Norton (October), $24.95
Does the soul live on after death? Oakland author Mary Roach wanted the academic (not faith-based) answer to that question, and the result is Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. A history of both rigid scientific inquiry and paranormal pursuits (aka yesterday's rigid scientific inquiry), Roach's book begins in India, where she meets children who say they're reincarnated, and ends in American laboratories and hospital rooms, alongside physicists seeking to capture the weight or image of a soul. Throughout the former travel writer's quest, her witty, sympathetic, upbeat style of writing and observation keeps things from getting too bleak or jargon-heavy. And Roach's skepticism (especially handy when she enrolls in a course for would-be psychics, or hangs out with ghost hunters) guarantees the reader an honest, non-New Age appraisal of the data that flow from near-death experiences. What's more, she displays the same light touch for curiosity and characterization -- so important in a story populated by quirky, staid scientists -- that enlivened her first book, Stiff, which explored the range of uses for human cadavers. Indeed, it would seem that Roach is carving out a niche by examining, from an inquisitive layman's perspective, the corners of science that border on the mystic, where some of our starkest fears and questions reside. Lucky for us that we have Roach to answer them.