Susan Orlean’s book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend tells three stories, well four. There’s the partly heartbreaking and partly inspiring tale of Lee Duncan and the puppy he found on a French battlefield and named Rin-Tin-Tin, there’s the legend of Rin Tin Tin in all his film, television, merchandising and dog breeding iterations, and then there’s the story of the changing place of the dog in Americans’ lives in the twentieth century, in our homes, in our wars and on our screens. It’s an engrossing read, and I found the balance of informational detail to pace just right (that’s always my litmus for a good non-fiction book).
And the fourth story is the story of Susan Orlean’s quest to find those other stories. Orlean herself is definitely a figure in the writing, not only why she became interested in Rin-Tin-Tin in the first place, but stating which topics she cares about, and is therefore delving more into than others, and why. (For instance mentioning that it’s unclear in many Rin-Tin-Tin movies which dog is actually playing the part, but not getting much into what is and isn’t provable about that, because that’s not something she finds very interesting). So it’s on that level a different style than, say, Dorothy Ours’ Man O’War: Legend Like Lightning, which I also highly recommend, but which isn’t about Ours’ personal story. I like Orleans’ voice, and found the occasional personal sections worthwhile. It’s a big-hearted book, without getting treacly.
I’ve read two Mary Roach books now, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, and I highly recommend both for learning, with just the right filter of humor and empathy, about the stuff you might never have thought to ask about the human body or if you had thought to ask wouldn’t have been sure who to ask (or might not have been sure you wanted to). But I also highly recommend not reading them while you’re eating—Stiff because of the frequent comparisons of stages of bodily decomposition to food items, and Mars because of all the motion sickness and poop talk. But that’s just a recommendation for reading context—neither should be avoided for fears of squeamishness. I’d put myself on the wimpy side of the middle of the squeamish spectrum, but the only part I couldn’t, er, stomach, reading was the last half of the space motion sickness chapter in Mars. (And I was breaking my own rule and reading it during lunch.)
Roach covers her topics in both books thoroughly, detailing not only what happens to a corpse after it’s donated to science but what does it mean? Logistically, spiritually, physically, decompositionally, scientifically, personally? Detailing not only about how the body functions differently in space and the history of strategies for dealing with it, but also who asked the original questions that led to the knowledge we have now, and who were they, and why were they interested? Because it’s not really bodies Roach is interested in, it’s people. Here, out there, alive or dead, but people. Mars is lighter in tone overall, Stiff is a bit weightier, but both are funny and empathetic, and flat-out fascinating.