BOOK REVIEW: Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy by Bret Contreras

Bodyweight Strength Training AnatomyBodyweight Strength Training Anatomy by Bret Contreras
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book combines a calisthenics manual with the anatomical drawings and descriptions necessary to explain the muscle activations involved in each exercise. It takes a very straightforward approach, being organized by body part. Each chapter discusses the component muscles of said part and their unique features, and then gives a series of exercises to work said part. For each exercise, at least one anatomical drawing is provided, showing the primary and secondary muscles being worked in the exercise. In some cases, more than one drawing is needed to convey the full range of motion of the exercise, but in many cases one drawing is sufficient. Each exercise also receives a brief bullet-point description of the action, a textual list of muscles utilized, and notes on issues and cautions to keep in mind to get the most out of the exercise.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the rest of the book. It discusses general principles to be kept in mind like the need to balance opposing muscle groups, and it also lays out the advantages and limitations of calisthenics, or bodyweight, workouts over other approaches to fitness. Like a number of other calisthenics’ books, this one emphasizes the advantage of not necessarily needing any equipment. In other words, with a little creativity and some quality doors, robust furniture, or park access, one can do all of these exercises without either a gym membership or costly trips to the sporting goods store. Of course, one does need sturdy stationary objects to pull against, particularly to maintain a balanced upper body. What I like about this book more than some others I’ve read is that it emphasizes the need for safety in taking the equipmentless approach. I’ve cringed before in seeing some of the improvised set ups that have been jury-rigged as examples in other calisthenics manuals, but this book uses stout furniture and rafters to get the point across.

Chapters 2 through 9 each focuses on a particular body part, including (respectively): arms, neck and shoulders, chest, core, back, thighs, glutes, and calves. Each chapter starts with some general information on muscle action before launching into the exercises. If you have a particular interest in developing your glutes (i.e. your butt, your backside), then this is definitely the book for you. The author specializes in glutes, and while there are about a typical number of exercises for that musculature, the background information up front is more extensive than for most of the other chapters. For many of the exercises, the author proposes regressions and progressions — that is, easier and harder variants of a fundamental for those who either aren’t up to the basic yet or who need a harder version to challenge them.

The penultimate chapter, Ch. 10, presents whole-body exercises (e.g. burpees, mountain climbers, etc.) and discusses the benefits of including such exercises in one’s workout regimen. Included in this chapter is an introduction to both high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and to Metabolic Resistance Training (MRT.)

The final chapter offers an overview of all the factors to keep in mind when arranging exercises into a program (e.g. number of sets, repetitions per set, and how such considerations are varied depending upon one’s goals.) There’s a lot to consider when putting together a workout regimen, including: the necessary rest periods, balancing one’s workouts to avoid structural imbalances, and how to vary one’s approach depending upon one’s individual goals. A section on exercise for fat loss is included, which is important not only because there are so many people interested in that subject but also because there is so much misinformation out there.

As mentioned, most of the graphics are anatomical drawings showing the muscles in cut-away as the action of the exercise is being performed. There are a few other graphics to help clarify information, as well as tables in the last couple chapters to present information in an organized and easy to use fashion.

I found this book to be informative and well-organized. It’s a straightforward presentation of the skeleto-muscular action involved in various calisthenics exercises. If that’s what one is looking for, or even if one is just looking for a guide to bodyweight exercises, this book will meet your needs.

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BOOK REVIEW: Running Anatomy, 2nd Edition by Puleo and Milroy

Running Anatomy 2nd EditionRunning Anatomy 2nd Edition by Joseph Puleo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book explores anatomy (and to a lesser degree physiology) as it pertains to running, and shows how one can strengthen anatomy to increase one’s performance as a runner.

I will divide the book up into three parts, though that division is not explicitly made by the authors. The first three chapters discuss running fundamentals. Chapter 1 explores the nature of movement in running. The reader learns about the phases of the running gait and the muscle activation relative to said phases. The second chapter focuses heavily on the anatomy and physiology of the cardio-vascular system and the impact it has on muscle performance. Chapter 3 discusses external factors that can influence running performance such as air temperature, humidity, terrain, and altitude.

