Recommended Reading: News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton

de_botton_1The News: A User’s Manual
Alain de Botton
Vintage, 2014
Paperback, 272 pages

If the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life” were sung today, instead of singing “I read the news today, oh boy,” John Lennon might just sing “I saw the news today, oh boy!”

“Oh, boy!” Indeed.

On its Web site, CNN’s breaking news around 10 p.m. CDT July 9, 2018, is a photo of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court Justice nominee, at a podium presumably at the White House or on Capitol Hill or somewhere in D.C., the president smiling smugly in the background, Kavanaugh’s family off to one side, wife smiling lovingly.

This is important news, right? At least for the U.S.? Then why do I almost automatically disengage from it? Why don’t I click the photo to read or listen to the story that follows?

Below the photo is a headline: “Trump’s Supreme Court pick is a DC insider who worked for special counsel Ken Starr during the Bill Clinton investigation in the 1990s.” That headline is among many about Kavanaugh.

Twelve hours later, Kavanaugh’s nomination is no longer the lead story. The lead is about the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. Scrolling down, however, I can pick from five different headlines analyzing Kavanaugh. Still, I find myself uninterested enough not to click any of the links.

It’s not that I’m politically apathetic. I vote, I sometimes follow political news and even comment here and there, usually on Facebook.

The problem: There’s already so much analysis about Kavanaugh, just from this one source, it’s numbing. My problem, as with many of us who follow the news regularly, or not so regularly for that matter, is that it’s the same story different name as the last nominee. I could begrudgingly switch to the Fox News Web site, and though they’re likely to praise the nomination, the analysis, in general, will be similar. I’m disengaged because I’m bored with the analysis, no matter who’s presenting it; it will continue in the days, weeks and months leading up to the justice’s confirmation — and then continue afterward until his first decision, which, in turn, will get analyzed … well you get the picture.

This sort of disengagement is addressed in Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual, an analysis of how news, as it’s presented now, affects us, and how the news could be better and serve us better as consumers of it — and as providers of it, better present it.

“We regularly come across headlines of apparent importance that, in private, leave us disengaged,” De Botton writes. “Boredom and confusion may be two of the most common, but also two of the most shameful and therefore concealed, emotions provoked by so-called ‘serious’ political stories presented by the news organizations of modern democracies.”

De Botton is an essayist, philosopher and public intellectual known for such books as Essays on Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. He also runs the School of Life, a school, as its Web site notes, dedicated “to developing emotional intelligence,” a sort of self-help school that promotes philosophy, art and literature over pop psychology as practical sources for changing lives and making one’s way in the world a bit more tolerable.

On the surface, in De Botton’s estimate, the news, no matter what’s covered — politics, crime, celebrities — doesn’t make our lives more tolerable. Even just a casual perusal of the news is likely to cause us fear or anger, despair or apathy or lust or envy, depending on the stories we follow, or where we happen to catch the 24-hour news cycle. Some news might elicit all these emotions at once.

The medium in which the news is presented doesn’t seem to matter. De Botton draws examples from print, TV and presumably online — given that most print media (or what once was print) is now followed online. (The book was published on the cusp of social media’s dominance as an outlet for news, even individually created “news,” and smart phone technology, but with minor adjustments, De Botton’s critique easily applies to those media as well.)

For instance, here are some headlines De Botton cites early on from the BBC that could have come across our newsfeed on Twitter or Facebook or on TV at any time and pretty much from any source, local, national or international:

  • “COUNCIL SPENDING ‘LACKING CLARITY’”
  • “ANTI-TAX GROUP LEADS CONSERVATIVE CHARGE”
  • “SYDNEY MAN CHARGED WITH CANNIBALISM AND INCEST”

Only the third headline might command our attention, but probably just insofar as to cause us anger or outrage at such hideous acts. The story itself would in print probably run three-to-four-hundred words in length or gain a minute or two of broadcast time, and then it would become a mere piffle in our minds. Just a few of us, including the journalist reporting it, would follow the story from arrest to prosecution to sentencing — unless the Sydney man happened to hold celebrity status or the story itself, especially in trial, were to reveal gory, gruesome and macabre details. Otherwise, it’s water-cooler talk.

