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Meet Mary Roach, who explains the science of protecting soldiers

Published June 20, 2017 10:56 am

Books • The curiosities of celebrated nonfiction writer Mary Roach: On cadavers, and diarrhea, and maggots.
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From a reader's point of view, just the idea of a thematic ingredient list for a Mary Roach book sounds, well, interesting — in a disgusting sort of way.

Here's how the writer described the recipe to Wired magazine last year: "One whole dead guy, two cups s—-, sprinkle with maggots. There's your formula."

Sounds just about right. After all, Roach's first book, 2003's "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," remains her most popular seller. "For the 'Stiff' fans, I try to get a dead guy in every book," the writer says, describing research conducted on dead bodies as one of her trademarks, in the way that director Alfred Hitchcock made a cameo appearance in each of his movies.

All of Roach's signature ingredients are explored in her sixth best-selling book, "Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War." To mark the book's paperback release, the Oakland-based writer will explain the intricacies of military research at a Trib Talk/Weller Book Works conversation at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Salt Lake City Main Library.

In her books, Roach has explored a quirky range of cutting-edge scientific research about subjects ranging from the afterlife to sex, from the digestive system to the science that protects soldiers. "Her curiosity and wit keep the reader turning the pages," said Jill Bialosky, W.W. Norton executive editor and vice president.

In advance of her Salt Lake City visit, the Tribune is soliciting ideas, with a Utah twist, for Roach's next book. She's looking for "an interesting world to step into and explain and experience," a world that might be "Roachable." She's applied to be a writer-in-residence at the Vatican, but hasn't been accepted. "It doesn't have to be science. It could be something different, as long as it would fit my sensibility," Roach says. (See box about where to suggest book topics in advance of Wednesday's Trib Talk event.)

It's not just her range of subjects, but her infectious curiosity that sets Roach's writing apart, said Catherine Weller, co-owner of Weller Book Works, who is sponsoring the writer's Salt Lake City visit. Her work is popular in the best way, because it draws readers' attention to things they may have never thought about. "People love Mary's writing because it is so accessible and also because it is so different than other science writing," the bookseller said. "And she doggedly tracks things down."

Adds Bialosky: "Mary never ceases to amaze me with the subjects she chooses for her books. She considers the ideas carefully, does research and makes sure she can gain access before diving in."

Diving in might be an understatement.

For "Gulp," Roach underwent a "sedation-free" colonoscopy, which led to her descriptions of her own colon, which appeared (after the organ was emptied, of course) as "chewing gum, bubble-gum pink."

For "Bonk," she talked her husband into coupling while hooked up to an ultrasound machine. "I feel like a secretary in a ribald French comedy, sitting calmly at her desk, taking a letter, while the mailroom guy hides in the footwell with his face between her legs," Roach wrote. She went on to promote the book with a 2009 TED talk, "10 things you didn't know about orgasm," and the video has gone on to earn nearly 22 million views.

For "Grunt," she traveled to a U.S. military base in the African desert country of Djibouti to learn about stool research, which led to her asking a Special Ops soldier to tell "There I Was" stories about what happens on a sniper mission when diarrhea strikes. To learn more about how sleep deprivation affects Navy soldiers, she hung out in the missile compartment of the USS Tennessee.

And then there's this chapter: "It Could Get Weird: A salute to genital transplants," which contains this signature bit of Roach's self-deprecating humor. "[Rick] Redett heads the Johns Hopkins transplant team's reconstructive and plastic surgery arm, and, like me writing this sentence, will stick a body part most anywhere."

She says she's always been game to report on uncomfortable things. She's curious about the military's research into stink bombs, or the kind of precise surgery maggots can perform on a patient's infection. "She doesn't just do it for laughs," her editor said. "She's serious about wanting to uncover important and interesting research about the human body."

Roach planned to open "Grunt" with what she termed her "grabbiest research," the chapter about research that could soon lead military surgeons to successfully transplant a penis. But her editor thought that chapter might be a bit too, well, grabby as an opening, especially for male readers. Bialosky suggested letting readers work up to the topic. "Of course, that chapter was mentioned in almost every review," Bialosky said.

Roach said she's always hunting for narrative possibilities that might arise from research reports, as well as experts who can explain their subjects in clear and interesting ways. The writer might be willing to watch maggots at work, but, "I have a zero tolerance policy for Power Point," she said.

Inserting herself as an occasional character in her books allows her to invite readers along on the journey of discovery. Researching her books has gotten easier, she said, because she no longer feels uncomfortable "playing the dope" in front of experts.


facebook.com/ellen.weist —

On 'Grunt,' Mary Roach's newest book

Join Tribune reporter Ellen Fagg Weist in meeting writer Mary Roach at a Trib Talk and Weller Book Works event about "Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War." As part of the conversation, you can help the crowd-sourcing effort to suggest a theme (preferably Utah-based) for Roach's new book.

When • 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 21

Where • Salt Lake City Main Library auditorium, first floor, 210 E. 400 South

Tickets • Free, but reservations required: eventbrite.com/e/an-evening-with-mary-roach-tickets-33418474557

Also • Send book topics, with a Utah twist, to ellenf@sltrib.com. Write "Mary Roach's next book" in the subject line.






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