Tag Archives: Mary Roach

A funny book reveals more than you ever wanted to know about digestion and its byproducts


A review of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, by Mary Roach

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Mary Roach is a funny person, and I mean that in both senses of the word: funny ha-ha, and funny strange. For years now, she’s been writing amusing and often hilarious popular science books about peculiar subjects, including cadavers, the afterlife, the science of sex, life in space, and, now, digestion. Somehow, other science writers have tended to shy away from these topics. (I wonder why?)

So, now, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. 

You can get a pretty good sense of what Gulp is like by reading the table of contents. Check out these chapter titles, for example:

  • The Longest Meal: Can thorough chewing lower the national debt?
  • Spit Gets a Polish: Someone ought to bottle the stuff
  • A Bolus of Cherries: Life at the oral processing lab
  • Big Gulp: How to survive being swallowed alive
  • Dead Man’s Bloat: And other diverting tales from the history of flatulence research

Got the picture? Good. But don’t get the impression that Gulp is just a funny book. It’s chock full of important information as well. For instance:

  • You’ll learn about the difference between a $500 bottle of wine and one that costs $30.
  • You’ll find out what Eskimos think of cats.
  • You’ll know the difference between laundry detergent and the digestive juices in your stomach.
  • You’ll learn which end of the cow its farts come out of.
  • You’ll find out how Elvis Presley, President James Garfield, and Farrah Fawcett really died.

Gulp brims over with surprises. And the truly funny thing is, you’ll actually learn a good deal about the digestive process along the way. Mary Roach knows her stuff. This book is far more than a comic tour de force: it’s actually a superior example of science journalism. Kudos to Mary Roach!

Gulp is Mary Roach’s sixth book-length study. The first was Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers a decade ago. Then two years later came  Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex three years after that. Her most recent book before Gulp was Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void in 2010. My review of Packing for Mars is here, and the one for Bonk is here.

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Everything you never wanted to know about sex (but had the good sense not to ask)

A review of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

So, Mary Roach is a very funny person. There may be no other writer on the planet, including Woody Allen, who could delve so deeply into the mechanics, the chemistry, and the psychology of sex while managing to unleash laughter out loud on just about every other page. The woman is a marvel.

Like Roach’s three other widely-admired books of popular science — Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the VoidBonk is thoroughly researched and full of insight. However, as you can tell from the titles, she picks her subjects with a twinkle in her eye. It’s hard to imagine a more skillful way to reimmerse jaded, well-read adults in science — for the first time since our teens, in so many cases.

Consider, for example, some of Roach’s chapter titles:

  • “Remember Me Transplants, Implants, and Other Penises of Last Resort”
  • “The Prescription-Strength Vibrator: Masturbating for Health”
  • “Sexual Intercourse as a Potential Treatment for Intractable Hiccups”

I defy any reader to point to three chapter-headings in any other book that are more provocative than those!

Wondering about that case of hiccups? Here’s Roach explaining the matter. “Followers of sixteenth-century naturalist Li Shih-Chen [used] sun-dried, powdered wolf epiglottis. Li’s hiccup remedy, found in the Chinese Materia Medica, is probably quite effective, for in the time it takes to track and wolf and sun-dry its epiglottis, even the most stubborn case of hiccups will invariably have passed.”

And here’s Roach on the difference between males and females: “I give you a sentence, my favorite sentence in the entire oeuvre of Alfred Kinsey, from Sexual Behavior in the Human Female: ‘Cheese crumbs spread in front of a copulating pair of rats may distract the female, but not the male.'”

Is there anything more to be said?

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