As some of you may know, I co-host a podcast about books and writing, The Library Police. One of the great joys of doing that podcast is the occasional chance to interview famous authors – indeed, there may be no single day where I was more geeked out than the day where we interviewed Jeffery Deaver and Peter Straub the same afternoon. What that means, though, is that sometimes I end up doing research for an upcoming interview, which is why I found myself reading two books by famed non-fiction author Mary Roach this weekend.
Now, Roach has become famous over the years for her approach to science writing – she’s known not only for her offbeat sensibility and sense of humor, but her off-the-wall subject matters. Which makes her newest book, Grunt, a bit of an anomaly at first glance – it’s hard to imagine the woman who’s made a name for herself talking about dead bodies, sex, and pooping in space writing a book about the military. But as Roach explains in her introduction, this isn’t a book about weapons or tactics. Instead, this is a book about the technology and research we use to keep soldiers alive – an area broad enough that Roach can talk about everything from submarine sleep schedules to the fabrics of uniforms, from genital transplant surgery to the dangers of diarrhea. In other words, it’s still quintessentially a Roach book, even if it is also a very military-focused one.
That does present its challenges, though. Roach is known for her offbeat sensibility and sense of humor, but there’s some grim material here, most notably her discussion of soldiers who suffer severe genital injuries and are basically rebuilt. That’s heavy material, and an area that takes some delicacy, and Roach nails the approach, all while still making it lighter than you’d expect. Her secret? Making herself the butt of the joke. Roach makes herself a player in the book when you’d least expect it, and her naivete and constant questioning makes for some genuinely funny moments in what could otherwise be a serious scene. (I particularly loved the looks she described getting when the soldiers explained that the “cup holders” she was admiring in vehicles were in fact rifle stands.)
More than that, though, Roach makes her science accessible and fascinating, while never giving you the sense of dumbing it down for you. Her inquisitive, curious mind shines through on every page, and her willingness to ask even “dumb” questions makes for a great read, letting you feel like your own thoughts are being echoed through her. More than that, her sense of humor and pacing make the stories engaging, whether she’s tracing the troubled history of shark repellent through its testing years or demonstrating the pros and cons of using bodies for better understanding of medical procedures. Yes, sometimes the book can feel a little sprawling and unfocused (most notably that chapter about genital transplants, which, while fascinating and not disconnected from her topic, still feels of a separate piece than the rest of the book), but her structure – with each chapter given its own topic – makes that work for her well. And more than that, by shining a light on the preventative, curative parts of war, Roach reminds us not only of how hard we work to keep soldiers alive, but of the dangers they face – yes, including sharks. Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War / **** ½
Having read Roach’s newest book, then, I moved back to her first one, Stiff, for two reasons. One was to see how much she’d changed as an author, but two – and the bigger reason – was a fascination with the subject. Stiff‘s subtitle is The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and the book is about exactly that: what happens to our remains after we die? Like she did with Grunt (and, I’m presuming, all of her books), Roach divides the book into independent chapters, each focusing on different aspects. There’s the bodies that end up in mortuary schools, as well as those that end up dissected by medical students. There are cadavers used as crash testers, those that end up at the Body Farm (where decay is studied, among other things), those that are used to help understand airplane crashes…and those that were used to understand what happened to Jesus and others who were crucified. And there’s much more to be found here, including bodies as compost, as art, and more.
It’s a fascinating subject, and one that put Roach on the map – and having read the book, it’s not hard to see why. Done wrongly, the book could seem insensitive, ghoulish, or just depressing. But Roach celebrates these cadavers, reminding the reader just how much has been gained from this research and just how important these bodies have been to not only medicine, but to our society as a whole. At the same time, she never shies away from the discomfort people feel; indeed, one of the most compelling threads in each chapter is discussing with the various people she meets how they manage to maintain a proper emotional balance when they’re working with the dead all the time.
Roach is more of a presence in Stiff than she is in Grunt; it feels like more of a first book, and something she might grow away from as she went. But that also feels like a key part of why the book works; after all, death is a fundamentally personal event, and there’s little way to read Stiff and not spend time thinking about what you would want done with your own remains, be it cremation, burial, donation, or more. And Roach builds her own debate into the book, concluding the book with a chapter that finds her pondering what to do with her own remains, having done all these studies and researches into our possible fates.
But lest that sound too heavy, Stiff is every bit as engaging and fun as you would hope from Roach’s reputation. Her digressive footnotes and odd asides are still evident, her willingness to ask questions no less charming, and her ability to bring a light tone to even heavy subject matters no less welcome. More than that, she finds depth and thoughtfulness to discuss beyond what you would expect, to the point where you get the impression that she could write a whole second book about bodies and never run out of things to say. That she does all this while being incredibly informative, demonstrating a gift for conveying complex things quickly, and managing to even tell stories, is just testament to her skills as a writer, and the deservedness of her reputation. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers / *****