Sunday, May 11, 2014


Gulp. Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
Mary Roach
W.W. Norton & Company 2013

Reviewed by carol
Recommended for fans of digesting and laughing
★   ★   ★   for humor,     ★   ★   1/2  for information

While reading, I was reminded of long-ago biology studies, and the simplest members of Animalia that are little more than a gastric tube composed of cells. It’s astonishing, really, those primitive forms of waterborne life, and it emphasizes an interesting thing about animal anatomy, that we aren’t a solid, discrete, bounded organism: the environment moves through us as much as it moves around us. We like to think of “inside” and “outside” our bodies when in fact, it’s much more complicated. Those familiar with the gastrointestinal system (“the GI tract” in medical slang) understand that as a system rather continuous with the “outside,” it is one of the least sterile parts of our anatomy (the case could probably be made for skin as well). Perhaps that is why there are so many taboos surrounding what we eat, how we eat, vomiting, farting, defecation and such–all those different ways we process and exchange with our environment. Gulp. Adventures on the Alimentary Canal explores the GI tract and its unmentionables in an engaging way that is somewhat limited by basic scholarship.

One of her early paragraphs best explains her topic:
 “Yes, men and women eat meals. But they also ingest nutrients. They grind and sculpt them into a moistened bolus that is delivered, via a stadium wave of sequential contractions, into a self-kneading sack of hydrochloric acid and then dumped into a tubular leach field, where is is converted into the most powerful taboo in human history. Lunch is an opening act.

That both captures the strength and weakness of her writing; while good general information is buried in her text, it is largely hidden by metaphor and humor.

Divided into 17 chapters, the story loosely follows the physiological structure of the gastrointestinal tract, beginning with the sensations of smell and taste, then examining a variety of topics including ‘organ meats,’ chewing, stomach acid, saliva, swallowing, being eaten alive, overfilling stomachs, intestinal gases and flamability, colonic direction and stool. It didn’t take me very long to understand that this was the Trivial Pursuit version of the “adventures on the alimentary canal,” not the informative, organized tour designed to give insight in an entertaining way. As a nurse, I was rather hoping for a tour that taught in an engaging, non-professional style, not this collection of anecdotes, historical studies and titillating tidbits of taboos. 

Content is largely based on a wide variety of scientific studies, both historical and current, and covering both human and animal. For those that may have little background in the topic, this could likely prove confusing. For example, the chapter on chewing jumps in time from 1947 to 1817, to 1979 to 1825. The continuity jumps challenge the lay understanding of historical developments and lack the feeling of developing a professional discipline. Also distracting were strange asides about the scientists/ food professionals themselves. Perhaps in an effort to humanize the science for the average reader, she also describes appearance and personality of a number of the people she interviews. (Personally, I found this the most distracting and least informative. If I want to read People, I would. But I don’t.)  The nose section (“Nose Job”), for instance, is largely about a professional sensory analyst named Langstaff and Roach’s own experience trying out as an olive oil taster. The chapter on taste (“I’ll Have the Putrescine”) is primarily about engineering pet foods that appeal to dog, cat and owner, and talks about various personalities at the organizations she interviews.

Structurally, I found it was less coherently written than Packing for Mars. There’s copious footnotes, but not for intellectual background as much as parenthetical anecdotes or commentary. As the text content was just as engaging and digressive, I found myself wondering why she bothered with the footnotes? Amusement? Trendiness? They seem to be a mix of further text detail or opportunities for her to hilariously comment on her own writing. I won’t deny they were often funny; I laughed out loud at her exploration of whether a human could survive inside a whale’s stomach: 

While a seaman might survive the suction and swallow, his arrival in a sperm whale’s stomach would seem to present a new set of problems (1).

(1)I challenge you to find a more innocuous sentence containing the words sperm, suction, swallow and any homophone of seaman. And then call me up on the homophone and read it to me.

Content concerns aside, Roach has a strong storytelling gift.  Her voice is engaging and humorous, and is generally accessible. I found that she touched on a number of tantalizing issues in the field, such as our preference for sweets (mentioned in the taste tests for dogs), dyspepsia (hidden in a story about professional eaters and stomach size) and the growing interesting in how gut bacteria contributes to overall health (couched in a story about fecal transplants). Perhaps that is where some of my disappointment comes from, that she can be aware of some fascinating, topical issues in the GI field with enormous implications for people’s health, but then instead chooses to focus on the shock-studies of boa constrictor stomachs and dissolving live foods. Recommended for those in the mood for giggles and Science-Lite.

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