Thursday, July 22, 2010

Mary Roach/SPOOK

Mary Roach's first book, Stiff (subtitle: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers), looked into the things which happen (or are done) to the human body after death. Which seems, described that way, an awfully bleak subject -- until you pause and consider the title. It gives you one clue why you'd read a book by Mary Roach on a serious topic: because she will find the funny in it.

Her 2005 follow-up, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, again shows Roach taming a thorny subject with a magnifying glass in one hand and her sense of humor in the other.

As the second book's subtitle suggests, Spook isn't about the afterlife per se. In particular, it doesn't examine the belief systems of one religion vs. another. Instead, it deals with the ways in which scientists (in some cases, "scientists," in quotes) have tried to verify the existence of a human soul -- a consciousness apart from the body -- and its persistence after the container itself runs down.

In a dozen chapters, she considers such wide-ranging matters as attempts to weigh the soul; mediums, seances, and the debunkers who love them; scientists who track down real-life claims of reincarnation; theories about inducing near-death experiences via chemical and electromagnetic means; audio- and video-recording the dead; and "the giddy, revolting heyday of ectoplasm." She examines a case in which a ghost got his own legal will changed -- or perhaps did not. And it's all done with a combination of furrowed brow and crooked grin.

Here's one of my favorite examples of Roach's style at work. After discussing ancient beliefs that the soul resided in male sperm, she continues:
The man who elevated the ovum to a leadership role in the proceedings was seventeenth-century English physician William Harvey. Harvey is best known for figuring out that blood circulates in a closed system of arteries and veins, a feat he managed by dissecting cadavers, including that of his own sister. For his pioneering work in reproduction, you will be relieved to learn that Harvey left the womenfolk alone. Here he turned to a herd of deer that wandered, ever more warily, the grounds of his employer, King Charles.

If you read that passage too quickly, skimming it in order to get to the hard facts, you may miss the laughter in the asides.

Whether a book like this succeeds or fails depends, first, on whether the author is trying to argue a case, or to teach us. Is it a tract? or a report? Roach seems not to have an argumentative bone in her body, so you can forget that concern right up front. True, she freely admits to skepticism about unproved -- unprovable -- claims of ethereal forces at work. Yet she admits to the opposite as well: no one's proven there's not a soul.

Second -- and here, maybe not everyone would agree -- if you're going to write humor, you need paradoxically a strong sense of self-control.

That's my one reservation about Mary Roach, having read (and enjoyed) her first two books: she's almost too determined to make us laugh. She seems at times driven by a quota system: if she hasn't cracked a joke within N paragraphs, she must go back and tack one on, no matter how weak and easy a joke it might be. (She often does this via footnotes, which makes the practice even worse. If you're going to drag my eyes to the bottom of the page for a joke, make it worth the time and refocusing effort to find my way back to where I left off in the real text.)

I want to take Mary Roach aside and counsel her -- like hey, come on, relax. You're a naturally, genuinely funny woman. A talented baker knows how to jazz up a birthday cake with buttercream icing, but most of us don't want the same treatment on a breakfast pastry. Dial it back a little, Ms. Roach. You don't have to keep us laughing.

All of which said, I'm really looking forward to reading her next book (Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex) and the one coming out later this summer (Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void). After all, I like reading about science, and I like to laugh (even if not always on schedule). In those terms, Mary Roach makes the ideal guide to tough, complex subjects.

(Note: Spook was also reviewed in 2009 here on The Book Book, by Kristin Dodge.)


Jane Steen said...

This one went straight onto my TBR list. Despite your reservations, your great review really gave me a sense of the features that I'm looking for in a non-biography nonfiction: interesting information presented in a way that isn't dry and doesn't take itself too seriously.

Stiff sounds pretty interesting too. I may become a fan!

moonrat said...

i find it pretty funny that you found the book too funny. i'm not sure why--it's like a meta humor issue, i think.

thanks for the review :) actually i'm with Jane--STIFF sounds pretty interesting. do you have a favorite of Roach's?

JES said...

Jane/Moonie: I read Stiff when it first came out in 2003. (Had read a great review of it somewhere.) It was good enough that I looked forward to reading Spook when I heard about it -- that it took me this long is no reflection on either of the two books or on Roach herself!

I've got her next one, Bonk, already in the pipeline.

To get an idea of her personality and style, you might want to visit her site. Notice that the Flash intro there consists just of a roach-roach, wandering around on the screen for a moment. This is almost guaranteed to make some people squirm, but she doesn't care: she thought it was funny. Different strokes and all that, but I laughed when I saw it.

Alison's Book Marks said...

I am currently reading Packing for Mars (my first Roach book) and the asides and footnotes are funny, but take getting used to.

I agree the footnotes are a bit of a pain, because I sometimes miss the little asterisk, or it takes me a minute to find where I left off. There's got to be a better way to sneak in the asides without disrupting the flow of reading.

JES said...

ABM: Spook was one of the first books I read on the Kindle my wife bought me for my birthday. Footnotes are useful, but even more of a pain on an e-reader (I assume others work like mine): you move a cursor down the screen to each one; when it gets there, it changes to a "pointing hand" -- whereupon you click to read the footnote, on a fresh screen.

At least with Spook, the footnotes tend to be several sentences long. Which rewards the effort to get there and back, much more than if the footnotes were one-liners!