Book Reviewed: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach
I've been reading almost nothing but difficult contemporary poetry and fluffy historical romances lately, so it seemed necessary that I read something completely different from those two things. Which is how I ended up reading Mary Roach's Stiff, a book about what happens to human cadavers donated to science. I really like Mary Roach and her writing. Packing for Mars is one of my favorite nonfiction books. She writes about science in a way that is approachable, interesting, and funny. Even though the subject matter of Stiff is a little gross, I figured it'd at least be a good time.
Which, of course, it was. The book is fascinating, looking at the different ways human bodies are used for research. There are also chapters about organ donation and body disposal, which sounds disturbing but is actually quite thought-provoking. Best of all, Roach fills the book with lots of weird historical anecdotes. Often, the anecdotes sent me down my own research paths, including reading interviews with a woman named Karen Greenlee, a famous necrophiliac who ran off with a dead man in 1979. These stories bring the book's subjects into a more human perspective, letting the reader laugh or gasp in equal measure. Stiff manages to expose a lot about death without ever seeming morbid or exploitative.
My favorite chapter was "Crimes of Anatomy," which is about the way scientists have acquired human cadavers throughout history. If there is one term in this world I love, it's "resurrectionist," the name given to body snatchers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. I was less impressed by "Holy Cadaver," which is too short and skeptical (a complaint I once leved against Roach's Spook) to make any kind of real impact. Despite this one misstep, I think the book is quite good overall, although I'm not sure I like it as much as I liked Packing for Mars.