The second part of the book consists of the middle five chapters, and gets to the heart of the subject. These chapters investigate the role of musculature in running and show numerous exercises that can be used to strengthen said muscles as well as describing the activation of muscles in those exercises. Starting from the ground up, these chapters proceed as such: feet and ankles, legs, core, shoulders and arms, and chest and back. One might not think that the upper body is critical to running, but the authors demonstrate otherwise.The exercises selected assume the availability of a full range of fitness equipment: machines, free weights, as well as elastic bands and BOSU – though some bodyweight exercises are included.

The third part of the book explores some odds and ends that are crucial, but not covered in earlier chapters. Chapter nine explains how to avoid injuries. Running is an activity that offers plenty of opportunity for repetitive stress injuries because it’s an endurance activity involving iterated actions. Chapter ten explores alternative training programs (e.g. training in the swimming pool or on treadmills), and the pros and cons of such activities. The last chapter is about gear, and – not unexpectedly – much of it is devoted to shoes and questions such as whether one needs orthotics. It should be noted that the authors are firmly in the camp that favor footwear. (There are many advocates of barefoot running in recent years.)

There are many color drawings that show which muscles are activated by movements. The drawings are clear and effective. There is an index of exercises at the end that makes it easy to find various exercises.

I’d recommend this book for runners and trainers who are interested in how muscles can be strengthened and stretched to increase performance and minimize the risk of injury.

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BOOK REVIEW: Plyometric Anatomy by Derek Hansen

Plyometric AnatomyPlyometric Anatomy by Derek Hansen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book performs two tasks at once. First, it’s a guide to the broad range of plyometric exercises and how they can be conducted safely. Plyometrics take advantage of a phenomenon in which rapidly stretched muscles contract more forcefully and rapidly. However, you may recognize them as exercises involving jumping and other explosive movements that are used to build power. (Power being the ability to generate a force in as short a time as possible. This is in contrast to strength — a measure that’s only concerned with the amount of force generated.) I would go as far as to say the book could be useful for many individuals who don’t need any particular insight into anatomy, but who want to learn to do a wide range of plyometric exercises. (That said, if you are said person, you may want to shop around because you may find the one or two drawings per exercise may not be adequate for your purposes, and you may discover you need more guidance if you’re new to fitness activities.)

Second, the book educates the reader about what musculature is used in each exercise, and differentiates the primary movers from the secondary muscles. The book provides a happy medium useful for coaches and trainers. It doesn’t get bogged down in the anatomical and physiological minutiae, but provides enough information for individuals who want to see what muscles are working without drilling down into depths of great precision.

The book consists of nine chapters. Of these, the first two chapters provide fundamental background information. Chapter one examines how and why plyometric exercises work in a general sense. Chapter two gets into more logistical issues such as what equipment is needed (e.g. hurdles and medicine balls), what surfaces are ideal for practice (no small issue considering the loads generated), and how training progressions should be formulated.

Chapters three through eight are the core of the book. These are the chapters that describe exercises as I mentioned above. The first of these chapters presents foundational exercises. Plyometrics tend to be physically intense and so many individuals will need to build capacity before moving straight into a full-fledged plyometric exercise regime. The next five chapters explore (in order): bilateral lower body exercises, unilateral lower body exercises, upper body exercises, core exercises, and combination exercises (e.g. exercises that combine jumps with sprints or medicine ball throws with jumps and so forth.)

Each of the exercise descriptions consists of five parts: an anatomical drawing showing the action and the musculature involved, a description of how the exercise is safely performed, a text list of the muscles involved (divided into primary and secondary muscles as is the drawing), notes exploring unique considerations for that particular exercise, and variations for those who need to make the exercise more or less challenging.

