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Mary Roach
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2009

W. W. Norton
US Hardcover First Edition|
ISBN 978-0-393-06464-3
Publication Date: 03-17-2008
320 Pages; $24.95
US Trade Paperback First Edition
ISBN 978-0-393-33479-1
Publication Date: 04-06-2009
336 Pages; $14.95
Date Reviewed: 07-26-2009

Index: Non-Fiction

You're going to learn more than you thought possible about sex when you read 'Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex' by Mary Roach – and you're going laugh more than you thought possible as well. Roach's latest work of non-fiction is a fearless journey into everything that makes you uncomfortable about sex, conducted with the thoroughness of a particularly dedicated doctor. Of course, it's a good deal more fun than any visit to your physician. But there's quite a bit more at work here than a romp through the annals of sex research. Roach's book is a sophisticated snapshot of our cultural gestalt as it applies to sex. There's a depth and clarity of understanding at work that is almost, but not quite, happily overwhelmed by the sheer enjoyment of reading Roach's superb prose.

The particulars here are well-organized, many and ebulliently described. Whipping through the history of sex research, from the early explorations of Victorian gynecologist Robert Latou Dickenson to the high-profile work of Alfred Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, Roach knows how to hit the highlights in order to direct our attention to the cultural import and influences that unfortunately tend to shape our ever-evolving misunderstanding of our own bodies. She probes the secrets of the clitoris, the penis, the testicles and the vagina with clunky cameras from the 1950's and high-tech sonograms in the 21st century. Every sentence she writes is an illumination, a great joke, or both. Sex toys, sex accidents and the anti-masturbation tracts of the 19th century that still hold sway some 160 years later all fall into the purview of her literary speculum.

The particulars Roach unearths are entertaining and pertinent. Moreover, her writing is utterly enchanting. She's funny, straightforward and willing to participate in the tradition of sex researchers through the ages, who have always had to experiment on themselves. She'll make you laugh until you cry with footnoted anecdotes that are screamingly funny, and she'll make you squirm with discomfort as she describes surgery that should never have entered the minds of men, in particular. We're apparently adept when it comes to thinking of things fit only for the torment of war criminals and applying them to improve our sex lives. Pathetic doesn't even begin to cover it.

Roach is a born storyteller, and her tales of brave scientists who fight the inclination to ignore the obvious and the not-so obvious are charming and alarming. From Marie Bonaparte, Napoleon's great-grand-niece, and her interest in measuring clitoral placement to Cindy Meston's work in Austin Texas, you'll meet a fascinating if often slightly dysfunctional family of brave souls who fight for understanding in societies where it is at best discouraged and at worst punished and then put on trial.

But as you read and enjoy 'Bonk,' you can pull back from all the superb prose, the hilarious jokes and mind-boggling facts to get a grip on the wider picture that Roach is painting. 'Bonk' is not simply a book about sex that's utterly enjoyable to read. It's a cunning, crafty look at the strange gestalt of sex, science and culture, an insinuating document of how easily humans torture facts in the name prurience disguised as propriety. Science is in bondage to a culture that is terrified by science. We're driving backwards with the headlights off, and calling it progress. Thankfully, we have Mary Roach along with us on this journey. 'Bonk' manages to be enjoyable in the moment and important in the long-run as it maps our willful misunderstanding of our own bodies and minds. At least you can laugh.

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