Which, is the issue, De Botton says. What’s the point?

De Botton offers possibilities to improve news and its presentation, primarily suggesting news dig deeper into the “whys” of events or people it reports on are important. Why should we care about a war in Africa when we’re drinking our coffee in our kitchens in the U.S.? What if we see the every day lives of those caught in the war, to see the universals in their lives, then maybe we might just care some? Or we might see a crime as more than just an event in which in which we can express our self-righteous outrage at the perpetrator.

“The tragedies of others should remind us of how close we ourselves often are to behaving in amoral, blinkered or violent ways,” De Botton writes. “Seeing the consequences of such impulses harrowingly played out in the lives of strangers should leave us feeling at once scared and sympathetic rather than hubristic and self-righteous.”

While on one hand De Botton’s suggestions for how news should be gathered and presented is highly idealistic — especially to the reporter, the journalist who is frantically trying to daily fill column space or airtime with something to keep his job — on the other hand, his ideas are intriguing and his critique of the news is spot on in the way it influences those who consume it.

As reporters, we often just go about writing the city council story, knowing the city’s budget will usually fall short or that the next Supreme Court justice will influence the workings of the nation one way or another. We will too often go just to the people in power to get some quotes and then go onto the next story and talk to more talking heads. We ask the same questions and get the same narrative. We don’t always go out with our notebooks to understand the whys of a story, to dig out what a story means, if anything at all.

The kind of journalism De Botton seems to advocate does exist in longform magazine writing, it existed at its best in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, et al, emerged. But then, that style peaked by the ’90s. Still, those journalists ferreted out meaningful stories by training literary lenses on their subjects.

Is this the kind of journalism consumers of news now want? Do they have the attention span to read such stories, to watch a lengthy documentary film? Perhaps after reading De Botton’s book, they will want more of that kind of journalism, rather than what they are getting?

I want to think that’s what news consumers want — news with meaning and richness of texture, news that looks at the world in its ordinariness as an artist does. It’s why I am encouraged when I read a great narrative piece in a magazine, online, or even in a newspaper. It’s why I was encouraged that until a few weeks ago CNN had a great show that showed us the world through its people, its food and its culture in the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”

I would like to see De Botton’s idealistic approach put to the test. It might be more encouraging and less “Oh, boy!” than you think.

— Todd

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On Writing: Voice

giphyVoice and narrative, according to Terry McDonell in The Accidental Life, supersede pretty much everything a piece of writing offers to make it good — even word count.

As a magazine editor, who edited Hunter Thompson and Jim Harrison, among others McDonell used word counts placed at the top of a manuscript page to “evaluate pacing or the lack of it in a piece.” Invariably, the writers he worked with would send features in either way over or way under the word count.

“None of this matters if the piece is good — and that’s determined by voice and narrative, not length.”

But, what is this elusive Roadrunner of a thing writers chase after called voice?

It’s the sum of every writing strategy you use to makes you sound like you on the page, according Roy Peter Clark. It’s the distinct word choices and punctuation and rhythms and everything else that gives plagiarists fits when they try to pass your writing off as their own.

“Voice is a word critics often use in discussing narrative,” writes Ursula LeGuin in Steering the Craft. “It’s always metaphorical, since what’s written is voiceless. Often it signifies the authenticity of the writing (writing in your own voice; catching the true voice of a kind person; and so on).”

Certain voices are very distinct, easy to recognize:

We ate the sandwiches and drank the Chablis and watched the country out of the window. The grain was just beginning to ripen and the fields were full of poppies. The pastureland was green, and there were fine trees, and sometimes big rivers and chateaux off in the trees.

That’s Hemingway, of course, from The Sun Also Rises. What’s always made Hemingway’s prose distinct to me was the repetition of “and”— the conjunction’s got rhythm.

What would just that first sentence sound like if punctuated with commas as we’re taught?

“We ate the sandwiches, drank the Chablis, and watched the country out of the window.”

