In Book Reviews, Non-Fiction

Gulp on BookGULP: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Author: Mary Roach
Rating: 5 out of 5
Genre: Nonfiction
Format: e-book, Print
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Release Date: April 1, 2013
Recommended Reading: 17+

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 Contains no spoilers

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SYNOPSIS: “America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post) takes us down the hatch on an unforgettable tour. The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions explored in Gulp are as taboo, in their way, as the cadavers in Stiff and every bit as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars. Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find words for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? In Gulp we meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks of—or has the courage to ask. We go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal. With Roach at our side, we travel the world, meeting murderers and mad scientists, Eskimos and exorcists (who have occasionally administered holy water rectally), rabbis and terrorists—who, it turns out, for practical reasons do not conceal bombs in their digestive tracts.


THE LOWDOWNShortly before I first learned of this new release by Mary Roach, I heard a physicist named Dr. Lawrence Krauss speaking on the radio. He said, “You know, people don’t say, you know what? I can’t enjoy music unless I’m a musician. I can’t enjoy art unless I’m an artist. But you know what? Unless I’m a scientist, I can’t enjoy science.” (More from Dr. Krauss at His words got me thinking about how my own troubled relationship with science. Some of us, whether it’s due to societal conditioning or educational deficits, never find the fun in science. It’s too bad we weren’t introduced to Mary Roach sooner.

Gulp takes us on an all-access tour of the human digestive system. She begins at the beginning, with our senses of taste and smell, and follows the food through the body all the way to the end of the line. This is not a book for the squeamish—or maybe it is. Taboos are often a barrier to knowledge and Roach’s ribald sense of humor takes the air right out of them. I laughed out loud more while reading this book than I did while listening to Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants audiobook. Which is to say, a lot.

What fascinates humans more than their own bodies? The book explores mysteries you’ve been wondering about your whole life, and questions you never thought to ask. Mary Roach takes you behind the scenes into research laboratories, back in time to witness scientific history, and indeed right down your gullet for an in depth look at what’s going on in there. But the moment you begin to feel queasy, she’s by your side, elbowing you in the ribs and telling a slightly off-color joke.

In Gulp, Mary Roach is not only interested in our bodies, but in the people who study them. As someone outside the world of scientific research, I appreciated her detailed descriptions of the scientists she interviews. It’s as if she too has been wondering, who are these people? What are they like? What drives them to devote their lives to these pursuits? For a novel-reader like myself, it’s wonderful to find these characters in a science-themed book. A word to the wise; don’t skip the footnotes. It’s tempting to breeze past the asterisk and keep reading, but Mary Roach’s footnotes are packed with hilarious personal anecdotes, word play, and various tidbits from her research.

And another thing: can you imagine a more appropriate book for bathroom reading?

Final Say: This book is a wild ride, and will be a big hit for anyone with a little curiosity and a sense of humor.

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