Angie Barker
Angie Barker

Archived Story

What’s inside counts

Published 11:38am Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Constant Reader book review by Angie Barker

A year ago, I ruptured a disc while playing golf. One swing and poof! Now you see a healthy functioning woman and now you don’t. Ta-da. It is the worst magic trick, but it’s the only one I know.

If you’ve ever had a back injury, this column is making your face pinch from the phantom pain of remembrance. Yes, back injuries are so painful that they possess the power to pop in for visit from the past: “Don’t you forget about me … or else.” One additional space and “The Breakfast Club” becomes a movie where a woman sits on her sofa trying not to move. There are definitely not any fist pumps that freeze frame into a fade out.

The rupture also pinched a nerve in my leg. Those first months were a constant hostage negotiation:

Bladder: “Hey guys! It’s getting crowded in here.”0624.gulp

Back: “Trying being repeatedly stabbed all day then talk to me about comfort.”

Leg: “I don’t mean to pile on, but I would love some relief, too.”

Bladder: “I wouldn’t ignore me. Consider yourselves warned.”

Back: “La la la. I can’t hear you.”

Bladder: “This bladder will self-destruct in T-minus 30 seconds… 29, 28, 27…”

Back: “I am the one who knocks!”

Leg: “Huh. If you’re using a threatening pop culture reference I would have gone with ‘I’ll be back.’ Seems like a missed opportunity.”

In trying to keep the peace I realized I was the guard to my own prison. My body had become a thing separate from me. A terrible thing that betrayed me, caused me pain and chained me to my sofa. It was an intricately complicated and fragile mechanism. And I knew almost nothing about it. This is where author Mary Roach becomes the white rabbit of my journey. Her books “Stiff: The Curious Life of Cadavers,” “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex” and “Gulp: The Adventures on the Alimentary Canal” all approach the human body as a wonderland.

(Feel free to insert your own John Mayer joke here. Roach would.)

She guides us through the fantastic and scary and usually disgusting processes that combine to make us physiologically human.

“Gulp,” the newest release, is the journey of food from mouth to anus. It doesn’t sound appealing, but Roach’s humorous narration of the science gives the solemn subjects a much needed tonal levity or gravity depending on the situation. How do you spend an entire chapter talking about the colon and excrement without making poop jokes? You can’t. Poop smoothies are inherently funny in their grotesque imagery. It is also something I couldn’t possibly summarize without doing disservice to Roach’s “Isn’t this all so fascinating” style.

While we laugh about the smoothies, Roach goes on to explain how they are being used at the University of Minnesota to save lives by curing 93 percent of people suffering from Clostridium difficile, otherwise known as C.diff.  Roach makes sure the science is always the star, but she never forgets that her reader is an Average Joe, sans a Ph.D. Enthusiasm is her vehicle of choice and we get shotgun.*

The current events of the science world are usually balanced with stories from the past. The now-silly beliefs of our ancestors provide a scale of progress to today’s research. Indigestion was believed to be snakes you ingested from pond water. Horace Fletcher believed thorough chewing would provide a military edge by reducing the amount of food a soldier took in by two-thirds.

Then there is Dr. William Beaumont of Prairie Du Chien, Wis., and his handyman with a stomach fistula, Alexis St. Martin. Beaumont has been called “the father of American physiology,” but it is rumored he did some nasty stuff to earn the title including intentionally giving St. Martin the fistula without his consent and forcing him to participate in the experiments. Hippocrates would not approve.

If I haven’t convinced you of Gulp’s merit maybe Roach can: “The excitement of exploration and the surprises and delights of travel to foreign locales — that [is what] I hope to inspire with this book.”

Over the lips and past the gums, look out stomach here we come.


*Every Roach book is littered with footnotes of enthusiasm. This is where she puts entertaining facts that are too distracting to add in the text. This is also where she talks directly to the reader: “Psst. Hey you. Down here. Are you nerding out as hard as I am?” Yes, Mary, we are.