My rating: 3 of 5 stars
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A little Mary Roach goes a long way.
I say this both approvingly and reluctantly. Approvingly because she’s obviously an author who does her homework, and therefore there are amazing little tidbits sprinkled among her digs into space travel (“Packing for Mars”), sex (“Bonk”) and digestion (“Gulp”). Reluctantly because she loves her little footnotes a little too much, and even though I appreciate her humor, some situations call for a wry aside, not a full-scale joke.
I read “Packing for Mars” several years ago and loved it (I interviewed her for this story, though her quotes didn’t make it), and I’d read a couple of her articles as well, so I figured I’d take the dive into some of her other work.
My choices, “Bonk” and “Gulp,” were made unscientifically: They were the two books by her available at my local library the day I visited. So they’re the ones that came home with me.
Of the two, I enjoyed “Gulp” more. That’s partly because the nether regions investigated in “Bonk” are particularly sensitive, and when you start reading about the experiments scientists do on the male member, my particular said member wants to crawl inside my pelvis and not come out until I’ve switched over to something less cringe-inducing — say, a New Yorker article on Donald Trump.
But I also got the sense that Roach herself was a little uncomfortable with the subject, though the scientists she interviewed sure weren’t. (And neither were Alfred Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, for that matter.) Her jokes were flaccid (sorry) and — more to the point — her text was sometimes dull and overly technical.
Anyway, I didn’t find “Bonk” especially revealing or entertaining.
On the other hand, though “Gulp” also has its cringe-inducing moments, it was more the Roach I remembered from “Packing for Mars.” Hell, the whole book is worth one scientist’s approving quote of the amazingly versatile anus: “Think of it. No engineer could design something as multifunctional and fine-tuned as an anus. To call someone an asshole is really bragging him up.”
(Note that Roach lets the scientist have the kicker.)
She also takes her tour of the alimentary system into interesting places — like prison, which is where she talks to an inmate about how he and his fellows manage to carry cell phones and tobacco into stir. (Another thing I learned: “prison wallet” as a synonym for rectum.) Also, she delves into the story of James Bartley, a sailor who was allegedly swallowed by a whale in 1896 and emerged whole, though bleached white and wrinkled from the effects of gastric juices. The story, which I’d read elsewhere as fact, was revealed to be as much of a myth as that of Jonah — though not before becoming “proof” of the biblical tale.
Other things I came to appreciate: the sensitivity of the jaw, often praised for its crushing abilities but too often ignored for its sense to stop; an interview with Elvis’ pal Dr. Nick that actually asks him medical questions about the King’s constipation; and Roach’s inclusion of the Bristol Stool Chart, which — though readily available on the Internet — makes for some nice, well, closure.
Still too many footnotes (Mary, really, your bibliography is just fine, and you don’t need so many tangents) and a couple slack areas, but “Gulp” is a much better book.
However, if I never see the word “fistula” again, that will be all right with me.