Book Review: Bonk

bonkBonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
by Mary Roach
Microhistory
319 pages
Published 2008

It’s not often a nonfiction book has me laughing out loud, but this one did it. This is the first of Roach’s books I’ve read, but her voice makes me want to read everything she’s ever written! Bonk is the story of sexual research – how scientists have made discoveries about a topic that is awkward at best, and taboo or even criminal at worst. Roach takes research seriously, volunteering as a research subject more than once (and convincing her husband to help, in at least one case!) Her wordplay is clever and her footnotes are HILARIOUS – this was a nonfiction book I kept having to pause and read to my husband between snickers.

Even her chapter titles are giggle-inducing – with titles like “The Princess and Her Pea – The Woman Who Moved Her Clitoris, and Other Ruminations on Intercourse Orgasms” and “Re-member Me – Transplants, Implants, and Other Penises Of Last Resort.”

Roach writes about some truly awkward sexual encounters in the name of science:

On the bed are a man and a woman. They are making the familiar movements made by millions of other couples on a bed that night, yet they look nothing like those couples. They have EKG wires leading from their thighs and arms, like a pair of lustful marionettes who managed to escape the puppet show and check into a cheap motel. Their mouths are covered by snorkel-type mouthpieces with valves. Trailing from each mouthpiece is a length of flexible tubing that runs through the wall to the room next door, where Bartlett is measuring their breathing rate. To ensure that they don’t breathe through their noses, the noses have been “lightly clamped.”

Another passage mentions two gymnasts who have sex in an MRI tube. (For science!) I’m impressed these people can perform under these conditions at all!

There’s only one passage that squicked me out a little bit – there’s a few paragraphs describing a urologist performing surgery on a penis and it’s…a little disturbing. That aside, though, this is a delightful book on an uncommon topic. It’s an easy read, which I don’t say about much nonfiction. It might be awkward to explain why you’re snickering over this book, though!

This is also my pick for the PopSugar prompt “Microhistory.”

From the cover of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex:

The study of sexual physiology – what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better – has been a paying career or a diverting sideline for scientists as far-ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson. The research has taken place behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, MRI centers, pig farms, sex toy R&D labs, and Alfred Kinsey’s attic.

Mary Roach, “the funniest science writer in the country” (Burkhard Bilger of The New Yorker), devoted the past two years to stepping behind those doors. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Why doesn’t Viagra help women – or, for that manner, pandas? In Bonk, Roach shows us how and why sexual arousal and orgasm – two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth – can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to slowly make the bedroom a more satisfying place.

Book Review: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

too fat too slutty too loudToo Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman
by Anne Helen Petersen
Feminism Nonfiction
266 pages
Published 2017

This is the first book Book Riot chose for Persist, their Feminist Book Club. I only just learned about the book club, so I’m reading the first two books before diving into the third. (Second book is Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper, and the third book is Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy.) I really wish I could have read this book with their book club, as it definitely would benefit from being able to discuss each chapter with other readers.

The book is divided into chapters focusing on individual women and what they are guilty of being too much of. So Too Strong – Serena Williams, or Too Shrill – Hillary Clinton, or Too Slutty – Nicki Minaj. Then it dives deeply into why people think the woman embodies that negative, and often, what the woman herself thinks of it. We get cultural background on the adjective; in Too Pregnant, Petersen examines how celebrity pregnancies have changed how we treat pregnant women – how pregnancy has changed from something to be hidden to something to be valued and publicized and adored. But when someone isn’t pregnant in the right way – Kim Kardashian, for instance, suffered from swollen feet and preeclampsia and general misery and “poor” fashion choices – we judge them for it.

Too Loud delves into the world of publishing and book reviewing, profiling Jennifer Weiner’s fight against sexism in publishing. The chapter educates us on how the genre of “chick lit” started, and how women authors and readers are too often relegated to “chick lit” when if the same story had been written by a man, about a man instead of a woman, it would just be “literature” and eligible for review by things like the The New York Times Book Review.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud was a highly educational look at pop culture and how women are judged much harsher than men are for showing the same traits. It is imminently readable – I only started to fall asleep once, and I think that’s more because I only slept four hours last night! I had a fiction book on the table beside me, ready to dive into when I needed a break from the nonfiction – it’s still there, untouched. This is a great book, but I’d definitely read it as part of a book club or a buddy read if you can. Get a friend to read it so you can discuss it!

