Rhyme and Reason: Gulp by Mary Roach

Rhyme and Reason is where the excerpts I enjoy, from books I’m currently reading, come to live.

Mary Roach approaches the subject of food and what happens to it once it’s eaten with a mix of unbridled delight, ceaseless curiousity, infectious enthusiasm and a whole lot of hilarity. Which makes reading her book an incredibly enchanting experience. I’ve become a huge fan of her zealous writing and her ability to make science so much fun. I can’t wait to read everything else she’s written, which include books about dead bodies, sex, space and the afterlife.

Gulp deals with a myriad of topics you wouldn’t expect to find in a book about digestion including, as this particular excerpt shows, the existence of dragons in mythology. As the author says in the introduction, “I don’t want you to say, ‘This is gross.’ I want you to say, ‘I thought this would be gross, but it’s really interesting.’ Okay, and maybe a little gross.

gulp

Snakes don’t belch, but they can, under certain circumstances, create an inflammable eructation of literally mythical proportions. First, a little background: Many plant-eating animals lack rumens, so some fermenting takes place in the cecum, an anatomical pouch at the junction of the small intestine and the colon. These same plant-eaters – horses, rabbits, koalas, to name three – tend to have a larger-than-life cecum. Pythons and boas do too, which struck Stephen Secor as odd, because they’re carnivores. Why, he wondered, would a meat-eater need a vegetation disgestion unit? Secor theorised that perhaps these snakes had evolved ceca as a way to digest and take advantage of plant matter inside the stomachs of their prey.

To test his theory, Secor fed rats to some of the pythons in his lab at the University of Alabama and hooked them up to a gas chromatograph. He tracked the hydrogen level in their exhalations as they digested whole rats over the course of four days. He did see a spike, but it appeared long before the rat arrived at the python’s cecum. Instead, Secor suspected, the hydrogen spikes were the result of the decomposing, gas-bloated rat bursting inside the python. ‘One thing led to another.’ (Secor’s way of saying he popped a bloated rat corpse and measured the hydrogen that came off it.) Suspicion confirmed. The hydrogen level was ‘through the roof’. Secor had stumbled onto a biological explanation for the myth of the fire-breathing dragon. Stay with me. This is very cool.

Roll the calendar back a few millennia and picture yourself in a hairy outfit, dragging home a python you have hunted. Hunted is maybe the wrong word. The python was digesting a whole gazelle and was in no condition to fight or flee. You rounded a bend and there it was, Neanderthal turducken. Gazython. The fact that the gazelle is partially decomposed does not bother you. Early man was a scavenger as well as a hunter. He was used to stinking meat. And those decomp gases are key to our story. Which I now turn over to Secor.

‘So this python is full of gas. You set it down by the campfire because you’re going to eat it. Somebody kicks it or steps on it, and all this hydrogen shoots out of its mouth.’ Hydrogen, as the you and I of today know but the you and I of the Pleistocene did not know, starts to be flammable at a concentration of 4 percent. And hydrogen, as Stephen Secor showed, comes out of a decomposing animal at a concentration of about 10 percent. Secor made a flame-throwery whooosh sound. ‘There’s your fire-breathing serpent. Imagine the stories that would generate. Over a couple thousand years, you’ve got yourself a legend. He did some digging. The oldest stories of fire-breathing dragons come from Africa and south China: where the giant snakes are.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Long Reads Pick of the Week: Love and Lies in Iran

Since I spend so much time reading long-form non-fiction online, I’m going to link to my favourite one every week for anyone who’s interested in similar reading.

Most people dream of spending their honeymoon on exotic beaches. German journalist Mario Kaiser and his American bride Gypsy opted for a road trip through Iran. The article explores love – both allowed and forbidden – and longing in Iran, a side to the country we don’t usually hear about amidst stories detailing the state of violence and repression. You can read the entire article here.

mural

It was the spring of 2009 and we had no idea of the turmoil that was coming. We couldn’t know that, only months later, people would take to the streets to protest the manipulated results of a presidential election, only to see their uprising brutally crushed. Many would be arrested, many raped, bludgeoned, shot dead. We didn’t know the face of Neda Agha-Soltan yet, the student who would lie dying in a street in Tehran, blood streaming across her cheeks, a sniper’s bullet in her chest.

We landed in Tehran and entered a quiet country. Freedom of speech was quietly suppressed. Dissidents were quietly arrested. A nuclear program was quietly developed. We detested the regime, but we believed in the beauty of the country. We believed that the Iranian people were different from the men who pretended to represent them.

Later that night, Gypsy and I walked around Kerman and saw a house with two blinking hearts on its façade, melting into one. We suspected something wicked going on behind these walls, and sneaked inside. But the club of hearts was not a hotbed of vice; one couldn’t buy love there, at least not the fast way. It was a wedding ballroom, but one with a twist. The Iranian hierarchy was turned upside down in this house — the women were celebrating upstairs, the men downstairs.

