February 22, 2020

Friday Review: Gulp. By Mary Roach

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Author Mary Roach has a knack for taking our modern manicured life and looking just underneath its surface for the truly bizarre. Fans of this space will remember our review of her previous space-based opus, Packing for Mars. For her latest adventure, the author takes us from the depths of outer space to the brave new worlds of inner space as we explore the digestive tract, literally from one end to the other.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach out from W.W. Norton & Company Press looks at the science, history, and just plain wackiness of the gut. Why does cheesecake go from desirable to taboo once it crosses the lips? What happens between one end of the journey through the digestive tract and the other? Where did all of this hard-won knowledge come from?

We have to admit, we’ll never quite look at consuming (and excreting) foodstuffs the same way again. Mary Roach illuminates our odyssey with some fascinating but little known tales from the annals (bad pun intended) of gastroenterology. Did you know that digestion was once studied by peering into a via a patient’s fistulated but functioning human stomach? Or that there exists a Bristol stool chart? Or that you can die of constipation, and that apparently Elvis Presley had just such a “mega-colon?”

The author reveals that and more as she travels the world putting her hand inside a cow’s stomach all in the name of science journalism. But more than just the science and history of digestion, Mary roach looks at the cultural taboos that surround this hidden but necessary function. From the world of scientists and laboratories to competitive eating to the creativity of prisoners in using the GI tract for the time honored practice of smuggling, the author explores it all, literally inside and out.

But only rarely does she go for the outright gross out. Unless, of course, you’re already squeamish about such things. Did you know that you can see a mega-colon 29” in diameter at a museum in Philadelphia? “It wears the same jean size as me,” the author says in one of her more memorable quips. Such enormous colons often end up dominating a patient’s lower diaphragm, blocking blood supplies and pushing vital organs out of the way.

The book also explores those who make a living thinking about the inner workings of the gut as well as what we put in it and what comes out. From designing pet food to changing views on chewing and digestion, it’s all here.

Besides, our gut may control us more than we realize. We’re more “bacteria filled water sacs” than we’d care to think about, each with our own distinct bacterial flora. Some zombie parasites may even control our behavior… do democrats real have different bacterial colonies than republicans?

Read Gulp for a fascinating look at an essential but often overlooked part of life. Gulp is more than just good bathroom literature, though one could easily imagine it occupying a noble space next to Readers Digest on top of the porcelain water tanks of America!


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