The last chapter investigates injury prevention and rehabilitation. One learns how to evaluate some of the more high-risk behaviors and misalignments that must be corrected for exercises to be done safely. One also learns how a swimming pool can be used to help athletes rebuild their capacity after an injury, as well as how rehab activities can be done out of the pool.

There are graphics throughout the book. For the most part, these consist of anatomical drawings. These drawings show the body in transparent form so that one can see the muscles involved in each exercise. There is a reference section at the end of the book.

I found this book to be informative and thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it for anyone who is seeking to expand their depth of knowledge about exercise science – particularly coaches, trainers, and teachers.

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5 Essential [and Sometimes Hilarious] TED Talks About the Human Body

5.) 3 Clues to Understanding your Brain by VS Ramachandran: Ramachandran discusses three afflictions that offer insight into the working of the brain. Capgras Syndrome occurs when individuals think loved ones have been replaced by impostors. Phantom limbs occur when there is an amputated limb which the brain continues to feel the presence of. Synesthesia is a muddling of sensory inputs /experiences.





4.) Charming Bowels by Giulia Enders: How we poop. How our gut nervous system influences our central nervous system. Why there is such a thing as “too clean for your own good.”





3.) Can We Create New Senses for Humans by David Eagleman: Our senses are narrowly attuned to taking in that information that offered evolutionary advantage to our ancestors. How might technology help us transcend those bounds?





2.) 10 Things You Don’t Know about Orgasm by Mary Roach: Eyebrow orgasm, thought-induced orgasm, orgasm among the deceased, and how orgasm may cure your hiccups.





1.) The Biology of Our Best and Worst Selves by Robert Sapolsky: Sapolsky explains that one can’t look at one biological system to understand violence or cooperation. Instead, genetics, environment, our nervous system, our endocrine system, and even the digestive system come into play. He also considers how we change.

BOOK REVIEW: Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by H. David Coulter

Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and PractitionersAnatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners by H. David Coulter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are many books on anatomy for yoga, and I’ve read my share, but this is my favorite.

What did I like about it? First, Coulter examines the anatomy and physiology of breathing in some detail, and that’s an important topic that is overlooked by many others. A lot of yoga anatomy books stick exclusively to the musculo-skeletal system. Second, this book doesn’t mix science and pseudo-scientific mythology. Sometimes books shift from talking about arteries and veins to nadis and chakras in a manner that can be confusing and counterproductive. Third, the book discusses how postures can be safely varied for individuals with limits, as well as discussing the most advanced expression of postures for more flexible or skilled students.

What’s the catch? There must be a downside? Well the book is dense and it’s a challenging read. It’s not that the writer uses too many technical terms. That isn’t the case at all. In fact, Coulter is careful not only about using anatomical terms, but also avoids reliance on Sanskrit names as well. It’s just that there is a lot of material that one must read painstakingly while visualizing and–in some cases—tactically probing around one’s body (or someone else’s–if they’ll let you.) I don’t know that there’s much that could be done about this, given the desire to convey the material that the book does—and it’s valuable information. The book has a large number of graphics that mostly consist of anatomical drawings and photographs of the various versions of the postures. It’s possible that more graphics could have been used to reduce the amount of descriptive text, but—on the other hand—reading it slowly and carefully is a useful and productive exercise. And, if you’re not reading it for your RYT-500, you can take your time and read it section by section, as time permits, over the course of more than a year as I did.

The ten chapters of the book are mostly divided up by classes of posture (asana.) Chapter 1 is about “movement and posture” and provides the necessary background that one will need to understand the later chapters. Chapter 2 is on breathing–both the musculature involved and the physiology of it. The rest of the chapters are on core exercises, standing postures, back bends, forward bends, twists, headstands, shoulder-stands, and meditative postures, respectively.

The book has a glossary, a short bibliography, and two indexes (one by anatomical parts and the other by practices/postures.) I normally don’t bother to mention indexes, but in this case it’s useful to know because the book’s organization is by type of posture, and so it’s not always straight forward where various muscles or tissues are being covered.

