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Like all of Roach s books, Gulp is as much about human beings as it is about human bodies."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-01-21
- Reviewer: Staff
Roach (Stiff) 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. 18 illus. Agent: Jay Mandel, WME Entertainment. (Apr.)
An after-dinner adventure
With the smallest shift in marketing, Mary Roach could singlehandedly triple the rate of pleasure reading among teenage boys. She writes about exactly the things that fascinate them: outer space, human bodies and especially all the weird, smelly, slimy, loud, hilarious byproducts of said bodies. In her latest, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Roach follows the process of digestion from beginning to inglorious end. Though her subject matter is the stuff of sixth-grade humor, her approach is (slightly) more serious, and substantially more journalistic.
She begins on a dreamy note: “How lovely to picture one’s dinner making its way down a tranquil, winding waterway, digestion and excretion no more upsetting or off-putting than a cruise along the Rhine.” Alas, most of us don’t particularly like thinking about our food once we’ve eaten it. “The prevailing attitude,” she notes with regret, “is one of disgust.”
Roach wants us to get over it already. And she’s persuasive, thanks to her trademark blend of goofball humor and sincere devotion to her subject. She wants to know what makes us tick, physically and philosophically. While talking spit with scientist Erika Silletti, Roach acknowledges, “I am honestly curious about saliva, but I am also curious about obsession and its role in scientific inquiry.”
The woman clearly loves her job. She gets to interview people who spend their days classifying bad smells, testing dog food flavors, measuring the colons of eating-contest winners. She has a “favorite snake digestion expert.” It’s hard not to share her delight when she finds a rabbi to quote on the subject of whether human hair is kosher and it turns out his last name is “Blech.” Later, when she’s tracing the use of digestive enzymes (aka spit) in stain removal, she interviews “a chemist named Luis Spitz,” then “a detergent industry consultant named Keith Grime.” The giggling is almost audible through the page.
Roach also writes excellent footnotes, draws vivid if unorthodox comparisons (she likens a colonoscope to a bartender’s soda gun) and asks all the questions you’re too self-conscious to Google, plus others that have never occurred to you (can farts cure cancer?). Along the way she sneaks in sly critiques of bureaucracy, bigotry, animal cruelty and other less-than-noble human behavior. You may be grossed out, but you’ll also be impressed.