It’s still vivid and descriptive, clearly the eye of a good writer giving us concrete details of a train ride, but something seems lost. Those “ands” make it Hemingway.

Another distinct word choice is “fine” referring to “trees”. It gives the trees an aesthetic quality. Hemingway does this often with words like “fine” and “good,” to the point of parody. In fact, parodists often throw in a lot of “fines” and “goods” in their parodies of his style.

Here’s another favorite voice of mine:

If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He’s friendly, goodlooking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools. He’s not afraid of commitment. He wants children — actually, he already has children and wants a lot more. He works hard and is a consummate professional, but he also knows how to have fun.

That’s Susan Orlean, from her feature “Show Dogs,” collected in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. With this lede, it’s the commas that give the sentences punch, when the sentences are long enough to warrant commas.

But, what makes it distinctive is its surprise and humor. “If I were a bitch” jumps at you, makes you want to read more. It takes you a moment to realize Orlean is talking about a dog, one that by the end of the paragraph, you’re in love with, too. The surprise of “bitch” in the first sentence is sweetened and softened with “He almost never drools.” There, if not before, you can hear Orlean’s smile, a bit of a “gotcha!”

The use of subjunctive in the first sentence also stands out. It seems like a useful strategy to get the reader inside your frame mind, and into the world of the piece, if not overused. Orlean opens her classic piece “The American Man, Age Ten” with the subjunctive as well:

“If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks.”

What an interesting twist at the end of the sentence, to go from speculating about marrying someone to marrying someone who wants to have matching superhero notebooks. We’ve gone from adult speculation about the world and right into the world of a 10-year-old boy in turn of a phrase.

Of course, by voice, some writers mean writing in a certain point-of-view, especially in fiction, when you’re telling a story from a character that isn’t you, or is just a shadow of you, even if you’re writing a roman `a clef.

Nonfiction writers use this kind of voice, too. Ian Frazier, for instance, parodies the language of a legal brief in his hilarious essay “Coyote v. Acme,” in which hapless cartoon character Wile E. Coyote sues the Acme Company, whose tricks and traps never trap the Roadrunner and leave Wile E. maimed, mangled, and otherwise bodily harmed.

My client, Mr. Wile E. Coyote, a resident of Arizona and contiguous states, does hereby bring suit for damages against the Acme Company, manufacturer and retail distributor of assorted merchandise, incorporated in Delaware and doing business in every state, district, and territory.

Sounds legit to me. That’s what voice does. It even gives a fake legal brief a sense of humor and makes it seem real.

So, work on your voice, until you can sing with authority and authenticity.

— Todd

Recommended Reading: Audiobooks

downloadAs a child, who didn’t like being read to? While I don’t think audiobooks make up for discovering in the sound of your dad’s voice language and reading and its nascent joys, they certainly can be boon companions on long commutes or while washing dishes. How long was my last commute, you ask? To work and back again, I listened to all of Dune in about two weeks. All. Of. Dune. (Counting appendices and cartographic notes, my paperback version is 535 pages of dense 10-point type. In other words, it’s a long book.)

It’s just been in the last couple of years that I’ve begun to appreciate the companionship of audiobooks. Since then, I’ve listened to many more. On YouTube, I found a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, read by The Hitch himself. Oh, to envy that voice, sneering, snarky and cigarette-and-whiskey-smoked slamming it to the deity.

I followed that up — also on YouTube — with Richard Dawkins reading from The God Delusion.

Of course, most writers don’t read their own audiobooks, though I wouldn’t have minded hearing Terry McDonell reading his memoir The Accidental Life. The version I downloaded from Audible is narrated by Jason Culp and runs 11 hours and 30 minutes.

Though McDonell doesn’t narrate the audiobook, it’s nonetheless a great listen, part reflection on nearly 40 years as editor of magazines including Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Esquire, as well as a reflection of McDonell’s interactions with the writers who wrote for them: Hunter Thompson, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, James Salter and Peter Mathiesson, to name a few.

It’s also in part an instructive book about editing and writing and the often rocky relationship between the two crafts.

