Monday, July 4, 2016

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

When she was a guest on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, Mary Roach listed her topics of interest as "Sex, dead bodies, and poop."  Gulp focuses on the latter, along with farts, drool, smuggling, aptonyms, questionable medical ethics, Elvis, fad diets, and the hazards of sleeping under the covers if you're married to a champion farter who loves brussels sprouts.

Grossness aside, Roach's book is, as usual, informative and entertaining.  I was particularly interested in the chapter on Alexis St. Martin and William Beaumont.  I first encountered the story of a trapper with a hole in his stomach and the doctor who gave 19th Century medicine its first scientific view of digestion in high school biology.  My textbook portrayed Beaumont as a noble scientist who saved St. Martin against all odds.  The reality is messier (as, undoubtedly, were some of the experiments).  Beaumont exploited St. Martin, a trapper from the lowest rung of the social ladder, possibly creating the  gastric window which made Beaumont famous and discussing the man he treated with what at best could be considered condescension.  Sure, St. Martin lived with Beaumont off-and-on for years, but with few skills and a hole in his side, what choice did he have?  

Another fascinating chapter focuses on rectal smuggling.   Roach interviewed a murderer who calmly, pleasantly, described how prisoners conceal weapons, cell phones, cigarettes, and drugs in the place safest from strip searches.  Budget cuts mean that the prison staff are using 1990s computers, but the inmates are watching Netflix on smuggled smart phones, and it's because some prisoners are wiling to (hmm, how to say this gently…) mechanically reverse peristalsis from the terminus and then hold for a few hours.

Roach also encounters an Italian saliva specialist (who's horrified by the culinary traditions of the Netherlands where her lab is located), Elvis's doctor (who suggests that the King had a neural defect which led to a megacolon and ultimately his untimely and embarrassing death), the inventors of Beano and (through documents), some of the more colorful 19th Century dietary "experts."  As usual, she treats everyone with respect while still including enough humor to make the book risky to read in the quiet car.  It's the footnotes that made me giggle the hardest - about a third of them are purely informational, but the rest veer off into wonderful and hilarious observations on and off this not-usually-for-public-consumption topic.

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