11 September 2010

Book Review: Packing for Mars

Title: Packing for Mars
Author: Mary Roach
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.
Release Date: 2 August 2010
Date Finished: 7 September 2010

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

Challenges: 100+ Reading Challenge, Reading Resolutions, Women UnBound, Hogwarts Reading Challenge, Non-Fiction Five,

The Short and Sweet of It
In another stunning collection of themed-essays, Mary Roach entertains her readers with humor while also educating them. In this installment, Roach tackles space, discussing issues from food and toilets to psychology and training. Just like with Stiff, Spook, and Bonk, I loved it.

A Bit of a Ramble
My love affair with Mary Roach began back in 2006 (I think) when I first read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, a fascinating look at what happens to and what can happen with a body after death. This sort of macabre topic coupled with intelligent humor really gets my geek going, and it put Mary Roach right up front on my list of must-read authors. I was right there when she released her next two novels - Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. While I never felt the same connection I did with Stiff, I think that had more to do with uniqueness than talent or readability. After all, there's nothing quite like your first time is there?

Each chapter - or essay - in Packing for Mars focuses on a different aspect of space travel, but it's all held together by the titular concept: what will it take for us to get to Mars? She discusses the psychological, biological, physical, and the mechanical, right along with public relations questions and historical space travel. And while each chapter - or essay - has a unique focus, Roach manages to interweave the essays in such a way that the work definitely feels like a cohesive whole, referring to information or people from past chapters.

What I love most is that Mary Roach has a snarky sense of humor, and she consistently offers up intelligent commentary that is at once insightful and hilarious. Actually, I can't even do her justice, so I thought I would let Roach speak for herself. Here are some tidbits of from the book:
A space station is a rangy monstrosity, a giant Erector Set assembled by a madman. But the living area inside the Mir core module, where cosmonauts Alexandr Laveikin and Yuri Romanenko spent six months together, would fit in a Greyhound Bus. The sleep chambers are less like bedrooms than like phone booths. They have no doors. My interpreter Lena and I are inside a mock-up of the module, inside the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, in Moscow. With us is Leveikin, who now runs the museum. Yuri Romanenko is on his way. I thought it would be interesting to talk with them inside the room that nearly drove them mad.
I love the down-to-earth descriptions she uses which are far more effective for me than any sort of mathematical description. Also, I must admit that I find it amusing she thought to talk to Yuri and Alexandr "inside the room that nearly drove them mad." While this may seem bitchy, I assure you it's not (on my part or hers). She is always respectful and truthful with the people she interviews. And the boys were fine. Well they were fine for the interview, but while in space it's perfectly possible they were quite far from fine:
Every now and then, you do come across astronauts who describe an anxiety unique to space. It's not fear (though apparently astrophobia*, fear of space and stars, does exist). It's more of an intellectual freak-out, a cognitive overload. "The thought of one hundred trillion galaxies is so overwhelming," wrote astronaut Jerry Linenger, "that I try not to think about it before going to bed, because I become so excited or agitated or something that I cannot sleep with such an enormous size in my mind." He sounded a little agitated just writing that sentence.
The subject matter being discussed in this paragraph is so weighty, so thought-provoking in that rocking on your bed with your arms wrapped around yourself kind of way, and yet Roach manages to reveal the depth of the concept while simultaneously making me smile. I smiled even more at the footnote to astrophobia:
*One self-help phobia Web Site helpfully reassures the afflicted that "if you have no plans to travel into space...astrophobia may not significantly impact your life."
Roach uses footnotes constantly which makes me love her even more. I'm obsessed with footnotes. The elaborations, explanations, connections, and associations presented in footnotes make me happy, a geeky sort of bliss that only annotations can bring about.

Here's one more sentence for your enjoyment:
Compressed food not only took up less stowage - which is how children and aircraft designers say "storage" - space, it was less likely to crumble.
I could seriously keep going, but I'll just trust that you have been inspired to run out and buy the book.

This Book Around the Web
If I've missed your review, let me know!

S. Krishna's Books; The Book Lady's Blog; Fyrefly's Book Blog;

Question: Why have you not read Mary Roach yet.....


  1. I need to hop to it and read this one! I was excited to get a copy at BEA, but it's been languishing on the shelf. :-(

  2. I got a copy at BEA too but haven't had a chance to read it yet. I bet my hubby would love it.

  3. I have read all of Roach's other books, so I will definitely be picking this one up too. Glad you liked it!

  4. I'm determined to try this one. I couldn't finish either Bonk or Spook, which was SUCH a disappointment after loving Stiff. This one sounds more up my alley than the previous two, so I hope I'll have better luck.

  5. She was so hilarious and interesting when I saw her at the breakfast at BEA, but I've looked at this in the store (since I never got my box that has TWO copies of this in it, LOL) and it seemed so textbook-like. The quotes you picked out are hilarious though!

  6. Jill - I recommend reading this, but I have a chick crush on Mary. She's such a free-spirited, no holds barred kind of woman.

    Kathy - It was a really interesting read, so I definitely recommend it.

    Stephanie - It is very similar to her other books, so if you liked them, I think you'll like this one.

    Andi - Stiff is still the best of the bunch, but this one is less "sensationalism" and more back to basics for her, so I'd give it a try.

    Jenny - I really enjoy her sense of humor. She seems so snarky and brave.

  7. I haven't been moved to read Roach's first few books- Stiff would freak me out and Bonk holds absolutely no interest for me- but this sounds like a good place to start with her. I'm glad you like it so much!

  8. Clare - I really enjoy reading Roach's books; they are so eccentric in their content.

  9. Because I always forget to look her up at the library and I accept too many review books, whihc I am currently saying no to.
    I wrote down her Stiff book when I heard about that a few years ago. I'll be adding this one as well. Nothing like a snarky chick to cheer me up :)

  10. Jenny - She definitely cheers me up! I laugh out loud while reading.

  11. I love Roach as well and really want to read this book. It sounds as though you had a really good time with it, and I am hoping I feel the same! Great review!

  12. I'm reading "Stiff" right now and loving it. I read "Spook" earlier in the year and knew right away that she was an author I was going to read regardless of the subject matter.

  13. Zibilee - I can't wait to hear what you think of it!

    Jenners - See, I knew you would like Mary Roach. I could feel it...


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