Wednesday 17 August 2016


By Mary Roach

While there are plenty of books that cover the political and human impacts of war, we rarely see and examination of more unusual aspects of maintaining a military force.  Grunt by Mary Roach isn’t about new guns and tanks, drones and missiles. This is the kind of stuff that most people don’t even think about: what kind of fabric uniforms are made from, what sleeping arrangements are like on submarines, and if there is such thing as shark repellant (probably not, but they tried).

This is Mary Roach’s stock in trade: the weirder aspects of everyday life (and death).  In previous books, she’s interviewed experts on such wide ranging topics as the digestive system, the human soul, how dead bodies are dealt with, and how people are preparing to go to Mars. 

Grunt is nothing if not consistent with her previous work.  Mary Roach’s style is very engaging: she can discuss the dullest of topics and still keep me interested.  She’s prepared to cover really unusual topics, she takes her subjects seriously, she’s witty, and she always has an eye out for the human aspects of her topic. This means that she’s always ready to try out whatever experiments being discussed: in previous books she attended séances, used a space toilet (a task that requires a video targeting system to get the aim right), and shared a special moment with her husband in an ultrasound machine. In Grunt, she engages in a high-pressure training exercise for military medics, goes into live warzones, and smell-tests potential stink bomb candidates. 

If I have any complaint about Mary Roach’s writing it’s that very often she will skim past a topic that would make a great book in its own right.  She might drop in a footnote to point out some weird fact about a researcher or a scientist.  It’s interesting.  It’s often so interesting that you wish that was what was being covered instead. It’s nice that she includes a bibliography.  The problem is the references are a lot more stuffy and formal than her much more relaxed prose.

While Grunt is her most recent work, I highly recommend any of Mary Roach’s previous books as well.  You’ll learn things that you never knew you wanted to know.

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