Monthly Archives: June 2013

Gulp by Mary Roach

Mary Roach’s Gulp goes down easy

When it comes to literature about eating, science has been a little hard to hear amid the clamor of cuisine. Just as we adorn sex with the fancy gold-leaf filigree of love, so we dress the need for sustenance in the finery of cooking and connoisseurship…Yes, men and women eat meals. But they also ingest nutrients. They grind and sculpt them into a moistened bolus that is delivered via a stadium wave of sequential contractions, into a self-kneading sack of hydrochloric acid and then dumped into a tubular leach field, where is it converted into the most powerful taboo in human history. [no, not wearing white after Labor Day]

If I had my own university I would see to it that Mary Roach received an honorary doctorate in Scatology. She does seem to have a predilection for investigating elements of human functions that would be considered indelicate in polite company. Of course, to my not-so-inner-Beavis, this is mother’s milk. (Oh, god, no. Is she going to look into that next?) So far, Ms. Roach, a science writer, has managed to process information and squeeze out books on dead bodies (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife ), some of the more personal elements of space travel (Packing for Mars) and sex (Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex). In Gulp, Ms. Roach looks into the details of how, during our corporal existence, we fuel the engines that allow us to scoot between planets or partners, and which make it possible to contemplate what should be done with our remains.

Mary Roach – image from The Reading Lists

Mary takes us on a lively cruise down the alimentary canal, which lies somewhere between Love Canal and Root Canal, but with more jokes. Really though, a canal is what we are. Stuff in, stuff out, and an increasingly complex control mechanism to make sure it keep flowing. Philosophy? Religion? Civilization? Whatever. Feed me. Let me poop and pee and the rest is gravy. Because, you know, if you can’t or don’t eat, everything else is moot. (Insert anorexic model joke here) If you can’t get rid of the final product, everything else is really nastily moot. So, while our trip with Captain Mary may lack the derring do of the good ship Proteus, (and the wooden leg of that other well-known cruise) it is a fantastic journey from here to there, and most definitely not back again.

As with any sightseeing outing, your tour guide will point out the structures along the way that are considered to be of interest. All ahead full and pay no attention to those white particles dangling from the tree roots along the side. We begin our look inside by examining how smell affects the way things taste to us. If you smell a rat, it might be because of its diet, of which more later. Our first stop is the nose, along with our sense of smell, which functions as the body’s TSA, with its own list of items that may not be brought aboard.


Hold on for a bit as the captain steers the boat into an unexpected cul-de-sac. While there, you will pick up some info on the food you get for your cats and dogs. Ok, backing out and here we are, looking at the appetite for organ meat in various places and cultures, what is good about it and how many of us consider it nasty. It is in this chapter that we discover that Narwhal skin turns out to be rather tasty.

Around the bend and down the hatch, Ms. Roach spends some time pondering the question of whether, like one jaw-weary fellow in 1903, we might believe that by chewing one’s food very, very thoroughly, one can gain greater nutrition from it than someone could by chewing it a more typical number of times. And while you are mulling that over, Roach goes poking into the strange case of Dr. William Beaumont, the researcher, and Alexis St Martin, his personal guinea pig, the proud possessor of an ill-healed and surprisingly non-fatal gunshot wound to the torso. It scarred up oddly and left the enterprising Doctor Beaumont direct access to Mister St Martin’s stomach. Let the testing begin, and go on and go on. Hey, come back here. I’m not done. For a feature length look at this, up that tributary on the left, you might poke your nose into Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont by Jason Karlawish. Next, Captain Mary points out the surprising relationship between spit and laundry detergent, actually between spit (there are two kinds, neither of which is called warm) and a lot of things, and why we like our foods to be crispy and crunchy. And if you were wondering if this little excursion included the risk of being devoured by large living creatures, Roach can fill you in on the odds of surviving inside a leviathan’s stomach.


