“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.

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 2015)

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When you think of the Wright Brothers you think of the guys who flew the first plane and were the key pioneers in the development of flight. You may also get an image in your mind of that particular biplane depicted on the cover of David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers.

It was on a winter’s day in North Carolina that the two brothers, Orville and Wilbur, successfully completed the first manned flight and created history. But what were the events that led up to this historic moment? David McCullough is a skilled historian when it comes to covering renowned people, and in this relatively short 336-page book — for McCullough — he does an excellent job of covering the Wrights’ story from birth to death.

He begins with the family moving to Dayton and how the brothers, in addition to spending most of their time together, were workaholics who worked Monday to Saturday, and then after church on Sunday, spent their time working around the house. When they were together, no problem could go unsolved with them putting their minds together. One of their early businesses was a bicycle company, with the growing popularity of this mode of transportation, which became extremely successful and profitable with the sale of bikes, as well as repairing.

As their obsession with flight grew and developed, they would spend summers in Kittyhawk, working on their planes, subsidized by the profits from their bicycle business, which they would run during the rest of the year. Their sister, Katharine, soon joined the team and became an inseparable member until the later years of their lives, traveling with them around the world and helping with the administrative side of the business.

McCullough does a fantastic job of pulling from multiple primary sources to shape the story of this unique family, with diary entries, letters, articles and numerous photos. He doesn’t just tell the story of flight, but shows the full lives of the Wrights; how they interacted with each other and lived their daily lives. McCullough makes the Wrights feel like real people, making their achievements all the more incredible. The key point the author makes repeatedly is that the Wright brothers were the ultimate American entrepreneurs, with no training or experience, but simply taught themselves, using a process of trial and error, until they made a contraption that could lift off from the ground and fly through the air for an extended amount of time, making the crucial foundation for flight that has led to the magnificent jet engines crossing the skies today.

Originally written on July 10, 2015 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Wright Brothers from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles” by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins, 2015)

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The Battle of Waterloo is one of the most documented events in history; it’s also one of those times in history that’s very close to Bernard Cornwell’s heart. The bestselling author is known for his medieval historical fiction and is definitely a master of the genre, but now, for the first time, Cornwell has created a work of nonfiction in Waterloo.

The subtitle encapsulates the book: the history of four days, three armies, and three battles. The book is divided into relatively short but riveting chapters, each ending with a selection of photos and artwork – in color where available – making Waterloo a wonderfully illustrated edition for any history buff. Cornwell spends little time with the first two battles, Ligny and Quatre-Bras, providing a detailed step-by-step report of the battles in Cornwell’s talented way, and using detailed formation maps to make things clear for the reader.

The last third of the book is dedicated to the battle of Waterloo and perhaps what makes the book so fascinating is how much Cornwell uses from letters and diaries and other primary sources that give the book life, taking the reader back to the historic time.

Originally written on June 4, 2015 ©Alex C. Telander.

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

“Future Arctic: Field Notes From a World on the Edge” by Edward Struzik (Island Press, 2015)

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“Just the tip of the iceberg” is a painfully apropos metaphor for the state of climate change and how the Arctic and Antarctic zones of the planet serve as a sort of scrying stone for what the future may hold. While some evidence may be hard to come by for the current state of the world, what is happening in the Arctic is undeniable fact melting before our very eyes.

Edward Struzik is a hardcore explorer and journalist who has traveled across the limits of the Arctic and in Future Arctic paints a very moving picture about where it is headed. Along with plenty of research about the state of things, Struzik also provides lots of anecdotal evidence from the native peoples of the region recounting how their world has changed. The author even travels far into the past to a time when the region was warmer and how its flora and fauna fared.

Future Arctic is certainly bleak at points, but also enlightening as Struzik analyzes various possibilities about how the Arctic will appear transformed by climate change and what it means for the rest of the growingly fragile planet.

