Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

packingformarsPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
by Mary Roach
2010

This is amazing, ridiculous, and horrifying in all the best ways, as Roach looks into the history of the space program and the work that went into keeping astronauts alive. Which mostly means looking into the details of how a body works and then trying to figure out what parts are impacted by gravity. And air pressure. Eating and drinking, peeing and pooping, blood circulation, bone growth, sweating, etc. And then consider all of those same issues, along with physical and mental health related to being confined to a small capsule moving at incredible speeds and with extremely limited personal supplies. (How greasy does a person get if they just… don’t bathe, or change their clothes, or get up from their chair, for three weeks? This was a real study done with real people.)

Space programs in both the US and Russia looked into these in detail, and thus so too does Roach. With delight! But not sex: NASA is much like the DC Comics universe: there’s no masturbation. Much to Roach’s dismay, too, as one tangent discusses the failure of journalism integrity as she searches for truth between the tales and the denials of scandalous space monkey masturbation and finds a series of authors so excited by the idea that they forewent the facts of the matter. She supplements the space program research by delving into the research on aquatic animal sex and searching for information on a zero-gravity porn movie, instead.

And then she looks into the disasters and how many ways a body can stop working under various traumatic circumstances and let me tell you: I had never before considered that in a sudden stop from a sufficiently high speed, your internal organs can have noticeably different deceleration rates. (This is not a good thing for your future well-being.)

This book looks at all the gross parts of being a living body made of flesh and phlegm and explores them with joyous abandon and is an absolute delight.

 

My Planet by Mary Roach

myplanetMy Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places
written by Mary Roach
read by Angela Dawe
2013

I’ve loved (and been grossed out by) every book that I’ve read by Mary Roach… except this one. This is quite the departure from the other books since it’s actually a compilation of short anecdotes that she wrote for a regular column in Reader’s Digest. They’re often cute and funny but I didn’t find any of them particularly interesting and by their very nature, they were fairly repetitive when in a collection rather than a serial: her husband Ed gets introduced at the beginning of at least half of them. They’re essentially a cheery little sitcom of a life, with many of the traditional sitcom tropes including both mocking and perpetuating 1950s stereotypes of married life. And I just don’t care for sitcoms.

To summarize: it’s well written for its intended audience, but that audience isn’t really me.

Grunt by Mary Roach

gruntGrunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
by Mary Roach
read by Abby Elvidge
2016

I think every child goes through a phase of being fascinated by the gross and gruesome and Mary Roach never grew out of that phase. And she invites her readers to take similar joy in it as well. She takes such honest delight in peering into the hidden, dusty, bug-infested corners of history and science and holding up the often gruesome contents for our perusal.

What’s the sleep schedule like on a nuclear submarine and why is it a major problem that sleep deprivation is an ongoing and increasing concern? How are military doctors advancing the science of genital reconstruction and recreation from where it used to be due to the increased survival of IED victims? Who are the people designing the uniforms and what are the features they’re trying to optimize? How can you protect soldiers in the field, their hearing, their eyesight, their bodies, without hampering their abilities act and react quickly? Why is diarrhea such a concern and yet so difficult to study? Why are maggots so helpful in medical care and yet so rarely used?

All of these questions and more are examined in this book that looks at the establishment part of the military establishment rather than the military part.

So this book is delightful and I highly recommend it, but maybe not while you’re trying to eat anything.

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

By Mary Roach

SpookRebecca has read a fair amount of Mary Roach, but this is my first book of hers, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it! I don’t often like nonfiction, but she has such a juvenile sense of humor about it all that I really appreciated! Basically if anything has even a distant relationship to genitals or farts or such, she’ll be sure to delve into it.

In the introduction, Roach writes, “Simply put, this is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith.” And I’d say that describes me to a T! She covers reincarnation, séances, ghosts, and near-death experiences, among others, and it is all fascinating. I’m not sure that I can sell this book any better than including the opening to one of my favorite passages:

Is it possible to dress up like a ghost and fool people into thinking they’ve seen the real deal? Happily, there is published research to answer this question, research carried out at no lesser institution than Cambridge University. For six nights in the summer of 1959, members of the Cambridge University Society for Research in Parapsychology took turns dressing up in a white muslin sheet and walking around in a well-traversed field behind the King’s College campus. Occasionally they would raise their arms, as ghosts will do. Other members of the team hid in bushes to observe the reactions of passerby. Although some eighty people were judged to have been in a position to see the figure, not one reacted or even gave it a second glance. The researchers found this surprising, especially given that the small herd of cows that grazed the field did, unlike the pedestrians, show considerable interest, such that two or three at a time would follow along behind the “ghost.” To my acute disappointment, “An Experiment in Apparitional Observation and Findings,” published in the September 1959 Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, includes no photographs.

Roach goes through an enormous amount of archives, in order to bring us the juiciest bits. In fact, I think that’s why I like it so much – reading this felt like gossiping with a good friend. If I have one little quibble, sometimes Roach’s research takes her into realms that are a bit much for me. Rebecca warned against the vivisection chapter in Gulp, and I’m here to warn against the ectoplasm chapter in Spook. I did not know what rumination was before I read this, and I’m not super happy that I know now.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

gulpGulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
By Mary Roach
2013
Read by Emily Woo Zeller

This was excellent, but…

That’s pretty much my review of this book. It was excellent—funny and informative—and yet, there are so many warnings necessary before I could possibly recommend this to anyone else.

I read Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers some years back and enjoyed it a lot. It was funny and educational and oddball and also kind of gross but mostly that just made me get all picky about what I want to have done with my body after I die. I had not expected adventures in the alimentary canal to be significantly grosser than a recounting of the things that can and do happen to bodies after death. Oh, how wrong I was! Gulp got incredibly gross, and I am now hyper conscious of my bowels. I can only hope that awareness disperses after I move on to another book.

Second: I have to warn about animal harm. So. Much. Animal. Harm! You know how people have learned about the digestive track over the centuries? Largely by doing really unpleasant things to animals. Do you know what vivisection is? If you don’t, then count your blessings and don’t ask.* If you do, well, if you read this book, you’ll know a lot more about it. The people at the dog food factory loved their dog taste-testers and treated them extremely well. I cling to the fact that there are people here who love their animals. Because all the other animals mentioned in this book came to gruesome ends.

Moving on, I was surprised about how Roach didn’t spend much time on the intestines. She started at scent and taste and swallowing, moved on to the stomach, and then dealt with digestive juices, but then moved on to the colon (and stayed there for a really long time) but I didn’t really think the small and large intestines got their fair share of time. On the other hand, this isn’t exactly intended as a textbook. Maybe she just couldn’t find the same number of stories—horrifying and hilarious—for that particular section of anatomy as she could for the rest.

Finally, while I listened to this in audiobook format, I think it probably works better read in a traditional book format. There were a fair number of footnotes that discussed tangential issues and it was occasionally difficult to track the divergence and subsequent return to the regular text.

So, if my various warnings haven’t put you off too much, then I do recommend this book. It is hilarious and I have learned things that I never would have expected.

* I first learned of vivisection from a book in which the bad guys did it and the good guy was Jack the Ripper. Let that give you some perspective.