As I say, I found this book to be tremendously informative. I recommend it for yoga teachers as well as intermediate / advanced practitioners.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Breath by Swami Rama et. al.

Science of BreathScience of Breath by Swami Rama
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is an oldie, but a goody. The first edition came out in 1979, but as its intent is to provide an overview of the anatomy and physiology of breath for yoga practitioners, the fact that it doesn’t access the bleeding edge of respiratory science isn’t all that detrimental.

This short book consists of four chapters. Two chapters are by the famous yogi Swami Rama, and the other two are written by medical doctors. The first chapter is an introduction to breath from the yogic perspective. It both explains why it’s so important to understand and work with breath and introduces the mythic physiology (prana, nadi, chakra, etc.) that has historically been used to explain pranayama (breath exercises.)

The second chapter is written by Dr. Alan Hymes and it explains the mechanics of respiration. While Chapter 2 focuses on the anatomy of breathing, it begins with an explanation of cellular respiration to introduce the role of breath in powering muscles. There is a fine explanation of the operation of the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles in breathing.

Chapter 3 is written by Dr. Rudolph Ballentine, and it delves into the role of the nose and nasal cavities in respiration. Breathing through the nose is emphasized in both yoga and many other systems of breath training (e.g. the Buteyko and Wim Hof methods.) This is because the nasal cavities perform many useful functions such as moisturizing and warming air, capturing pollutants, and extract heating and moisture from exhaled breath. Besides exploring nasal anatomy and physiology, Dr. Ballentine describes jala neti shatkarma (nasal cleansing with salt water) and nadi shoudhana (alternate nostril breathing.)

The final chapter, written by Swami Rama, mostly describes various techniques of pranayama (breathing exercises) and related practices bandhas and mudras (locks and seals in which bodily parts are contracted or constricted.) However, the chapter begins with a mix of physiology and mythic physiology. That is, it explains some topics not addressed earlier–such as the interaction between the nervous and the cardiovascular systems as well as chakra.

My standing complaint about books that weave together science and pseudo-science is mitigated a bit herein. My problem with putting these ideas together is that it can be difficult for the reader to determine what concepts reflect reality and which offer models to help one visualize energy. However, except for the last chapter, this book does a good job of keeping these ideas separate. The chapters by the medical doctors present the science with minimal intrusion of unscientific concepts. Swami Rama does present science and mythology together, but not so much scrambled together in a confusing mish-mash.

Chapters 2 through 4 use a number of graphics to help present the material. In the middle chapters these largely consist of line drawings to convey the relevant anatomical features or physical actions. The last chapter adds photographs to demonstrate relevant postures. There is a page of recommended readings, but it’s more of an advertisement for other books put out by the Himalayan Institute than the recommendation of books on the science of breath.

I found this book to be educational. It packs a lot of useful information into a concise package and is readable to a layman. I’d recommend it for yoga practitioners and others who are engaged in breath work.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Brain: A Very Short Introduction by Michael O’Shea

The Brain: A Very Short IntroductionThe Brain: A Very Short Introduction by Michael O’Shea
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The human brain in 120-ish pages, it’s an ambitious goal considering that the brain is widely considered to be the most complex object in the known universe. Still, this is one of Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” (AVSI) series, so the only promise is to give one a concise overview of the subject for beginners. In that task, the book succeeds. In fact, the book takes on some subjects that one might think beyond its scope, such as the historical progression of our understanding of the brain and how technology might be used to repair damaged brains.

