Mary Roach is a gem, truly, and a gift to the world. Every time I read a book of hers (and I’ve read all but one), “delightful” is the word that comes to mind, because her delightful personality shines through every word without ever overtaking the book. She has a very specific talent and she uses it so damn delightfully (there’s that word again) that the formula never gets old, even when it probably should.
Her talent: taking a subject that is either kind of distasteful (war, death) or kind of boring (the gastrointestinal tract) or salacious and frequently written about but rarely with any depth or quality (sex, ghosts, space travel) and immersing herself in that subject in order to resurface with dense but utterly readable pages of fascinating, surprising, funny, human stories.
In my opinion the most striking thing is her handling of science. Most if not all of her books are about the science of her subject. Mary Roach is not a scientist and unless I’m mistaken, has no particular scientific background. My husband is in a scientific field, and has a bottomless disdain for the pop culture love of science without any genuine understanding of it or appreciation for what it truly entails. My irritation for this doesn’t hold a candle to his infinite burning suns of irritation, but it does irritate me. It would be so easy for Mary Roach to absolutely personify this pet peeve, but she never for one minute in one single book does. With humility and respect for her relative lack of knowledge (but with full confidence in her own intellect), she handles science and the people who work in it with affection and respect. She navigates dry papers and reports and unearths the humans behind them. She is tactful without being squeamish. Her writing is juicy without being exploitative.
I haven’t talked much about the actual subject of the book, and I’m not going to. It doesn’t matter. If you’ve already read Mary Roach, you’ll be (I assume) pleased to hear that this book is classic Mary Roach. If you haven’t, but her writing sounds appealing to you, believe me when I say that the subject does not matter. You don’t need to care going in, she’ll make you care. Yes, even about the digestive tract.