Reviewed in the United States on November 24, 2006
It required very little convincing for me to immediately delve into "Spook," Mary Roach's sophomore literary effort. Her enthusiasm for her material is evident in her first book, "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavars." Like "Stiff", "Spook" is a compendium of wit, morbidity, and hilarious anectdotes which converge to form a collection of loosely related (in fact, afterlife is often the sole connector) examinations of what, exactly, actually happens when we die. Ultimately, Roach seeks to answer what really may be the 'ultimate question': Is there an afterlife? While her attempts are ultimately futile in a definitive scientific answer, the conclusion is generally that something happens after death. What this something is remains ambigious - either because we do not have the science to understand, or have not developed an adequate study method.
Each section ('chapter' would be a misnomer , as they tend to be 20 - 30 pages in length) examines different methodologies of 'studying,' using what seems to be a generally loose version of the scientific method, the afterlife. The book begins in an anticlimactic fashion, with Roach's journey to follow an Indian researcher, who seeks to interview and categorize supposed instances of reincarnation. It is unfortunate that this chapter is the first delve into the material, as of all the sections, it seems to be the unflattering odd-duck: it is slow, verbose, and not as sharp with its language.
The book goes on to considerably better itself in subsequent chapters. In contrast to "Stiff," "Spook" improves throgh the course of the book, the humor never becomes forced. The greater inclusion of her opinions, thoughts, and foibles. Roach explores studies of the afterlife ranging from the infamous '21 gram' experiment, to scientists studying the effect of electromagnetic and infrasound upon the human brain. She is brazen with her mistakes and is never aloof with her viewpoints. Rather than blindly following, or outright denying, what is presented throughout the book, she is objective with her analysis.
Roach is talented at writing, for sure, and the inclusion of tangential stories and factoids keep the material fresh. The footnotes are not to be missed: each contains a snippet of Roach's wry, delightful insight paired with a quasi-related factoid. Indeed, the footnotes remain a gem of the book, housing some of the funnier tales of Roach's research.
My own praise aside, there are a few shortfalls to "Spook." First, Mary Roach is evidently at the the very start of her foray into the afterlife (even explicitely stating such in the epilogue). Her explanations for experiments read considerably differently than her usual prose: this literary behavior indicates (to me, at least) that she is pulling her definitions from other sources, and only superficially rewriting them. While Roach is clearly comfortable with her own prose, her tone shifts dramatically when it comes to explaining more in-depth science. The book,as well, tends to lack in any in-depth analysis. Roach is candid with her responses and reactions, but only superficially examines the experiment setups. She is slow to question or needle her subjects on their work, which makes her ultimate conclusions about the different scientists and experiments somewhat questionable.
Overall, a worthwhile read which delves into some very interesting subject matter. It is light on the 'heavy science,' and tends to fall into the tried-and-true regiment of anectdotes and witty commentary. Does it answer, then, the 'ultimate' question? ...Not entirely. Even if the 'ultimate' answer waffles from person to person, it's sure a lot of fun getting there.