Badkittyuno’s #CBR5 Review #89: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach


Mary Roach’s books are so much fun, mostly because she’s obviously having a great time researching and writing them. They’re witty and silly and full of a ton of information that I never would have even considered seeking out on my own. Go read them!

Spook is Roach’s attempt to use science to explain what happens after we die. She investigates reincarnation, the existence (and weight!) of the soul, near-death experiences and hauntings. Each chapter covers a different aspect of the afterlife, and various scientific attempts to define or prove it in some way. For instance, she discusses several methods of trying to measure the soul, like comparing the weights of bodies pre and post death.

Interesting stuff, and Roach’s take on it is a good balance between skepticism and “I want to believe”. I am atheist, and still enjoyed the discussions of religion as much as the more scientific ones. I also love how she’s not afraid to call certain researchers “nutters”, as some of them quite obviously are. And in the end, there’s more questions than answers. But it’s a fun journey.

I loved this: “Here again, we must end with the Big Shrug, a statue of which is being erected on the lawn outside my office.”

Lollygagger’s Cannonball Read V Review #42: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

This is my second Mary Roach book of this Cannonball read, and the fact that it popped into my queue right now is perfect, because Gravity is out and I cannot wait to see it.

I was excited to read this because when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. Not enough to get into the physics and astronomy track in college, or enlist in the air force, or really do anything to actively pursue that career path, but enough that to this day I still think that if I win the lottery I plan to squirrel away a chunk of the change to pay my way into space (after donating the vast majority of it to charity, of course.)

The premise is not just exploring space travel, but specifically extended space travel. Ms. Roach does a great job of weaving in the history of space travel through specific areas from eating space food to … eliminating said food. There are so many wonderful facts, great footnotes and just fun stories. She gets to ride the vomit comet (i.e. the parabolic flight), interview groundbreaking (atmosphere-busting?) astronauts, scientists and others.

The book is especially interesting because it doesn’t sugar-coat anything about space travel. I didn’t realize, for example, that some of the early space flights involved two dudes hanging out in a capsule for two weeks, no ability to wash or really take care of any personal hygiene needs. Or how much fecal matter can end up floating around in the space shuttle, and how much research and development had to go into creating a toilet, or how much effort goes into creating food that allows for a little more time between … evacuations.

Along the way of telling the story of all the challenges that are increased on a long space trip, Ms. Roach drops great little bits of knowledge. For example, she explains how the flag on the moon looked like it was blowing in the wind even though there isn’t wind on the moon, and talks about why people get motion sickness. There are so many awesome nuggets that it’s worth it for anyone who is into trivia.

You know the drill. It’s Mary Roach. It’s good. You’ll probably like it. Add it to the list.

Lady Cordelia #CBR5 Review #78: Gulp by Mary Roach

imagesMary Roach strikes me as an extremely enthusiastic woman.  Her books focus on a single particular topic and then she explores everything you can imagine in and around that theme.  Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal is a rather fascinating look at that happens on the journey in and out of the human body.  The ick factor is pretty high as Roach speaks with experts on everything from saliva, stomach acid and constipation.

In classic Roach style, this is not a dry work of science.  She takes great joy in her subject’s expertise, and some of her footnotes made me laugh out loud.  In a chapter addressing whether a human could survive being swallowed by a whale, I especially enjoyed:

While a seaman might survive the suction and swallow, his arrival in a sperm whale’s stomach would seem to present a new set of problems.*

*I challenge you to find a more innocuous sentence containing the words ‘sperm’, ‘suction’, ‘swallow’ and any homophone of ‘seaman’.  And then call me up on the homophone and read it to me.

Following a fairly chronological sequence of events, I particularly enjoyed chapters on how animals taste food differently than humans (I will be looking at those cat treats in the supermarket more critically from now on), the practicalities inherent in drug smuggling (from both ends), and the existence of something called a ‘megacolon’ (measuring 28 inches in circumference!).  I feel extremely well prepared for the next dinner party someone makes the mistake in inviting me to.

I would still consider Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void to be the best Roach books, but I did enjoy this one.  Being simultaneously grossed out and amused by a non-fiction writer seems to me to be a pretty good benchmark for a worthwhile read.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #49: Gulp by Mary Roach

gulp-9781851689934Tripping the light fantastic down the alimentary canal, right through from soup to, er, nuts, Mary Roach continues her run of popular science writing that yuks it up. Sometimes yuck. The squick factor is high with this one.

Roach points out that we don’t know a helluva lot about the digestive system, although pseudoscience abounds. Just today, I stumbled across a yoga magazine article arguing that raw foods contain more nutrients, fercrissakes. She jumps around from the magic of saliva, to Elvis’s super colon – poor old King – and the various crank cures for cleansing/improving/speeding up your plumbing equipment. There’s enemas with holy water and a brief but fascinating excursion up in to the prison economy fuelled by ‘hooping’ i.e. smuggling contraband in using the backdoor.

I loved two of her previous books, Stiff and Bonk, but I found this a more erratic in tone and harder to warm up to. Part of Roach’s schtick is quick comic sketches of her subjects, but sometimes these fall flat – and why does every single female she interviews get described by her level of attractiveness? That clangs. I was also driven to distraction by her wavering empathy levels. She’s touched by the plight of animal test subjects, but is incredibly callous when it comes to discussing human drug mules or people stricken by eating disorders.

