Author Roach to appear at free arts center event
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
If you live in Danville or San Ramon and have not read best-selling science writer Mary Roach's new book, "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal," be on the alert.
In 2011, the Oakland resident and self-admitted science junkie was San Francisco's "One City One Book" author choice with "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void." In 2012, books by the lover of minutia and all things slightly gross stuck to the top of bestseller lists.
This year, Roach's "Gulp" is the Danville and San Ramon libraries' choice for the "Two Cities, One Tale" CityReads selection.
"I won't rest until the whole world is reading one book by Mary Roach," Roach said with a laugh during an interview. "If everyone was reading my book, they'd be having water cooler conversations about my book instead of 'Breaking Bad.' How cool would that be?"
Even though CityReads involves just two communities, not the entire planet, Danville librarian Seng Lovani says it's already cool. The five-week book sharing program wraps special events around a single book to create an instant connection for the area's estimated 2,000 readers.
"People wind up talking to each other in restaurants and on buses, instead of being on their phones," she said.
Often, they find new friends through the power of a shared book.
"It's a public coming-together," Roach agreed. "It's good for people to read books. I do see a downside to living in your phone."
The downside is that you might miss a book like "Gulp," which sucks a reader in (sorry, "Roachianisms" are irresistible) and generates its fair share of twitters and guffaws while actually packing the brain with well-researched science. Traipsing from taste buds to saliva studies (amazing insights come from spit) or meandering from "eating with your ears" (crunch factor) to autocoprophagia (reingesting one's own or one's neighbor's fecal matter -- coffee connoisseurs beware), Roach braves the "ick" and awesomeness related to consuming. And excreting.
Along the journey, a delightful cast of characters entertain. Much to her -- and readers' -- delight, there's a chemist, Luis Spitz, to explain the ins and outs of saliva.
And there's Keith Grime, a detergent industry consultant, to enlighten about enzymes. Happily, Roach is a writer first, a demi-science geek second: her vivid descriptions energize every encounter. At an oral processing lab that Roach dubs "Food Valley ... the Silicon Valley of eating," where she will "fletcherize" (self-described nutritionist Horace Fletcher's extreme chewing) a square piece of silicon, Andries van der Bilt inspires a "Roachy" written profile: "If a man can be said to resemble a tooth, van der Bilt is a lower incisor, long and bony with a squared-off head and a rigid, straight-backed way of sitting."
"I'm not spontaneously funny," Roach insists. "I was a nerdy kid who did her homework and watched TV. If the topic is 1970s television, I'd slaughter anyone."
Her love for trivia works it's way into "Gulp" and gains significance through sophisticated extension, like, "culture writes the menu," an exploration of why we accept or reject particular foods. It's also exceptionally useful dinner party chatter. Quote from the book and you'll be a hit, whether you're dining with a group of adolescent kids (anything about gas will suffice), entertaining fundamentalists who find little humor in theology but will "har-har" at fecal funniness or seated next to an otorhinolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor).
Roach's father was 65 when she was born and because he was retired, they often went to the library.
"I can picture in my mind exactly where the Tin Tin, Black Stallion and Pippi Longstocking books were," she recalls. "I wasn't a big reader in high school or college, but I could recite by heart the lineup for ABC, CBS and NBC."
Perhaps it's more important that she was intensely curious about the hidden world -- the scientific kingdom behind toothpicks, soybeans, death and chimpanzees.
"I thought about a book on chimpanzees, but I found animals aren't very quotable. Words struggle to do them justice," she says.
Like everything Roachian, there's a blend of humor, truth and business savvy in the selection of subject matter. While interviewing experts, she considers them tutors and tells them, "I'm coming to you as an idiot." She spends entire days, or more, learning. And as an adult, she reads Adam Gollner, Bill Streever, Beth Lisick, Annie Prioux -- the list continues.
"My favorite writers prove you can put literature and fact into one book," she says.
Roach has written articles for national magazines and papers, but says a book's longer length is "tremendously freeing." Still, she is like a stringent colon cleanser when editing. "I'm a self-basting turkey and do it myself. If something isn't pulling its weight, I yank it out."