Thursday, January 18, 2018

"Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans At War"

What would it be like for sailors to hear the words "release of nuclear weapons has been authorized"?

Science writer Mary Roach ( is ravenously curious, previously exploring the icky parts of the alimentary canal (in "Gulp"), cadavers (in "Stiff"), and what science knows about sex (in "Bonk"). Now she's turned her attention to military science--not as in battlefield strategies but in the behind-the-scenes work to protect bodies and minds on the battlefield.

"Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans At War" ($15.95 in paperback from W.W. Norton and Company; also for Amazon Kindle and in audio format) brings the reader into U.S. military laboratories and the lives of researchers who address "automotive safety for people who drive on bombs" and the healing efficacy of maggots in combat.

Roach would be quick to point out that the maggots are not the ones doing the fighting. The key for the military is keeping flies out while harnessing their offspring for duty in wounds, maggots lunching on dead skin.

Roach will present a free-wheeling talk as part of the President's Lecture Series on Monday, February 5, at 7:30 p.m. at Chico State University's Laxson Auditorium. Tickets are $25 for adults, $23 for seniors, $10 for youth and Chico State students. For ticket information call (530) 898-6333, or visit the Chico Performances website (

The book explores efforts to create a universally hated smell (harder than you might think; 14% of one group said Sewage Odor "made them feel good"); genital transplants; diarrhea prevention ("Leaky SEALs"); better sleep in a submarine.

One study "showed that people who'd slept six hours a night for two weeks were as cognitively diminished as people who'd been up for forty-eight hours straight." The problem is that the "routine six-hours-a-nighters see no need for caution. They've felt mildly exhausted for so long it's become their normal."

Her trademark humor (especially in the footnotes) makes it safe even for the squeamish to get answers to questions never asked in polite company. She asks those questions. "In military slang," she notes, "there's a friendly epithet for everyone. I, for example, am a 'media puke.'"

Roach lights up the page.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

"Mexican Marimbas"

Travel writer Chloe Ryan Winston (, who lived in Mexico, uses her knowledge of the country to fashion a fast-paced novel which features unpleasant encounters south of the border with drug cartel baddies, including Joaquín ("El Chapo") Guzmán.

Winston, who now lives in Redding, has created a series of books, including "China Caper," telling the tale of a small band of unofficial "couriers" working for a U.S. Government spy agency. The new novel is called "Mexican Marimbas" ($15 in paperback from Dorrance Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle).

The unlikely group is composed of Phillips, a professor at an east coast Ivy League university, and his recruits: Derry, Jude, and Briana (who tells the story). Briana Fraser owns Let's Travel in Ashland, speaks fluent Spanish, and spent growing-up time in Mexico. She is able to get the group out of numerous scrapes as they travel to outposts in Mexico, known to be drug lord habitations, in an effort to photograph those responsible for the flow of drugs into the U.S., especially Chicago.

That city, says Phillips, "is now the transfer hub of drugs in our country. It's within a day's drive to about seventy-five percent of our population, plus it's a railroad axis for half of our nation. This is why Chicago has such a high rate of gang violence and murders today."

Bri notes that many in Mexico have a "love-hate-fear relationship" with the cartels. "And, with no one knowing who is friend and who is foe--even sometimes among relatives--they just mum up." That makes the mission all the more difficult, but even worse, a strange young woman named Amaria keeps showing up at many of the towns they stop at. Friend or foe?

The cartels are on to them, and the group has to keep renting vehicles after they explode or don't fare well in gunfights, or are pushed off the road by big trucks. It's a miracle that they survive.

But when Bri is thrown into a Mexican prison, the jig seems to be up.

Part mystery, part thriller, part travelogue, the novel makes the reader glad that the real El Chapo is in the hands of the authorities. Isn't he?

Thursday, January 04, 2018

"How To Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom For The Second Half Of Life"

As the old year gives way to the new, some of us (ahem) remain in the "old" category. We can't seem to shake advancing age. Now, thanks to translator Philip Freeman, we have an opportunity to examine some old words by an old man, one who saw the weight of years not as a burden but as the fruit of one's character.

Freeman teaches classical languages at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, but he holds his learning lightly in a fizzy new version of a book by the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero. "How To Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom For The Second Half Of Life" ($16.95 in hardcover from Princeton University Press; also for Amazon Kindle) was written "just before Caesar's murder on the Ides of March in 44 BC."

Cicero "was in his early sixties and alone." His daughter had died the previous year and, not able to support Julius Caesar, he "had retired to his country estate. There he remained, far from Rome, an old man in his own mind useless to the world."

But just as Cicero's last act seemed over, he began to write a series of treatises that endure today, including one on old age. His fictional dialogue featured the aged Roman leader Cato "from the previous century" in which "Cato shows how old age can be the best phase of life for those who apply themselves to living wisely."

The Latin text in Freeman's book is followed by his translation (with notes identifying all the names), and he summarizes Cicero's points in the introduction. Key: "A good old age begins in youth," Freeman writes, with habits of "moderation, wisdom, clear thinking, enjoying all that life has to offer."

"Cato" tells his young questioners that "older people who are reasonable, good-tempered, and gracious will bear aging well. Those who are mean-spirited and irritable will be unhappy at every period of their lives." He's realistic. "It isn't a light burden if a person, even a wise man, is poor. But if someone is a fool, all the money in the world won't make aging easier."

Words that will never grow old.