There are plenty more sights to be seen on this journey, subjects like ways of eating oneself to death, the explosive danger of intestinal gas,

(“I know a case, this was fifteen years ago, where the man ate a huge meal and then took an inordinate amount of Alka-Seltzer.” [Dyspepsia expert Mike] Jones made an exploding sound into the telephone. It was like that Monty Python sketch, the Wafer-Thin Mint, where the guy is gorging himself and finally he goes, “I’ll just have this one wafer-thin mint…’”)

 Animated Gif on Giphy

and the booming field of flatulence.

(I bet you thought I was gonna go with the infamous bean scene from Blazing Saddles. I am much too classy for that. You will have to go there on your own. Just click this.)

And did you know that it was not only possible to ignite farts, but are some people who have flammable belches?

Roach gets to the bottom of the practice known as keistering, and hooping. Prison is a likely lab for such research into the use of the rectum as a cargo hold. The storage capacity is impressive, to the point that one inmate was referred to as OD for Office Depot, for his hooping capacity, actually used for keistering office supplies. I’m not using that stapler.

And you will be amazed at how much of a rat’s diet consists of material that…um…emerged from the rat. So on spotting a certain rodent in Orlando, try to stop yourself from asking what it is in that taco he is toting. And you do not want to be downwind of that breath.

The colon comes in for considerable examination, and figures in a surprising theory for the cause of death of a king. She comes clean in a look at the history, reasons for and abuses of enemas. And, of course Mary lets loose when she gets the scoop on pooping. She even notes a chart that delineates the seven different types. You know you want to see it.

Ok. Time to squeeze yourself off the boat. Be sure to tip the guide.

Roach always delights in reporting on names that are particularly apt.

my gastroenterologist is Dr. Terdiman, and the author of the journal article “Gastrointestinal Gas” is J. Fardy, and the headquarters of the International Academy of Proctology was Flushing, New York.

I suppose the academy might be better off in Richmond, VA, in the neighborhood called Shockoe Bottom, or maybe in Proberta, CA.

A couple of minor gripes. This book could really have used an index. And the chapter on feeding Spot and Fluffy, while interesting, seemed a bit of a digression from the main journey.

That said, reading Mary Roach is akin to the pure joy one experiences from things like Ripley’s Believe It or Not, with the benefit of knowing that there is no smoke and mirror involvement. Reality is soooooo weird. And we have Mary Roach to thank for refilling our occasionally dwindling mental storehouse of disturbing images, (You will never think of Elvis quite the same way after reading this book) and fascinating scientific facts, like the possible origin for the belief in fire-breathing dragons or the medical efficacy of fecal transplants.

There is never a doubt that Mary Roach will make you laugh and teach you things you never knew before. What could be better? Ok, I mean aside from the Blazing Saddles clip.

===================================EXTRA STUFF

Here is the full vid of the wafer thin mint bit, aka Mr. Creosote. Don’t even try watching this if you get queasy easily. It requires a very strong stomach or a very weak mind.

The May 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine features an article by Roach, The-Gut-Wrenching-Science Behind the World’s Hottest Peppers and there is another piece in that issue that may be of interest, Why You Like What You Like by Tom Vanderbilt. BTW, the articles are named differently in the magazine and on the web site.

Other Mary Roach books we have enjoyed
—–2021 – Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law
—–2016 – Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
—–2010 – Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
—–2006 – Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
—–2004 – Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Town Hall Seattle has an excellent audio presentation by Roach

Mary is interviewed on NPR

And in the New York Times

There is a wonderful interview with Mary on The Daily Show, a two parter. Here is Part 1 and here Part 2

