We should have seen this coming. When Mary Roach wrote Packing for Mars, her 2010 book about the bodily experiences of astronauts in space, she seemed especially excited by the feeding, digestive and excremental issues with which Nasa had to deal. She has now advanced from the exoticism of space-shuttle toilet training to the universality of the digestive tract. And at last Roach has a subject that doesn't make her strain.
Gulp is far and away her funniest and most sparkling book, bringing Roach's love of weird science to material that could not have more everyday relevance that usually accompanies it.
"The taboos have worked in my favour," she writes. Body parts from heart to hair to brain have been written about by others. But chewing? Spit? Fistulas? Flatulence? Excrement?
And to anyone who would say, "Wow, that Mary Roach has," to paraphrase, sent her head up her rectum in writing Gulp, she has a perfect rejoinder: "Only briefly, and with the utmost respect."
Never has Roach's affinity for the comedic and bizarre been put to better use. Among the sources she mentions are the articles A Lexicon of Pond-Raised Catfish Flavor Descriptors, Fecal Odor of Sick Hedgehogs Mediates Olfactory Attraction of the Tick and The Psychology of Animals Swallowed Alive and the book Feeding per Rectum, whose author calls it "more interesting than any romance."
Roach's ear for names leads her to identify this author as Bliss, but she also encounters people named Spitz, Grime, Terdiman, Flushing, Fardy and Crapo. And she collects words that belong in a latter-day version of "Jabberwocky": grumous, glabrous and periblepsis, for starters.
Gulp is structured as a vastly entertaining pilgrimage down the digestive tract, with Roach as the wittiest, most valuable tour guide imaginable. She digresses only a little, mostly because gut-busting footnotes have become such an irresistible part of her style. So she describes the bolus formed by chewing as "food that is in – as one researcher put it, sounding like a licence plate – 'the swallowable state.' (AST)"
Follow the asterisk down to this aside: "I nominate Rhode Island." Roach begins this book with the connection between smell and taste, contending that "the consumer's flavour lexicon is tiny: yum and yuck," and that Americans are easily snookered by high-priced wine and olive oil.
This is a way of exploring preconceptions about food, and she writes about how pet foods are made to appeal to people, not animals. A dog's way of showing how much it likes a meal is eating enough to throw up. Perhaps, Roach postulates, we're not as different from animals as we'd like to think. Who but Mary Roach would know how to digest that information? (Janet Maslin/New York Times News Service)