2016 | 288pp | £12.99
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Books, films and TV shows often seem conflicted when it comes to portraying war, either painting a picture of bravery and patriotism or a dark, blood-stained tableau of suffering and death. However, such stark depictions often hide a third picture: the mechanics of war, which focuses on the people trying to keep troops alive. This is where Mary Roach comes in.
Travelling around various US bases and meeting with soldiers, rangers, navy seals and special operations, as well as medics, scientists and researchers, Roach takes a look at how the people behind the battlefield are trying to save the lives of their troops before, during and after service.
Roach’s approach coaches the reader on issues such as how scientists are trying to combat the panic, exhaustion, heat and noise that soldiers suffer. Topics explored in Grunt include the chemistry behind food research (including some lovely caffeinated meat), the science involved in uniform design, and the training of medics to avoid both fight and flight impulses. Impressively, this is all written in an accessible manner that a wide audience can enjoy. A scientist may have comments and ideas to add to the current research discussed throughout the book (if they can stand the flippant manner in which it’s written), whereas the popular science reader will enjoy the wealth of information and quirky humour. I personally took away more information about genital transplants than will ever come in handy (although you never know).
With 14 chapters dedicated to various topics, including diarrhoea, submarines, or amputees, there really is a lot to learn. But if you want to know why pigs should be given the purple (or pink) heart, exactly how cadavers are used in research (for the strong-stomached only), the reason insects are unsung heroes and why recreating the smell of baked bread could help win a war, then Grunt is the book for you.
Between the consistent and well-applied humour and the thorough and interesting research, I’m hard-pushed to find something I didn’t enjoy about the book. Roach is perhaps too flippant at times, but with the long term quality of soldiers’ lives being ‘a relatively new consideration’, Roach definitely provides a fresh perspective on the field, whilst being in the field. Interesting, thoughtful, and funny, Roach provides a thoroughly entertaining book that also teaches the greatest lesson of all: ‘If you don’t have a pair of cadaver shoes, you’re not doing enough research.’
For an excerpt from the book, an interview with author Mary Roach and our thoughts on Grunt, listen to our Book Club podcast