It’s the kind of book (I’m reading the hardback now) that makes you nostalgic for the days when editors and writers held a bit of the public’s imagination, even if it wasn’t necessarily for writing — the writers McDonell spent time with partied like rock stars with drugs, booze and even women, or men, depending on one’s preferences. It also, without demonizing it too much, reveals how much the writing life has changed because of the Internet and technology — there’s lower pay, for sure, in a trade that’s already hazardous to your cash flow. The real problem, as it always seems it has been, is the suits. McDonell takes a peek at that part of the life, too.

Currently, I’m giving a listen to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief. Wright narrates the introduction but the rest of the book is read by Morton Sellers.

I’m about 6 hours into the 17 and one-half hour audio and it’s absorbing. Just the biography of Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard and the way the science-fiction writer evolved his philosophy into a cult and elevated it to a religion through a variety of means is gripping. Hubbard’s methods are common to cult leaders: coercion, charisma, abuse, outlandish punishments, isolation from family and friends, demands for absolute loyalty, demands for money and attempts to falsify and discredit accounts of ex-followers and critics through a variety of means, including threats and lawsuits.

There’s much to be said, even listening to the first few hours, about the dangers of the cult of personality that seems to take a grip on us daily. Strong, charismatic personalities pull us away from natural skepticism, working on our flaws and insecurities; they rarely seem to work on our strengths. We can see it in other figures: Jim Jones, David Koresh, even Hitler and our current president. They dismantle hearts and minds, even whole countries. Cults rarely come to good ends — unless they manage to become normative, slip into the mainstream, as religions — they usually end in Kool-Aid and conflagrations.

Scientology seems to have a disturbingly far reach: though Hubbard ranted against psychology, I think back to several of the self-help books I’ve read over the years by psychologists, and their advice seems strangely like that in Hubbard’s Dianetics; I think, too, of the paranoiac rantings of talk-radio host Alex Jones — a science-fiction fan — whose rantings can be followed at Prison Planet (Hubbard theorized Earth was a prison planet). How many people has Jones riled up with his rants (our president appeared on his show. How much the president’s rhetoric seems like Jones’.) Was Jones influenced by Hubbard or Scientology in any way?

Listening to Wright’s book has made me uncomfortable about contributing a little to one wing of Hubbard’s empire: The Writer’s of the Future contest. And yet, as a writing contest, it gives beginning science-fiction and fantasy writers a chance at a wider audience. It’s launched some good writer’s careers. I’ve had friends published in it, and I have received accolades from the contest. Am I caught in an argument that I hate: learn more about a particular writer and it taints that writer’s work. Does it really? Can I still love Junot Diaz’s fiction, for instance, though he’s been MeToo-ed?

Those are probably questions for another post.

For this one, I especially have to recommend the latter two audiobooks for your reading and listening pleasure.

— Todd

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Writing: The Glamour of Grammar

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If there was a moment in graduate school that dismayed and hurt me more, I can’t think of anything worse than the day my first seminar paper was returned.

To see that big green F — ironically green pens were used to grade papers because green ink was supposed to be less antagonistic than red — at the top of the page and all those inserted green commas — my paper looked like it had grown a football field. And I was Tom Brady watching the Philadelphia Eagles celebrate their Super Bowl victory while I sat helplessly and forlornly in the middle of the turf at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Defeated not by linebackers and a last-second touchdown pass, but by flawed argumentation and grammar.

I dropped the course immediately.

But, I didn’t let the F end my graduate career, no more than a Super Bowl loss has ended Brady’s career. I refreshed my grammar rereading some basic composition texts and the goat text for most writers — The Elements of Style.

For me then — and since — grammar mattered.

Do you really have to grasp every element of grammar to be a great writer? Spelling seems to be a bugbear for many. There are of course the legends: F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently couldn’t spell and Shakespeare spelled his name six different ways — that, of course, was before spelling in English had become formalized.

And there are, of course, experimental works of genius like the unpunctuated last chapter of Ulysses — but Ulysses is an exceptional piece.

