Monday, February 6, 2017

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

Every time I sit down to write this review, I struggle with the right words and can't help but feel like a "goober" myself. Journalist Mary Roach has a terrific voice that makes this science piece easy-to-read and while I laughed, for the most part, there were other times when it was too much. I am glad I read it after, "The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America's Top-Secret Military Research Agency" by Annie Jacobsen because it gave me some historical context that is lacking in Roach's book. Roach is upfront about not specializing in history or science, "I'm the goober with the flashlight, stumbling into corners and crannies..." Parts of her story were interesting, others not, and the end definitely abrupt; however, I appreciate the attempt to create characters that are easily visualized. Although even that got repetitive at times. The book doesn't quite nail it, but it is worth reading if you want to know about the side of the military that gets little press such as fabric design for combat, blast wounds, medic training, hearing loss, types of repellents, phalloplasty, and diarrhea to name a few.

Her self-deprecating humor and figurative language add to the light tone and great voice. She pokes fun at her lack of knowledge throughout such as thinking that a mechanic's tattoo of pistons are martial arts weapons because of his fierce appearance. On a ship, she makes the mistake of identifying rifle holders as cup holders. She creates characters through detailed descriptions that I liked but became somewhat repetitious, particularly at the start. It seemed most people were gorgeous, adorable, or muscular: "She is gorgeous, articulate, fast-moving, powerful. Lesser humans left blinking in her wake" or "...with a superhero jaw and muscles so big that when he walks in front of the slide projector, entire images can be viewed on his forearm" or " you wouldn't use the word distinguished but adorable." Another officer is "droll" and "adorable". Even the maggots are "adorable" as "they move like inchworms, like something you might see humping along the pages of a children's book." That image gave me pause. Here's another one, "His incisors touch down on his lower lip like children jumping on a bed." No adorable, but an interesting simile. A fun made-up word is, "The whole business is straight off my fathometer." Sometimes she kapow's the reader with phrases that hide her lack of depth on a topic. 

Other times the book has a seriousness and poignancy that is insightful. She admires the bonding of soldiers and selflessness that defies reason. A man that lost both legs was more concerned about his fellow soldiers being okay than the fact he'd just stepped on an IED. Or how another soldier lost his limbs but said the worst part was losing his hearing because it made it so difficult to communicate with his wife and children. Or the part about how much the government spent millions on shark repellent based on one man's experience and another's political connections. She nails it sometimes and misses the mark at others. And the chapters are connected in a loose manner. As a journalism major, I enjoyed and admired how Mary Roach wrote this piece. She tackles many different topics and perhaps this is the downfall. It might have been better if she had focused on fewer. If you are looking for something historical or scientific then you might want to pair this with another book.

4 Smileys

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