The book consists of seven chapters and an epilogue. The first chapter introduces the brain, and it makes this monumental subject manageable by considering reading—a skill that we take for granted but for which the brain conducts miraculous feats from rapid accurate eye movement to turning abstract symbols into meaning. The second chapter takes the reader on a tour of the changing understanding of the brain leading up to the discovery of the neuron—the brain’s basic unit. Chapter three explores how those neurons transmit signals, the fundamental action of the brain. Chapter four examines the evolution of the human brain, both from the perspective of how it could become so complex, and of why it needed to become so. Chapter five is about how the brain receives information and uses this information to conduct activities. A majority of this chapter is devoted to how patterns of light are recognized and turned into the meaningful basis upon which to make decisions or perform actions. Chapter six offers a basic understanding of memory, one of the roles we most closely associate with the brain. Chapter seven considers whether we’ll be able to fix damaged brains, and, if so, using what technologies. A brief epilogue tells us where the future of brain research will go–having gained much understanding since the invention of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), neuroscience must find new approaches to take itself into the future.

The book uses line drawings to depict concepts that are hard to convey via text. While the graphics are simple black-and-white drawings, they are immensely beneficial. Like other AVSI books, there are no citations or notes, just a couple of pages of “further readings.” That’s not a criticism; it’s perfectly acceptable for this type of book.

I found “The Brain: AVSI” to be informative and interesting. The author uses some illuminating examples and cases to cover a lot of ground in a small package. I’d recommend the book for anyone who wants a neophyte’s introduction into the human brain.

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You’re So Evolved: Love Poem to a Hominid

Baby, I dig your bipedal ways
You could chase down wounded game for days
And walking around on just two feet
You can forage in the mid-day heat
When it’s too hot for those big ole cats
Who bully their way through our habitat

 

My dearest, it simply makes me drool
When I see you working with a tool
Thumbs opposable, and shoulders free
I’m awed when you throw stones at me
Just imagine how I shed a tear
When I see you chuck a pointy spear

 

And that prefrontal cortex, oh my lord
You could plan the move of a nomadic horde
One day you’ll be able to add, and subtract
You’ll think–and paint–in the abstract
You just need vocal cords of greater dexterity
To express yourself with heightened clarity
[not in grunts and stone throwing]

 

True, you’re not the strongest of the apes
And while tigers race you barely traipse
Monkeys climb, swinging tree to tree
You lack arm strength and dexterity
Still, there’s something about you that I just can’t deny
Though you share sixty percent DNA with a fruit fly
You’re so evolved

BOOK REVIEWS: Gut by Giulia Enders

Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated OrganGut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[I recently posted a review of Mary Roach’s GULP. I mention this because that book is likely to be the primary competitor if you’re looking for a tour of the alimentary canal in book form. While I’d recommend both books and point out that the two have different thrusts, if you’re set on reading just one book on poop and farts this year, the two reviews should help you determine which work is more up your alley.]

In this highly readable and humorous book, medical student Giulia Enders teaches us how to poop, what to do when we can’t, how our bodies extract resources from the stuff we shove in our pie holes, and what the bacteria that outnumber our body’s cells by an order of magnitude do for (and against) us. The book is in part a work of popular science, but it’s also a guidebook to the digestive tract. In other words, Enders not only tells readers about the wondrous job their digestive system does, but she also offers advice as to how to keep it running efficiently.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part lays out what the gut consists of and how it does its job. The second part introduces the reader to the enteric nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that governs the digestive tract and determines when we vomit, poop, and—to some degree–experience emotional turmoil. The final part addresses the body as an ecosystem. The human body consists of 10 trillion cells and another 100 trillion microbes—cells that could theoretically live independently of your body provided the right conditions.

The strength of this book lies in Enders’s ability to put the complex physiological actions of our body into simple, understandable, and whimsical terms. This may mean anthropomorphizing a colon, but so be it—you’ll still get the drift. A prime example is the “Salmonella in Hats” section that equates antibodies with big floppy sombreros that interfere with the germ’s mobility and virulence. The author’s enthusiasm for this “under-rated” organ is infectious.

The book employs amusing, off-beat line drawings to help convey relevant ideas and to support the stories that the author uses to clarify the complex actions of the gut. The art is well matched to the tone of the text, which makes sense given they were drawn by the author’s sister.