What about commas? Does Cormac McCarthy really know where the commas, or periods for that matter, go in passages like this from All the Pretty Horses:

“That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies  …”

And so on for another quarter of a page until the sentence/paragraph comes to a full stop. So what? Does this evocative lyrical piece in McCarthy’s signature Faulknerway style need commas or conventional punctuation? Clearly like Joyce, McCarthy is trying to show us the unconscious flow of the mind, of consciousness, of a dream state in this case. Where, exactly would you punctuate it? Still, if he’s trying to evoke a dream state, why does he keep reminding us this is a dream by repeating the phrase “in the dream”?

And, of course, as you’re reading this post, many of you might ding me for sentence fragments or using colloquialisms like “goat” for “go-to”. And, if you are like a recent editor of mine, you’ll cringe until your spine snaps to see me begin sentences with conjunctions. “And” at the beginning of a sentence particularly bugged him.

Probably as much as I was bugged as an editor when a writer of mine couldn’t name the parts of speech, and yet wrote well. Another writer couldn’t spell well and often wrote cringe worthy sentences, but was a great reporter. She got the details and great quotes. And with some great editing, won an award for feature writing.

Still, for me, grammar matters. The trauma of a green F sticks with me. It makes me check and double-check my copy and makes me fierce editor. All writers should know the basics, as Roy Peter Clark says in Writing Tools.

Even if you aren’t a professional writer, clear, generally grammatically correct writing affects communication no matter the field. At the very least, there is a utilitarian necessity for clear writing.

“Poorly written reports, memos, announcements, and messages cost us time and money,” Clark writes. “They are blood clots in the body politic. The flow of information is blocked. Crucial problems go unsolved. Opportunities for reform and efficiency are buried.”

— Todd

Current News: Why Anthony Bourdain Matters

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Unless you count imaginary trips, I haven’t traveled much, although I hope to do more.

Yet, I feel I’ve traveled the world vicariously through — the rest of this sentence seems unreal to write — the wanderings of the now late Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain, 61, the celebrity chef, writer and host of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” died June 8, apparently of suicide.

In the past couple of years, news of celebrity deaths seemed to outnumber celebrities. I’m not much of a celebrity watcher/follower. Of course, I have my Hollywood heroes — Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Frances McDormand, etc. — and certainly as a teen I was obsessed with pretty much everything the band Van Halen did.

But, I didn’t get into celebrity gossip, unless you count the great TV talk shows like the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” as celebrity gossip, or regularly follow TMZ — though that show has begun to warrant some legit breaking news.

The closest thing I suppose I have to celebrity obsession is with writers. I used to collect writer’s obituaries and, when I really get into a particular writer, I will read what I can about him or her. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’d probably find a hint or two I’ve had long love affair with Ernest Hemingway.

In 2016, in particular, it seemed every Hollywood star, every rock star was turning up dead, only two celebrity deaths genuinely affected me as if I’d actually lost a relative or friend — Carrie Fisher, of course was my princess, like she was for many of you. What more can you say about the space princess who was your first movie star crush?

Of course, David Bowie and Prince rank high up on the loss scale, too.

Then, however, came writer Jim Harrison. Harrison died March 26, 2016, sort of the ideal writer’s death, I suppose, if there is any ideal death — at his table, writing in longhand.

I came to Harrison, late, introduced to his writing by my mentor and colleague, Clay Coppedge. Before I ever read a word of Harrison’s prose, I heard Harrison read at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, when he was promoting his collection of essays, The Raw and the Cooked.

This is where I get back to Anthony Bourdain. As any reader of Jim Harrison knows, the man was a gourmand. Harrison took pleasure in food like no other writer I’ve ever read, other than Hemingway (Harrison would have hated that comparison).

Until 2009, I had no idea Anthony Bourdain was such a fan of Harrison’s.

Then, I had become a religious watcher of Bourdain’s show on the Travel Channel, “No Reservations.” It became an obsession. In Bourdain, I found a kindred spirit — I longed for adventure; he adventured. He ate, he drank and he loved life. He also wrote well about it and had his own TV show.

