“Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans of War” by Mary Roach (Norton, 2016)


Mary Roach has wowed her addictive readers with corpses (Stiff), sex (Bonk), and life in space (Packing for Mars). In Grunt she delves into a new arena with the world of the military and the science behind it that protects them in every way possible.

Roach begins with the military combat uniform and its development over time. The author does her job – as usual – as she delves back into America’s military past providing shocking and insightful tidbits, leading up to the current model. She dedicates entire chapters to combat medics, how the military and technology works with extreme heat, how to deal with excessive noise, military vehicles and how they are developed to protect the soldier in every conceivable situation.

The two chapters that are the most moving and poignant of the book are “Below the Belt” and “It Could Get Weird.” With the disturbing evolution of improvised explosive devices or IEDs, the number of men coming back from the front lines alive but often maimed and mutilated below the waist has increased significantly. Often IEDs go off beneath vehicles or from a low vantage point beneath the person causing the explosion to go upward and usually in the groin area. This had led to an astonishing and impressive development in penis reconstruction and genital transplants. Roach goes into fascinating detail with this line of medicine and surgery, as well as the slower development in therapy and helping these injured veterans in living their lives with their families again.

The book ends with a sobering chapter on the autopsies performed on the fallen men and women in action and how they are learning from this to help those soldiers fighting on the front lines.

With most of Mary Roach’s books there is a learning curve, but in Grunt the author learns and develops along with the reader as the military is one of those facets of our society that most of us are not brave enough to be a part of, and sometimes – perhaps often – take it for granted in the incredible daily job those women and men do, and know very little about. Grunt does a great job of educating us on this.

Originally written on July 12, 2016 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Grunt from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Gulp” by Mary Roach (Norton, 2013)

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Mary Roach, bestselling author of Stiff and Bonk, brings her host of avid non-fiction readers to a whole new arena with Gulp.  Welcome to the alimentary canal, a politely titled journey from a single bite passing through our bodies into the toilet bowl.  Just as with her other books, Roach employs her patented humor and obsession for the detailed and at times gross.

Unsurprisingly, Roach begins with the mouth and taste and the importance of the sense of smell with taste.  She recounts her meeting with a person whose job is to taste wines and beers that are “off” in some way.  This person has such a developed and trained palate, she knows what has been done wrong in the fermenting of the beer, or the preparation of the wine.  Roach then continues on down the gullet with succinct chapters on each part, providing lots of details of how it all works, what the process is, and plenty of facts you might have never wanted to know about your throat, or stomach, or intestine.  But the book is also bursting with lots of information to increase one’s general knowledge, such as why stomach acid doesn’t burn through your stomach lining.  The shocking answer is that it actually does, but the stomach lining is constantly being replaced with fresh, new stomach lining cells.  And this is why a dead person’s stomach acid will burn through their stomach.

Perhaps Gulp’s only failing is that the reader is left wanting to know and learn more, but the book has to end somewhere.  In addition to biological and science details, Roach also provides lots of stories and histories of past experiments of what was done in learning about these body parts and how they worked.  And for those really curious, yes, there are multiple chapters on flatulence.  Readers will not be disappointed, but they never are with Mary Roach.

Originally written on April 27, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Gulp from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

Bookbanter Column: “Thank You Borders” (September 16, 2011)

Borders 1Window signs for Borders Roseville store #130 at the beginning of liquidation

I started working for Borders in October of 2005; last October I had my fifth-year anniversary working for the company; by the beginning of October this year Borders Books, Music and More will no longer exist.  It is estimated that around 10,700 people will lose their jobs when Borders closes its doors for good.  The original Borders bookstore opened in 1971 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  At its height in 2003, Borders had 1,249 stores; five years later it announced its intention to sell.  Two years of doubt and uncertainty followed, mainly for the Borders employees, knowing that the end would come and it was merely a case of when.  A revolving door of CEOs and constant changes to upper management couldn’t stem or slow the tide of inevitability.

It is truly the end of an era, not just with all of us losing our jobs, but as a community venue that so many people have attended over the years.  Whether it was for books, DVDs, music, coffee, Paperchase stationary items, or somewhere to enjoy a music performance or a signing on the weekend; Borders to many was a place to go and have fun.  And now there will just be a series of big empty locales across the country.