As I mentioned in my GULP review, GUT is a very different book despite all they have in common. Enders spends the bulk of her time in the middle of the alimentary canal, where Roach spends most of her time talking about what happens at the two ends. Enders’s book is about the typical Joe’s digestive system, where Roach specializes in extreme cases and narrow (but fascinating) questions. Enders’s book is more of a tour of the digestive system rather than a series of tales of interesting things that happen in and around it. While Roach’s book deals in bizarre cases, Enders’s book is actually more light-hearted and informal in tone. (Whimsical is a good descriptor for GUT.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about how their digestive system works and what they can do to keep it working at its best. It’s funny and packed with fun facts.

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BOOK REVIEW: Gulp by Mary Roach

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary CanalGulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This week I’m [improbably] doing two book reviews about works devoted to the human digestive tract. (Before you conclude that I’ve got a colon fetish, let me explain that I was spurred to this research by life events. I did some advanced yoga cleansing practices and wanted to learn more about the science of what was going on down below.) In addition to this book, Mary Roach’s “GULP,” I’ll be soon posting a review of Giulia Enders’s “GUT.” The two books have more in common than their monosyllabic titles beginning in “gu” and the fact that they each came out within the past couple years. They’re both light-hearted romps down your digestive tract. However, they’re also different in several key ways. GULP is quirkier; GUT is perkier, but more importantly the two books have different thrusts (yes, there’s just that much interesting stuff to learn about digestion (and the lack thereof)—which make the two books complementary. Cutting to the chase, I’d recommend both books, but if you only read one book about your alimentary canal this year, I hope my reviews will help you determine which one is for you.

Explaining how Roach’s book is “quirkier” will tell one a lot about Roach’s book and how it differs from Ender’s work. (And since Ender’s writing style could be described as quirky itself, it’ll help clarify that as well.) By “quirky,” I mean that Roach’s book is built around a set of narrow questions that address topics of a bizarre or strange nature. In GULP one will read about whether your pet really wants “paté in beef gravy” [spoiler: it does not], whether the story of Jonah and the whale is BS, how smugglers use their digestive tracts illicitly, what are the benefits of Fletcherizing (chewing your food more thoroughly—much more thoroughly), whether Thanksgiving dinner can split one’s stomach open (like it feels it does), and what’s the worst case flatulence scenario.

This isn’t to say that one doesn’t learn something about the basic science of digestion as one is reading about extreme cases of tasting skill, stomach fistulas, flatulence, constipation, and overeating. One does, but this book isn’t organized to educate one about the alimentary canal systematically and generally. It’s a work of creative nonfiction designed to make the reader keep saying “huh, I never would have thought” and it does an outstanding job of it. You may not have given much thought to some of these topics, but you’ll be craving answers by the time you get past the chapter heading. There’s a reason that Roach’s works top the charts of pop science books. She finds the interesting questions and the most fascinating examples.

There are 17 chapters in GULP, and while they collectively take one on a tour of the alimentary canal, Roach devotes more space to some parts than others. She spends more time on what goes at the head end (smelling, tasting, chewing, and salivating) than does Enders. Also, please don’t think the book is low brow or that it appeals to the lowest common denominator (8-year-old boys?) when I tell you that there are three chapters on various dimensions of flatulence.

As I said, you may not have thought much about some of these questions, but you’ll learn something nonetheless. A prime example can be seen in the chapter on smuggling via the digestive tract. I’d read stories of cocaine mules dying when a condom burst in their stomach, but I had no idea about the extent to which items and materials are smuggled down there. It’s not just drugs. One guy was explaining how he smuggled knives. Really. Knives. Plural.

There are a few topics that are well covered by both books. Take, for example, constipation. Roach elucidates the topic using the case of Elvis Presley and others who’ve been literally terminally constipated. (Ender’s—on the other hand—considers the everyman’s constipation, though with amusing drawings and commentary.)

I’d recommend this book for readers interested in learning more about how their food makes its way through—particularly if you like learning about the strange cases.

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