The bride was beautiful. She had eyes black as coal, and the classic Iranian nose. She was dancing in a strapless gown. I never saw her; I wasn’t allowed to go near her. Gypsy told me about her, after a group of giggling women had taken her upstairs. I was sitting downstairs with the other men, staring at our juice glasses.

I cannot write where we met her; there would be terrible consequences if the guardians of Iran’s order found her. She had a lyrical name and spoke good English; she liked the language and literature of her country’s supposed enemy. She was in her early twenties and hungry for unrestricted love. But she was afraid they might come for her. There was always the fear of being arrested for the crime of having a boyfriend.

She told us about the night everything changed. She remembered it clearly, the time, the place, the sweet taste of ice cream on her lips. They had waited until night fell, thinking they would be safer under the cover of darkness. They drove to a quiet street, with her at the wheel, pretending to be sister and brother. They had just stopped when another car slowly passed by, with two men inside staring at them. After a while, the car came back and stopped behind them. The two men got out, approached their car and dangled handcuffs in front of the ice cream-eating couple.

The men weren’t wearing uniforms and didn’t identify themselves. They didn’t have to. The couple knew that if they said a wrong word, they would be dragged to a building that everyone in the city knew — the prison of forbidden love. After their arrest, the parents would have had to pick up their indecent children. They would have had to pay a fine and sign a pledge that this will never happen again. “We don’t have the right to eat ice cream,” the young woman said, tears welling up in her eyes.

It was the saddest night of our honeymoon, but something changed as we lay on another tradition-defying bed. A delicate confidence was seeping into the way we looked at the country, especially the women. There was a subcutaneous seething, a quiet determination to turn their rage into change — with a baseball bat if necessary. It reminded us of something a man had told us at a teahouse. We were cautious not to discuss anything with the slightest political undertone, but we eagerly listened to whatever people wanted to share. What the man told us sounded incredible at the time, but his words kept coming back to us as the mothers and daughters of Iran came into sharper focus. He said, “The women will bring the mullahs down.”

Love and Lies in Iran by Mario Kaiser, Narratively

A collection of retellings from Indian mythology and Western fairy tales

A school recently asked me to start a reading club for their students, and I had my first session on Saturday. While a club celebrating books sounded right up my alley, I decided to cast the net wider by looking at stories in all formats including but not limited to films, TV shows, cartoons, podcasts, Youtube videos, video games, music, photography, comic books, Facebook, Twitter, and possibly, in a future session, stories told entirely through emojis.

I didn’t want to throw them off the deep end on the very first session, though, so I started off simple. The session focused on retellings.

A poet and scholar called A. K. Ramanujan said, “In India and in Southeast Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, ‘always already’.”

This is true of Indian mythology and it’s also true of fairy tales the world over. These stories are so old, that they never go out of fashion. Everyone knows them, or knows of them.

But my favourite versions of these tales are retellings, a new way to tell an old story. If a book promises to be an imaginative version of ancient mythology, or if it features fractured fairy tales, I’ll instantly add it to my to-read list. I love it when familiar plot lines are turned upside down, or everyone acts out of character, or even when they’re all transported to another time/world.

I think retellings are so popular partly because we know these old stories so thoroughly that they become exciting and fun when they don new avatars. But I think the problematic aspects of these old narratives also plays a role in us seeking new versions – the casual sexism, the one-dimensional characters, the insistence on being either wholly good or wholly evil without any in-between, the blatant fear of anything or anyone who is different.

To be fair, we live in a different world from when these stories were first told. We have different values, our sense of morality has shifted. I love retellings precisely because we’re free to do absolutely anything with the original stories. The characters and plots are such an intrinsic part of our cultural consciousness, that we can make them more interesting by playing around with them. We know the rules well enough so that bending them doesn’t pose too much of a problem.

Which brings me to the list the title promised.

RETELLINGS OF INDIAN MYTHOLOGY


sita's ramayanaSita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni

This is an utterly gorgeous book, which features the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective – a point of view not many people seem to be familiar with. Only a handful of the students (between grades 5 and 8) were aware of Sita’s circumstances after the war. The book breaks down the narrative and relays the story simply, without any dramatic flourishes but with a great deal of compassion. If you’d like to take a look at the making of the book, you can read this.

Suggested age: 12+

palaceThe Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

It’s an approach similar to Sita’s Ramayana, in that it’s the Mahabarata from Draupadi’s (or Panchaali, as she’s known here) point of view. But it widens the scope and is richer in details since it has much more room to play around with. What I found quite strange was that while the narrative seemed perfectly normal to me, apparently it had created a stir in some other quarters for being too feminist!

