August 11th, 2010


Spook by Mary Roach

An impulse buy at the airport newsstand a ways back -- I remembered her book Stiff, about what happens to your body when you're dead. Perhaps as an obvious sequel to that, she later wrote Spook, about 'scientific' attempts to determine whether 'souls' 'exist' and where they might go, if anywhere.

Like me, Roach is rather skeptical about the various claims, and so there's something of a let-down as she talks to people with feeble evidence on their side and pooh-poohs it all. Particularly so, since I'm a card-carrying skeptic and have already heard about most of these claims in all their unconvincing detail. Perhaps to try to drum up some tension, she also relies over-much on the journalistic fake-out in each chapter. She starts off and builds to an almost-climax, before dodging away to provide background and information for a long time, and then swooping back to cash in on the climax, which invariably is more like a deflating souffle than a mystic revelation.

To be more concrete, one chapter starts off almost like a Lovecraftian adventure. "I'm sitting here in the special collections department of the library at Miskatonic. There are too many watching eyes, and I hope the other scholars leave before I open the box before me. For inside, it contains a rare specimen of authentic ectoplasm... -- [10 page review of spiritualism omitted] -- finally, I open the box, and within I find a six foot length of cheesecloth that Eusapia Palladino pulled out of her vag."

That said, Roach brings a certain amount of humor to the proceedings, so it makes for a breezy read. Here she parenthetically and footnotally discusses the euphemism 'motion' for BM:

I'm trying to work out how this makes sense as a noun meaning "the product of a bowel movement." This is not Dawson's personal euphemistic misstep; the usage persists in medical writing today. ... Perhaps this is why the term "motion pictures" was replaced by "movies." Now that I see it on the page, "movie" would have been a far better BM euphemism that "motion." I'd love to chat, but I need to make a movie.

Or here, she discusses the emotional effects of infrasound: "Also, I used to feel an ineffable queerness in my chest during Sunday mass, which I put down to God looking inside me and knowing I wasn't listening. Now I'm thinking it was the organ music."