Sunday, April 28, 2013

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

In Gulp, much as in all Mary Roach’s books, we meet the scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks or has the courage to ask. We also find out much more than we want to know about the taboo tube through which we stuff and excrete food – the Alimentary Canal which includes the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus.

Just as the subject of Gulp is a circuitous adventure, so too is the research that leads the author in unexpected and often icky directions, and we’re along for the ride, ready or not. There’s the issue of why stomach acids dissolve what we eat, but not us. Not something I’ve lain awake nights wondering about, but nevertheless a mystery worth exploring. Roach’s gift is that she keeps even the most clinical, comical.  Seriously! Gulp is hilarious and just full of interesting factoids.

For example, did you know that Elvis died of constipation? His autopsy revealed a colon 6 inches in diameter, nearly twice the size of the average person. It was also 9 feet long, compared with the normal 5 feet. They found five-month-old stool in there!  Sadly, Elvis suffered from a hereditary condition called bowel paralysis.

Even Roach's (pictured) description of the science of fecal transplants, which is probably what killed President James A. Garfield, after his assassin’s bullet failed, are interesting, albeit yucky.  Actually, fecal transplants, administered through enemas, have gained credence recently for “the restoration of the colonic microbiota to its natural state.” Unfortunately, Medicare won’t cover the procedure and fecal donors are hard to come by. No shit!

If you haven’t read any of Mary Roach’s books try Stiff first, as it is an all-time favorite. If you are a fan, I don’t have to tell you to read Gulp. Like me, you whooped with delight when you saw she’d spit it out!  

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