Monday, November 8, 2010


In an increasingly secular world populated by increasingly cynical adults (like me), holidays have lost some of their inherent shininess. Really, when was the last time you got excited about Easter?  I propose that, in order to replace those holidays that have lost their shine, every adult should have the right to declare a certain number of days a year as “personal holidays.”
If that proposal came to fruition, every time Mary Roach published a new book, I would declare a personal holiday.  
There are few writers who are so consistently good.  And there are fewer who are so good when writing about about such diverse material.**  Roach’s previous three books have been on subjects that are already interesting in their own right: death, the afterlife, and sex.  Roach’s fourth book, PACKING FOR MARS, is about a subject that is, at its core, relatively interesting. But while I would-- and have-- read a book on death, the afterlife, or sex, of my own volition, I’ve never before been compelled to pick up a book about the space travel program.  
Roach could write about anything at this point, and I will pre-order her book from Amazon as soon as its announced.
PACKING FOR MARS explores the complications of space travel from a very Roach-ian prospective.  Sure, she’s a science writer, but she’s not interested in aero-space engineering and the math involved.  She’s interested in the many dozens of ways that NASA and other countries’ space agencies have tried to deal with the problem of disposing of feces in space.  She’s not interested in how we’re going to get people BACK from Mars if we ever send them there (and scarily enough, she’s discovered that some plans to send American astronauts to Mars do NOT include return plans).  She’s interested in how people have sex in zero gravity and whether or not sperm need gravity to swim.  
Whether she’s suppressing the urge to vomit on a parabolic flight or genially swigging reclaimed urine (apparently, it’s refreshing and surprisingly sweet), Roach is as compelling a character as the many astronauts she interviews for the book.  Maybe my favorite thing about Roach is that she’s a humorist who doesn’t knee-jerk rely on our generation’s crutch of snark.  Her shit is just plain funny.  “Compressed food not only took up less stowage-- which is how children and aircraft designers say ‘storage’-- space, it was less likely to crumble,” writes Roach in a typical aside. 
Unless you’re a space junkie, STIFF-- Roach’s debut book-- is a better introduction to her writing.  But PACKING FOR MARS is a book more than worthy of her.

**  The only non-fiction author that rivals Roach in the ability to make anything interesting is Jon Mooallem, who has yet to write a book.  Mooallem has, for the New York Times Magazine, written articles about pigeon control and the complications of creating bagged apple slices that are drool-inducingly mesmerizing.  Mooallem, where the heck is your book?