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Mary Roach – Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

August 21, 2015

46. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach (2013)

Read By: Emily Woo Zeller
Length: 8h 21m (336 pages)

Genre: Non-Fiction

Started: 22 July 2015
Finished: 25 July 2015

Where did it come from? Downloaded from Audible.
Why do I have it? I’ve loved Mary Roach’s previous books but didn’t get to this one when it came out.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 22 July 2015.

Everybody eats
(and poops); this book covers what
happens in between.

Summary: Mary Roach tackles another taboo topic, and she does so in her usual way – with gusto! Food is a necessary and frequently enjoyable part of life, but our willingness to talk about it ends at the same time as it enters the alimentary canal, or digestive tract. We’re all familiar with the disgust that comes along with the posterior end of the digestive tract (even though, as the children’s book says, Everybody Poops!), but even the first portions of the process are not something that we particularly relish (which is why we’re taught to chew with our mouths closed). Mary Roach looks at the whole process of digestion, starting with our perception of taste (which is actually primarily smell) and moving through to the other end. She looks not only at the scientific fact, but also the historical and cultural context, as well as telling the stories of the hardworking and unlikely scientists who study it. And along the way, she touches on such crucial topics as why you can’t light a cow’s burps on fire, how prisoners and drug runners smuggle items in their rectum, why dogs lick their wounds, why some farts smell worse than others, people who taste dog food for a living, the physics of crunchy food, and whether one could survive being swallowed by a whale (a la Jonah).

Review: I love Mary Roach’s books, absolutely love them, and Gulp was for me one of the best of the bunch, probably tied with Bonk for my favorite. That’s admittedly likely due to the fact that Gulp and Bonk are her two most directly biological books, and thus closest to my own field of interest. But also: eating (and pooping) is something that everyone does, so Gulp! is immediately relatable in ways that Packing for Mars, for example, is not. (Hopefully not totally relatable, as she talks about whether it’s possible to burst one’s stomach from overeating, among other things that I would rather not experience firsthand.) And knowing more about how your own body works is rarely a bad thing. And Roach gets her science right, at least insofar as I knew. (Which I think is fairly far; I certainly don’t study the digestive tract itself but am definitely interested in anatomy and physiology more generally.) One upshot of this is that I didn’t really learn a lot of (new) hard facts from this book… but hard facts are not why I read Roach’s books in the first place, and I absolutely did glean a whole lot of new, good trivia, and I actually do understand at least a little bit more about some of the digestive issues I’ve had.

The organization is good, mostly (although strangely not entirely) going from anterior to posterior, although there were also a lot of things that she left out. She spends very little time talking about the small intestine (not taboo enough, maybe?), and there were lots of other things that should could have brought up (the gag reflex, the guy who drank a beaker full of bacteria to prove that ulcers weren’t directly caused by stomach acid – which seems like it’s right up her alley, more about role of gut microbiota in things like mental health and weight loss), but the stories she does include are fascinating and a little gross and very funny, as I’ve come to expect. (She does manage to mostly – although not entirely – refrain from making too many juvenile poop jokes, although there were a few in those chapters, along the lines of “Get a *load* of this!”)

This was also the first of Roach’s books that I’ve listened to instead of read, and it was a fun experience. Emily Woo Zeller does a nice job with the reading. She seemed to be on the verge of laughing occasionally, which seems like it might have been annoying, but to me it just came across as evidence that she was having as much fun as I was. She also did accents for the quotes from historical scientific reports – not that it really needed them, but it was a little bit of additional puncturing of some of the posturing of the historical scientists self-assuredly proposing things that seem ludicrous by today’s lights. She also got all of the scientific pronunciations correct, which was appreciated (this was originally “almost all of the pronunciations correct” – she prounounces coprophagy as cop-RAH-phagy not COP-ro-phagy – but then I looked it up and found out that I’ve been pronouncing it wrong my whole life… or at least the whole portion of my life that I’ve been talking about it, which is a substantially shorter but non-zero span of time. Whoops.) 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you like Mary Roach, this book is as good as if not better than her others, and if you haven’t read Mary Roach’s books yet but like books that tackle offbeat subjects with gleeful curiosity, a penchant for the offbeat, the taboo, and the gross, and a solid sense of humor.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Dear Author, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dork, Sorry Television, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: In 1968, on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, six young men undertook an irregular and unprecedented act.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 21, 2015 8:42 pm

    I need to try one of her books – everyone seems to love them.

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