I've read and enjoyed Mary Roach's nonfiction in the past; the one I definitely remember reading is Stiff, which looks into the world of cadavers. The latest book of hers I've read is Grunt, which is about the military. Roach's particular approach to her subjects is what endears her most to me. She is frequently funny, self-deprecating, and able to see the ridiculous side of subjects that we don't necessarily automatically see as funny or ridiculous. At the same time, she has a sense of humanity and compassion. When reading Grunt, I was frequently reminded of a book I read and enjoyed in high school, Wayne Biddle's A Field Guide to Germs. Biddle managed the trick of discussing an abecedary of diseases with both wit and kindness toward the human sufferers.
As Roach says in her introduction to Grunt, "People think of military science as strategy and weapons--fighting, bombing, advancing. All that I leave to the memoir writers and historians. I'm interested in the parts that no one makes movies about--not the killing but the keeping alive. Even if what people are being kept alive for is fighting and taking other lives. Let's not let that get in the way. This book is a salute to the scientists and the surgeons, running along in the wake of combat, lab coats flapping. Building safer tanks, waging war on filth flies. Understanding turkey vultures."
I'm someone who tends to get hypnotized by the tactics/strategy/logistics/great commanders perspective on military history, so books like this are a useful and necessary corrective. And my dad spent some time as a US Army surgeon, and I'm interested in histories of medicine in general, so that got my attention as well.
This book is not for the faint of heart. Some chapters have medical grue; if you're a sensitive reader, you may want to proceed with caution. I grew up with full-color photos of open heart surgery lying casually on the living room table and thought that was normal for much of my childhood, so I am hard to squick with either pictures or verbal descriptions. (It also helps that I can't visualize jack.) In person would be a different story, largely because I've never desensitized my sense of smell.
Table of Contents:
1. Second Skin
What to wear to war
[Really fascinating stuff on military fashion design--one fashion designer makes the cogent point that soldiers will ditch clothes if they think the clothes make them look too uncool--and clothes they aren't wearing can't protect them, so even fashion has to be considered as a factor!]
2. Boom Box
Automative safety for people who drive on bombs
3. Fighting by Ear
The conundrum of military noise
4. Below the Belt
The cruelest shot of all
[Not for the faint of heart--about genitourinary injuries and repair surgeries, etc.]
5. It Could Get Weird
A salute to genital transplants
[For the curious, this stuff is still in the early/experimental stages. Fascinating, though.]
6. Carnage Under Fire
How do combat medics cope?
[This one gets gruesome, although some of the descriptions of how they make, e.g., simulated bowel movements, etc. are hilarious.]
7. Sweating Bullets
The war on heat
8. Leaky Seals
Diarrhea as a threat to national security
[This could also be gross-out territory, depending on how sensitive you are, but I remember reading about diarrhea as a major cause of casualties, etc.]
9. The Maggot Paradox
Flies on the battlefield, for better and worse
[Possibly also not for the squeamish. I'd heard of maggot therapy some years back. Basically, the idea is that maggots will debride necrotic tissue but not healthy tissue. Once they clean out the wound, the wound can go on healing. Not immediately obvious, but cool.]
10. What Doesn't Kill You Will Make You Reek
A brief history of stink bombs
[Some of the military's attempts to find universally-accepted "stinks" are really funny.]
11. Old Chum
How to make and test shark repellent
12. That Sinking Feeling
When things go wrong under the sea
[Mostly submarine stuff, eep. (I can barely swim. Although at those depths, not being able to swim no longer matters.)]
13. Up and Under
A submarine tries to sleep
14. Feedback from the Fallen
How the dead help the living stay that way
All in all, this is--I hesitate to use the word "fun" given the subject matter, but _Grunt_ is engaging written, the chapters flow interestingly into each other, and Roach brings up a number of topics that I wouldn't have necessarily thought to research otherwise. Recommended.
Thank you to the generous person who donated this book!
I hope y'all had a great weekend, lovely patrons.