Arts

Mary Roach Talks 'Grunt' at Kepler's

Oakland author gets in the trenches with military scientists working to
keep U.S. soldiers alive and well on the battlefield.
CURIOUS ROACH: In 'Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War,' Oakland author Mary Roach explores the U.S. military's ongoing crusade against battlefield casualties.

For someone who has devoted the last two decades to investigating ghosts, cadavers and life on Mars, science writer Mary Roach is a surprisingly down-to-earth woman. What's not surprising is that she is as witty in real life as she is in her books.

The Oakland-based author and humorist is known for a string of quirky, scientific investigations into the human body. Her best-known and best-selling works include Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife; and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

In her newest book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Roach investigates a collection of U.S. military experiments—all of them designed to better understand the science of "keeping people alive and putting them back together."

From the gut-churning, all-too-real "maggot therapy" to recruiting disabled actors to help medics better understand how to work with amputees, Roach assembles a smorgasbord of weirdness in the fields of military science and field medicine.

Roach was initially inspired to write the book while reporting on the Indian defense ministry's development of non-lethal chili pepper bombs. "There they were doing all these surprising projects like a leech repellent," she says, speaking to Metro by phone. "I had these moments thinking 'military science might be Mary Roachable.'"

Indeed, in Grunt, Roach discovers more than the usual collection of strange, preposterous and utterly imaginative examples of military science in relation to the body. With her characteristic wit and style, Roach explores various ways the U.S. military tries to cut down on casualties. She shares the best practices for escaping from a sinking submarine, gives readers the lowdown on genital transplants and takes a deep dive into World War II-era shark repellents.

Besides running into classified files and waiting for delayed experiments, Roach notes that most of the hiccups in her research for Grunt stemmed from procedural red tape—an experience familiar to anyone who has spent time in the military. It's not that she was turned down, she explains. It's just that "nobody would know who was the person with authority to sign off on things."

While she is fully capable of limiting herself to the role of observer, Roach is anything but casual when it comes to her research. She is known for her willingness to become part of the experiments she is covering. She's participated in all kinds of studies, including one where she and her husband had sex on top of a 3-D ultrasound imaging device.

"If I'm not going to immerse myself in a people and place, I'm not going to cover it," she says.

Roach's reputation precedes her, and the author acknowledges this has helped her gain access at times. When researching for Grunt, Roach's hefty rolodex and celebrity helped her weave through the military's bureaucratic minefield to find the unique contacts that ultimately informed the content of the book. "I wouldn't say access was easy", she says on finding and pursuing topics, "but people were really helpful and accommodating."

In researching her books, Roach has been to all seven continents. While working on Grunt she visited a roster of U.S military bases and research centers including Camp Pendleton and the U.S. Army Labs near Natick, Massachusetts. The book also took her to the small east African nation of Djibouti, where she studied American ballistic missile submarines.

While chapter titles like "Feedback from the Fallen" and "What Doesn't Kill You Will Make You Reek" are punchy and somewhat cheeky, Roach often strikes a more serious tone in Grunt. "Where it works, I'll be funny", Roach says. "With this book humor was not always appropriate, so it was more in the historical chapters or poking fun at myself being the clueless outsider."

Grunt may be the most sober addition to Roach's series of Curious, but the nature of the topic allows her to showcase the drive for compassion and safety even in the strangest of military experiments.

Mary Roach
Jun 22, 7:30, $10-$40
Kepler's Books, Menlo Park


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