Mary Roach is a science writer with a sense of humor and a willingness to tackle oddball topics. I had loved her first book, Stiff, in which she discussed corpses, decay, and bizarre organ transplant tales. In Bonk, she tackles the science of sex with the same mix of the absurd (don’t miss the chapter on sow insemination), the essential weirdness of scientific experimentation (measuring apparatus sometimes, shall we say, gets in the way), and the extreme weirdness of humanity (as in men who request testicle implants, which are currently made for dogs only — don’t ask — so who must first purchase the implants on the internet before delivering them to their surgeons). Be sure to read the footnotes.It’s where the strange Roman gods and bizarre animal experiments are noted.
Monthly Archives: June 2010
My Job, My Self explores jobs and careers and how we often define ourselves through the (paid) work we do. The author easily shifts from quoting Latin to Studs Terkel and focuses on how many people are simply not happy at work. It seems that only 15% of Americans did in 1995; it’s a little sad for me to think I’m part of such a slim minority. And when he quotes Alan Dershowitz to say, “I would never do many of the things in my personal life that I have to do as a lawyer”, it’s clear that the alienation is not the sole domain of people with repetitive, brainless McJobs.
The book does best when it focuses on work. When it meanders to, of all things, shopping (with the tenuous link that work makes shopping possible, although his stories suggest that the spending is often of funny money, aka credit cards), it’s less successful. And like the last book I reviewed this one also says that most people’s ideal lifestyle is a small town. I wonder if people who wish to live in a small town have really thought through the limitations of small towns together with their charms?
What will be US look like in 2050? A great question, the answer to which I’m most curious about. Unfortunately, The Next Hundred Million meanders, proceeds by anecdotes and bandwagon-hopping, and sometimes seems to live in another world from most people — for instance stating that since married couple cannot all afford to live in wealthy Los Gatos they are therefore tempted to leave California. Surely there are more affordable locales than Los Gatos, even in the Bay Area?
I’m not sure that the best model for development are Los Angeles or Phoenix, but apparently that’s where we are going. Or perhaps we are, instead, all moving to livable small towns and working remotely. The author never reconciles the contradiction. Or perhaps we are not moving at all. That’s another trend he describes, without relating it to others. Frustrating.
I don’t get horrified easily. But the “friendship” this time is between an aging writer (so far so good) and a teenager (why not) that quickly turns into a vicious sadomasochistic relationship (yikes!), with the female teenager as the brutally abused partner. No amount of atmospheric descriptions of the lovely Japanese seaside resort or sugary love letters the writer sends her could overcome my puzzlement as why she would ever seek out that man, or my disgust at the abuse she is made to endure.
And there’s a dumb mother in the book, too, who seems completely blind to the relationship while oppressing the daughter into quasi slave labor. Another reason for me to hate the book.
What a nice treat: a science writer who can bring experiments to life. Whether he’s describing how movie soundtracks are created, how the sound of chips tells us about their taste, or how he managed to sniff out a peppermint-flavored rope while blindfolded (very funny, that one!), the author of See What I’m Saying, brings the reader into the experience of each of our senses, and shows us how our senses combine to create a seamless experience. Very inspiring.
Two nits. One is the overuse of compensating heroes (the blind painter, the blind mountain biker). And the other is the suggestion to add noise to hybrid cars so they don’t take pedestrians unaware. Surely we should all bless silence — and train drivers to pay attention instead.
I thought that The Essential Engineer, by the author of one of my favorite books of all times, The Evolution of Useful Things, would be a welcome vindication of engineers, who rarely get as much respect as scientists despite their contributions to our well-being. I was disappointed. I found the book to be an aggressive lamentation (really, whining at times and pugnacious otherwise — not a good combination) of the lowly status of engineers followed by rather disconnected stories of the miracles of engineering. the writing gets better as one keeps reading but the overall feeling is messy and disorganized, probably not what engineers would want.
Stuff tells some horrific stories of hoarders, complete with cockroaches-infested apartments and hoarders killed by avalanches of their own junk. This is the therapist’s version of Homer and Langley, the fictionalized account of two famous hoarders, who are also referenced in this book.
If hoarding is a mental illness, I may be suffering from its opposite, obsessive de-cluttering (this is per my children, who may be exaggerating, but I think I would agree with them!) So reading about people who must, simply must maintain a stash of 34 shampoo bottles at all times, people who cannot throw away an old piece of paper with a phone number but no name, people who must buy three identical magazines at a time so the middle one remains absolutely pristine , people who care for 600 cats (it turns out that it’s not actually possible to care for 600 cats, what a surprise), well such reading is an adventure for me.
The authors are therapists so they try to help sufferers and unfortunately the cure is to very slowly, over a course of many months, help the hoarders decide whether it would perhaps be possible to part with some of their possessions. (My method, which would consists of renting a gigantic dumpster for a day, seems to be absolutely ineffective since hoarders can fill an empty house in a few short weeks.) They also have some pretty simplistic explanations of fear of abandonment morphing into hoarding. If all bad childhoods ended in hoarding we would know about it, wouldn’t we? I wonder if it’s not simply a phenomenon similar to obesity. In our history as a species, saving stuff for a rainy day must have become a successful adaptive behavior. Hoarding is simply saving run amok.