Category Archives: Mary Roach

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.

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

Stiff – Mary Roach

Non fiction is something that I really struggle with. I don’t mean memoirs and autobiographies, I mean anything that’s well neither of those. If there were any breed of non fiction that I thought that I would really struggle with then I would say that it is science. So imagine my joy when I discovered Mary Roach, a new writer to me though I have all her books on the TBR, who not only makes science interesting they make it funny… even in death with ‘Stiff’ a subject which is something that scares me, erm, to death.

It might not be a subject that you would think you would want to read about but death is really the only guarantee that we have in life, and though we might not openly admit it aren’t we all a little bit fascinated (in a morbidly inquisitive or scientific way) by it? Well in ‘Stiff’ Mary Roach is very intrigued by just that and meets all the people who have dealings with us when we die and asks all the questions that we would if we honestly could.

I thought this would simply be a look into what happened to us in the now after we die, which is quite enough of a subject to contend with. However Mary Roach takes it further finding out what happens not only if we are cremated or buried but what happens to peoples bodies donated to science and research. The opening chapter showing how heads can be used by plastic surgeons as practise, something I would never have considered would be an option for someone dearly departed.

But it’s not just for anatomy lessons for doctors that our bodies can be used, there is so much more. For example how bodies have been used by the army to design the best shoes in land mine filled fields, or how they are used to design weapon proof attire for policemen saving peoples lives. Some of the stories are quite horrific (you might not want to be munching whilst having this book in your hand), some are fascinating and some are funny. I didn’t think, despite it being about death, that I would find it emotional in any way, wrong! In fact one particular tale of ‘H’ a woman who is brain dead and is being used to collect her internal organs to save the lives of four different people across America really, really moved me. No, I wasn’t expecting that either.

Through all her subjects from anatomy to cannibalism and everything in between Mary Roach looks at the history and some of the legends that surround death. There is the tale of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh, the gravediggers in London, sacrificial old men in China who ‘honey’ themselves (has to be read to be believed like most of the book actually) and so on. You get history, you get insight, you get emotion and laughter – yes I was in hysterics at some points – and you get reassurance in a strange way. All the while in the company of Mary Roach who by the end of the book I felt I was firm friends with, if only all non fiction whatever its subject could be as readable as this.

A book that will: open your mind and make you think, it will also demystify death a little in a slightly bizarrely comforting way. Not one to be read anytime near eating, especially if you have Rice Krispies or Chicken Soup in front of you… that’s all I am saying, you’ve been warned but do read this book, its ace 9.5/10

I know it might not be a subject you think you would want to read about but I cannot recommend this strongly enough – read it. Who else has read this and can back me up? Or did anyone have the completely opposite response to this? Have you read any of Roach’s other books? Which other non fiction books have impressed you? What would you recommend to someone really unsure of non fiction like me?

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Filed under Books of 2010, Mary Roach, Penguin Books, Review

Should Have Reads 2008

So whilst putting the final touches to the Savidge Dozen (or my version of the best books of 2009 in my humble opinion) I have been going through the books I have read and been sent or bought and of course the ones that I haven’t managed to read. So I thought I would do my own top ten of books that I haven’t managed to read but will be showing their faces in the first few months of 2009. I wonder if any of them will be in the Should Have Reads 2009, what a depressing thought, swiftly moving on…

The Top Ten Should Have Reads 2008

1. The Secret Scripture – Sebastian BarryThe

2. Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith
3. Love In A Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
4. Story Of Forgetting – Stefan Merrill Block
5. The Outcast – Sadie Jones
6. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
7. The Little Friend – Donna Tartt
8. My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier
9. Bonk – Mary Roach
10. Company of Liars – Karen Maitland (as didn’t finish it this year)

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Daphne Du Maurier, Leo Tolstoy, Mary Roach, Nancy Mitford, Sebastian Barry, Tom Rob Smith