Almost since the first day I started blogging, I'd been hearing about the genius of Mary Roach. She was the author who could dissect something misunderstood or science-y and make it accessible...and hilariously funny. She has tackled subjects like sex, outer space, death, and here in this novel, the afterlife.
I basically foraged through every audio my library had of Roach's work and came up with both "Spook" and "Stiff". I chose to listen to "Spook" first because you all know how much I like the ghosties.
Synopsis: So have you ever wondered what happens when we die? Is that it, or do we come back as a dung beetle, haunt those that wronged us while we walked the earth, hang out in heaven eating calorie-free Oreos, or participate in a little chit chat via a Ouija Board? Mary Roach is on the case, and throws her weight into a little research to find out.
She travels to India to investigate reincarnation, she explores out-of-body after-death experiences with a cardiologist, she enrolls in a medium school in England, talks to philosophers about the physical existence (and proof?) of souls, and even unearthed a box of ectoplasm from the Cambridge University archive. While she doggedly digs for answers with well-meaning and passionate scientists and scholars (she attempts an open mind), Mary can't resist giving us her two-cents worth of snarky commentary in footnotes scattered throughout.
A sample of such snark that erupts from Mary while attending her medium school:
“I am very much out of my element here. There are moments, listening to the conversations going on around me, when I feel I am going to lose my mind. Earlier today, I heard someone say the words, "I felt at one with the divine source of creation." Mary Roach on a conducted tour of Hades. I had to fight the urge to push back my chair and start screaming: STAND BACK! ALL OF YOU! I'VE GOT AN ARTHUR FINDLAY BOX CUTTER! Instead, I quietly excused myself and went to the bar, to commune with spirits I know how to relate to.”
My thoughts: I can see now why everyone loves a dose of Mary Roach now and again. This book was filled with lots of facts and research, but she has sifted through it, finding all the curious (and wonky) elements for us. I would loosely compare her to the beloved Ms. Sarah Vowell, who too loves her history, but has her own spin on things.
In fact, while it is obvious the woman is exceptionally smart, she is also "one of us", meaning like a girlfriend with whom I could have a good time sitting and watching, let's say, an A&E special on the Black Plague. Lots of peanut gallery quips and mouthiness after a glass or two of wine.
It was when Mary interjected with her opinions that I liked most about this book. I found the facts themselves to sometimes cause my mind to stray (not exactly the stuff I should be listening to perhaps while on the elliptical at the gym) but Mary's side comments made me laugh out loud. More than once. Because this was an audio, I am unable to find the quotes about one particular Victorian medium, a wife of a gynecologist, who produced large amounts of ectoplasm at seances, suspected to have been hidden in her lady parts. But the ongoing dialogue on this one, the shock and HOW MUCH ectoplasm-ish stuff came from her "internal storage area", speculation on how she got it in and out of her in the middle of a seance...well, I nearly had to just sit down in the middle of a walk I was laughing so hard.
A few words about the audio production: Based on some browsing online, it does not appear Ms. Roach is married to one particular narrator, as with some authors. In "Spook", our narrator is Bernadette Quigley, a new voice for me. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about her work here...at times she nailed the snarky essence of Mary Roach, and other times she did not. The pacing felt off a bit, and sometimes seemed forced. I'll be curious to listen to "Stiff" and see how that one holds up.
Listening length: 8 hours and 34 minutes (288 pages)
3.5 out of 5 stars