Stiff – Mary Roach

Non fiction is something that I really struggle with. I don’t mean memoirs and autobiographies, I mean anything that’s well neither of those. If there were any breed of non fiction that I thought that I would really struggle with then I would say that it is science. So imagine my joy when I discovered Mary Roach, a new writer to me though I have all her books on the TBR, who not only makes science interesting they make it funny… even in death with ‘Stiff’ a subject which is something that scares me, erm, to death.

It might not be a subject that you would think you would want to read about but death is really the only guarantee that we have in life, and though we might not openly admit it aren’t we all a little bit fascinated (in a morbidly inquisitive or scientific way) by it? Well in ‘Stiff’ Mary Roach is very intrigued by just that and meets all the people who have dealings with us when we die and asks all the questions that we would if we honestly could.

I thought this would simply be a look into what happened to us in the now after we die, which is quite enough of a subject to contend with. However Mary Roach takes it further finding out what happens not only if we are cremated or buried but what happens to peoples bodies donated to science and research. The opening chapter showing how heads can be used by plastic surgeons as practise, something I would never have considered would be an option for someone dearly departed.

But it’s not just for anatomy lessons for doctors that our bodies can be used, there is so much more. For example how bodies have been used by the army to design the best shoes in land mine filled fields, or how they are used to design weapon proof attire for policemen saving peoples lives. Some of the stories are quite horrific (you might not want to be munching whilst having this book in your hand), some are fascinating and some are funny. I didn’t think, despite it being about death, that I would find it emotional in any way, wrong! In fact one particular tale of ‘H’ a woman who is brain dead and is being used to collect her internal organs to save the lives of four different people across America really, really moved me. No, I wasn’t expecting that either.

Through all her subjects from anatomy to cannibalism and everything in between Mary Roach looks at the history and some of the legends that surround death. There is the tale of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh, the gravediggers in London, sacrificial old men in China who ‘honey’ themselves (has to be read to be believed like most of the book actually) and so on. You get history, you get insight, you get emotion and laughter – yes I was in hysterics at some points – and you get reassurance in a strange way. All the while in the company of Mary Roach who by the end of the book I felt I was firm friends with, if only all non fiction whatever its subject could be as readable as this.

A book that will: open your mind and make you think, it will also demystify death a little in a slightly bizarrely comforting way. Not one to be read anytime near eating, especially if you have Rice Krispies or Chicken Soup in front of you… that’s all I am saying, you’ve been warned but do read this book, its ace 9.5/10

I know it might not be a subject you think you would want to read about but I cannot recommend this strongly enough – read it. Who else has read this and can back me up? Or did anyone have the completely opposite response to this? Have you read any of Roach’s other books? Which other non fiction books have impressed you? What would you recommend to someone really unsure of non fiction like me?


Filed under Books of 2010, Mary Roach, Penguin Books, Review

37 responses to “Stiff – Mary Roach

  1. I read Bonk – her book about sex. I loved it. I thought it was funny and informative. I have wanted to read this, but am worried I’ll find it a bit gruesome. I think I’ll start with her other ones before I build up the courage to read about the dead bodies.

    • I have heard Bonk is brilliant and some people are raving about ‘Packing for Mars. I wont lie to you the book does get gruesome but never in a tasteless way or to court controversy, its because it needs to be there due to the subject. She does it very well.

  2. Eva

    I really enjoyed Stiff but kind of loathed Spook. Haven’t read Bonk though!

    I loved Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum, if you’re looking for a nonfic suggestion!

  3. i really enjoyed stiff – like you, i think more than i expected i would. i read it about a year ago now, but i still think she did a good job separating the spiritual and physical aspects of death. I remain squeamish at the thought of, say, my head being used for plastic surgeons to practice on after my death, but she argues well that we should view the corpse as a means through which, in some way, to extend life. nice review!

  4. How fascinating. The subject matter reminds me of a half-hour documentary I saw on Channel 4 (where else?) recently which looked at two teenagers — a girl and boy — who worked in (separate) funeral parlours. Both had such a healthy attitude to death and explained how much they loved their jobs, it almost made me want to go work in one myself!!

    • I thought you might have read this actually Kim as I think it and indeed Mary Roach would be right up your street. I watched that show you mentioned on 4od thanks to your recommendation I thought it was brilliant!

  5. Mary Roach certainly has a great reputation of taking an unsavory or politically incorrect or boring topic and making it humorous and informative. I’ve read none of them yet, but I intend to someday. I have some fears about reading this particular one though. I would love to hear about organs being used to save others, but being used as an experiment for the army and being blown up for the sake of shoes? Not comforting! My morbid curiosity would compel me to read this more than anything.

    • Yes I can imagine she gets a name for herself doing that as she makes everything interesting and makes you look at it all from a completely different perspective.

      I would recommend this, it will turn the subject on its, erm, head!

  6. I have not read non-fiction lately, but I do read it regularly. I’ve a book of George Orwell’s essays which are wonderful. I just finished Shooting an Elephant which rocked my world as they say. One of my favorite reads last year was The Looming Tower about the rise of Al-Qaeda, which I think I’m misspelling. There’s also a wonderful little book called Girafa about the giraffe that took Paris by storm.

  7. I downloaded the audio version of STIFF last year, but haven’t gotten to it yet. My nonfiction recommendation is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It’s about the woman behind HeLa cells, the history of cell culture, medical ethics, and how it all effected her family. Sounds pretty dry, but it was actually fascinating.

    • Oooh I wonder what this is like as an audio, who reads it? If it was Mary herself I would love to hear it.

      The Immortal Life… is one that I really want to read and you have reminded me of it – thank you very much!

      • Finally checked on the reader. It’s Shelly Frasier, not the author. I’m less than half way through the Bleak House audio now, so it may be a while before I get to it.

  8. The fact that this book is about death is exactly what has always kept me from reading it. I have heard such good things about it, but I don’t think I could handle the creepy factor?

  9. I read Stiff and loved it too. So fascinating! I’d like to check out her newest book, “Traveling in Space” I think it’s called.

  10. Oh, and I would recommend “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot.

  11. gaskella

    This has been on my wishlist for a while. I think I may just have to buy it, you’ve confirmed to me that I’ll find it fascinating.

  12. I’m totally with you. There are some non-fics that just grab you and pull you in no matter the topic and others that can be about something you love and you just can’t get through them to save your life. I just read one about surfers, science and giant rogue waves (The Wave) and it was possibly the fastest non-fiction read I’ve ever had even though it wasn’t something I’m totally into.

  13. I tend not to read non-fiction but I did read and liked this one. I decided after reading this one that I want to be composted.

  14. Matt Cresswell

    I love this book! I never expected it to be so laugh-out-loud hilarious based on its subject matter. Six Feet Over is great as well, very informative, although slightly less funny, and Bonk (which I assumed would be innately much funnier than the others) was mildly disappointing, though still worthy or recommendation. I loved all three so much that new book due out shortly about astronauts is the only book I’ve ever pre-ordered on Amazon. Praise indeed, etc!

  15. Stiff is a fabulous read, she’s a very witty writer. I also enjoyed Six Feet Over, about the afterlife, (I think it’s called Spooks in the American market).

  16. I read this and felt as you did – didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t what I read. That said, I LOVED it. Who knew cadavers could be so funny!? Her next book, Spook (which the commenter above said had a different title in the UK), actually dealt more with the afterlife in a spiritual matter, if you’re interested in that. Or actually, even if you aren’t, it’s still worth reading, though I found Stiff better.

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