I liked this book, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I have her previous books.
Tripping the light fantastic down the alimentary canal, right through from soup to, er, nuts, Mary Roach continues her run of popular science writing that yuks it up. Sometimes yuck. The squick factor is high with this one.
Roach points out that we don’t know a helluva lot about the digestive system, although pseudoscience abounds. Just today, I stumbled across a yoga magazine article arguing that raw foods contain more nutrients, fercrissakes. She jumps around from the magic of saliva, to Elvis’s super colon – poor old King – and the various crank cures for cleansing/improving/speeding up your plumbing equipment. There’s enemas with holy water and a brief but fascinating excursion up in to the prison economy fuelled by ‘hooping’ i.e. smuggling contraband in using the backdoor.
I loved two of her previous books, Stiff and Bonk, but I found this a more erratic in tone and harder to warm up to. Part of Roach’s schtick is quick comic sketches of her subjects, but sometimes these fall flat – and why does every single female she interviews get described by her level of attractiveness? That clangs. I was also driven to distraction by her wavering empathy levels. She’s touched by the plight of animal test subjects, but is incredibly callous when it comes to discussing human drug mules or people stricken by eating disorders.
The book is strong on interesting trivia and I certainly learned more about what happens to my daily victuals. I’ve been merrily grossing out friends and acquaintances with my new-found knowledge, and would recommend it as a decent introduction to the subject.
When I read Packing for Mars two years ago, I was very vocal about how my favorite chapter was her detailed exploration of pooping in outer space*, so it was with much excitement that I realized her next book, Gulp (subtitled Adventures on the Alimentary Canal) was about the science of eating, digesting, and yes, excreting. Maybe you think that’s gross, and if so, to you I say THIS.
*Seriously, if you’re not going to read the whole book, at least read that chapter. She includes a transcript where astronauts see one of their turds floating around, and they’re all, ‘It’s not mine!’ ‘Mine was more gooey!’ ‘Mine looked like a snake!’ or something like that. It’s amazing.
I did indeed learn way more about pooping (and not pooping) in Gulp than I had bargained for. I also learned about saliva and parasites and exploding stomachs and how smelling is more important to eating than tasting and how Elvis was really killed by his colon (Roach has great personal interviews with experts that accompany each of these things, including one with Elvis’ doctor). Also: how some people think the dragon myth was started because of cavemen kicking snake corpses close to a fire, which might have caused the explosion of other dead animals being digested inside the snake, releasing a gas that then burst into flames out of the snake’s mouth (this was in one of the chapters about the science of farting — yes there is more than one). Also also: poop transplants are a real thing.
Actually, I want to talk about that poop transplant thing some more because I think it’s the perfect example of what Mary Roach is all about. Poop transplanting — or as it’s known in the medical community, fecal transplantation — is actually a really beneficial procedure, although it sounds majorly disgusting. The human colon is a veritable colony of bacteria, most of it beneficial to our digestion and immune systems. When that balance is upset by something, like a large dose of antibiotics for example, or if a person is born without certain bacteria (fun fact: babies get most of their bacteria from their mother at birth) diseases or disorders can result. The example she uses is the common bacteria c. diff, which in the case of the patient she observes, has taken over his colon due to an absence of other more important bacterias. Poor guy’s had basically nothing but diarrhea for YEARS. But after his fecal transplant? The proper ratio of bacteria is re-established and his digestive problems are cured in a matter of days.
And yet, as Roach is careful to note, the medical community does not take this procedure seriously, in large part due to the taboo surrounding its subject matter. No insurance company yet recognizes the treatment as valid, and it’s extremely hard for doctors and scientists to get funding. Also a factor is that drug companies do not enjoy the idea of a procedure that does not involve drugs, and that in fact, removes the possibility entirely that drugs will be needed by patients in the future. But Mary Roach loves this stuff, the stuff nobody wants to think about, and she loves the people who spend their lives asking questions and doing weird experiments just like this one, because she understands that we need people like the guy who invented poop transplants to think outside the box. If they’re not doing it, who the hell will?
I suppose it will be another two years before we get the next Mary Roach book, but I’m willing to wait if she’s willing to keep writing books like this one.
There’s been all manner of hullabaloo in the last few years over how food makes its way from wherever it started — ground, tree, plant, pig, chicken, cow — to the kitchen table (or if you’re me, to the deli counter sandwich). And that’s all well and good; I don’t know that I need to be made aware of my chicken’s first name, but there certainly isn’t any harm in knowing some stuff about the things you put in your mouth (that’s what she said).
Mary Roach, however, is concerned with none of that. Whether you’re eating a farm-raised chicken named Sarah — whose hobbies including pecking, clucking and the occasional egg — or spending an evening attempting to house a 40-piece McNugget meal is of no concern to Roach. She cares only about what happens after. Continue reading