Reading Mary Roach
Posted by: Neil Hollands
(Note: I usually gravitate toward puns in the titles of my posts. There were so many to use here with Mary Roach, but they would all just be wrong.I’m just sayin’… We now return to our regularly scheduled post.)
Mary Roach is an author I turn to when I want to be both educated and entertained, an author I enjoy when I’m looking to refill my list of small talk topics.
I first encountered her, as did most readers, with her book Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. If most writers were to take on this subject, the results would either be a dust-dry work of science–a stiff of a different kind–or a grisly work that went entirely for shock value. In either case, the book would hardly succeed in a book group format. But Roach has a gift for delicate subjects, writing with a style that is never crude, that is loaded with playful asides, and is sometimes surprisingly poignant. She constantly surprises. Another writer, for instance, would probably have focused on cadavers in medical school labs, a topic that Roach certainly covers. But she goes on to look at the uses of cadavers in crash tests, as experimental subjects for plastic surgery, in the study of forensics in crime labs, even in composting. It’s material that from most writers would be distressing or depressing, but with Roach it’s always respectful and at time laugh-out-loud funny.
After Stiff, Roach went on to write Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Her newest book is Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, which explores the many effects of space travel on the human body.
Although I love her work, I wouldn’t recommend Roach to every book group. She specializes in handling delicate subject matter tastefully, but some of your readers might be less skilled when they try to discuss these topics. If you’ve got a group that is easily offended, this subject matter might be too much, or might lead to an awkward discussion that quickly runs out of euphemisms and sputters to a stop.
For other groups, however, Roach will be a breath of fresh air–original topics for discussion, lots of laughs, and an evening of real fun. Because these aren’t books where you’re going to discuss literary themes, I would suggest tackling all of Roach’s books in the same evening so your readers can pick the subjects that interest them the most and so you’ll have the maximum amount of content to discuss.