Source of book: Borrowed from the Library
Let’s get this out of the way first: I have have a serious crush on Mary Roach. It’s true. You can have your Kristen Stewarts and your Dakota Johnsons. My celebrity crushes are a bit, um, different.
Anyway, I have read, enjoyed, and reviewed a number of her books. Here are the reviews and links:
Gulp (about the alimentary canal)
Packing for Mars (about the space program)
Spook (about paranormal stuff)
Also highly recommended is Bonk, her irreverent book about sex, which I was too chicken to review at the time, but is laugh out loud hilarious.
Roach is, as she describes herself, a writer who enjoys taking a topic and poking around in the dark corners with a flashlight, until all the creepy-crawly stuff comes skittering out. Her website even uses a cockroach liberally as her alter-ego, so to speak. There is pretty literally nothing too gross or disturbing for her to mention and make a delightfully deadpan joke about. (One of my favorites of all time is still when she footnoted “primordial soup” with “Note: Not a Campbell’s product.”) Her humor is so deliciously dry, I really don’t even care what her topic is. I know it will be fun, irreverent, and unlike anyone else’s writing on the topic.
Grunt is Roach’s latest book, and it covers a variety of interesting (and usually gross) facets of the science of keeping soldiers alive during wartime. She starts off innocently enough with an examination of the clothing of war. Which means sweat. Not too bad. But then she gets into IEDs and dismemberment in the next chapter, and it goes either downhill from there, or starts getting really fun, depending on your tolerance for crazy stuff. Yes, she talks about getting one’s junk blown off - or at least seriously compromised. One memorable line in here is the (female) army doctor’s explanation about why virtually all of their post-explosive fertility research is male-focused. “If a girl gets her ovaries blown up, she’s not going to be here.”
For me, this isn’t particularly unusual stuff. My wife is an ICU nurse, so our dinner conversation is interesting to say the least. She would be right at home in the training for medics on triaging under hostile fire. If I ever get an appendage blown off, I trust her to keep me from bleeding out as much as anyone.
Another fun topic was the prevention of heat stroke. I generally tolerate heat pretty well. (Our local track club has a summer series of runs, in the Bakersfield evening heat. (Last year, our hottest race temp was about 108͒ F.) While I am pretty dang slow in the heat, I really don’t feel like I am on the verge of heatstroke or even exhaustion. Apparently, this places me in an interesting category. Apparently about 20% of people are genetically predisposed to heat stroke, while a similar number appear to be fairly resistant. The resistant ones (like me, apparently) sweat early and often, so we don’t tend to overheat. The downside is that we guzzle water like fish, and need a healthy dose of salt and electrolytes to compensate. Which is true. Also, we are pretty gross after exercise. But we stay on our feet in the heat as long as you give us water and salt.
What else is in here? “Diarrhea As A Risk To National Security” for one. Again, I may be lucky in this matter. Although I seem to be susceptible to viral gastroenteritis, which is spread by coughing, I seem resistant to food common dysentery bugs. This is kind of interesting, because I really didn’t win the genetic lottery. I was a sickly kid, and I still have every cold bug go to my lungs. Every several years, I get flattened with a series of illnesses all winter. But apparently, I am good with heatstroke and could survive the Oregon Trail better than most. Who knew?
Stink bugs? Shark repellant? Submarine survival? Maggots? It’s all in here. (Actually, my wife has used medical maggots at work - you have to count the all every time you clean the wound. And she and Mary Roach may be the only people who know the Medicare billing code for maggot wound debridement.)
I do have to talk about a few additional quotes that made me smile. Bomb-proof underwear is intended to stop the flying sand and dirt from an explosive, not the metal fragments. “Honestly,” says one source, “if the insurgents can make a bomb big enough to blow up a seventy-ton M1 tank, they can certainly make a bomb that’s going to blow up your underwear.”
For training medics, volunteers wear all kinds of cool wound prosthetics, including a backpack with fake blood. As Roach puts it, “a sort of CamelBak for vampires…”
Another amusing incident occurs when Roach is touring the collection of fake body parts. Particularly when she has trouble finding the restroom, because “head” has a different meaning when you are seeing signs for spleens and aortas.
I’ll also mention her accurate description of the major risk of rapid underwater ascent. As a licensed SCUBA diver, I remember well all the hours of practicing this: you must NEVER hold your breath. Because when you do, your lungs expand and eventually pop, which is very ungood. So we practiced always letting a trickle of air out. Always. And doing ascents while exhaling. It is really weird to kick up from 45 feet and be able to breathe out constantly because of the expanding air, even though it takes you 30 seconds to do so. But practice keeps you alive later in an emergency.
One final mention. Sadly, I could not find a video of the paintball incident at Camp Pendleton. (Here in California between LA and San Diego - it’s the only non-urban stretch of coast from the border to Goleta, really.) So anyway, Roach asked to be shot with paintballs to see what it felt like. (I know all too well. In cold weather, it smarts like hell, and can leave a baseball sized bruise at close range.) as she puts it, “Fifteen Marines volunteered. The one who did the deed - from 70 feet, hitting me precisely where he wanted to - can be heard in the background of a researcher’s video going, ‘That was very satisfying.’ ‘It’s almost like he knows you,’ said the researcher.” Alas, I can’t find video.
At least there is plenty of video of Roach talking about her books. And she is every bit as deadpan and tongue in cheek as she is in her writing.
There is no wrong way to discover Mary Roach. Grab one of her books. Listen to one of her TED talks. Find some footage of her talking about, well, anything. For those of us who like the dark, slimy corners of the human experience, her writing is delicious.