Janet Maslin’s NY Times review


Filed under Reviews, Science and Nature

Inferno by Dan Brown

Inferno is Dan Brown’s 4th Robert Langdon adventure

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate


Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

Doré, Gate of Hell
Dante and Virgil approach the entrance to Hell
From the

The heat is on. There is, of course, a deadline. A mad scientist of a Dante super-fan, who takes theatrical delight in referring to himself as The Shade, would like to bring about a great renaissance for humanity, a reawakening similar to the one that occurred following the Black Plague. As with that earlier event, The Shade, a Batman villain if ever there was one, would like to cull the world’s population by, oh, say, a third. Malthus lives, and has spawned a group of die-hard Transhumanists who think we and our planet would be a lot better off were there significantly fewer of us using up space, air, water, et al, and hogging the remotes. Robert Langdon, returned to duty after sundry life-threatening adventures in Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol, has been called in to decipher the clues to where and how Mister Zobrist, (we can’t call him The Shade for 463 pages, can we?) conveniently dead in the opening, has set his viral bomb to go off. Or was he? Langdon wakes up in an ER, with a head wound, a distinctly fuzzy recollection of the recent past and thinks he is back in Massachusetts. Brunelleschi didn’t design any buildings in New England. That large dome you see out the window means you are in Florence. Oops. And, by the way, there is a well armed, nicely leather-clad biker person heading down the hall, weapons blazing. Check please. He and Doc McSmokin’, a 208 IQ, blonde, pony-tailed physician, named Sienna Brooks, dash out ahead of the ordnance and the game is afoot. This offers an example of something that is entirely depressing. Had that been an American hospital there is no way he could have gotten out without having to sign insurance forms or promissory notes, guns blazing or not. (Mister Langdon. We need you to sign here, here, here, and initial here, here and here. You, with the gun, take a number and have a seat.)

Woodward and Bernstein, in All the Presidents Men, report on G. Gordon Liddy holding his hand over a flame at a dinner party to impress someone or other. He held it long enough to singe himself, and cause alarm in those present. When he was asked “What’s the trick?” he answered, “The trick is not minding.” Reading a book of Daniel Brown’s is a far cry from holding one’s hand over an open flame. But there are elements to reading his work that are certainly painful. There are benefits to be had, things to be learned, issues to be raised, but there are clichés to be endured, characterizations to be tolerated, dei ex machina to be ignored. I suppose one might think of it as a form of Purgatory. You can certainly enjoy the good while putting up with the bad. The trick is not minding the latter.

One does not descend into reading Dan Brown’s infernal novel expecting literary power. There are certain formulae at work, and if you are not prepared to be led along, keeping the blinders firmly affixed for the duration, you might do better to read something else with the several hours it takes to work your way through the levels in Inferno. (Yes, there are some) We do not expect to find work similar to that of, say, Louise Erdrich, or Ron Rash, and it would be unfair, not to say unkind, to apply to Brown the metrics applied to writers of more serious fiction. But then, what standards should we apply?

There are two general qualities that merit our attention here, and more specific elements within each. Is it entertaining? Is it informative?


Does the story engage out attention? Or do we find ourselves wandering off?
Is it fast-paced?
Do we care about the characters?
Is it fun?
In short, does this make a good beach read?


Does it teach us something new?
Is the information interesting?
Does it address some larger issue, one of actual significance?
Does it make sense?


Does the story engage our attention?

Sure. While not, for me at least, as engaging as The DaVinci Code, I kept turning all 463 pages, eager to find out what there was to be found, info and plot-wise. But I was not exactly panting to get back to the book at every free moment.

Is it fast-paced?

Is the Pope Argentinian? This is what Brown does. Aside from the sort of occasional interruptions that might give the wearer of a pace-maker the sweats, (noted in more detail below) he keeps things moving along. I was reminded of an old (1912) adventure tale, A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. That book was also a series. Battle, capture, rescue, escape, repeat, with bits of information about some underlying subject in the book tossed in to grease the narrative wheels. Ditto here.

Speaking of greasing, you will need to have some eye drops handy to avoid chafing from frequent eye-rolling. It seems that every time there is a need to gain access to some large institution, Brown trots out what seems almost a running joke of Robert Langdon having some relationship with the person in charge. I bet if Langdon needed 3am access to the UFO museum in Roswell, we would learn that he had tracked aliens with the museum director and had contributed a live specimen from the Crab Nebula at some time in the not too distant past. The Sulabh International Museum of Toilets? It wasn’t Washington who poohed there, or presented a monograph at the esteemed institution that resulted in such a large inflow of contributions that the institution was flush for a considerable period.

