Cannonball Read 6, Book 56: Gulp: Adventures On The Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

19008318Even the most casual and brief visitor to my blog will note that I am not much of a non-fiction reader. But this was greeted with rapture by lots of reviewers and by a couple of people over on Cannonball Read. So when it popped up as a Daily Deal on Kindle, I thought “why not?” and my goodness am I ever glad I did because I LOVED it.

Roach clearly has an intense fascination with the human body. She’s published books about dead bodies and copulating bodies (both of which I now plan to read). Gulp takes us inside the body, covering everything that we do to our food, how and why. It also segues into pets digestion, by way of an intensely glorious chapter about pet food science and tasters. Yes, tasters. One of the reasons this book is such a joy to read is Roach’s style, humour and the fact that she is unabashed about her curiosity. Also, she never once patronises the people she meets for her research.

So the book structure takes us on a journey from mouth hole to bunghole and every possible stop in between. It’s arranged in biological order, you could say. Along the way, Roach takes as much delight in autopsy photos of giant colons as she does in debunking the Fletcherism fad. I learned a lot of stuff I never knew or really even thought about before and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. Roach made me laugh out loud many times. Her wit is the only thing about this book that is even remotely dry.

There are many tidbits you can drop into party conversation if you wanted to (Elvis died of constipation, for example). Roach is many things, and thorough is definitely one of them. She watches (though does not partake in) fecal transplants while at the other end of the spectrum, she tries out to be an olive oil taster, which involves consuming and rating WAY too much of the stuff. That’s another huge plus in Roach’s favour. She isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Having read the book, I have no doubt that if she became ill with something that could be cured with a transplant of someone else’s liquidised poop, she’d not even blink.

If you have any kind of interest in the human body and its various functions, you should definitely read this. And if you haven’t, you should read it anyway. Roach is a warm writer and a good laugh. You’ll enjoy your time with her. To quote Joey Tribbiani, you’ll be lovin’ and learnin’ at the same time.


Cannonball Read 5, Book 36: Wild by Cheryl Strayed




Last year, Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail took America by storm. It spent months on the bestseller lists, Oprah re-started her book club over it and Reese Witherspoon snapped up the movie rights. The story of how Strayed’s life spun off its axis in the wake of her mother’s premature death from cancer and how it was righted by an 1100 mile hike along the titular trail could be seen as an inspirational one. I have been cautious about memoirs since James Frey ruined it for everyone though, so in fairness, I didn’t approach this with a particularly open mind. But as previous reviews on here have shown, I can be won over. Not this time though.

Strayed is an idiot. She’s an idiot who thinks it’s a good idea to get married at 19. An idiot who reacts to her mother’s death by getting herself addicted to heroin. The kind of idiot who then wonders why her family hasn’t held together since the death of its matriarch. The kind of idiot who cheats indiscriminately on her husband then wonders why they end up divorced. The kind of idiot who thinks hiking 1100 miles in three months would be a good idea. The kind of idiot who hasn’t hiked a day in her life, but doesn’t think such an undertaking is something you should prepare yourself for physically or mentally. An idiot who doesn’t think to pack a trekking pole, but does take a foldable saw and some books to read. An idiot who shoots up heroin again right before starting the hike. An idiot who keeps forgetting to look where she’s going despite the presence of rattlesnakes, fallen trees, boulders, bears and any other number of things that could kill her.

She’s also an idiot who somehow survives her PCT hiking ordeal, bloodied but unbowed and thinks it’s interesting enough that she needs to write a book about it and we should all read it. Well, fuck off, Cheryl Strayed. Parents die every day. Marriages crumble every day. Addicts get clean every day. Judging from the people she meets along the way, people hike the PCT on a fairly regular basis. At no point did I think this journey merited a book about it. My dad died last year. I didn’t wake up one morning, snort a line of coke and then decide to scale the north face of the Eiger though. I just got on with my life. I didn’t spend three months wailing “why me?” in the wilderness and I sure as shit didn’t think I needed to publish a book about my inner and outer journey.

I do have to hand it to her though. Strayed can write. The strength of her writing adds a second star to the rating. While I found it relentlessly self involved and painfully smug in its tone, it does make an interesting read. It doesn’t make for anywhere near as interesting a read as Strayed thinks it does, of course. Quite clearly, when you reach the end, she wants you to think “wow, she really was so brave and so awesome, what an incredible journey”. All I could think was “oh do get a grip, love”.


Cannonball Read 5, Book 11: Londoners by Craig Taylor



As you can see from the cover, the full title of this book is Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long For It. It is QUITE the mouthful, isn’t it? As the title and his introduction prove, Taylor does love to use 50 words when 5 will do, but that is totally forgivable, since after the introduction, his intrusions are minimal and he lets the Londoners do the talking.

Taylor is a Canadian ex-pat whose fascination and love of London, his experiencing of it as an outsider has led him to compile this extraordinary collection of interviews. The breadth and depth of interviewees is staggering in itself. The interview with the woman who recorded all the announcements you hear on the London Underground is wondrous, not because she goes into detail of the audition process and so on, but because she reveals how her ex-boyfriend feels haunted as he hears her voice every day. It’s details like that which make this such a rich tapestry.

And it is truly a marvel. People who smuggled themselves into London and couldn’t think of living anywhere else are sharply contrasted with people who felt swallowed up by it and couldn’t wait to leave. New mums, OAPs, eye witnesses to the 2011 riots, paramedics, police officers, immigrants, transsexuals, bouncers, pilots, nail bar technicians, students, lovers, artists, musicians, market traders, taxi drivers, they’re ALL here. And they all have something wonderful to impart. I devoured the book whole, pretty much, in a weekend. I found myself laughing, agreeing, disagreeing, sympathising, and infuriated by what I read in it. Taylor has forged a 460 page snapshot 21st Century London and for that he can only be applauded If you have any kind of London connection as laid out in the title, then this oral history is a vital must read.