Packing for Mars – Mary Roach

I don’t dabble in much non-fiction it has to be said. I often worry that non-fiction equals boring, books of endless descriptions and facts don’t tend to work for me, and this includes fiction novels where the author is showing off the research, they feel like a lecture. I do like to learn about new things though. Not a contradiction in terms at all am I? Narrative non-fiction is good for this, as are books that make learning fun, conversational and occasionally a little bit naughty yet always with a sensitivity. Do such books exist? Of course, if they are written by Mary Roach, and ‘Packing for Mars’ is her latest book all about the great unknown that is space.

OneWorld Books, paperback, 2011, non-fiction, 312 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I have to admit that when I heard that Mary Roach’s new novel was going to be about space the thought of ‘what, really?’ went through my head. She had already covered death (‘Stiff’), the supernatural and paranormal (‘Six Feet Over’) and sex (‘Bonk’) so space worried me slightly, I wasn’t sure th subject would hold me quite like the others.

I admit I was intrigued by the planets and stars as a youngster, but I have never had even the slightest interest in being an astronaut or humans travelling through the unknown. I certainly don’t rush to see films like ‘Apollo 13’ though the idea of aliens intrigues me. That said ‘Packing for Mars’ being packed – do you see what I did there – with wit, humour and the questions you would like to ask but probably wouldn’t dare to if you could, it was a real winner with me.

“Space doesn’t just encompass the sublime and the ridiculous. It erases the in-between.”

Being non-fiction ‘Packing for Mars’ doesn’t have a plot and so not only is it really hard to give you enough of taster, especially as the book is crammed with fascinating facts and true tales of space travel, it is is rather hard to write about it in depth. I don’t want to tell you all of my favourite stories and nuggets away because then you might not read the rest, though in truth I loved the entire book and that is because when you read a Mary Roach book you feel like you are having a conversation, full of giggling, with her. There are even knowing jokes and asides in the form of the footnotes. It is just a pure pleasure to read. It also makes the facts and information fun and who knew knowing more about things like gravity etc could be so much fun?

“To understand the Project Albert mind-set, you need to spend a few moments pondering the forces of gravitation. If you are like me, you have tended to think of gravity in terms of minor personal annoyances: broken glassware and sagging body parts. Until this week, I failed to appreciate the gravitas of gravity.”

This is not a case of dumbing down the scientific either, I do fear some people may read the blurb and think that Mary Roach isn’t taking this seriously as she looks at how people go to the toilet or vomit in a spacesuit (which made me laugh) and how they cope with no air, hot showers etc but it is her curiosity and interest in everything that can happen in a space ship that makes it so interesting.  It is not all jokes either. With scientific experiments come the tests, the accidents and the things that go wrong, and when talking about dead bodies, monkeys being used as test pilots and other slightly morbid twists, she is also incredibly sensitive and looks at it all from an emotional level too.

‘Packing for Mars’ is a book that levels with its reader, almost saying ‘I didn’t think space could be so interesting did you? But look at this… and this… and this.’ Her enthusiasm catches you through the pages and I bet you will find yourself saying ‘oh just one more chapter, oh go on then and another’, I know I did. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, so do please give it a whirl.

Have you read this book? Have you read any of Mary Roach’s other non-fiction novels? Which non-fiction books, not including narrative non-fiction, have you been charmed by rather than lectured at? I feel very lucky as whilst reading this book felt like having a conversation with Mary Roach, I actually had one with her and Gavin for The Readers Summer Book Club which you can listen to here, and if that doesn’t convince you to read the book nothing will. She’s hilarious.


Filed under Books of 2012, Mary Roach, Non Fiction, OneWorld Books, The Readers Summer Book Club

16 responses to “Packing for Mars – Mary Roach

  1. I haven’t heard of Mary Roach or her writings before, but this sounds like a can’t-miss. I know several people who would also like to receive a book like this as a gift.