In a related matter, I was reminded of two cinematic clichés in particular. In one, the hero and heroine pause as the world collapses around them to engage in a lengthy soulful smooch. (Pay no attention to that incoming missile. Enjoy.) In the second, a child dashes back to the burning-building or alien-infested-spaceship to retrieve her (choose one – favorite stuffy, kitten, puppy, photo of long dead (but really only missing) mother or father). Brown spares us kittens and overlong liplocks, for the most part, but while Langdon and this volume’s Bond girl are dashing from persistent threats like a Florida race track rabbit, (who are those dogs?) Brown pauses the action every so often, inserts himself and his research into the narrative (Bob, Si, relax. We’ll pick this up again after lunch), and offers up the occasional art history lesson. I’m not saying that these are not informative and sometimes fun (as in the case of a particularly organ-rich Plaza della Signoria)

The Fountain of Neptune from The Museums of Florence

but it does alter the flow in a breathlessly paced novel to…um…take a breather. All right guys, up and at ‘em. Ready, set, flee.

Do we care about the characters?

Truthfully, it is tough not to care about a character that has the face of Tom Hanks ironed onto it, but yeah, I guess, although a lot less than a whole lot of other fictional people. It is fun to see Langdon attempting to recover his memory and figure out who that mysterious woman he keeps seeing in vision-flashes might be. Sienna Galore has a pretty interesting back-story, a large brain, and the usual physical assets required for Brown’s kicked-up Bond-girl roles. So sure, why not. Aside from those two, only a little here and there. Character is not the thing in Dan Brown books.

Is it fun?

As a straight up read, forgetting for the moment one’s analytical inclinations, yes. Brown does revel in puzzles and there are more secrets embedded in Inferno than there are candied items in a fruit cake. And some are quite delicious. (OK, I hereby out myself as a weirdo who likes fruit cake). Unlike one’s experience with fruit cake, however, you will miss out on that weighty feeling of having ingested a brick. Literarily, Inferno is a lot more like chiffon cake than its denser cousin. Also there are enough twists to keep the cap machines at the Nogara Coke bottling factory busy for a long time.

Does it make a good beach read?



Does it teach us something new?

Si! We learn of a mysterious transnational entity, that Brown swears is based on a real organization, that smoothes out the curves so that people of questionable motives, but certain resources, can go about their business unimpeded. The head of this group might have been well served with a fluffy white kitty and a pinky ring. Brown offers some nifty tour guides to this and that location in several cities, and a fair bit of history on Dante and his most famous bit of writing. He offers some illuminating details on this or that building, painting and sculpture, including where it might have traveled over the centuries (well, not the buildings, of course) and whether the version we see today is a fully original specimen. He also gives us a very good reason to take a tour of the secret passageways in Old World cities.

The Vasari Corridor from Wiki commons

Is the information interesting?

Leaving aside prophets and their like, before there were mononymous sorts like Liberace, Elvis and Madonna, even earlier than sorts like that English playwright, there was Durante degli Aligheri, known to a certain childhood acquaintance, Beatrice, as that boy who wouldn’t stop staring at her, known to certain priors in Florence as the guy who refused to pay his fine and was thus banned for life, and known to us in the 21st century as Dante.

Dante and His Poem by Michelino from Wikimedia

If you find Dante and his best-known work of interest, and really, you should, this book is a lot of fun. Of course what constitutes interesting is almost always in the eye of the beholder. If your thing is video games, well then not so much. (on the other hand, there actually is a lot here that does remind one of video game action, so I take that back) But if you are fascinated with old world history, art and architecture, Dante, the Black Death, Malthusian concerns, and the potential impact of a large human die-off, then Si, molto.

Does it address some larger issue, one of actual significance?

