Mary Roach strikes me as an extremely enthusiastic woman. Her books focus on a single particular topic and then she explores everything you can imagine in and around that theme. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal is a rather fascinating look at that happens on the journey in and out of the human body. The ick factor is pretty high as Roach speaks with experts on everything from saliva, stomach acid and constipation.
In classic Roach style, this is not a dry work of science. She takes great joy in her subject’s expertise, and some of her footnotes made me laugh out loud. In a chapter addressing whether a human could survive being swallowed by a whale, I especially enjoyed:
While a seaman might survive the suction and swallow, his arrival in a sperm whale’s stomach would seem to present a new set of problems.*
*I challenge you to find a more innocuous sentence containing the words ‘sperm’, ‘suction’, ‘swallow’ and any homophone of ‘seaman’. And then call me up on the homophone and read it to me.
Following a fairly chronological sequence of events, I particularly enjoyed chapters on how animals taste food differently than humans (I will be looking at those cat treats in the supermarket more critically from now on), the practicalities inherent in drug smuggling (from both ends), and the existence of something called a ‘megacolon’ (measuring 28 inches in circumference!). I feel extremely well prepared for the next dinner party someone makes the mistake in inviting me to.
I would still consider Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void to be the best Roach books, but I did enjoy this one. Being simultaneously grossed out and amused by a non-fiction writer seems to me to be a pretty good benchmark for a worthwhile read.