Reading is perhaps one of the most pristine acts any human can engage in. The words, the page, the thought transference that takes place, everything is untouched and untouchable. On the other end of the scale is digestion, the process by which we transform the touched into a very different sort of untouchable. In the middle, we can be glad to have Mary Roach, writing about the science behind digestion in 'Gulp.' Subtitled "Adventures on the Alimentary Canal," 'Gulp.' manages to use the grotesquerie of the human body to evoke laughter and eventually awe. Part of the awe should well be directed at the author, who manages to create a sublime combination of information and entertainment.
Every virtue of the book stems from Mary Roach's prose voice, which is smart, funny and bracingly concise. There's not a word wasted in the 300-something pages here. Every sentence has fun, rings true and tells readers something they didn't know, or shows them something they thought they knew in a different light. We feel like she's our super smart and funny friend, giving us the lowdown on her particularly interesting days spent talking to a carefully selected series of scientists who just want to have fun. She uses footnotes with great wit and works the entire spectrum of funny, from low puns to wise and witty riffs on absurdities of science. Her respect for her subject and those who study it inform her prose. As readers, we can't help but respond in kind.
'Gulp.' covers a very carefully edited selection of what happens from the time you put food in your mouth until it exits your body. Roach shows her skills here as well, by paring down her book to cherry pick only the most pertinent, exciting and fun stuff she can find. Do not expect any dry science here. Instead, let Roach take you on a whirlwind tour of saliva, digestion and a myriad of other uses for the parts of the body that usually handle these tasks. This is a book you'll want to read slowly, because it is all only the good bits, the funny stuff and the money shots. Illustrations for each chapter are a plus.
As to what exactly Roach covers in 'Gulp,' it is everything you expect, and less. While, yes, Roach will tell you tales that will make even the bravest squirm, and resort to the lowest forms of humor, she always dos so with a breathtaking economy and a tasteful lack of taste. You'll meet the man with a hole in his stomach that provided a window on what transpired within for a researcher of perhaps dubious ethics. Pretty much every section includes a scientist with an unfortunately apropos name. Urban legends are debunked. Roach provides inspired transitions to make the reading experience seamless. Everything you read comes off as a perfect example of absurdity in action. Only after you finish the book will you suss that you've learned as much as you've laughed.
'Gulp.' is a lark to read. It's easy, fast, fun and filled with parts you'll want to read aloud to your friends and relatives. The amazing skill, the incredible talent that goes into making all this work is all but invisible. Yes, Mary Roach is being incredibly funny and making you laugh out loud a lot. Sure, she's telling you some pretty amazing facts that might change the way you perceive your self and your world. But this book, about some of our most distressing biology, is itself pristine. Mary Roach is clearly both one of our best humorists and one of our best science writers. From stem to stern, 'Gulp.' combines the sacred and the profane with a good dose of laughter.
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