Sicuramente. Two in fact. One of the major elements in the story is the determination by our psycho-scientist billionaire sort that human population is about to reach a dangerous level, one which is likely to trigger all sorts of catastrophes. There are various ways one can address this concern, but the underlying concern is quite real. Brown does us all a service by bringing it to the attention of millions of readers. Another element here is the notion of “Transhumanism.” Basically this entails humans taking charge of our own evolution and using all the technology available to us to ensure maximization of our physical and intellectual capacities. Whether one sees this as a Satanic plot, yet another opportunity for the haves to have even more, or the beginning of a new human renaissance, the subject is worth checking out.

Does it make sense?

In some ways yes and in some ways no. There is validity to the underlying science. But would the baddie really leave a breadcrumb trail for potential foilers to his big bang?

That said, it can be fun to descend into the bowels of the earth, or the watery substructures of ancient architectural marvels, however many levels down you care to go.

Whether you think that Dan Brown belongs in literary heaven, Hades or somewhere in between, he makes a wonderful Virgil, leading us on an interesting journey, and showing us some things we might not have ever imagined. It may not qualify as a divine book, but Inferno is one hell of a read.

PS – One must note that the end of all three parts of Dante’s Commedia (the Divine was added later) end with the word “stars.” Brown does not disappoint on that score.

And I am sure there is significance to the fact that there are 104 chapters in the book, (plus a prologue and an epilogue, so 106) but I have not been able to suss out exactly what. There are 99 cantos in the Commedia, maybe a couple more with this or that added, but I do not know how one can fluff that up to 106. Yet, I am sure there is an explanation. When (if) I find it I will include it here.


========================================EXTRA STUFF

Apparently the city of Manila took umbrage at a negative characterization in the book

An interesting discussion of Dante’s work

Wiki article on transhumanism

Washington Post review

Janet Maslin’s NY Times review, which includes a wonderful observation re the book’s publication date

WSJ piece on how Dan Brown kept the wraps on his story lest copycats scoop him

For some nice images and info on the Vasari Corridor

If you get the urge, you can read Dante’s masterpiece thanks to the Gutenberg project

If you believe that Dan Brown should be relegated to one of the lower levels of hell, you might enjoy this piece in The Daily Beast, by Noah Charney, who clearly enjoys pointing out all the things Brown got wrong

GR friend Connie reminds us that there is a wonderful piece by Rodin, The Gates of Hell, that is worth a look.

Here is a nice Q&A piece with Brown from the June 20, 2013, NY Times, part of their By the Book series

Some interesting images and notions on Dante’s hell, on a web post called The Topography of Hell

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Filed under Reviews

Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Might be your type

I am hardly a monogamous sort. I find that I am regularly attracted to different types. Sometimes I like them with big bowls. I am definitely fond of zaftig with strokable, curvy edges, sometimes I prefer something a bit more conservative, upright, familiar. And rarely, slender even, maybe with sharp edges. Occasionally I go for something way out there, maybe with spikes or exploding bits. Ok, you can put your filthy mind back where it belongs now. We are talking about font types, but you knew that, right?

One of the great joys to be had in reading is to learn something new about some aspect of life that has been before your eyes all along. Walking down a street with no fonts on display might lead one to suspect involuntary transport to an unintended time and location, say Soviet era Moscow, or worse, Siberia. (and yes, there is a font called Siberian, a unicase, sans-serif). But for almost all of us, we are surrounded by fonts. Simon Garfield has certainly touched many, particularly in the GR community, with his work. We all do love to read and are probably more susceptible to the attraction of beauty, utility and charm in fonts than most. Yeah, we bad. But not only are fonts significant in the books, magazines, newspapers, and web-sites we read, they demand our attention as we walk down the street, step into an elevator, check the time, unwrap our breakfast, decide what faucet to twist when washing our hands, and they call to us from the labels on our clothing, whether obnoxiously plastered on the outside or applied more decently in clothing interiors. They are on traffic lights, highway signs, airport directives, the sides of police, fire and emergency vehicles. And they have, of course, been around in different times. Fonts do seem to capture elements of the zeitgeist.

