REVIEW: Gulp (Mary Roach)

gulpI came across Mary Roach with her book Six Feet Over, which I found in the library when I was about fifteen. It was probably the first non-fiction book I’d read for fun, and I become a devoted fan of hers. Probably because the absolute emphasis of that last sentence if fun.

Mary Roach’s books often tackle surprising (occasionally gross, usually weird, always fascinating) subjects. Her first, Stiff, was about corpses. The second, Six Feet Over, was about death. The third, Bonk, was about sex, followed by Packing For Mars, about space travel. They’re all characterised by several things, all of them wonderful:

1. A gleeful joy in discovering the oddest scientific anecdotes in obscure papers. Bonus points for if these anecdotes are related by an under-appreciated scientist beamingly happy to be interviewed. Gold star if the scientist has an appropriate name (Gulp is full of those.)

2. Occasional bouts of lunatic diversion into investigative alleyways, such as ‘can a man survive inside a whale.’

3. An ability to render piles of dry academic papers into the very stuff of legend.

4. Acerbic use of footnotes on a par with, and occasionally surpassing, Terry Pratchett.

I would almost certainly never pick up a book about the intricacies of the digestive system by any other author, because more than anyone, Mary Roach has the ability to transform science into something aspirational, hilarious and absolutely fascinating. It’s partly her obvious joy in investigation, and partly the knack of identifying the kernel of amazing in a journal report and boiling it down to a pithy aphorism that can make you snort coffee out of your nose with laughter. My flatmate beat me to the punch reading this book. Away from home for work, reading this book almost exclusively at the restaurant dining table, I would receive several text messages every evening with photographs of portions of the book. Share the enjoyment.

Ironically, her books run in inverse proportion to how interesting their subject appears to be. Astronouts and space should have been unassailably brilliant, but I never quite got on with Packing For Mars, having to drag my way through it. Likewise, sex can’t fail to be interesting; Bonk is a brilliant book, but somehow ends up being neither as funny or fascinating as Stiff, a book about corpses. The less superficially exciting a subject, the better it seems to be in her hands. I look forward to her chapter on the drying properties of paint; I’m sure she can turn it into a riot. (I’m not joking.)

Having finished Gulp as a rate of knots (I’d have done it faster, but at 2am in the dark I started feeling uncomfortable reading about the snakes that swallowed deer, and had to stop) I now know lots of information I never needed to know, and probably never will. The relative attractiveness of the aroma of kibble. The categorisation of dead rats. The meaning of fistulated and the difference between anum and annum. The origin of dragon myths. Hooping. The medical benefits of giving yourself an enema with someone else’s faeces (surprisingly good for you.) If this sounds like information you need in your life, I suggest a doctor, but if it sounds like exactly the sort of information that’s utterly useless – and therefore gold-dust – go invest. Hell, invest in all of her books, it’s worth it.

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