I can see where Ms. Roach probably found herself a bit cornered while exploring the subject of life after death. First, she doesn't want to turn this book into a sprawling tome that explores the meaning of human existence. She also doesn't want to go down the long road of exploring every spiritual quest ever taken on by humanity. Then there are considerations regarding strongly held religious feelings; you don't want to step on the wrong toes. So, I think Ms. Roach took the right approach to the book in exploring a few areas of possible interest, looking at them as objectively as possible and seeing if anything raises an eyebrow.
So, the shortcomings of "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife" may not be so much the fault of the author. If you've ever watched a Bigfoot documentary, you know that you're going to be disappointed if you expect some hunter to emerge from the woods with an eight foot tall ape-man on a leash. Also, you know that the blurry footage is a guy in a gorilla suit, no matter how much you'd like to believe otherwise. These documentaries always jazz up the footage with a little editing and some scary music. That's because simply showing how unrealistic it is to believe in Bigfoot after all this time doesn't make for entertaining viewing. They're taking advantage of us because we want to be taken advantage of, just a little.
Mary Roach respects us more than that and gives us what she can. Unfortunately, it doesn't make for very entertaining reading. The one thing that was really missing for me was that feeling of "Aha!". I understood that Ms. Roach couldn't take on everything regarding the subject but I wished it had been a little wider in scope. I would've liked a little more philosophical exploration and perhaps a bit of sociological and psychological examination regarding our views on death. I'm not suggesting Roach should have done an Elizabeth Kubler Ross examination on the process of dying or re-written "Being and Nothingness", but something to chew on in those areas wouldn't have been bad.
I think there might have been a little more to touch on regarding the subject other than debunking soul weighers and psychic mediums. For instance, the culturally independent archetypes that we all share, or the discoveries in physics, mathematics, biology and philosophy that entice us to believe that there may be a God or at least a design. Then again, this book isn't called "Science tackles God", its called "Science tackles the Afterlife", but the discussion of one seems to so inevitably tie into the other, which once again leads to the complications I mentioned above.
I can't let the author completely off the hook, though. "Spook" pales in comparison to Carl Sagan's "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark", a book that deals with similar subject matter, and more, in a more thought provoking manner. I also have a new rule regarding review snippets claiming a book to be "Hillarious!"; they are never "Hillarious!". I think "Hillarious!" is book-critic speak for "the author makes occasional off-the-cuff comments." Then again, Roach didn't need to re-write "The Demon Haunted World" and I don't get the impression that she would claim herself to be "hillarious!" Perhaps my greatest criticism of Roach's approach is that she sacrifices some of the exploration previously mentioned for long, detailed accountings of her research. I think she could have convinced the reader that she thoroughly explored the subject without giving us so much detail. She may have mistaken our enthusiasm for her own when it came to the minutiae of her subject. The few inset diagrams and photos never seem to get to the heart of what we want drawn out. Maybe she could have even stepped on a toe or two. Also, I don't know that science tackles the afterlife so much in "Spook" as does a healthy skepiticism. This is another trap; you really can't "prove" a negative.
"Tackling the afterlife" may look like a wellspring to a writer looking for a subject, but it turns into a blind alley. I can't say that its entirely the author's fault, and I wouldn't dismiss other work from Mary Roach, but "Spook" never really finds its footing. I don't think that anyone expects to find the truth of our human destiny in this book, but they won't find much else, either. Inviting as this book may seem, both skeptics and those looking for something more than life has to offer will be disappointed.