Reading science writer Mary Roach is always a pleasure and this new book is no different.
The Californian journalist surely has an eye for quirky and the downright sensational. In 2003, she ventured into the fate of dead bodies in her hit book Stiff: The Curious Lives Of Human Cadavers. After that, she wrote on theories of the soul in Six Feet Over: Adventures In The Afterlife.
This time, she has outdone herself with the sexiest topic of all: well, sex itself.
She takes a romp through all the history of the study of sexual physiology, tackling questions such as: Can you have an orgasm just by using your head? Why doesn't Viagra help women? Is the clitoris a tiny penis?
Roach takes these juicy topics head on with painstaking research - just look at the endless entertaining footnotes - and intrepid excursions to meet some interesting personalities.
For example, there is the visit to a Danish pig farm to observe farmers enhancing sow pleasure during artificial insemination for better results. She also goes to Taiwan to speak to a doctor who specialises in penis surgery.
In another chapter, she and her husband volunteer as subjects in an experiment to capture a real-time image of human intercourse.
Her husband chats to the officer during the observed sex to diffuse the tension while Roach takes notes.
Her quip? 'I feel like a secretary in a ribald French comedy.'
Indeed, it is Roach's eye for comedy and oddball interests that drive the book at a spry pace. The journey is entertaining and enlightening.
Critics have said that her cleverness is a mask for bad organisation and her smirky tone is a general turn-off.
But one feels that real warmth and sympathy do come through in the book and Roach shows respect for research scientists who, in her words, 'endure ignorance, closed minds, righteousness and prudery'.
'Their lives are not easy. But their cocktail parties are the best.'
We should not quarrel with a voice like that.
If you like this, read: Stiff: The Curious Lives Of Human Cadavers, also by Mary Roach (2003, $26.70, Books Kinokuniya). A delicious investigation into the fate of human bodies.
Bonk: The curious coupling of sex and science
By Mary Roach
319 pages/$39.95 with GST/Books Kinokuniya
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Sep 7, 2008.
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