It was hard not to love his show and him. I was in the second year of long-term unemployment, edging toward divorce and straining under a savage bout with depression. Bourdain’s joie de vivre was intoxicating, a relief from the darkness crushing against me from all sides, from the high place of my mind.

I made sure not to miss the episode Bourdain visited Harrison in Montana.

“I’m in awe of him,” Bourdain says of Harrison in the episode. It’s refreshing to hear a celebrity say he’s in awe of someone and mean it.

And it’s clear from Bourdain’s book Medium Raw, the chef was in awe of Harrison. Harrison is “the man who has done everything cool with everybody who’s ever been cool, dating back to when they invented the fucking word.”

Like Harrison, what the bad-boy chef —Bourdain was once called the Hunter S. Thompson of celebrity chefs — writer and traveler gave us was authenticity, the kind of thing that seems missing in our world of corporate ken dolls, the kind of thing Bourdain gave his fans, even in a Montana that, as wild as it still is, has also become overrun with CEOs and moguls.

In all of his shows — his most recent was “Parts Unknown” — Bourdain traveled and ate and drank and gave us armchair travelers a touch of depth about a place, the sort of thing you can’t get with ordinary tours. He went to out-of-the-way places, had a love affair with street food and in Vietnam famously ate a bowl of $6 noodles with President Obama.

After Bourdain’s passing last week, all I could post about it was “Damn.”

I hadn’t watched “Parts Unknown” in awhile, but I loved every episode for its touch of authenticity. Plus, more often than not, he’d end up citing a favorite book — in Tangier he recalled Sheltering Sky author Paul Bowles, and probably talked about William S. Burroughs — or he’d somehow work in a line from “Apocalypse Now.”

Just this week, The Atlantic, talks about Bourdain’s authenticity. “The key ingredient of Bourdain’s career was indeed realness.”

That’s what mattered about him. He was a pop culture icon. And yet, he could stand in awe of other icons like Harrison.

He mattered to me, because he showed a life of no fear, and he talked about good food, good books, good music. He wasn’t afraid to be cultured or crazy.

It’s the kind of thing we need now. We need pop culture of the variety of Bourdain and Harrison, even Hemingway and Twain. People unafraid of the world or life. People without borders, because somehow we’ve become a culture isolated and wanting protection through walls.

I’d rather live in Bourdain’s borderless world.

There’s a photo that’s circulated around social media. I found it on a Jim Harrison Facebook fan site. It’s of Bourdain, Harrison and the now late actress Margot Kidder. They are drinking at a bar in Livingston, Montana.

It’s a poignant scene, the kind of thing that makes you wish there were an afterlife, but only if you could hang out at bars with your friends and with great actors and writers and chefs.

It’s the kind of afterlife I hope Bourdain is enjoying.

— Todd

Recommended Reading: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

By TODD GLASSCOCK

51837639Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
Mary Roach
W.W. Norton, 2016
Hardcover, 285 pages
 
Almost three-quarters of a century have passed since some 13,000 paratroopers dropped from the skies over Normandy a few hours before thousands more Allied soldiers would land on the beaches to begin the liberation of Europe from the Third Reich.

Those paratroopers dropped with anywhere from 90-120 pounds of gear, including parachutes, rifles, knives — some dropped with machetes — entrenching tools, flashlights, compasses and maps, packs of rations, and extra ammo and grenades. All this gear was meant to be used to survive anything Hitler’s Wehrmacht launched at them: bullets, bombs and bunkers or panzers, machine pistols and panzerfausts.

On their way down the paratroopers probably prayed not just that their lives and their comrades’ lives would be spared the barrage of flak coming at them, but that they had, on landing — and if they survived that landing — the guts and guns to fight the men firing that flak at them and at the planes that dropped them. We know they had the guts and guns. That’s well-documented.

