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'Packing for Uranus' would have been a more apt title
on August 27, 2012
Combine equal parts of Sylvia Branzei's 'Grossology' and the Bathroom Readers' Institute's 'Uncle John's Bathroom Reader' series, make mention of something coming out of (or going into) the anus in nearly every chapter, add a thin pretext of future Mars expeditions, then glaze it over with stories of Astro-chimp masturbation and prehensile dolphin penises - Voila! - You now have an idea of what to expect from Mary Roach's 'Packing for Mars.' (Be sure to wash it all down with a nice chilled glass of charcoal filtered urine - Ms. Roach describes this beverage as "sweet...restorative and surprisingly drinkable" - Yum).
Okay...perhaps the aforementioned description of 'Packing for Mars' is hyperbolic and a little bit unfair. To her credit, Ms. Roach seems to have put forth painstaking efforts in her research (she also includes long, ancillary foot notes on almost every page of her book). Moreover, through her emails and interviews with cosmonauts, astronauts, NASA personnel, etc., she manages to coax some rather candid information about seldom discussed issues/problems associated with space travel (e.g., personal hygiene, lavatory practices, sexual activity, etc.) Parts of this book were truly insightful, and from that perspective, I say "kudos" to Ms. Roach for her efforts.
That being said, I have to honestly admit that I was relieved to finally finish the book.
In essence, 'Packing for Mars' is 16 vignette-style chapters that are, at best, tenuously linked in any cohesive fashion. I would argue that, with the exception of maybe the last portions of the book, you could jumble these chapters into any order that you pleased and it wouldn't detract from a general understanding of the material.
At times, it seems that the book's context of outer-space missions serves as mere window dressing for Ms. Roach's unabashed desire to write graphically about "taboo" bodily functions. She seems to have a particular fetish with all things associated with the anus. Without exaggeration, nearly every chapter has as least one reference to something associated with this part of the body (e.g., defecation, flatulence, stool sample storage, rectal catheters, etc.) She even briefly mentions viewing her own anus on a closed-circuit camera while testing out the Johnson Space Center positional trainer (a.k.a., the "potty cam"). However, by putting this information into the context of "space exploration," her writing is magically glossed over as being a brazen and "drolly funny" scientific endeavor rather than a crass and lowbrow collection of essays. I don't deny that some of it is interesting. However, I have a hard time believing that conservative-leaning radio talk shows such as the Twin Cities' "Garage Logic" would have been allowed to hawk this book had the scatological issues not been subsumed (albeit, at times, very minimally) into the more noble issue of space exploration. (The good ol' boys at "Garage Logic" had a great time guffawing about the part of the book mentioning astronaut turds breaking free of their confines and floating around the work areas during space missions).
In addition, for a book with the word "Mars" in the title, there really isn't much discussion about Mars at all; only toward the end of the book does Ms. Roach begins to scratch the surface about past, present, and future Mars exploration. In the end, when she's finally asking her apex question - Is it worth it to go to Mars (at a cost of $500 billion)? - she falls flat by saying "Yes, the money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? [M]oney saved by government redlining ... is always squandered. Let's squander some on Mars." She may have a point regarding government mismanagement of American tax dollars. However, I could hardly endorse the allocation of such an exorbitant amount of money based on the philosophy put forth here.
The final (and perhaps the most detracting) flaw with 'Packing for Mars' is Ms. Roach's insistence on forcing her idea of comedic one-liners into her work. Rather than "cackling like an insane person" (as A.J. Jacobs claims to have done in his praise for the book), I found myself continually rolling my eyes and audibly groaning at her cornball sense of humor. Here's a prime example taken verbatim from the book (p. 290) - ""Stool samples were...homogenized, freeze-dried, and analyzed in duplicate," wrote First Lieutenant Keith Smith in an evaluation of an aerospace diet that included beef stew and chocolate pudding. YOU HAD TO HOPE THAT LIEUTENANT SMITH KEPT HIS CONTAINERS STRAIGHT." (Emphasis added). These "cutesy" types of quips are found throughout the entire book, and eventually they become annoying. After awhile I started to imagine a 1950's sit-com laugh track being played whenever I came across one of these banal attempts at humor. It just felt too forced.
Fortunately, I picked this book up at my local library rather than buying it. Despite the aforementioned flaws, there truly are some great pieces of trivial information in this book; for that reason alone, if I ever see a copy of it at a thrift store or on a bargain bookshelf, I'll snatch it up. However, I can not recommend paying retail price for it.