Suggested age: Not too many teens might find this appealing since Indian mythology isn’t considered cool, but for those who are interested, I’d say 12+

breaking the bowBreaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana by Various Authors

Where else are you going to find an anthology with a time-travelling Sita, aliens in the Ramayana or Surpanakha as a reality TV show contestant?

Suggested age: Tough to peg an age limit for this one, but I’d say an advanced reader who isn’t afraid to experiment. And of course, any adults with a taste for the strange.

asuraAsura: Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan

I haven’t read this book, but the premise sounds intriguing. You never hear about the Ramayana from Ravan’s perspective. This book’s definitely on my list.

Suggested age: Your guess is as good as mine.

ash mistryAsh Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

This is a book trying to ride the Percy Jackson-induced mythology wave (OH for Rick Riordan to have a free rein to work on an Indian mythology-centric series). But it’s not half bad. Technically, it doesn’t count as a retelling, I suppose, but it’s still great fun. Our country’s ancient tales have so much retelling potential that I’d love to see this trend continue.

Suggested age: 9+

the wordkeepersThe Wordkeepers by Jash Sen

This is a fairly unconventional take on mythology. Like Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress, it isn’t exactly a retelling – more like ancient mythology meets the modern world. The book features peripheral characters from the Mahabharata and has a fascinating blend of new characters, old myths and plenty of twists.

Suggested age: 12+

BONUS:

Also, watch the film Sita Sings the Blues (available for free here), an excellent version of the Ramayana.

FAIRY TALE RETELLINGS


revolting rhymesRevolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl

This is my favourite Dahl book. It’s his interpretation of six fairy tales, told in his inimitable style with dollops of wicked rhymes, clever schemes and surprise endings.

Suggested age: 10+

girls to the rescueGirls to the Rescue by Sowmya Rajendran

I love complaining about the princesses in fairy tales for being generally useless and spectacularly boring (I watched Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the first time a few weeks ago. What even was that?). Which is exactly why I love this book where the princesses do exactly what I’ve been wanting them to do. They take control of their own lives and manage to be interesting people I could actually imagine being friends with.

Suggested age: 10+

hero's guideA Hero’s Guide to Saving the Kingdom by Christopher Healy

This book is the first in The League of Princes series. The fairy tale princes are tired of being ignored and are determined to make a name for themselves. They set out to be heroes but they are astonishingly bad at the job. The book brings together characters from four different fairy tales – Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Cinderella – and is the funniest thing I’ve read all year. If there’s just one book from the list you’ll read, make it this one. I can’t wait to read the other books in this series!

Suggested age: 9+ (If they’re reading Percy Jackson, they can handle this)

ali babaAli Baba and the Forty Thieves: Reloaded by Poulomi Mukherjee and Amit Tayal

I picked up this comic book from my library specifically for the club session. It transports the Arabian Nights tale to present day Mumbai where Ali Baba is an autorickshaw driver and the forty thieves are the Russian mafia. I thought the change in setting was pretty cool, but I expected the book to take more liberties with the plot. But it followed the same story as the original with a change in period.  I’d recommend it for people who aren’t too familiar with the original, or who don’t mind reading the same story in a different setting.

Suggested age: 10+

fairy tale twistsThe Fairy Tale Twists series by Katie Dale

This is an early chapter book series where the stories are told in rhyme and has really inventive twists to familiar tales. My favourite moment was in Prince Charming’s Princess Quest where the prince stumbles upon a seemingly dead Snow White who can only be brought back by true love’s kiss. His reaction? “I don’t even know her. How can I be her true love!” So one of the dwarfs, who does know Snow quite well, steps up to the job and kisses her instead. He turns out to be her true love and they live happily ever after!

cinderThe Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

I haven’t read this series, but it sounds fascinating. It’s essentially fairy tales in space, with some of the characters as robots. Each book entails a new take on an old fairy tale, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White. The story takes place in a futuristic world where humans, cyborgs, and anrdroids all coexist.

Suggested age: From what I can make out, 13+

three little pigsThe True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

I’ve been looking out for this picture book for a couple of years now. It dismisses The Three Little Pigs as mere propaganda and tells you the other side of the story. What really happened when Alexander T. Wolf met the three pigs?

Suggested age: 6+

dorothy must die

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

As soon as I read the title, I knew I wanted to read the book (I haven’t managed to find a copy yet). It speaks of an Oz where the Good Witches are up to no good, the Wicked Witches may be the good guys, and Dorothy has gone on a power trip and taken over the kingdom.

Suggested age: 12+

alice in deadlandAlice in Deadland by Mainak Dhar

Alice in Wonderland is one of my favourite books. While I’m ambivalent about zombies, I love the idea of mixing the undead with Lewis Carroll’s crazy world. It’s the first book in the Alice in Deadland series.

Suggested age: 13+

BONUS:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters and Jane Austen. Yes. You’re welcome.