What we don’t know is whether they worried if their iconic cotton-twill uniforms might survive the blasts of a grenade’s explosion or wick away their body heat as they marched from one Norman farm field through another. These sorts of worries are the meat of research at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts. There, scientists test Kevlar body armor and its variations; they test fabrics to see which cling to the skin in the vacuum created by an explosion, worsening burns, or which cloth lifts away from the skin, lessening the damage the victim might endure.

When you think of military science, you might think of the marvels of engineering that might go into the so far hypothetical F19 stealth fighter or even the strategy and tactics a commander uses to launch a successful campaign.

In Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach explores the sort of military science performed at Natick, the kind that researches the best uniforms that protect the men and women wearing them from “all that modern warfare has to throw at them: flames, explosives, bullets, lasers, bomb-blasted dirt, blister agents, anthrax, sand fleas.”

It’s the unsung, behind-the-scenes science of warfare that Roach puts into the spotlight, the things rarely talked about in history books or heard of on the news, “the quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, panic, ducks.”

Ducks? Exactly.

Unless you’re Elmer Fudd, I doubt you think of a duck as something that poses a risk to national security. But “birdstrike,” as the military calls the mass of geese, gulls, ducks and other birds that collide with Air Force jets, costs “$50 million to $80 million in damage and, once every few years, the lives of the people on board.”

The Air Force tests birdstrike — so you’ll know— with an aptly named chicken gun, which hurtles chickens against jets at speeds of 400 mph or more.

Grunt is Roach’s fifth book. I’m currently reading her first, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which explores how cadavers have been used to aid the progress of medical science, and even of military science, as they were in 1893 when Capt. Louis La Garde of the U.S. Army Medical Corps experimented with what’s now termed stopping power of the then new .30-caliber Springfield rifle, firing the gun at a series of naked and unarmed corpses.

With the advent of ballistics gel, the military, as well as law enforcement, rarely use cadavers in weapons testing any longer — the freshly dead, as it turns out, aren’t good test subjects to determine stopping power. The already stopped often don’t react to damage from bullets in the same way the living or simulated living parts made from the gel do.

Actually, one primary task of the military now is to prevent its personnel from becoming corpses. One way to do this is to train medics in gruesomely realistic settings, as the 1st Marine Division does its medical corpsmen at Camp Pendleton. In its combat trauma management course, the Marines find themselves in the midst of a simulated Afghan village when all hell breaks loose during an insurgent attack.

Only, the corpsmen aren’t anywhere near Afghanistan; they are in a movie studio designed to give them the feel of war. Here, they find actors — in some cases amputee Marine veterans — screaming in agony as gouts of movie blood fountain from the same sort of special effects equipment that makes a mess of soldiers on screen. In the background all the while, as the medics tend the wounded, realistic sounds of combat blare out over speakers — audio from the movie Saving Private Ryan.

While these scenes are engaging, Roach gives us her best with the quirky stories ­ — sometimes asides in a chapter — that have the most potential for maximum gross-out factor, as when she turns to the subject of wound care using maggots.

She first encounters the fly larvae in Stiff, where she describes her visit to the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility. There, where forensics researchers study decay in cadavers in the name of law enforcement and solving murders, Roach notes “grains of rice” squirming in a man’s belly button. “It’s a rice grain mosh pit,” she writes with her characteristic sense of humor.

Only, these aren’t grains of rice. They’re maggots, which she decides to give a much more palatable name to — “haciendas”. In Grunt, she graduates to making roses roses and maggots maggots, when she visits wound care researchers at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR).

Maggots eat dead or decaying meat. “When the meat is part of an open wound,” Roach reports, “the act of eating performs upon the meal a kind of debridement. Debridement — the removal of dead or dying tissue — fights infection and facilitates healing.”

The last thing a wounded soldier trying to recover from those wounds needs is infection. Enter the WRAIR maggot therapists, who treat wounds using said fly larvae, to eat away dead, decaying, infectious flesh. These larvae, of course, aren’t grown in the wild but safely cultivated in sterile environments by the therapists — sometimes in home labs.

Having seen maggots at work before, Roach is less squeamish this time around: Maggot therapist George Peck places three of the wriggling larvae on the tip of Roach’s index finger. When they rear up in search of food, Roach likens them to puppets on Sesame Street.