From the cover of Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud:

You know the type: the woman who won’t shut up, who’s too brazen, too opinionated – too much. It’s not that she’s an outcast (she might even be your friend, or your wife, or your mother) so much as she’s a social variable. Sometimes, she’s the life of the party; others, she’s the center of gossip. She’s the unruly woman, and she’s one of the most provocative, powerful forms of womanhood today.

There have been unruly women for as long as there have been boundaries of what constitutes acceptable “feminine” behavior, but there’s evidence that she’s on the rise – more visible and less easily dismissed – than ever before. In Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, Anne Helen Petersen uses the lens of “unruliness” to explore the ascension of eleven contemporary pop culture powerhouses: Serena Williams, Melissa McCarthy, Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Kim Kardashian, Hillary Clinton, Caitlyn Jenner, Jennifer Weiner, and Lena Dunham. Petersen explores why the public loves to love (and hate) these controversial figures, each of whom has been conceived as “too” something: too queer, too strong, too honest, too old, too pregnant, too shrill, too much. With its brisk, incisive analysis, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud will be a conversation-starting book on what makes and breaks celebrity today.

Book Review: An American Family

americanfamilyAn American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice
by Khizr Khan
Memoir
271 pages
Published 2017

Like many people, I was inspired by the Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic Convention last year, and appalled by Trump’s reaction. As a Marine wife, the family members left behind when a service member dies get my utmost sympathy and compassion. That was my biggest fear while my husband was in the Marines, and it’s still a very emotional memory to look back on. So when I heard that Khan was writing a book, I knew I HAD to read it. I put a hold request in at the library before the book was published, and I’m glad I did. The book is definitely one of my favorites of 2017. (One of my next posts will be a round up of my favorites from this year.)

An American Family follows the Khans’ journey from Pakistan, to Dubai, to Texas, Maryland, and finally Virginia. And it’s fascinating. He says in the beginning of the book that he wrote it to answer the question he’s constantly asked: why do you love America? Why are you a Patriot? He couldn’t answer it in a few short sentences. This book is his answer, and what an answer it is. It’s impossible to summarize this book – it must be read.

It’s a very easy read – it flows beautifully, and Khan tells a story well. It’s easy, at least, until you get to the point where their son dies in action. Perhaps it wouldn’t have such an emotional effect on someone else, but that, and its aftermath, was pretty hard for me to read about. The event is important, however. Its repercussions ripple out through the Khans’ lives and affect everything they touch.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Especially if you’re American, and no matter where on the political spectrum you fall, this book is important. It might give you a different view on immigrants.

From the cover of An American Family:

“I am an American patriot not because I was born here but because I was not. I embraced American freedoms, raised my children to cherish and revere them, and lost a son who swore an oath to defend them, because I come from a place where they do not exist.”

In fewer than three hundred words, Muslim American Gold Star father Khizr Khan electrified viewers around the world when he took the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. And when he offered to lend Donald Trump his own much-read and dog-eared pocket Constitution, his gesture perfectly encapsulated the feelings of millions. But who was that man, standing beside his wife, extolling the promises and virtues of the U.S. Constitution?

In this urgent and timeless immigrant story, we learn that Khizr Khan has been many things. He was the oldest of ten children born to farmers in Pakistan, and a curious and thoughtful boy who listened rapt as his grandfather recited Rumi beneath the moonlight. He was a university student who read the Declaration of Independence and was awestruck by what might be possible in life. He was a hopeful suitor, awkwardly but earnestly trying to win the heart of a woman far out of his league. He was a brilliant and diligent young family man who worked tow jobs to save enough money to put himself through Harvard Law School. He was a loving father who, having instilled in his children the ideals that brought him and his wife to America – the sense of shared dignity and mutual responsibility – tragically lost his son, an Army captain killed while protecting his base camp in Iraq. He was and is a patriot, and a fierce advocate for the rights, dignities, and values enshrined in the American system.

An American Family shows us who Khizr Khan and millions of other American immigrants are, and why – especially in these tumultuous times – we must not be afraid to step forward for what we believe in when it matters most.

Book Review: Tears We Cannot Stop

tearsTears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
by Michael Eric Dyson
Nonfiction
228 pages
Published 2017

I’m always trying to continue to educate myself on my white privilege, America’s racist history, and civil rights and activism in general. Tears We Cannot Stop fits neatly into that category, but it’s not an easy-to-read book. I mean, it is – in the sense that it’s well-written and flows very well. But it’s not easy to read because of what it says. Dyson is a black pastor, and he wrote this book as if he was preaching to the white people of America, trying to make them understand the plight of the minorities we oppress. Black people specifically.

