Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

By Mary Roach

(Norton, $26.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

“Stiff.” “Bonk.” “Spook.” “Gulp.” Mary Roach (and what a great name for a science writer!) has an ear for the punchy one-word title, adding edifying subtitles to explain what the book is actually about.

Born in Hanover, N.H. and a 1981 graduate of Wesleyan University, Roach made her career in California, where she still lives, writing about hard and often weird science with a distinctively humorous approach. I can recall, in my days as the Health & Science page editor at The Courant, that pieces by Roach were hard to beat for explaining the difficult in a delightfully funny, yet accurate, way. Her other books include “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife,” “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Voidand “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex,” for which Roach and her remarkably helpful husband volunteered for some interesting research experimentation.

What is this book about?

It’s alimentary, my dear Watson. (OK, sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

In “Gulp,” Roach takes us on a wild ride through the human gut, employing her agile mind and endless curiosity to probe the human piping system that keeps us nourished properly and eliminating nicely. Sometimes gross and gruesome, but also fascinating and funny, this is a book that will stimulate your mind and answers some questions that the 5-year-old in each of us still wonders about: how come the stomach doesn’t digest itself? Can you eat so much that it will burst, like that fat guy in the Monty Python movie? Does pet food taste the same to a dog and his owner? Did constipation kill Elvis? Well, did it? It’s all there, and more, in a book that you can savor in small bites or greedily gulp down.

Why you’ll like it:

Roach is a thorough researcher, a smart analyst and a damn amusing writer, all real pluses when you are writing about science for a general and generally mystified audience. Asked by NPR how she chooses her subjects, Roach said: “Well, it’s got to have a little science, it’s got to have a little history, a little humor – and something gross.”

She is careful to explain how she did her research and introduce various scientists who are important in the fields she explores.

She told an interviewer: “Make no mistake, good science writing is medicine. It is a cure for ignorance and fallacy. Good science writing peels away the blindness, generates wonder, and brings the open palm to the forehead: ‘Oh! Now I get it!’”

What others are saying:

Barnes & Noble says: “Mary Roach has been described as “America’s funniest science writer,” not a superlative that one would expect that an author on a book about human cadavers would receive. In her latest effort, the author of “Stiff” and “Packing for Mars” takes us on an incredible voyage down our gullets and into dark digestive regions where more timid observers dare not go. Thanks to her apparently unflagging curiosity, Roach is willing to ask and answer essential questions, like …”How long can an oyster live inside us?” Simply put, “Gulp” will make you gasp with delight.”

“ ‘Gulp’ is far and away her funniest and most sparkling book, bringing Ms. Roach’s love of weird science to material that could not have more everyday relevance. Having graduated from corpses (“Stiff”), the afterlife (“Spook”) and sex (“Bonk,” full of stunts featuring Ms. Roach as guinea pig), she takes on a subject wholly mainstream. She explores it with unalloyed merriment. And she is fearless about the embarrassment that usually accompanies it…Never has Ms. Roach’s affinity for the comedic and bizarre been put to better use,” says Janet Maslin in The New York Times.

The Washington Post says: “…[Roach is] a very good writer who understands that her job is, above all, to entertain. Every paragraph is a pleasure to read, even if that paragraph is about a partially decomposed gazelle entombed in the body of a python…In the wrong hands, a book on digestion would be rendered tedious by a need to cover every aspect of the subject to some degree. But Roach follows her interests, not a checklist…you’ll come away from this well-researched book with enough weird digestive trivia to make you the most interesting guest at a certain kind of cocktail party.”

“Roach…once again goes boldly into the fields of strange science. In the case of her newest, some may hesitate to follow—it’s about the human digestive system, and it’s as gross as one might expect. But it’s also enthralling. From mouth to gut to butt, Roach is unflinching as she charts every crevice and quirk of the alimentary canal—a voyage she cheerily likens to “a cruise along the Rhine.” En route, she comments on everything from the microbial wisdom of ancient China, to the tactics employed by prisoners when smuggling contraband in their alimentary “vaults,” the surprising success rate of fecal transplants, how conducting a colonoscopy is a little like “playing an accordion,” and a perhaps too-good-to-be-true tale in the New York Times in 1896 of a real-life Jonah surviving a 36-hour stint in the belly of a sperm whale. Roach’s approach is grounded in science, but the virtuosic author rarely resists a pun, and it’s clear she revels in giving readers a thrill—even if it is a queasy one. Adventurous kids and doctors alike will appreciate this fascinating and sometimes ghastly tour of the gastrointestinal system, says Publishers Weekly.

 “…. The author ties her curiosity about this region of the body and what many consider a disgusting or off-limits subject for polite conversation to a fifth-grade classroom encounter with a headless, limbless, molded-plastic torso: “Function was not hinted at in Mrs. Claflin’s educational torso man….Yet I owe the guy a debt of thanks. To venture beyond the abdominal wall, even a plastic one, was to pull back the curtain on life itself.” The author begins by detailing the subtle, complex role the nose plays in taste; why humans have trouble finding names for flavors and smells;… grapples with the history of flatulence and adeptly describes the torment caused by Elvis Presley’s megacolon, which ultimately caused his demise. She also fleshes out just what constitutes the “ick factor” in this tale of ingestion, digestion and elimination. Roach’s abundant footnotes serve as entertaining detours throughout this edifying excursion. When a topic heads toward sketchy territory, the author politely provides a heads-up for squeamish readers. ….A touchy topic illuminated with wit and rigor, packed with all the stinky details, “ says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

You can gulp this book down at the new books shelf of the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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