We gulp dozens of times each day. We swallow our food and we swallow our beverages, unaware of the evolutionary wonder that is the alimentary canal.
Mary Roach, author of the best-seller Stiff, dives into the human digestive tract in her new book Gulp. In her unapologetically blunt style, Roach combines science and history, humor and sincerity to take us from mouth to rectum and back up again. Although Roach’s impressive compilation of historical anecdotes is indeed entertaining, its effect is undermined by the forced nature of other topics in the book.
The book’s main strength lies in Roach’s scientific run-down of our bodies’ digestive processes and the ridiculous stories she tells along the way. For instance, she dedicates a whole chapter to the complex relationship between William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin. Beaumont was a surgeon who was fascinated by a gunshot wound in St. Martin’s stomach. This wound created a hole through which Beaumont could peek into the inner workings of St. Martin’s stomach. Beaumont became obsessed with this stomach wound, and was extremely reluctant to part ways with his patient.
From the mealworm’s ability to “eat out” of its host’s stomach to the animal instinct of eating feces (autocoprophagia), Roach does not shy away from any story about our digestive system, no matter how revolting. Death and pain are rampant throughout the book, and one grows to see them in the humorous light she does, especially when toxic flatulence is involved.
But Gulp is far from all fun and games. As much as Roach tries to make us laugh, she also espouses the nutritional value of including organs in our diet, discusses the health benefits of chewing, and questions the modern state of health policy in America. However, these brief sparks of sincerity seem misplaced and forced.
As smoothly as Roach’s stories flow from one to the next, some are so brief and under-developed that it seems as if she is merely crossing tasks off a checklist. Her day-to-day accounts add a personal touch, but the book occasionally read too much like a diary.
Roach’s Gulp is certainly a delightful meal, but be prepared for occasional stomach cramps along the way. Not to worry, though; they will definitely not last long.