Originally written on March 18, 2015 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Future Arctic from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Infections” by David Quammen (Norton, 2012)

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Spillover is one of those books that everyone should really read, even if it’s really scary and after completing it, you’d have problems doing anything without wondering what viruses might be waiting to attach themselves to your skin. Bestselling author David Quammen looks to perhaps scare you with Spillover, but ultimately educate on both the history of these viruses and what the current status is of them today.

The book is divided into parts and features a thorough coverage of viruses like Ebola, SARS, Hendra and AIDS to name a few, as well as infections like hepatitis and malaria. Each part features an interesting history of the particular virus or disease, how it was first discovered and the devastation it has caused throughout the world, and then a look into its current situation and what it might bode for the future. Quammen is quick to point out in the Ebola chapter of how one being infected by the virus is more likely to show symptoms and the less bloody stages one goes through to death, as opposed to the sensationalist portrayal of someone dying of Ebola in Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. The AIDS chapter is perhaps the most fascinating in covering the detailed history of the virus and how it is one that is still killing many and while there are medications that help, it is still one that shouldn’t be easily forgotten about.

After finishing Spillover, in addition to being somewhat terrified, readers will also feel as if they’ve ingested an important volume of knowledge and will feel educated now on most of the world’s known diseases and ready to face the next pandemic when it comes . . . or at the least be a little more hygienic in their daily lives and wash their hands more often.

Originally written on February 17, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

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

“God’s Facebook” by Najmus Saquib (Innovation and Integration Inc., 2012)

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While Najmus Saquib earned his Ph D. in engineering, he is a philosopher at heart, with deep interests in literature, social dynamics and comparative religion.  In God’s Facebook, Saquib sets out to show the evolution of God through the history of humanity, starting in early primitive times, and continuing up through the present and into the possible future.  He does this partly with his own words, but also with quotes from many different sources, be they sacred texts, personal biographies, or even works of fiction.  His goal is to show that with the many similarities in all religions, with how god is seen at the center, that people will see and understand this and feel that humanity is all one.

The book is divided up into chapters by time period, such as Chapter 3 – God is Born (250,000 to 2000 BC) or Chapter 4 – God Gives Us Religions (2000 to 1000 BC).  In each chapter he covers that period in time with a short history of the religion and beliefs of the time, and what was changing.  In every chapter there are numerous quotations from a variety of texts and people linked to the particular subject of that chapter.  To break up the quotes, there are also “Coffee Breaks” and “Like” sections.

Saquib even addresses atheism in some chapters, though it doesn’t make much sense with the rest of the book, as the quotes are added in there as awkward pieces that don’t the puzzle of God’s Facebook.  What feels missing from the book is a clear message.  If Saquib is hoping to link humanity with just the quotes alone, that is not enough.  It does show some of the numerous similarities with many religions, but as is true with many people of faith, they need guidance, and there seems little of it in God’s Facebook.

Originally written on February 13, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of God’s Facebook from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Round About the Earth” by Joyce E. Chaplin (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

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There have been many books written about the notorious explorers from history, like Columbus, Magellan, Cook and even Darwin.  There are also now a fair number of people who can make the claim that they have circumnavigated this globe.  Joyce E. Chaplin presents readers with the first full history on those who have traveled around the world and told their story.

Divided into sections, Chaplin presents the series of historical tales starting with Magellan, giving the ups and downs of the journey.  She points out that it wasn’t until the twentieth century that these round-the-world trips actually returned to their starting point with most of the crew still alive.  All the greats make it into this book, such as Francis Drake, William Dampier, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and James Cook.  When sea travel became safer, people like Charles Darwin made the journey, as well as some notable women like Lady Brassey.

With the advent of encompassing railroad travel and exotic cruise ships, round the world journeys became much more achievable and common for a lot of people.  And with the advent of the space race, a new concept of circumnavigating the globe came into play, with an elite few achieving it.  Chaplin has fun exploring these many journeys and why people seem driven to accomplish it.  While her writing can get a little dry and long-winded at points, Round About the Earth still represents an interesting foray into this unique group of travelers.

Originally written on February 11, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Round About the Earth from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.