A favorite haunt of mine back in the day

Thank goodness we have not heard of anyone with an allergy or aversion to fonts. Such an unfortunate would, under the onslaught of type in which we live, soon be reduced to a quivering mound of jelly. Fonts are everywhere and someone not only decided what font needed to be attached to each and every word, someone had to design each and every one. And I am not referring solely to you law-averse sorts (you know who you are) who communicate your needs with literal cut-and-paste design. Really, someone else designed each and every letter.

For particularly lazy criminals this Ransom Note Vector font might come in handy

Garfield offers us a laudable overview not just of what is out there in the world of fonting, (See, I didn’t say he was a font of wisdom on the subject) but how each and every bit of it (OK, OK, not each and every bit, but a whole lot of it) came to be, with notice given to many of those who did the hard work of designing and literally casting the dies which have defined printing for hundreds of years.

For those who might only know of Gutenberg from the project that is named after him, it was illuminating to learn that he had been a blacksmith before inventing the printing press. Working with molten metal definitely relates. Garfield offers us a considerable cast of characters (one might say they were all type cast. I wouldn’t. Or that they comprised a cast to die for. No, not me. That would be too low. But some might.) responsible for how words look. Gill Sans, for example was created by, no shock, Eric Gill. (Mister Sans is unaccounted for) Matthew Carter, the founder of Bitstream, designed Verdana among many others. John Baskerville designed the font that was named for him, but there was no mention of his dog. There really is a guy named Bodoni out there, first name, Giambattista. And on it goes. Some of these type-designers’ stories are more interesting than others. But if you find the one you are reading beginning to induce yawns, hang on for a few pages. There will be another that might catch your interest. There is attention given to the development of fonts in various countries, most notably Switzerland, Germany, France and England. Perhaps the most delicious name in the book belongs to a printer from the 1500s. Wynkun de Worde, the first Fleet Street printer, used an expanding range of typefaces, a big innovation at the time.

(Brothers Blynkun and Nodde de Worde did not get any ink here.)

My absolute favorite item in the book has to do with a spoof published in The Guardian on April Fool’s Day in 1977, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Indian Ocean nationhood of San Serriffe. And no, it was not leaked by a twenty-something intelligence worker.

Some readers, we are told, tried to book holidays there

There is much information of other sorts as well in Just My Type. Garfield looks at research that says that our brains demand evenness in a font. He looks at the gold rush of printing that followed Gutenberg, at whether a font can be German or Jewish, and at tools for helping identify individual fonts, both books and software. And he offers some intel on how this or that locality selected the font to be used across their cities, for things like airport or street signage. In addition there are some bits on characters (the type type, not the human sort) most of us have never heard of. Doctor Seuss would be thrilled.

Letters from Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra

There are certainly many bad fonts out there. Garfield offers a list of the ten worst fonts in the world. With the explosive growth in the number of such creatures, I imagine this is a list that will be a challenge to maintain.

Ok, so this can be a fun book for us reader-sorts. But I confess it was not a total love fest for me. I found that the illustrations offered for many of the fonts were not sufficient, or even sometimes available. Also, as someone with a memory that is not nearly so well formed as the metal dies in question here, I found that much of the information seemed to slip past, in one eye and out the other. It was a lot to take in. So, that’s my mandatory gripe. If I could give the book four and a half stars I would, for the occasional glazing over I experienced. But there is such a wealth of interesting information that my kinder parts persuaded me to go ahead and submit a fiver.

One can only pray that the new fonts that continue to fill our world and our sensibilities will do at least as well, and hopefully even better than those that have come before. And it seems that we should take no chances with this, so I offer here the beginning of a celestial wish for visibility, clarity and readability

Helvetica, full of grace, the font is with thee…

you know, just in case.

Posted 6/14/13


Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews