In some ways, it's difficult to offer an exhaustive critique of Mary Roach's (Stiff) latest offering of peculiar nonfiction, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, because it's tough for the work itself to be exhaustive. By the end, readers will likely have more unanswered questions regarding the gastrointestinal tract than they ever imagined asking, but that is more of a testament to Roach's ability to draw us in to a superficially off-putting subject than a critique of her limited scope. If you're looking for a textbook treatment of the guts, et al, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a witty and hilarious writer's anecdote- and interview-driven look at digestion, look no further.
But wait, you say? You're not grossed out by the idea of this book, but you also wouldn't describe yourself as someone ' looking for a witty and hilarious writer's anecdote- and interview-driven look at digestion'? Well, this book's probably for you, too. Considering the cultural taboo surrounding a discussion of the digestive process, probably very little of the thinking and discourse of your adult life is dedicated to the subject outside of specialist visits and child-rearing. It certainly isn't dinner conversation. But all of that avoidance amounts to a general lack of understanding of a subject that is (and I say this more emphatically now than ever) nothing if not fascinating.
Employing the same structure for her book as the human body employs for its digestion, Roach begins with the mouth, addressing such topics as taste receptors in humans and animals, the importance of the nose in eating, and the under-appreciated role of saliva in our daily lives. Throughout the book, she makes her down the esophagus, into the stomach, through the small intestine and eventually into the colon. From there, as even a cursory knowledge of human digestion would suggest, Roach moves into the more graphic and taboo territory of waste management and all related discussions, but I'll leave the contents of those chapters a surprise.
Along the way, Roach dutifully serves as an intelligent, humorous guide, offering astute observations on one page and witty provocations the next. As she states here, the dominant theme of all her works is the intersection of science and obsession, and her interactions with various scientists and industry sorts benefit from this calibration. It isn't purely the science, the answer, that interests Roach, but also the culture and context of her subject that proves worthy of study. For us laypeople, that combination makes for enlightening and wonderfully enjoyable reading. To conclude, I'll leave you with a classic Roach quote that sums up the serio-comic approach she has taken to her subject. In addressing the possibility that she might be abnormal for her interest in the inner-workings of the human body, she deadpans: "It is, of course, possible that I seem strange. You may be thinking, Wow, that Mary Roach has her head up her ass. To which I say: Only briefly, and with the utmost respect."