Mary Roach is one of my favorite authors. She writes about science, and no matter the subject, which varies greatly from book to book, she is never boring. The sense of humor she displays implies that she was probably the kid in the back of class who giggled every time her teacher spoke the word “nudibranch” in biology (okay, maybe that was just me). In Gulp, Roach explains everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the alimentary canal. In addition, you’ll also learn many things you probably did not want to know.
Humans are little more than sacks of guts, held together with bones and muscle and wrapped in protective skin. Gulp focuses on those guts in all their glory. It’s amazing how recently scientists began to understand our digestive system. It’s even more amazing the lengths that some of them were willing to go to do so. After all, without x-ray technology, once something slides down the throat, it’s all but invisible. Thank goodness for scientists unafraid to get their hands dirty and certain test subjects who happen to have earned themselves (for example) a permanent hole in their bellies, providing constant access to their stomachs. I should mention that the squeamish should not read Gulp while eating, unless in-depth discussions of digestive juices and fecal matter whet your appetite. Through it all, Roach maintains her wide-eyed wonder and her sense of humor. I can’t think of a better guide to take us down the esophagus and into the depths below.
I’ve never claimed to be an expert on the publishing industry. However, the process of acquiring blurbs from famous authors and reviews from famous publications is especially mysterious. I present Juliana Baggott’s Pure trilogy as a prime example. The first book, Pure , was critically adored following its publication in 2012. I read the novel because of that critical adoration. Baggott earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, a positive review from The New York Times Sunday Book Review, and blurbs from Justin Cronin, Aimee Bender, Robert Olen Butler, and others. Not too shabby. Amazon, on the product information page, also published an interview that Cronin conducted specifically for the site. I read Pure last spring, and I enjoyed it enough to look forward to its sequels. But when Fuse was published, I hardly heard a peep. The Amazon product page for Fuse lists exactly two editorial reviews. They come courtesy of those titans of media, Xpresso Reads and The Bookish Dame Reviews. If Fuse were a complete train wreck, I would understand this drop in media attention. Had Baggott left her publishing house and instead commissioned thousands of monks to hand print each copy, thereby raising the list price above the reach of normal readers, I would understand that too. But neither of those scenarios occurred. In fact, Amazon customer reviews rank the second book slightly higher than the first. So what gives? It would be great if I had an answer following that entire glorious preamble. But I don’t. Nor do I possess the gumption inherent in journalists that would compel me to find out. However, if someone happens to know, please do educate me.
How’s the book? Kind of like the first one. It’s very good, a standout of the genre. Honestly though, I could go another year without reading about a post-apocalypse, and I would not miss all of the dusty roads, cobbled together outfits, and evil masterminds who are usually Hitler-ish in their ambitious quests for genetic superiority. Like many middle volumes in a trilogy, Fuse takes the cast of characters assembled in book one, and then disperses them to new locations, pairing them off or stranding them alone. It all more or less works. My biggest problem is with a sentient computer character that discloses some information freely and requires other nuggets to be guessed or to have their revelations triggered by solving riddles. Why is this necessary when the thing can test someone’s DNA, thereby determining who the “true” recipients of the messages should be? I don’t know, and neither, apparently, does the author. Despite this, Fuse remains a good story and a more than adequate middle book in a trilogy.
The gimmick of The Dinner is that the entire story takes place during a dinner at a very fancy restaurant. Of course, quite a bit of backstory is parsed out during flashbacks of a sort. Quite a bit more is explained through interior monologue. So it’s not like it’s Twelve Angry Men with the entire cast stuck in a room or anything. And while I enjoyed the narrator and his snide internal comments regarding the ritual of fine dining, I found the author’s choice of setting to be fairly ridiculous. Without giving anything away, let me just say that two couples are meeting at a fancy restaurant (like more than $100/person fancy) to discuss a matter regarding family that is highly secretive and which could possibly injure loved ones in many serious ways. That being the case, shouldn’t they meet in private? They could pack a picnic and mosey out into the country. They could dine in one of their homes. If they absolutely have to dine out, shouldn’t they pick some place that serves fast food? Those restaurants are loud and anonymous, whereas a fine dining establishment is quiet, requires reservations, and necessitates servers knowing the diners’ names. If a secret meeting is supposed to stay secret, then why in the world wouldn’t they conduct it in a secret place?
I consider the author’s decision in this case to be ill-advised. It’s not a complete logical disconnect, but it’s pretty darn close, and it sullied my reading experience. It’s a shame because I did very much enjoy the narrator’s voice. However, while I was reading, I kept waiting for “the big secret” to be revealed, one that would overshadow the book’s flaws. The promised secret did arrive, but obviously it did nothing to cause me to forget what preceded it. Not helping matters was the Wall Street Journal review that, in a fit a wishful thinking, compared it to Gone Girl. The Dinner, like most real-life dinners, starts with promise and teases numerous interesting flavors. But by the end, I was left bloated, underwhelmed, and feeling as though no one deserved a tip.