Tuesday, August 2, 2016

61 Books: #36

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–35 are below this post.

36. Mary Roach, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013) (8/2/16)
Mary Roach is a delight! Smart, sassy, a master of the language, and interested in everything and anything—the weirder the better.

Unfortunately, I "read" most of this book while driving. The narrator was excellent and I was able to pay pretty good attention, but I am far more distractable with an audiobook than with a paper one. I had reached the last chapter when I pulled into my drive after a fourteen-hour trip, and decided to check the book out from the library to finish up. So glad I did: every page had some treat of wording or analogy or observation. I may have to go back and read Gulp the old-fashioned way. Even the illustrations that accompany each chapter are unmissable.

The subject matter here is "feeding, and even more so its unsavory correlates." The chapter titles themselves are great:
  • Nose Job: Tasting has little to do with taste (and so much about our sense of smell)
  • I'll Have the Putrescine: Your pet is not like you (on developing food that drives dogs and cats wild)
  • Liver and Opinions: We we eat what we eat and despise the rest (our aversion to organ meats)
  • The Longest Meal: Can thorough chewing lower the national debt? (extreme mastication—does it release more nutrients?)
  • Hard to Stomach: The acid relationship of William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin (on how our stomach digests food)
  • Spit Gets a Polish: Someone ought to bottle the stuff (the wonders of saliva)
  • A Bolus of Cherries: Life at the oral processing lab (the neuromusculature of chewing and swallowing)
  • Big Gulp: How to survive being swallowed alive (on Jonas and the whale, and constrictor snakes)
  • Dinner's Revenge: Can the eaten eat back? (back to digestion)
  • Stuffed: The science of eating yourself to death ("A healthy stomach will up and empty itself well before it reaches the breaking point. Unless for some reason it can't.")
  • Up Theirs: The alimentary canal as criminal accomplice (smuggling contraband into prison)
  • Inflammable You: Fun with hydrogen and methane (yes, farts, and also belches)
  • Dead Man's Bloat: And other diverting tales from the history of flatulence research 
  • Smelling a Rat: Does noxious flatus do more than clear a room? ("The simplest strategy for bouts of noxious flatus is to not care. Or perhaps to take the advice of a gastroenterologist I know: get a dog. (To blame.)")
  • Eating Backward: Is the digestive tract a two-way street? (autocoprophagia: something you owners of pet rats, and certain dogs, may be familiar with)
  • I'm All Stopped Up: Elvis Presley's megacolon, and other ruminations on death by constipation 
  • The Ick Factor: We can cure you, but there's just one thing (fecal transplants) 
Fascinating, no? Truly, it is! Roach has entertaining conversations with engaging scientists as she seeks to understand better just what goes on inside our bodies.

Here are a couple of passages, chosen at random, to get at her wonderful style:

"The most effective agent of dietary change is the adulated eater—the king who embraces whelks, the revolutionary hero with a passion for skewered hearts. . . . For organ meats today, that person has been taking the form of celebrity chefs at high-profile eateries. . . . On the Iron Chef episode 'Battle Offal,' judges swooned over raw heart tartar, lamb's liver truffles, tripe, sweetbreads, and gizzard. If things go as they usually go, hearts and sweetbreads might start to show up on home dinner tables in five or ten years." (from "Liver and Opinions")

"DePeters took some photographs of me with my right arm in 101.5. The cow appears unmoved. I look like I've seen God. I was in all the way to my armpit and still could not reach the bottom of the rumen. I could feel strong, steady squeezes and movements, almost more industrial than biological. I felt like I'd stuck my arm into a fermentation vat with an automated mixing paddle at the bottom, and I basically had." (from "Dinner's Revenge")

And so forth. Roach is a colorful writer with a colorful imagination, and by reading her books (I've also read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which was equally entertaining), you learn. Boy, do you learn: all sorts of stuff you never imagined. That's my idea of time well spent.

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