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Gulp, by Mary Roach

Although life has been exceptionally full lately, I have found time to read, and I’m on a reading tear. When that happens, you just don’t stop, because you know that someday soon, you’ll hit a wall. If you’re an avid reader, you know what I mean. It’s as if you just can’t get enough ice cream, so you have ice cream for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks every single day until one day you wake up feeling as if you’ll be sick if you eat one more spoonful of ice cream. Sometimes, you just can’t stand to read another word, so you take advantage of the manic periods while they last.

Every once in a while, I need a good dose of nonfiction, especially since I get so wrapped up in all of those fictional lives that they start to blur. Nonfiction can make an excellent palate cleanser. I have been a fan of Mary Roach for some years now, and I was lucky enough to get hold of an advance reader copy of her latest work, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, which is, obviously, about the digestive system. As Ms. Roach related at the BEA author breakfast a couple of years ago, she used to be a travel writer, but after she found herself in Antarctica several times, she started to think, “What in the world am I doing?” So she decided to be a science writer instead. I have never read any of her travel writings, but I can say that she is to science writing what Bill Bryson is to travel writing: simultaneously hilarious and informative.

Mary Roach has an insatiable and unapologetic curiosity about pretty much everything. Her other books include Stiff, concerning human cadavers, Bonk, exploring sex research, and the anomalous multi-word title Packing for Mars, about living in outer space. Gulp takes us all the way from the sense of taste and the amazing solvency of saliva to, well, everything at the other end. Mary has made a lot of odd friends along the way, and she is not at all shy about visiting various experts to enlist their help in her quest for esoteric knowledge. In Gulp, she visits a prison in order to interview a convicted murderer about how prisoners are able to smuggle drugs and other contraband into the prison by hiding them in, ah… a little human storage area. While crossing the prison yard, she casually laments her age, depressed because none of the convicted killers are staring at her. Mary is game for anything, happily participating in research studies (“Can I taste it?”) and lab experiments. I would have liked more time devoted to intestinal bacteria, since I’ve been fascinated by them ever since I discovered that those pro-biotic supplements are sold in “colonizing units.” Did you get that? We are purposely setting up colonies of creatures in our own intestinal tracts! Actually, there are already colonies there, and I think we’re trying to drive out the indigenous tribes with new settlers.

Gulp was good, but not my favorite Mary Roach work. Her books appeal most to those who are neither squeamish nor prissy. I am not the least bit squeamish, but I must admit to a bit of prissiness, since a few of the chapters toward the end contained too much scatological humor for me. It goes with the territory, so to speak.  My favorite Roach book remains Stiff, her book about human cadavers. It’s not that corpses are a hobby of mine, but there was so much information that I had never heard before, and it was chock-full of her sly wit. Shortly after reading it, I participated in a county Human Resources training workshop, and one of the attendees worked for the state crime scene investigation unit. I asked her if she had ever been to the human cadaver farm in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, that Mary Roach mentioned in her book. She quietly admitted that she had had some training there. Now, when you watch those CSI-type shows on TV, the women are always tall, athletic brunettes in thigh-high stiletto boots. This girl had long, blond hair, big blue eyes, and looked about 18. I could imagine her throwing a birthday party in a kindergarten class. I could not imagine her estimating the time of death by the extent of the decay.

I highly recommend Mary Roach’s books to anyone who is curious. The topic really does not matter, because her writing style will make you interested in something new. Get ready to laugh and learn, and don’t miss the footnotes. Sometimes they’re the best part.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy, provided by the publisher. Opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. Gulp will be available on April 1st.

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