Let’s start by saying I love everyone of Mary Roach’s books. I discovered her at her second book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and have anxiously awaited the release of every one since then. Gulp: Adventures On the Alimentary Canal is her latest offering. I wasn’t so sure that it would be as interesting as her others but knowing that she can face the most uncomfortable subjects with child-like fascination asking the questions we all ponder but don’t know who to ask. Mary finds the specialist that can seriously answer those questions. Then she brings the answers down to the common man level.
Before I go on I have a confession followed by a recommendation. I have never actually READ any of Mary’s books. Instead I’ve enjoyed them on audio books. Yes I started with Stiff and went back to Spook then awaited the release on audio for all the following books. Each reader brings Roach’s every man narration to life, not overly deadpanning the funny aspects tackled in each book nor over playing the amusement. They keep in respectful but inquisitive with slight amusement that they are asking a flatulence expert if food changes the composition of farts or watching nice grandmas make sex toys.
Now to her current topic – how food makes it from mouth to anus and what happens to it on the way. Okay go ahead make the bathroom jokes, but honestly spend time with the very young or the retired elimination will be a topic of discussion. Watch tv note all the stuff hocked that addresses unpleasant passage along the alimentary canal from anti-acids to laxatives/anti-diarrhea medication. We are a society that is consumed by what happens to what we consume but embarrassed to talk about it.
What makes Roach’s books so enjoyable is the fact she’ll acknowledge societal taboos but ask the questions any way. Not only that she introduces us to quirky but delightful specialists to answer those questions. From the Italian Dr. that specializes in studying saliva and its various types – to the team that studies human poop consistency. She attends a party where all the foods are poop texture themed from chocolate covered bananas to chocolate shakes.
The humorous moments lighten the times where horrific issues are discussed. The affliction of mega-colon that can be a side effect of not being born with enough muscles to evacuate properly. Elvis was a famous person who suffered from this. Then there’s the matter of fact account of a poop transplant. Yep you read this right a poop transplant. Take a person who poops well – frequently, good evacuation, good consistency, etc. and get a sample of poop. Then there’s a person who has issues – irritable bowel, frequent going due to damage to the gut flora from say chemo. Transplant the good processed poop via a colonoscopy. Then in a few days, yes just days, the good flora from the good pooper has bloomed and the bad pooper is cured. Sometimes the simplest ideas with the least invasiveness work the best. Sure social taboos about other’s poop come into play but honestly if you have been through cancer or irritable bowl, a colonoscopy for a cure is so simple. Yet, as it stands insurance doesn’t cover it. The poop team is working to change this.
I think Roach summed it up in the start of the book. She stated she hoped your first reaction of “oooh that’s a gross subject” is quickly overcome by “oh this IS interesting!” Basically that sums up most of her career with the exception of Packing For Mars take on topics with their own taboos – death, corpses, sex – with a great scientific eye, honest curiosity, and a fantastic talent to find the right person to ask. Even in Packing For Mars she asks the questions we ponder “What if there’s a personality clash in space? Have fights happened?” or “How did astronauts poop before the space toilet installed?” and so on.
One other thing I’ll tip my hat to Mary Roach for doing – trying it herself. From the butt alignment camera on a space toilet to sex with her husband in an MRI to collecting her spit with a specialist – Mary’s game to participate in her own research. This adds great depth, insight, and humor to her own writing.
At the end of Gulp I had a new appreciation for how my own body takes food and turns it into me and getting rid of the rest. People are fascinating, awe inspiring beings from what ever makes us US and if that survives death to how our magnificent bodies function and malfunction to our aspirations to travel among the stars. When I finish one of Roach’s books I am always in awe for humanity and feel pleasantly educated about just how awesome each and every one of us is.
If you’ve not discovered her books – get thee to the library, store, or audible now! You are in for a treat!