Welcome to military research as viewed through the eyes of America's funniest science writer. Grunt is Roach's sixth book of oddball exploration, and it's a swift and engrossing romp through topics that few would treat with anything other than grim solemnity — penis repair, for instance. But Roach has a knack for making the horrific fascinating, fueled by delightfully nutty curiosity and a slightly off-center perspective ... Altogether, it's quite a performance. She's treading on near-sacred ground when she takes on the lives of those who put themselves in harm's way for their country. And watching her pull this off left me a little breathless. She manages to convey both respect for the soldiers and humor, often by making herself the punch line ... No other nonfiction writer so consistently manages to be both hilarious and informative. Even when she makes us utterly squeamish.
As meticulously researched, beautifully written, and disturbingly funny as her previous books, Grunt examines the science behind war, as well as the researchers who are leading the charge in these state-of- the-art developments. Roach’s prose is a triumph — an engaging blend of anecdote, research, and reflection ... Roach describes herself as 'the goober with the flashlight,' but she’s the most courageous — and empathetic — science writer we’ve got. A master of synthesis and scene, she unpacks subjects that on their surface might seem boring, disgusting, outrageous, emotionally charged, or morally suspect and infuses them with insight, humor, and humanity.
[Roach's] MO is to parachute into a foreign field, gamely undertake tasks beyond her ability and report back to us her research, observations and experiences from the point of view of a self-deprecating but sensible everyperson...The power of sections early on in the book caused me to question the overall structure, as the later chapters, about subjects like odor research and shark repellent, seem too discursive with too little at stake in the aftermath. In general I found the chapters to be more like discrete magazine stories, albeit very funny and informative ones, than parts that make up a greater narrative whole. Roach nevertheless is able to tiptoe through dangerous ground — that of potentially trivializing warfare with her signature humor — with some dexterity, celebrating military doctors, scientists, their patients and their fields of study while providing enough laughs to perhaps make a reader cough up — what else? — a bolus.
The pithy title of Grunt is a little misleading. It is not about infantry. (Or nonverbal sounds made by humans.) The subtitle explains it all: The Curious Science of Humans at War. But anyone looking for insights into, say, calculating ordnance trajectories will be disappointed. Roach...focuses instead on research that makes servicemen and -women healthier, more comfortable and more effective soldiers...Sometimes Grunt’s footnotes are as entertaining and informative as the text.
A onetime travel writer, Roach excels in capturing science’s 'foreign country' aspect — roaming as a stranger in a strange land among its weird norms and novelties, grand monomaniacal passions, practitioners’ idiosyncrasies and obscure lexicon ... She writes exquisitely about the excruciating while also displaying supreme attunement to the oddness of the subculture she’s writing about. In Grunt, she’s concerned with the military’s 'quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, bacteria, panic, ducks' ... Yet Grunt is not without its languors. A chapter on the history of shark repellent development is thin gruel. At other times, some of the machinery behind Roach’s writing becomes creakily apparent ... Grunt is at times tremendously entertaining, wildly informative and vividly written, but as an examination of humans at war it feels small-bore.
...a meticulously researched and darkly humorous look at the science of modern warfare ... Roach’s writing [is] thrilling, accessible, and engrossing in the best possible ways. Roach has a unique ability to make the morbid funny ... Grunt shines a light on science that’s actively attempting to keep people alive. Perhaps for this reason, it feels less like a survey of new military science — much or most of which is surely classified — than it does a masterful work of nonfiction that intends to draw the reader’s attention away from the drone strikes reported in the mainstream media and, in so doing, change the national conversation about war ... Roach’s snappy writing style and impeccable comedic timing that make Grunt a must-read.