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Employees putting up liquidation signs

Borders prided itself on carrying a wide variety of authors, especially during the better years when it wasn’t just bestsellers, but a large number of midlist authors that readers couldn’t find at Barnes and Noble, and wouldn’t be able to ever discover at Amazon.com.  Independent bookstores do their best to carry many of these authors, but they don’t have the spread and range that Borders used to carry.  In a recent interview with bestselling author George R. R. Martin, he indicated that a number of these authors will have a lot of trouble selling their books, what with the small publishers already owed millions by Borders, as well as not having such a large retailer to carry their titles anymore.  The next few years are going to be interesting as readers, publishers, writers and booksellers look at what happens to this big hole in the book world.  Will Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble automatically fill it?  Will new independent bookstores begin to flourish across the country?  Will eBooks fill this great void?  Only the future will tell.

But Borders will not be quickly forgotten.  Many of the employees in the history of Borders – as well as current ones – have had many fond memories of working for this institution.  Many customers also have their own recollections of shopping at Borders, in fact at the beginning of the liquidation a customer came into the Folsom Borders asking if they could have a piece of the carpet once the store closed as it was there that she was proposed to; sadly she was not granted her wish as the carpet is needed for future tenants.  Shortly after the liquidation announcement, Sourcebooks publisher Dominique Raccah created a special Twitter hashtag, #ThankUBorders, where everyone and anyone could share their fond memories and happy times with Borders; each and every day there are many new entries under this hashtag.

I could go on for paragraphs and paragraphs, reminiscing about my job and experiences at this place called Borders that I will never forget.  I know on that last day, we’re going to need a lot of tissues.  For now, I invite you to read what a variety of authors and one publisher have to stay about the end of Borders . . .

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Letters and messages received from caring customers

“I am saddened by the demise of any book purveyor, though of course there must be a sadness hierarchy — with the defunct independents outranking the bankrupt chains.  I long ago forgave Borders for shelving Stiff under Medical Reference, because they also chose the book for their Original Voices program, and that program was a nice a leg-up for a first-time author… “ – Mary Roach is the author of the bestselling Stiff, and most recently Packing for Mars.

“Borders was a wonderful chain, with terrific stores.  It’s a huge loss to all of us.  We mourn when a single bookstore closes, and rightly so — but when 700 close, it almost defies imagination.  Countless communities will have no local bookstore at all.  I’m truly sorry to see them go.” – Robert J. Sawyer is an award winning author; his most recent book is WWW: Wonder.

“Well, my thoughts aren’t particularly complicated. It’s a shame, even though we all sort of saw it coming. Fewer book stores – whether it’s a chain or an indie going bust – is bad for readers, and bad for writers. Fewer books available means fewer books sold. And for that matter, it means a number of (often) book-loving people are out of a job.  Perhaps the Borders closings will open an opportunity for independent stores to rise up and fill the void – particularly in some of the markets where Borders was the only bookstore in the area. I’m not sure how viable or likely that is, but a girl can hope.” – Cherie Priest is the author of the bestselling Boneshaker.

“I can only talk about our local Borders, which was always wonderfully supportive of our books and events. I think the loss of any brick-and-mortar store is bad news. I do know that in later years I had several conversations with people in the book business who didn’t understand some of Borders’ business practices. Unnecessary expenditures, including over-production of author interview videos (when a lot of people are just using a hand-held flip camera, for example). I don’t know what I think really. ” – Jeff VanderMeer is the author of Booklife and Finch.

“I think it sucks.  Leaving aside the fact that I still enjoy browsing real live bookshelves and this cuts down on my options for doing so, there’s the terrible economic impact this is going to have on the entire book industry.  We were already facing an economic system dangerously denuded of “retailer ecodiversity” — and now the few remaining apex predators, no longer impeded by competition, are free to ravage anyone they see as lower on the food chain:  namely, book producers and book lovers.  It’s already happening, and now will get worse.  Still, at least there’s one hope from the liquidation:  Borders might finally be able to pay back the millions of dollars in unpaid-for books it’s owed to publishers and authors for years now.” – N. K. Jemisin is the author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms.

“Any bookstore closing, chain or independent, is a cause for regret. We may enjoy our e-readers of all kinds, but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of walking into a bookstore and wondering what you’ll discover today, just by being among books, picking them up, sharing that space.” – Guy Gavriel Kay is the bestselling author of Tigana and Under Heaven.

“As both an author and a reader, the news of any bookstore closing is a tragedy. But when I learned about Borders closing I was particularly saddened. Borders was instrumental in making my first book, The Lost City of Z, a success. Borders employees were some of the most devoted readers, who recommended books and passed them on to customers. I did a reading at a Borders in Westchester, New York, near where I live, and was so struck by the extraordinary staff. And so when I think about those people who worked there losing their jobs, and all the readers and authors who will lose such a great place to gather and share their love of books, I’m left without words.” – David Grann is the writer for the New Yorker and the author of the bestselling Lost City of Z.

