From the digestive system (Gulp) to the body after death (Stiff) to the science of sex (Bonk), Mary Roach’s books have all touched on familiar topics that have been written about over and over again. But Roach, a self-described “goober with a flashlight,” brings a glorious level of glee to each of her subjects as she transforms well-worn topics into fresh learning experiences. At first pass, her latest book is her least universal: Grunt explores the science of the human body at war. After all, everyone has a digestive system, we all experience death, and most of us have had sex or at least considered it—but few of us will ever fight on a battlefield.
As Roach makes clear, Grunt is no Zero Dark Thirty, nor is it about the science of military armaments. She never ignores the bullets and bombs but instead focuses on the unsung heroes of battle. At the fashion design studio of the U.S. Army Natick Labs, Roach learns about the ballistic qualities of silk underpants and why snipers can’t wear zippers. She runs around with the U.S. Marine Corps Paintball Team as part of a study on hearing loss in combat. She even discusses penis transplants, a particularly timely topic since the first successful procedure occurred just last December.
Grunt has everything Roach fans look for: guffaw-worthy footnotes, questions pursued to hilarious and rewarding ends and connections that we never would’ve considered. Perhaps no one else walks the line of irreverent and considerate as skillfully as Roach does, and with this book, she presents something important, difficult and often ugly, leaving readers with a new appreciation for the bizarre sciences and creative minds that strive to better the lives of soldiers.