Friday, 17 August 2012

"Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife," by Mary Roach

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I recently raided my library for Mary Roach books after hearing her interviewed on "The Readers" podcast.  In her interview she came across as very intelligent, articulate and funny - all things that I like in an author.  I managed to get 2 of her books from the library: this one, also known as "Spook," and "Bonk" (she seems to favour snappy, one word titles).  On the basis of saving the best for last, I decided to read "Bonk" (about sex) second. 

Mary Roach's books cover a subject starting from her position of, I hesitate to say ignorance, so let's say general knowledge, and she inveigles her way into interviewing some of the experts in the field and asking the questions that we would probably all like to ask.  In "Six Feet Over" she investigates what we know or, more accurately, don't know about what happens to us after death.  She delves back into archives to find out about men who did experiments into weighing the body at the moment of death to find the soul leaving the body, or to find records of spiritualism and alleged ectoplasmic manifestations, and she goes to India to speak to experts in investigating alleged reincarnation cases.

It is rare that you will find me reading non-fiction, although, to be honest, I probably should read more of it.  I was drawn to Mary Roach because she came across so well and had such a great sense of humour,when she was interviewed.  Her book didn't disappoint me.  I love this subject anyway: I love a good ghost story, tales of local legends and hauntings, and occasionally buy the "Fortean Times;" when I was a teenager I bought a paranormal magazine for a few months until Dad stopped me getting it when I got totally freaked out by an account of a poltergeist haunting.  I was familiar with some of the ideas in Mary Roach's book, but also learned some things: it never occurred to me, for example, that spiritualism rose up at the same time that electricity was new, and to many people there seemed little difference between the fakery of the medium - it often was a show - and touring demonstrations of the wonders of newfangled electricity.  Both were mysterious and inexplicable to those who witnessed them as new phenomena.

It was also rare that a book makes me laugh out loud.  I often read funny books, but I am more a silent appreciator.  The bit that made me laugh so much involved - hopefully without spoiling it too much for those who might read it - a guy in a sheet and some cows and, in a variation on the experiment, a guy again wearing a sheet but this time in a cinema showing a porn film.  Her ability to investigate a subject with natural curiosity and intelligence and to find the absurd is very entertaining: if you like the sound of this experiment, then you will probably also like this book.  She also has a very funny footnote on the curiosity of cows.

I'm now about to start reading "Bonk," but with a little trepidation.  There was a bit of an "euw" factor in "Six Feet Over" - with tales of mediums concealing stretches of material in bodily orifices to then extrude (even the word has an "euw" factor all to itself) as supposed ectoplasm - which I suspect will be magnified in "Bonk." I've seen the Youtube video of a talk that she did - which should not be viewed by anyone of a nervous disposition or anyone under 18 - and I don't think that I will ever be able to look a pig breeder in the eye again.

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