It’s a short book, but a very powerful one. It’s separated into sections like a sermon would be, with a Call to Worship, Hymns of Praise, Scripture Reading, the Sermon, a Benediction, and more. He’s correlated these sections of a sermon with that of the book – The Offering Plate, for example, is a short little section talking about how one university – Georgetown – apologized for their past use of slavery, and established an institute to study slavery and its effects. Tried to make reparations, in a way. In the scripture reading he quotes a lot of Martin Luther King. In the Benediction he actually talks about a lot of other books to read about the subject of slavery, all of which I’ve added to my already extensive Goodreads shelf on the subject of civil rights and activism. (I’ll be attempting to read as many of those books as I can.)

Tears is a really good opening book to read on the topic, especially for white people. It’s eye-opening, and both invites and provides guidance for further investigation into just how big of a mess we’ve made of things in this country. I highly recommend it.

And, if you happen to be local to Baltimore, the author will be speaking at the Baltimore Book Festival this Friday, September 22nd! Unfortunately, I can’t make it on Friday, so I’m going on Sunday. Sunday I’m planning to catch Daniel Jose Older, the author of the Bone Street Rumba series and Shadowshaper, and Kevin Shird, the author of Uprising in the City, about the Baltimore Riots in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray. I’m really excited about it, even if it is going to be the hottest day we’ve had in a couple of weeks. (Still only mid-80s, though, so it could be worse!)

From the cover of Tears We Cannot Stop:

As the country grapples with racial division at a level not seen since the 1960s, one man’s voice is heard above the rest. In his New York Times op-ed piece “Death in Black and White,” Michael Eric Dyson moved a nation. Now he continues to speak out in Tears We Cannot stop – a provocative and deeply personal call for change. Dyson argues that if we are to make real racial progress we must face difficult truths, including being honest about how black grievance has been ignored, dismissed, or discounted. In the tradition of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time – short, emotional, literary, powerful – this is the book that all Americans who care about the current and long-burning crisis in race relations will want to read.

Book Review: Angry Optimist – The Life and Times of Jon Stewart

angryoptAngry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart
Lisa Rogak
Biography
225 pages
Published 2014

So I’m a little ambivalent about this book. Jon Stewart took over at The Daily Show the same year I graduated high school. I was 16 and only starting to pay attention to politics. I was also raised quite conservative Christian – the pundit we listened to the most was Rush Limbaugh. And here was a man saying things that were the total opposite of what I’d been taught – but also things that resonated a lot more with me. Many years later, when The Daily Show and Jon Stewart were labeled the most trusted voices in news media, I had no trouble at all believing it. He not only knew how to speak to my generation, he also spoke for us. All the things we were thinking, he was out there shouting. He was our window into this grown up, corrupted world of politics, and we loved him for it.

Not to say he’s perfect. I’d heard – and Angry Optimist mentions – that he can occasionally be a rage-filled asshole. That the staff of The Daily Show has a woman problem. (As in, not enough of them, and can’t keep them.) So while I do admire the man, I am not blind to his flaws.

The book is interesting – I learned more about his early life and career – but nothing really game-changing. And perhaps that says something about Stewart. There aren’t really any skeletons in his closet, or scandalous stories. He’s just an angry Jewish comedian.

Rogak’s style of writing is easily consumed; I read the entire book in about three hours. Perhaps part of why I find it so anticlimactic is that she ends it with this sense of not knowing what Stewart might be up to next, and whether, if he does decide to leave The Daily Show eventually, if the show will end with him – and we know those answers now, three years after the book was published. Stewart has retired (barring the occasional appearance on Colbert’s show) and Trevor Noah is doing an admirable job of holding down the fort after Stewart’s exit. (With less anger, and a little more befuddlement, which is a fun change.) I was also a little disappointed that she mentions Stewart’s friendship with Anthony Weiner – but doesn’t say anything about how he took the ribbing from Stewart over Weiner’s rather unglamorous exit from politics.

I have also heard that the audio book is not good – apparently the narrator is boring. So I’d recommend the print book over the audio, if you choose to read it.

From the cover of Angry Optimist

Since his arrival at The Daily Show in 1999, Jon Stewart has become one of the major players in comedy as well as one of the most significant liberal voices in the media. In Angry Optimist, biographer Lisa Rogak charts his unlikely rise to stardom. She follows him from his early days growing up in New Jersey, through his years as a struggling stand-up comic in New York, and on the short-lived but acclaimed The Jon Stewart Show. And she charts his humbling string of near-misses – passed over as a replacement for shows hosted by Conan O’Brien, Tom Snyder, and even the fictional Larry Sanders – before landing on a half-hour comedy show that at the time was still finding its footing amidst roiling internal drama. 