“First of all, my heart goes out to all the hardworking Borders salespeople and managers who have lost their jobs. The demise of Borders is a sad day for them, for us authors, for publishing houses, for the reading public — and indeed for our country. Fewer bookstores mean fewer books sold. It’s that simple. And that impoverishes us all.” – Douglas Preston is the bestselling co-author of Cemetery Dance and Gideon’s Sword.

“This is one chapter we hoped would never be written. But today’s business climate doesn’t take a sentimental approach. There are so many forces that conspired to effect Borders’ demise, but it boils down to the fact that the business model changed. Borders didn’t. I feel bad for all my friends and terrific booksellers who are losing their jobs, and the readers who lose their neighborhood bookstore. Borders was more than just a store…in its heyday, it was a community’s social pulse…a happening place where people gathered for book signings and musical concerts. It’ll be sorely missed.” – Alan Jacobson is the bestselling author of Crush and Inmate 1577.

“I’m crushed and shocked.  The loss of Borders will have a resounding and lasting impact on the publishing market.  Worst of all, it leaves fewer outlets for readers to easily browse, purchase, and explore new books.  And the effect will reverberate throughout the economy as well:  from the dumping of the 400 stores’ retail spaces into an already fragile marketplace to the 11,000 employees seeking new employment during these tough times.  There is not a silver lining in any of this.”– James Rollins is the bestselling author of The Doomsday Key and The Devil Colony.

“Well, it’s funny, I remember when Borders was “cool.”  —Before they became intent on opening a location next to every indie in town and running them out of business. I was so sorry to see their business model change; they really became the opposite of how they started.  Borders was “sex-positive,” and gay-friendly in their infancy; back when it was considered risky. They were out front with graphic novels and comics.  Whereas some prominent booksellers were saying: “No title with the word SEX in it will be allowed to have a signing in our store!”— Borders would welcome me.   I think I first went to one in Chicago, that was fun. I also remember very well being in their Wall Street location a few months before 9/11. They had such a jolly time inviting me to “invade” the suits and have a reading there.  I wish I could remember names better, because obviously, the good times were all about the great individuals I met, who in many cases, had been booksellers for years, at every kind of store. I hope I keep seeing them in the future!” – Susie Bright is the bestselling author of Big Sex Little Death, as well as the editor for The Best American Erotica.

“For any trade publisher the loss of Borders means that print runs will drop, in some cases by quite a lot for some categories in which Borders did well, which will then put pressure on unit costs and retail prices and profit margins. The knock-down effect would include loss of employees, fewer output, and more. And if this is the direction of chain stores, with indications that B&N will soon follow in five years, at least with attrition, as leases expire, then we could see a situation where publishers are either put out of business entirely or transitioned to ebook business models in order to save themselves. It’s a brave new world, but it’s anyone’s guess how brave and new it’s going to be.” – Sean Wallace is the editor and publisher for Prime Books.

“I think it’s a sad day when thousands of people lose their jobs and the ability of the consumer to browse through books in person becomes even more limited.” – Amber Benson is the author of Death’s Daughter and starred as Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“The closing of Borders leaves an enormous void in the book world, not only physically but also spiritually. The professional implications to the publishing industry aside, there’s something about the experience of stepping into a book store that can’t be duplicated by browsing books on Amazon.com. If the other brick-and-mortar stores suffer the same fate as Borders, then we will have lost a fundamental piece of our culture.” – S.G. Browne is the author of Fated and Breathers.

“I’ll miss Borders.  The closest bookstore to me right now is a Borders.  It’s in a local shopping center that has a movie theatre, and nearly every time I go to the movies I go in there to shop.  But that’s just the tiny little sliver of my personal regret.  Thousands of people are losing their jobs.  Big shopping centers will have massive empty real estate that will be hard to lease, and the cities and towns won’t be getting the taxes those businesses generate.  Of course, even that is only one aspect of the loss taking place with Borders flaming out.  Doubtless it will hasten the rush toward digital books as people have a harder time finding a bookstore.  The long term picture–what publishing will look like a decade from now–is unclear.  Perhaps once the conversion to digital is complete, or nearly so, that will create jobs and opportunities for writers.  But in the short term, we’ll have to navigate carefully as the industry continues to undergo its metamorphosis.” – Christopher Golden is the author of numerous books including The Myth Hunters and The Map of Moments with Tim Lebbon.

“Borders was the only new book store near my house when I was a kid.  I spent so many hours there.  Borders was the bookstore that always had the book I wanted, that always had the people who knew what I was talking about.  When I started publishing my own books, Borders was the bookstore that happily invited me in to sign and read and be a part of the bookstore dream.  I miss my local stores so much.  I can’t believe the whole chain is going away.  It’s a loss to me as a writer, to me as a reader, and to me as a little girl who just wants to walk into a bookstore and be amazed.” – Seanan McGuire is the author of Late Eclipses and Feed under Mira Grant.

“Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void” by Mary Roach (Norton, 2010)

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The beauty of reading a book by Mary Roach is it doesn’t matter if you’ve never read any of her work before, you’re still going to be thoroughly entertained and will learn much more than you’d ever see on the Discovery Channel.  After the bestselling success of Stiff and Bonk, Packing for Mars gives readers a course on the history of astronauts and the space race, as well as where NASA is possibly headed in the next few decades.

When We Left Earth is a fantastic documentary about astronauts and space, as we see these incredibly brave men and women (and a few animals) go boldly where no one has gone before and more importantly how they got there.  Packing for Mars is the unusual yet perfect companion, as Mary Roach goes boldly where few researchers and journalists have gone before.  But that’s the key with Roach: she doesn’t take no for an answer and never gives up.  In Stiff, she spent a long time staring at and studying corpses; in Bonk, she and her husband actually engaged in coitus for an experiment.  In Packing for Mars, while she doesn’t make it into space (she isn’t an astronaut and a seat on a private flight beyond Earth is too expensive), she does get to ride what is colloquially known as the “vomit comet” and experience true weightlessness.

Roach explores and researches thorough answers to questions you’ve probably been asking yourself while watching astronauts do what they do best: how do they shower and keep clean (many experiments were done on how long the human body can last, clothed, without cleaning; as well as the effects of body odor on other crewmembers); what is astronaut food really like and how do they eat it (it was a long hard road to perfect this); how astronauts go to the bathroom (there are a number of methods which Roach explores and discusses with no reservations); has anyone had sex in space? (you’ll have to read the book to find that out).  Roach travels the globe, meeting with many NASA personnel, as well as traveling to Moscow to meet with renowned cosmonauts.

Packing for Mars will entertain you in so many ways, no matter what you’re looking to get out of this book.  Ultimately, you will laugh, smile, gag, and feel – when you reach the last page – that there’s a lot you didn’t know about astronauts and space.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on October 27, 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex” by Mary Roach (Norton, 2008)

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We are now eight years into the twenty-first century and the world has made many great strides in areas like medicine, anthropology, sociology, politics, and increasing our knowledge and respect for our planet and the many different peoples who live on it. And yet the United States is still a country that views sex as an act to be hidden behind closed doors, performed infrequently (preferably for the purpose of reproduction), and as quick and easily dispensed with.

In the May issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine, “a survey of sex therapists concluded the optimal amount of time for sexual intercourse was 3 to 13 minutes.” Now Mary Roach, author of the bestselling Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, has turned her scientific mind to an act that can only be performed in specific ways according to laws in certain U.S. states.

The empirical study of sexual intercourse has certainly come a long way since humanity began having problems with performing the act, and Roach does a fantastic job of showing just how much work and research has been performed in the name of science on the subject of sex. While the author does go back to the days of ancient Greece, Bonk is not arranged chronologically, but rather by subjects ranging from human sexual response; to how the shape, size and placement of the sexual organs can vary from person to person and how this affects people having sex; to sex toys and devices; to what exactly is going on biologically during an orgasm.

Roach continues as she did with Stiff to “turn off” readers as she goes into detail on what takes place during penis surgery, having seen it performed before her very eyes; as well as revealing the scientific fact that because an orgasm is essentially a reflexive response to specific stimuli over time, a dead body would be able to have one. Roach makes a giant leap for humankind into the world of sexual study in volunteering herself and her husband to be studied scientifically while performing intercourse.

Just as in the author’s other books, Bonk is an eye-opener for readers, no matter their background; after absorbing it cover to cover one feels educated enough to make diagnoses for those experiencing sexual dysfunction. But then this may be one of the reasons Roach wrote this book: for those too ashamed to seek clinical help. She makes her point clear: that sex isn’t something to be hidden especially when problems affect people’s everyday lives. There’s a group to help everyone – even a special one for the disabled who are unable to have sex in ordinary ways – and offer advice and help in maintaining a healthy sexual relationship.

After finishing Bonk, one can see how this subject has been taboo for so long, and this continues to be the case with the current U.S. administration being a major advocate of abstinence over contraceptives. But at the same time it is clear that many people over the years have devoted their lives to the scientific study of sex, and here we see a different world of those who want to help and educate others. Ultimately, whatever goes on between consenting human beings behind closed doors is their business, but is there any reason why it shouldn’t be enjoyable?

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 26th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.