead bodies recently. That is because I've been reading Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. One woman's search to find out all the things that could possible happen to your mortal remains after you've vacated them. It's a fascinating mixture of history, scientific research and anecdotal stories.

Not one for the faint of heart although if you are a fan of TV shows such as Bones and CSI, I don't think you have much to worry about. I would advise not to read on an aeroplane, or at least skip chapter 5 if it's the only reading material you have. I don't know if I should be worried that I knew quite a lot of the information already, especially the European history and more than I should really know about decomposition. This it what television does to a person!


If you insist on driving around in vintage cars with no seatbelt on, try to time your crashes for the systole portion of your heartbeat.

The section I found most difficult to read was around decapitation and head transplants. The information on beheading was something I knew about but had done my best to forget. The idea of being aware your head has been cut off is just too much for me and I found some of the experiments described in this section stepped over the mark of enjoyable reading.

Sometimes she comes across as trying to be funny and not quite getting there. There are plenty of things that are amusing in themselves, the thought of scientists catapulting guinea pigs across the lab for instance (though not so funny for the poor creatures). I should add that if you are sensitive about research on animals, this is probably a book to avoid. The tone didn't seem entirely consistent throughout and it dragged a little at times, notably on the “religious research” chapter. Maybe it was just a lack of interest on my part. I don't think it's as funny a book as people make out, more morbidly fascinating.

The ability to perform brain surgery while traveling full tilt on a cobblestone street is a testament to the steadiness of Laborde's hand and/or the craftsmanship of nineteenth-century broughams.

I think it's important to bear in mind that whilst classified as a popular science book, it is written by a reporter. There are some good sciencey bits (technical term) but when left to her own devices, Mary sometimes gets things wrong. For instance she describes bile as an “acidy substance” when it is indeed alkaline, something most of us learned in biology as it helps neutralise stomach acid. If you're reading this for the science, mistakes like this will make you question the authenticity of some of the statements made.

An excessive use of footnotes also spoiled the flow a bit. I feel they should mostly be used for reference points or definitions and a few excellent writers manage to use them for comic effect but here they seemed to be paragraphs that could easily have gone in the main text. Instead they stop you reading halfway through a sentence.

Overall great content and some really fascinating stuff but let down by a few niggles.



Also reviewed @
Literary Lindsey
Gabriel Reads

5 comments:

  1. Alright, I think I might pass on (haha) that book after all! Maybe I am a wee bit more squeamish than I though I'd be, but oh well ...

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  2. I think the topic is interesting, but I don't think I could read a whole book on it, especially after reading your review....

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  3. This has been on my TBR pile for far too long (along with another two of her books), but your review's dampened my enthusiasm a bit. Only a bit, though, I still want to read it, but the footnote thing sounds annoying and I wasn't expecting stuff about animal experimentation in a book about human cadavers. Still, I can always skip those bits I suppose. Great review - now I know what to look out for!

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  4. I've wanted to read this for a while, but I'm scared it will give me nightmares. I'm scared of flying so your comments on chapter 5 aren't helping. I think I'll avoid it for a while.

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  5. that sounds fascinating but the stuff about animal experiments and the getting facts wrong would put me off. Excellent review though.

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