It’s sort of a sweet scene — if you think of the maggots as, say, puppets or playful puppies. Then comes the kicker, when two of the larvae lift their companion up as if in celebration. Peck informs Roach, “They do cannibalize.”

Which, indeed, is what they do.

Roach peppers her book with scenes like this. At once graphic, yet somehow endearing, largely because throughout the book, Roach charms with her voice, a voice that is at once affable and serious. Voice and narrative always make a piece work.

Grunt works because of Roach’s voice and her ability to set scenes like those above. Still,  war is a grave, serious subject, and while Roach’s voice is often charming and witty, she never makes of her subject a frivolous thing.

She tells the story of the people involved in the science of war with humanity and depth, and how their work affects them.

Grunt ends poignantly inside the morgue and mortuary of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, where military autopsies are performed. Roach notes that since “2004, around 6,000 autopsies have taken place here,” all of men and women killed in combat.

Here, autopsies uncover more than the cause of death. They uncover what could save the next soldier’s life. The beefed-up, buff pectorals of many weight-lifting soldiers and Marines, for instance, have caused small needles to miss their mark when medics try to relieve air pressure off of shot-through collapsed lungs. Autopsies discovered this. Now, longer needles are used on buffer pecs.

In the end, however, war is about the dead, the dead young men and women going through the morgue and mortuary, and the question posed by one of the medical examiners, “Was it worth it?”

History shows us it was worth it to land behind the lines of the Norman coast in 1944. Still, it’s a difficult question to answer. Roach leaves us pondering that question with a final image. She sees a stepladder in the exam room: she learns it’s used by autopsy photographers to get perspective, to get the whole body in the frame.

“I guess war is like that,” Roach writes. “A thousand points of light, as they say. Only when you step back and view the sum, only then are you able to grasp the worth, the justification for the extinguishing of any single point. Right at the moment, it’s tough to get that perspective. It’s tough to imagine a stepladder high enough.”

The Business of Writing: Being an Expert on You, or What’s Your Work Style?

downloadMost of my professional writing career has been as a full-time employee, primarily in journalism, but also in marketing and textbook publishing.

For approximately a year, I freelanced full time. I did OK, until my bread-and-butter client went away.

Freelancing full time is scary. And I was live without a net, without any strong understanding of the business side of things. It made working for myself harder than I ever imagined.

Now, I’m back to freelancing part time and I’m trying at the same time to put up the safety net of better business skills under me. One way I’m doing this is through reading and I recently bought Sara Horowitz’s The Freelancer’s Bible to get a better grasp of what I need to do on the business side.

Today, as I was reading a bit of the book at lunch, I came across this passage on working with clients under the subhead “Be the expert on you”: “Even if your client has worked with freelancers before, everyone’s different. Put a page on your website about how you work. Tell your client how you work.”

According to Horowitz, knowing yourself and how you work helps you stay organized. It helps you work with the client about your preferences. How do you prefer to be contacted? When, for that matter, are you available?  How will you and the client work together so you make a good fit?

The passage hooked me because I was recently on an interview for a full time writing gig (hey part-time freelance is great but it doesn’t pay all the bills) and I was a bit stumped when the interviewer asked, “What is your work style?”

I feel I flubbed this question, because I didn’t know quite what it meant. Did the interviewer want to know if I worked fast and accurately? Or how I structured my work day? How did I prioritize? How do I take direction? (I spent an awful long time about how I hated micromanagement.) Did I prefer to take constant direction or did I prefer to get my assignment and prefer to be left alone until it was done? Did I prefer email? Phone calls or in-person communication?

Yes, to all. The interviewer wanted me to talk about each of these things when asked about work style, according to thebalancecareers.com.

The work style question, according to the site, is meant “to decide whether you will fit in well with the company culture and the job. This question also reveals to the employer whether you are self-aware enough to recognize and clearly communicate your work style.”

Answering the work style question also seems a good tool to put into your freelance tool kit. Know yourself and your client gets to know you better.

— Todd