The book is strong on interesting trivia and I certainly learned more about what happens to my daily victuals. I’ve been merrily grossing out friends and acquaintances with my new-found knowledge, and would recommend it as a decent introduction to the subject.

Badkittyuno’s #CBR5 Review #54: Stiff by Mary Roach


“Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

I LOVED this book. I know quite a few people who’ve read it (it’s been out for about 10 years) and finally got around to it myself. Roach has a way of writing that makes you laugh, makes you cringe and ends up teaching you quite a bit as well. Her research process was very hands on, and she brings you right alongside her.

Stiff is a book that explores what happens to cadavers after they die. Roach covers the gamut from traditional burial or cremation (or the less traditional methods “human composting” and “plastination” that are beginning to emerge) to donations to science. Cadavers donated to science may end up as med school dissections, crash test dummies or rotting in a field in the name of research, and Roach checks each of these scenarios out and tells us all about them. She also includes a fascinating chapter on how people have used cadavers over the years to “treat” various conditions, as well as a history of grave robbing.

Obviously, this book won’t be for everyone. But if you have a morbid curiosity about these things, check it out. And know that while Roach may make you laugh with her writing, she’s also supremely respectful and cautious in how she views these bodies — and occasionally passes judgment on those who are not.

Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #42: My Planet by Mary Roach

My PlanetI went on Amazon while writing my review for Gulp, and that’s when I discovered yet another book by Mary Roach that I needed to read. My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places (2013). By now, I’ve read all of Roach’s books, so there was no question about me picking up this one. I’d never heard of it before, but apparently it was a collection of articles that Roach had written for Reader’s Digest. I wasn’t sure what these would be like, but I was certainly willing to find out.

Click here for the rest of this review.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #30: Gulp by Mary Roach

I love Ms. Roach’s books. Stiff is a particular favorite of mine. Her writing style reads more like a fun conversation than an informative book, even though her books are inevitably also filled with interesting tidbits.

This book was no exception. Following the life of food as it passes through, well, us, Gulp spends each chapter focused on a different bodily function, some spreading across multiple chapters. Each chapter has some interesting history and interviews with folks doing research you probably didn’t know was going on. It is fun, entertaining, and an easy read.

Really the only wish I had is one that’s more for my benefit than others. I wish the book had started out with a basic reminder of the all the functions along the way. What does the small intestine do again? Is the large intestine different from the colon? Yes, I learned this in biology (I think), but that was a couple of decades ago, and I kind of assumed a book about digestion would provide me with that reminder. Additionally, while each chapter is definitely interesting on its own, there isn’t the connection one might expect in this type of book. It seems to lend itself well to a piece by piece narrative, but she only follows that in the most general terms.

Like Stiff, there are some who will be turned off by the realistic and blunt nature of the book. There’s a lot of talk of body fluids, smells and other things that people usually don’t discuss in ‘polite company.’ But if that doesn’t bother you, and like fun facts and interesting bits of trivia, then I suggest adding it to your list.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 40: Bonk by Mary Roach

Goodreads: “The study of sexual physiology – what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better – has been a paying career or a diverting sideline for scientists as far-ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson. The research has taken place behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, MRI centers, pig farms, sex-toy R&D labs, and Alfred Kinsey’s attic.

Mary Roach, “the funniest science writer in the country” (Burkhard Bilger of ‘The New Yorker’), devoted the past two years to stepping behind those doors. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Why doesn’t Viagra help women or, for that matter, pandas?

In ‘Bonk’, Roach shows us how and why sexual arousal and orgasm, two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth, can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to slowly make the bedroom a more satisfying place.”

It’s hard for me to critique nonfiction in all of my usual ways, so I’ll just say firstly that I immediately took to Roach’s writing style here, which is humorous and engaging. I think she does a great job of interpreting the data and results and translating them to a less scientific audience, and I was amused by her anecdotes of how she had to participate in some studies in order to get any kind of access to the equipment that was used.

There are some cringey passages, which aren’t Roach’s fault so much as she’s just dutifully reporting some rather cringey experiments (both official and not.) I’d absolutely recommend this book to anyone who has curiosity on the subject, with the caveat that there will probably be at least one or two things she discusses that will squick you out. Otherwise, I definitely learned a few things and enjoyed Roach’s presentation.

Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #31: Gulp by Mary Roach

GulpEvery once in awhile, I read a book that I have not already seen on the Cannonball blog, and I get excited that I can be the first one to review it. Invariably, though, I pick up the book too late or read the book too slowly, and a couple days before I finish, someone else has already reviewed my book. I thought I had a good chance with Gulp (2013) by Mary Roach because it’s so new, but I guess if I really wanted to be first I should have bought the book instead of sitting on the library’s wait list.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal is Roach’s latest book, and it’s all about the digestive system. Now, the digestive system is a little less flashy than sex and death and not of immediate interest to me. This was definitely a book I picked up because of the author and not the subject. It is a testament to her humor and writing that I enjoyed it. Roach could find something interesting and humorous in a lemon sitting on a table, and although I wasn’t quite as enthralled as I have been with some of her earlier books, I enjoyed reading it.

Click here for the full review.