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Packing For Mars – Review – ****1/2

I want to be Mary Roach.

For this book alone she has managed to find excuses to travel to Japan, Russia, and Texas, speak to astronauts and waste specialists, ride a parabolic plane flight, and sky-dive indoors in a vertical wind tunnel. She has also tasted her own pee, which I am slightly less jealous of.

And instead of bragging, she condenses her experiences, interviews, and endless historical and scientific research into a wonderfully entertaining, intelligent, and, of course, funny novel; so you can’t even hate her properly.

Perhaps unsurprisingly (given that I am 12), my favourite chapter of 16 was “Separation Anxiety,” a title that is much, much funnier after you have read said chapter. To give you a better idea about what’s going on, here’s the subtitle: “The continuing saga of zero gravity elimination.”

Mars is written in such a way that you can  read any chapter in any order, which is nice, but gets frustrating if you’re the predictable type who reads books straight through. Retired Air Force Colonel Dan Fulgham is introduced in an identical fashion at least 3 separate times; enough that I didn’t have to look up his name or title to type this sentence.

There is a good mix of hard science and more indirect tangents explained thoroughly enough for newbies, but briefly enough that those with a (very) basic knowledge of physics and engineering don’t get bored.

For a journalism student, the book has an unexpected use: it gives a rather interesting insight into the workings of a professional journalist as she navigates through contacts, archives, and PR people, particularly when tracing incorrect data, stories, and rumours.

Of course, much like in the last Roach book I reviewed (or any book I review, really), there were a few small things that bugged me:

“In the words of some academic I can’t name because I’ve lost the first page of his paper…”

There’s a horrible, nit-picky part of me that can’t abide by this. Rephrase, find another source, Google the damn quote. On the other hand, she is a very comedic, accessible writer, and you can readily imagine the epic search for that first page ending in this little nugget of frustration.

The last chapter is a nice inspirational little essay on the “point” of progress. One standout suggestion: funding the enormous cost of a Mars mission not through taxpayer dollars, but through the media – what network wouldn’t pay to see the elimination of candidate after candidate until the final astronaut contestants are chosen? Jesus, what an idea. Using reality TV for good.

Overall, recommended, of course. I enjoyed this one just as much as Stiff, and more than Bonk and Spook, which, while good fun, just didn’t keep me as entertained, amused, and full of wonder.

P.S. If you’re interested in more Roach, check out her website, or the interview did with her when Bonk came out.

Cannonball Read III: 6/52

Bonk – Review – ****

Bonk Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, is not a how-to guide. You won’t find it in the lifestyle or self-help section of Chapters, unless it has been sorely misplaced. As it says on the top left hand corner of the back cover, this book belongs in science.

Bonk is Mary Roach’s third one-word, single-syllable, popular science book, and her three titles form a kind of overview of human life. The first, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, explores the end of life; the second, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, explores the aforementioned afterlife, and now Bonk tackles life’s inception.

Rather than offer a narrative telling a story leading from love to conception to birth, Bonk collects sex research from throughout human history and distils it, providing the reader with the most bizarre, interesting, and entertaining items, and leaving the denser, more dry items out.

Bonk is a good read for people who want to see what’s out there and why, or who have a casual interest in sex studies, rather than hard-core researchers, who will find some entertaining anecdotes, but not a lot of groundbreaking research. It is of interest for both men and women, referencing research to both, and is written in a friendly, conversational tone (employing the use of such casual words as “gack”).

Roach began her career at the San Francisco Zoological Society, then sold a number of humorous essays to various publications, and finally landed a monthly humour column in Reader’s Digest. Her background in light science and humour is extremely obvious in her novel writing. She is frank about her level of scientific understanding, and, not having a hard science background, is able to share information in an accessible manner, without dumbing it down.

Roach has a great grasp of character, an ear for a quote, and an eye for the absurd. Using absurdity and wit, she helps make sex researchers, who, due to the nature of their research and the confused views on sex of Western culture, can be viewed as deviants, human. She talks fairly of old favourites, like Alfred Kinsey, as well as more modern researchers. For example, urologist Geng-Long Hsu, who performs surgery to fix impotence, is referenced, in a footnote, as saying “Dr. Hsu says it is rare to see one [a penis] that stands perfectly straight. Actually, what he said was: ‘Most men are communists! Lean to the left!’”

Despite the playfulness, one never gets the sense that Roach skimped on research (her heavily cited chapters and lengthy bibliography should certainly assuage any lingering doubts), but there are a couple of surprising missteps, especially keeping in mind her journalistic background.

In one instance, during an interesting but off-topic footnote, Roach cites Wikipedia when explaining ancient Egyptian god Horus, with information that could easily have been taken from a more reputable source and remained just as funny.

Journalistically speaking, and in this book more than her others, Roach makes assumptions and takes liberties with journalistic integrity all over the place. According to her, she touches a man under anaesthetic without his permission or knowledge, and there were more than a few instances in which she would make blatant assumptions about her subjects, with nothing but the fact that it sounds funny to back them up. While a more astute reader may take these observations with a grain of salt, this is not a guarantee. Any way you cut it, that is bad journalism.

An index would have been useful, as it’s hard to keep all the researcher’s names in order, especially as some of them are quite similar. In addition, it makes it easier to go back and find particularly interesting or funny stories earlier in the novel, which is hard to do by chapter.

Which brings me to another small niggle I had with Bonk. More so than her other two novels, the chapter divisions belayed a slight lack of organization and coherence of information. While some subjects clearly belonged to one chapter or another (for example, “The Taiwanese Fix and the Penile Pricking Ring: Creative Approaches to Impotence” has a well defined subject), chapters such as “Mind over Vagina: Women are Complicated” are more vague, and make finding specific information difficult.

Nevertheless, Bonk is an enjoyable, entertaining, and informative read. It’s light and fun (and, if you’re a bit of a prude, the constant mentions of coitus, smegma, and labias could act as good exposure therapy), accessible for the layperson, and good at providing avenues of further research for those who are interested. Recommended? Yes. If you’re okay with the title, you’ll be okay with the book.