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Review: ‘Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,’ by Mary Roach

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Local appearance

Author Mary Roach will discuss “Gulp” with fellow science writer Rebecca Skloot (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”), at 6 p.m. April 29 in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State.

Updated: May 29, 2013 6:01AM

We love food. We savor it, digest it, absorb the best and pass the rest.

That journey between the tip of your tongue and the seat of your pants might seem like a humdrum subject for a science book. But Mary Roach — an author who has written smart but irreverent books about sex, corpses and space travel — manages to make it not only fun, but also funny, in “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal” (W.W. Norton, $26.95).

The wonders of digestion are a launching point for Roach to explore all sorts of oddities. Readers learn about the song sung during meals at chewing enthusiast John Harvey Kellogg’s sanatorium (“I choose to chew/because I wish to do”), researchers who pump pythons full of air, and get tips on rectal smuggling from an inmate in California (it’s called “hooping” behind the wall).

It turns out a person’s plumbing can malfunction in many strange ways. Roach appears to go over most of them, from the poor soul left with a peekaboo hole in his stomach after a gunshot wound and people with stretchable colons — which brings up Elvis. Did The King suffer from a “mega-colon”? And did it contribute to his death? Roach investigates.

Roach isn’t shy about making the occasional bathroom joke. Actually, she’s pretty much all in on bathroom jokes, which makes sense considering the subject. One footnote includes examples of people who make the embarrassing error of misspelling “per annum” (yearly) in financial reports as “per anum” (by way of anus). It’s that kind of book.

This would get tiresome except Roach is a smart writer and light on her feet. She seems to have a fondness for the scientists who devote their careers to things peculiar but important. And even the goofy jokes enliven a subject that could be as dull as a high school biology review on the role of intestinal villi. Amid the jokes, Roach synthesizes a bunch of fascinating biological research, and, yes, really does make it easier to digest.


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