Bookmarks Issue: 
Mary Roach

Science Tackles the Afterlife

A-SpookIn her previous book Stiff ( 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003), Roach looked at what happens to the human body after death. Here, she leaves the mundane for otherworldly concerns: What happens to our souls after we die? Answers don’t come easy. Roach travels far and near to survey the afterlife. In India, Roach finds that families use memories to prove their children are reincarnated beings; at California’s Donner Camp Picnic Ground, she tries to pick up signs from the cannibalized dead. In between she meets a respected surgeon who wants to measure the soul in ounces, mediums who extrude ectoplasm, and cardiologists who try to record out-of-body near-death experiences as their subjects float above them. Roach finds scant proof of the afterlife, but she starts to believe "in the possibility of something more."
Norton. 311 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0393059626

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]here is an inherent softness to Spook as Roach keeps coming up against the inexplicable. This would be more of a problem if readers come to the book primarily looking for answers. … But there is much more to Roach’s work here." Floyd Skloot

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Roach has endless patience with people whose ideas are most charitably described as unconventional. … Just as they are at their most earnest in explaining their thankless and usually fruitless research, she’ll toss in a question like a whoopee cushion. But if Roach teases, she never mocks." Kate Zernike

Pittsburgh Trib-Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"One of her more engaging features is her flair for footnotes, which are most often digressions—into sea urchins, or a celebrated Moulin Rouge ‘fartiste,’ or the declining state of the ‘staid and stately Ometer family,’… Spook is enormous fun, but it doesn’t settle any questions about the afterlife." David Walton

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Roach is a self-described skeptic, but one with an open mind, a sense of adventure, and a ready quip. … Indeed, this personal journey is what the book most successfully captures: How a skeptic learned to be a believer (or a possible believer, anyway), and still keep her wit intact." Megan Harlan

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"[Roach] appears more concerned with comic effects than cosmic ones, and she is constantly on the lookout for entertainingly bizarre details and turns of phrase. … Although she does her best to avoid what the book calls ‘the Big Shrug,’ she is not always able to learn much from the string of research outings described here." Janet Maslin

St. Petersburg Times 3 of 5 Stars
"You keep turning the page hoping there will be a breakthrough and Roach will chat with a dead relative or discover she is the reincarnation of someone from the 19th century. But you have to settle for her humor and her conclusion that we know little about what happens after we die." Bill Adair

Critical Summary

If you want firm answers about the particulars of the afterlife, you’d better wait until that coronary. Look no further if an entertaining survey of investigations into the afterlife will do. Roach, more concerned with people’s bizarre behavior than the actual existence of an afterlife, writes with wit, humor, and irreverence without patronizing her gullible subjects. In 12 chapters that span everything from psychics to psychoacoustics, she searches the world for evidence of the afterlife. In her bestselling Stiff, she conclusively examined death, but in Spook, she finds nothing that can prove or disprove the existence of the afterlife. Still, Spook will appeal to all audiences, and not just because we all die. For Roach "may have a skeptic’s mind, but she writes with a believer’s heart" (New York Times).