Once there, Stewart transformed The Daily Show into one of the most influential new programs on television today. Drawing on interviews with his current and former colleagues, Rogak reveals how things work – and sometimes don’t work – behind the scenes at The Daily Show, led by Jon Stewart, a comedian who has come to wield incredible power in American politics. 

Book Review: This Common Secret

commonsecThis Common Secret
Susan Wicklund with Alan Kesselheim
Memoir
268 pages
Published 2007

Let me begin by saying I am a feminist. I am pro-choice. This was a difficult read because it talks about the lengths people will go to infringe on the rights of women like me to make that choice. Dr. Wicklund goes into detail about the dangers she personally has faced as an abortion provider – from stalking, to assault, to arson and death threats. The murders of Dr. Hill and Dr. Britton are mentioned, and the attempted murder of Dr. Tiller. (An attempt on Dr. Tiller’s life was successful two years after the publication of the book.) She resorted to wildly varying routines, different methods of transportation, elaborate disguises, as well as hiring private security guards, none of it really alleviating her fear that she could be next.

Running throughout the entire book is Dr. Wicklund’s concern for her patients. She is a dedicated, compassionate woman who wants nothing but the best for the women in her care. In many cases, that’s not actually abortion. One of the things that makes her an excellent doctor is ferreting out what is really in her patients’ best interests.

The book is mercifully short; I have no doubt she had many more stories she could have told, but the topic is brutal and hard to read, and keeping it concise and on-message was well done. I still had to set it down and play some mindless video games when I was done, as it was a little overwhelming.

In the ten years since the book was published, nothing has really changed. The New York Times has a short read on the major acts of violence against abortion clinics and providers. The National Abortion Federation has a longer database on all acts of violence against clinics. Their summary is eye-opening – all statistics below are from 1977 to present. (They have it broken down further by decade and year on a downloadable pdf.)

Murders – 11
Attempted Murders – 26
Bombing – 42
Arson – 186
Attempted Bombing/Arson – 98
Invasion – 411
Vandalism – 1643
Trespassing – 2925
Acid Attacks – 100
Anthrax/Bioterrorism Threats – 663
Assault & Battery – 239
Death Threats – 545
Kidnapping – 4
Burglary – 255
Stalking – 583

That doesn’t include the pure amounts of hate mail, picketers, hate mail, and blockades. This is what providers persevere through to give us health care. To provide a LEGAL PROCEDURE so women don’t die from performing it on themselves in an unsafe manner.

This Common Secret also touches on why people keep it a secret. Why people don’t talk about their abortion. And why people should. If more people realize that the women that get abortions are your neighbor, your sister, your grandmother – not just that “whore that slept around” – although she, too, deserves an abortion if that is the right choice for her. Maybe they would rethink their opposition to it.

I’m honestly probably not giving this book justice – it’s a decade old, but could have been written yesterday. And I am infuriated by anti-choice assholes.

From the cover of This Common Secret:

Susan Wicklund was twenty-two-years old and juggling three jobs in Portland, Oregon when she endured a difficult abortion. Partly in response to that experience, she later embarked on an improbable life journey devoted to women’s reproductive health, attending both undergraduate and medical school as a single mother. It was not until she became a doctor that she realized how many women share the ordeal of unwanted pregnancies – and how hidden this common experience remains.

Here is an emotional and dramatic story covering twenty years on the front lines of the abortion war. For years Wicklund commuted between clinics in different states and disguised herself from protesters – often wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a .38 caliber revolver. Her daughter, Sonja, experienced seeing wanted posters with her mother’s face on them and riding to school in police cars to get through the human blockades at the end of their driveway.

Wicklund also tells the stories of the women she serves, women whose options are increasingly limited: counseling sessions in which women confide that they had used combinations of herbs – or worse – to attempt a miscarriage; or patients who have been protesters, but then find themselves bearing an unwanted pregnancy; and women who claim to want an abortion, but nothing they say or do convinces Wicklund that the decision is whole-hearted.

This Common Secret brims with the compassion and urgency of a woman who has witnessed the struggles of real patients. It also offers an honest portrait of the clinics that anti-abortion activists portray as little more than slaughterhouses for the unborn. As we enter the most fevered political fight over abortion that America has ever seen, Wicklund’s raw and revealing memoir shows us what is at stake.