Monday, February 08, 2016

Review: Gulp

Mary Roach is a goddamn national treasure.

I almost stopped the review right there, but I should probably clarify. She's an immensely talented writer with a number of books ('Stiff', 'Spook', 'Bonk', 'Packing for Mars' and 'Gulp') that take a look at the science surrounding topics normally considered too taboo or too obscure for discussion and distill them down into a collection of facts so fascinating that you'll find that taboo breaking down just a little bit as you read. She discusses orgasms in an MRI machine and composting of human corpses with a slightly horrified thrill that drags you right along with her, and by the end of each of her books you'll feel a little bit smarter.

'Gulp', her latest book (I'm hoping she's due for another soon) is no exception. It's all about the way we process food, from the front--there's a lovely introductory chapter about the way we process flavors--to the back, with a chapter on the cutting edge of fecal bacteria transplants. Along the way, you get to learn about a man with a fistulated stomach who was so valuable to medical science that he had to tell his family to shoot anyone who tried to collect his body, about the science of making pet food palatable, about the tricks and tips for smuggling objects in your stomach, and all about the importance of swallowing to satiety. And how someone found that out the hard way.

It is a little squicky, don't get me wrong. Reading about a guy who had to chew his food and spit out the bolus into a little funnel that went directly into his stomach (due to damage to the esophagus) is actually a bit harder than reading about body disposal. But even if 'Gulp' is a little harder to read than 'Stiff', it's still filled with the amazing and fascinating tidbits that make Mary Roach so readable and entertaining. And even though she freely admits to not being a scientist herself, in many ways that helps her make a better book about science--she is constantly going to scientists and saying, "Could you please distill your work down to a level understandable by a layman?" The results tend to be far more informative than if a scientist had written them.

So yes, you will gulp down 'Gulp', one slightly wince-inducing but absolutely fascinating chapter at a time. Because Mary Roach is a goddamn national treasure.

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