    • She is fantastic! Really interesting and clever but so funny too. I have read ‘Stiff’ and have ‘Six Feet Over’ and ‘Bonk’ in the TBR. Its like a meaty version of those Christmas stocking books, I will be getting it for lots of people this Christmas. Oh no, I have mentioned Christmas this early.

  2. Jae

    I read this book last year and really enjoyed it. Unlike you, I’m obsessed with space and space travel and I love movies and books about it. It was interesting to read a book that wasn’t glamorized and explored the realities of being an astronaut. I really like the cover that you got too.

    • I used to be really interested in planets, I was never too bothered how we got there, yet this book made me so much more interested. What has been funny is that I have come out with lots of random quotes about space and people have been giving me that ‘how do you know about space’ look haha.

  3. rosario001

    I read it and really liked it. I completely agree about Roach’s enthusiasm for her subject -that does shine through, and it’s very infectious. There were things I found more fascinating than others (I especially loved the sections on zero gravity, because there was loads of stuff that I had never even considered, but wasn’t as interested in, say, the sections where they’re travelling somewhere in Canada, testing out the vehicles), but on the whole, it was hard to put down. And I quite liked her goofy sense of humour 🙂

    So, which of hers would you recommend I try next? I’m leaning towards Six Feet Over, is it as good?

    As for other non-fiction books I’d compare it to, I’d say maybe some of Bill Bryson’s. The willingness to make fun of himself is there, as is the fascination with his subject matter, the almost childish enthusiasm for weird and fun facts and the tendency to go off on fascinating tangents. The books I mean are not his travel ones (although I adore those as well), but titles like At Home (about the history of domestic life) and Made in America (about the evolution of American English). He’s also got a science book (The Short History of Nearly Everything), but I’m hoarding that one and haven’t read it, as I don’t like to be without a new Bryson I can read (is that weird of me?).

    • I would go with ‘Stiff’ next Rosario if I am honest… because it is the only other one of hers that I have read the whole way through. I have dipped into ‘Six Feet Over’ and must read it properly soon as I liked what I started to read. It is Mary though I would read anything she wrote because of her enthusiasm and personality.

      I must, must, must read Bill Bryson.

  4. Almost any book by Steven J Gould, the two books on music by Alex Ross for straters.

  5. I used to think the same regarding non-fiction, in part because the review section of the paper always listed these kinds of semi-text books as non-fiction, but that all changed when I met my very dear friend who did an MA in Creative Non-Fiction in the US and now teaches it, something that has been developing and evolving in the US for many years and the books she passes on to me are filled with all kinds of wonderful writings that I appreciate, it is certainly true that without the ‘creative’ aspect, non-fiction can be a little dull.

    • You have nailed it on the head Claire, I don’t like the ‘semi-text book’ feels of most non-fiction. I was in London on Wednesday and some publishers were trying to sell me non-fiction and we had that very discussion. I like funny short snappy tales of non fiction with lots of unusual facts like Mary Roach, or I love narrative non fiction like Kate Summerscale.

  6. mcresswell

    Mary Roach is, purely and simply, amazing. I wasn’t sure when space was announced as the subject (the others were all intriguing in and of their own right) but she does what more non-fiction should do–make it bloody INTERESTING.

  7. Pingback: “When You Are Going Through Hell – Keep Going!”……….What I Thought Of Packing For Mars By Mary Roach……. | theonlywayisreading

  8. I *adore* Mary Roach and was lucky enough to hear her when she came to the local univ here to give a talk. So funny in real life (as your conversation with her showed!). Glad you have found and enjoyed her – she is one of my absolutely favorite non-fic writers ever, mainly because she asks the same kind of questions that I would. 🙂

    • I felt very honoured to get to interview her with Gavin for the podcast. I would have died and gone to space heaven if I had actually met her in the flesh… though I have plans.

      It is exactly her asking what we all really want to know that I think works so well.

  9. Pingback: Savidge Reads Books of 2012 – Part One… | Savidge Reads

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