12.11.2014

Gulp, by Mary Roach

Gulp
Friends and family know that I have a weird interest in bizarre medical history*. I've been known to tell disgusting stories at meals or in meetings. You know, wherever appropriate. It's a pity I live alone because I would have loved to share all the tidbits I picked up while reading Mary Roach's Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Funny enough, I read most of this book during dinner for the past few days. 

Roach begins, as is fitting, at the top with our months and noses. She talks to pet food researchers and saliva specialists to enlighten her readers about what happens when we eat. As she describes the whole process, I marveled (as did Roach, at great length) at all the biological engineering and chemistry that takes place. Our jaw muscles can sense when food gives way when we chew and stop us from destroying our teeth. Saliva helps us process acids. Peristalsis carries everything on its path. Villi in our intestines leach out nutrients and energy. Bacteria help us digest pretty much anything. 

I started reading Roach years ago with Stiff. I fell in love with Bonk. I adore her loopy, discursive style of writing because I do research in the same way. Ideas lead to tangents and everything ends up pretty weird. Gulp is also, in part, about the strange pathways scientists and doctors have tried to understand our digestive system. She shares the interminable practice of Fletcherization and John Harvey Kellogg's war on defecation. There's an entire chapter about William Beaumont's callous treatment of his test subject, Alexis St. Martin, who survived a gunshot with a hole straight through to his stomach. And these guys are nothing compared to the scientists Roach consults. Those oddballs end up doing on-the-fly experiments about exploding rat meals and whether a mealworm can eat its way out of a frog. Everyone in the book (especially Roach) has an abundance of curiosity.

Much of Gulp centers on the disgust we (as a species, not just a culture) feel when it comes to eating, digesting, and eliminating the by-products. So as Roach discusses saliva studies, rectal smuggling, and fecal transplants, she also delves into why we find it all so taboo. (Except for the scientists doing all these studies. It quickly becomes clear that nothing yicks them out.) 

I know some people won't be able to handle this book. Roach is explicit in describing defecation, megacolons, and the like. If you have a weak stomach, don't read this while eating like I did. Others may not like it because Roach goes on so many tangents. Like the small and large intestines, this book is not linear. Yet others may not like it because Roach never passes up an opportunity to make a pun or poop joke. (I'll admit there were parts of this book that had me snorting with laughter. How can you not laugh?) 

I have no idea what my book group is going to end up talking about when we meet to discuss Gulp. Because we meet over dinner, though, it should be pretty entertaining.

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* This seems like a good spot to give a shout-out to one of my favorite podcasts, Sawbones. I laughed. I cringed. It's awesome.

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