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.”
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.
I liked this book, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I have her previous books.
Mary 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.
Tripping 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.
“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.
I 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.