I despair that Mary Roach may soon run out of bodily functions. She has written science books about the dead (Stiff), the after-dead (Spook), and sex and what passes for it (Bonk). Now she is back with Gulp (W.W. Norton, $26.95), about how our bodies process whatever we put into our mouths from the time we smell it, taste it, and chew it until it is unceremoniously ejected into its spiraling, watery grave.
And it is fascinating stuff! Roach’s modus operandi is to track down and converse with the scientists and specialists who study everything from whether your mouth really waters when you smell something cooking to how fast a bolus of food travels through your intestines to whether or not your stomach could rupture from overeating (no) or whether a cadaver’s stomach will burst if it is posthumously over-fed (yes).
Roach’s science reporting is never compromised, but neither does she let pass a good story, trenchant observation, or smart-ass comment. Roach is simply fascinated by what our body does, even at its most disgusting, and factually documents it all. But she also knows that we have dirty minds, and snickers along with the rest of us. In a chapter on “Why We Eat What We Eat and Despise the Rest,” she cannot resist commenting on a study being done on how to get us to eat pig testicles and like them. She gleefully reports that the work is being conducted “at – fill my heart with joy! – Ball State University.”
Her topics are at times so gross – Gulp is subtitled, “Adventures on the Alimentary Canal” – and her humor so precise that we may forget what an extraordinary science writer she is (her reports are carried by the New York Times and other august publications), and the amount of research she slogs through to run down every detail. Except it isn’t a slog for her or us, due to her fascination with the people telling her about their studies. In short, she re-awakens in us that teenage lust for learning anything, so long as it is wrapped in a suitably irreverent package
Roach’s website (maryroach.net) greets us with a sketched roach crawling across our screen. Once we squash it with a flick of our cursor, we read that Roach is a Down-Easter who graduated from Wesleyan before fleeing to San Francisco with friends in 1981. After stints in PR and freelance editing, she gravitated to writing books. She has won awards for her writing, Roach tells us, but don’t get too impressed. “A 1995 article of mine called "How to Win at Germ Warfare" was a National Magazine Award Finalist, and in 1996, my article on earthquake-proof bamboo houses took the Engineering Journalism Award in the general interest magazine category, for which I was, let's be honest, the only entrant. I often write about science, though I don't have a science degree and must fake my way through interviews with experts I can't understand.”
Roach is that prof we had in undergraduate school whose class we never cut, the one who kept our attention not just through her erudition but because we needed to be alert to whatever outrageous topic she would tackle or profane story she would tell next. Roach’s wit may be dry, but her writing is wet and juicy.