The big, frustrating problem with Grunt is not that Roach is insufficiently respectful of the brave young men and women who serve our country. Rather, it’s that, too often, she is insufficiently respectful of her own material, showing a greater interest in racing to her next zinger than in exploring more deeply the implications of the subjects she is writing about...There’s too much juvenile snickering in Grunt. Wisecracks are a given in a Mary Roach book, but this is the first Mary Roach book in which the ratio of quippage to reportage has gotten out of whack. Which is a shame, because the topics she has chosen to explore are worthy of more considered contemplation ... Grunt is a slapdash book, with no coherent organizing principle beyond its subtitle.
It’s hard to trust a reporter who 'adores' military PR men and who writes a 'grasping fan letter' to a source. Yet her descriptions of trauma injuries, and of the military’s evolving response to battlefield danger and wounds, are compelling and clear-eyed. Midway through this odd book, with its crushes and cork sandals, its gaping horrors and bloodless military euphemisms, you begin to wonder: Is this what 15 years of war have done to us? Are we willing to look at our strange, ruined and ongoing enterprise only if we have a chipper tour guide and enough depth charges of gore to keep us entertained?
As a dispatch from the War on Terror, Grunt is in a class by itself. Ms. Roach cares almost nothing about the nuts and bolts of killing—drones, tanks, sniper rifles and the like. What gets her going is the human equation ... Ms. Roach, one of America’s most gifted (and eccentric) science writers, brings a full arsenal of talents to this campaign: humor, snappy prose and a winning naiveté that pushes her to explore things that a more seasoned military reporter would yawn at ... The downside to Ms. Roach’s range is that at times Grunt can feel a bit like a hurried VIP tour of a local military base, what real-life grunts call a dog and pony show ... Despite the book’s shortcomings, Grunt is a welcome addition to the library of military history.
Roach (Stiff, Spook, Bonk, Gulp) has developed a lucrative writing career by grossing out her readers, and she holds nothing back in her discussion of military medical efforts to reattach or rebuild the private parts of wounded soldiers. If her writing didn’t elicit so much empathetic discomfort, it might be pretty funny...Roach lightens the scene with her snarky sense of humor and sharp interviewing skills to make uptight military personnel loosen up and share entertaining anecdotes.
[Roach's] book could have been titled Everything You Always Wanted to Know About War but Were Afraid to Ask. (And it could have been made vastly better if someone had cautioned her about the wearying effect of reading footnote after footnote constructed on an identical plan: even more awe-inspiring fact followed by rimshot joke) ... her primary aim is to entertain, to set us loose with a handful of ride tickets in a giant amusement park of thrilling facts. It is not to build an argument, although one hovers unsaid in the background: Stop and think. What is this expensive, amazing ingenuity for?
Grunt isn't a textbook masquerading as creative nonfiction, but a legitimately enjoyable romp through the back alleys of military science ... There's a certain coarse poetry to Roach's style that you'll find either delightful or horrifying, depending on your sensibilities. I was in the former camp for most of Grunt, though I will admit that the image of arctic explorers walking on their own sloughed-off flesh 'like Dr. Scholl's cushioning inserts,' and a medical cadaver's severed penis held up like 'a baby's sweater' have done my dreamlife no favors ... nestled in between all the blood and guts (and spit and sweat and semen and poo) are plenty of drier but no less fascinating topics ... Roach probably isn't going to be your jam if you require a high degree of reverence when discussing these subjects. She's not an academic lecturer or military-industrial boffin. Roach is your buddy in the bar bathroom of military science, cheerily explaining how some guys in the '80s literally exploded from explosive decompression.
Though Roach has no scientific background to speak of, she immerses herself in every subject until she enjoys the kind of mastery that allows her to pass on complex information through very simple language to her readers ... Unlike most books about the military, Grunt is not a book that fetishizes guns and other weaponry...Roach is more interested in the search for bomb-proof underwear, and this aspect of the military-industrial complex feels so refreshing that you might never want to read some macho Tom Clancy-style fetishization of artillery again for as long as you may live ... you could probably produce more STEM students by handing high-school students Roach’s books, advising them that they’re full of fart and sex jokes, and just letting them fall in love with the nerds Roach interviews — the laser-focused geeks who just want to make the world a better place in the only way they can.