Book review: Gulp by Mary Roach

Over the lips, through the gums, look out tummy – here it comes

Mary Roach W.W. Norton and Company 2014 Hardcover $17.95

Mary Roach
W.W. Norton and Company

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Mary Roach has produced an engrossing and humorous exploration of the human digestive system. This book may very well change your life. At the very least, it will change the way you understand the wonderful equipment which nature has provided us and the importance of digestive health to overall wellbeing.

Roach is an enthusiastic and diverting guide, issuing a number of captivating questions such as: Why don’t suicide bombers smuggle bombs in their rectum? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? In the process of answering these and other irreverent queries, Gulp introduces us to a cast of amazing scientists and researchers who are unlocking mysteries and exploring unchartered territories. As she says in the introduction, she wishes to instil a sense of adventure, “the excitement of exploration and the surprises and delights of travel to foreign locales.” In case you’ve forgotten, this is a book about how we digest and absorb food.

From previous reviews you may have gleaned the fact that I am a fan of travel books and pioneering science. Mary Roach has produced a book about both these things. The fact that it happens inside each of us just makes it more fascinating. The interplay of involuntary muscle contraction, saliva, hydrogen, methane and micro-bacteria to derive nutrition from food is a miraculously complex arrangement that has its own immune system and its own ‘brain’.

Clever, witty and brimming with unusual information (including just how badly the King was constipated and what exactly is smuggled in the rectum to American prisons and past custom agents), this is a shockingly interesting book. Here’s Roach, in the introduction: “I don’t want you to say ‘this is gross.’ I want you to say, ‘I thought this would be gross but it’s really interesting.’” An unexpectedly funny read — I really enjoyed this book.

An all-nighter of a book – and possibly the next day too

“The circus arrives without warning,” begins Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus — but I feel I should give you one, dear reader. This is a book to keep you awake very late into the night if you are not careful with it.

Erin Morgenstern Doubleday 2011 Hardcover $32.00

Erin Morgenstern

The temptation to guzzle it down in one long Sunday is very strong. I stopped myself at midnight but dreamed of contortionists and fortune tellers, amazing food and a bonfire that burns in ever changing colours. Early the next morning I finished and it was like a continuation of the dream. Just wonderful. When I closed the back cover I flipped it over and started it again and was 50 pages in when I realized the time and had to tear myself away from it and the house.

At heart this is a love story, pure and complicated — featuring a cast of characters and glamourous settings that is evocatively complete under Morgenstern’s sure hand. Wrapped around it are circles of entanglement, spells and the advice of fortune tellers. What begins as a gentlemen’s wager between two master illusionists becomes the story of Marco and Celia, the two apprentices who are to compete in a game that is to encompass both lives. As the circus grows with the help of an eccentric cast of benevolent friends, so too grow the powers of our apprentices until they are masters themselves. The game is transformed into a wondrous astonishment.

I think it would be a perfect summer vacation read but I bet you read more than half of it on the plane ride there. An enchanting, wonderfully different book. It surprised and delighted me.

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