Monthly Archives: March 2010

Books read during the 2009/2010 school year

  1. The World According to Clarkson
  2. Areas of My Expertise
  3. My Life as a Guinea Pig
  4. The Final Solution
  5. Stiff
  6. Bonk
  7. Spook
  8. I Can Haz Cheezburger
  9. Big Book of Top Gear 2010
  10. A Mighty Heart
  11. Lucky
  12. Notes from a Small Island
  13. The Mother Tongue
  14. Capote
  15. The Eyre Affair
  16. When You Are Engulfed In Flame
  17. The World of Blandings Omnibus – Somethings Fresh
  18. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

Bonk – Review – ****

Bonk Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, is not a how-to guide. You won’t find it in the lifestyle or self-help section of Chapters, unless it has been sorely misplaced. As it says on the top left hand corner of the back cover, this book belongs in science.

Bonk is Mary Roach’s third one-word, single-syllable, popular science book, and her three titles form a kind of overview of human life. The first, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, explores the end of life; the second, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, explores the aforementioned afterlife, and now Bonk tackles life’s inception.

Rather than offer a narrative telling a story leading from love to conception to birth, Bonk collects sex research from throughout human history and distils it, providing the reader with the most bizarre, interesting, and entertaining items, and leaving the denser, more dry items out.

Bonk is a good read for people who want to see what’s out there and why, or who have a casual interest in sex studies, rather than hard-core researchers, who will find some entertaining anecdotes, but not a lot of groundbreaking research. It is of interest for both men and women, referencing research to both, and is written in a friendly, conversational tone (employing the use of such casual words as “gack”).

Roach began her career at the San Francisco Zoological Society, then sold a number of humorous essays to various publications, and finally landed a monthly humour column in Reader’s Digest. Her background in light science and humour is extremely obvious in her novel writing. She is frank about her level of scientific understanding, and, not having a hard science background, is able to share information in an accessible manner, without dumbing it down.

Roach has a great grasp of character, an ear for a quote, and an eye for the absurd. Using absurdity and wit, she helps make sex researchers, who, due to the nature of their research and the confused views on sex of Western culture, can be viewed as deviants, human. She talks fairly of old favourites, like Alfred Kinsey, as well as more modern researchers. For example, urologist Geng-Long Hsu, who performs surgery to fix impotence, is referenced, in a footnote, as saying “Dr. Hsu says it is rare to see one [a penis] that stands perfectly straight. Actually, what he said was: ‘Most men are communists! Lean to the left!’”

Despite the playfulness, one never gets the sense that Roach skimped on research (her heavily cited chapters and lengthy bibliography should certainly assuage any lingering doubts), but there are a couple of surprising missteps, especially keeping in mind her journalistic background.

In one instance, during an interesting but off-topic footnote, Roach cites Wikipedia when explaining ancient Egyptian god Horus, with information that could easily have been taken from a more reputable source and remained just as funny.

Journalistically speaking, and in this book more than her others, Roach makes assumptions and takes liberties with journalistic integrity all over the place. According to her, she touches a man under anaesthetic without his permission or knowledge, and there were more than a few instances in which she would make blatant assumptions about her subjects, with nothing but the fact that it sounds funny to back them up. While a more astute reader may take these observations with a grain of salt, this is not a guarantee. Any way you cut it, that is bad journalism.

An index would have been useful, as it’s hard to keep all the researcher’s names in order, especially as some of them are quite similar. In addition, it makes it easier to go back and find particularly interesting or funny stories earlier in the novel, which is hard to do by chapter.

Which brings me to another small niggle I had with Bonk. More so than her other two novels, the chapter divisions belayed a slight lack of organization and coherence of information. While some subjects clearly belonged to one chapter or another (for example, “The Taiwanese Fix and the Penile Pricking Ring: Creative Approaches to Impotence” has a well defined subject), chapters such as “Mind over Vagina: Women are Complicated” are more vague, and make finding specific information difficult.

Nevertheless, Bonk is an enjoyable, entertaining, and informative read. It’s light and fun (and, if you’re a bit of a prude, the constant mentions of coitus, smegma, and labias could act as good exposure therapy), accessible for the layperson, and good at providing avenues of further research for those who are interested. Recommended? Yes. If you’re okay with the title, you’ll be okay with the book.

The Eyre Affair – Review – ***1/2

The Eyre Affair

Ever felt like you just could not possibly be reading the same book as everyone else?

Much like Christopher Moore*, the cult of Jasper Fforde is unfathomable to me. There’s nothing wrong with The Eyre Affair at all, but after having the book recommended to me time and time again, not to mention reading the praise at the beginning of the book (I always do – if I read a book, I read every word on every page except the copyright and advertisements. This is far from the most obsessive-compulsive thing I do with books, so lets leave it.) I was expecting something…more.

Maybe that’s the lesson? Go into books without any preconceptions? But how can we really do that? For one thing, it’s almost impossible not to have some sort of preconceived expectations for the classics like Austen or Shakespeare or Dickens. For another, there is so much published nowadays, most of it over $20, all of it taking a significant amount of time out of our lives, that we want what we read to be worth it. And there’s no way to know until after the fact, so reviews and recommendations from friends are simply the best, if not only, way to go.

So I picked up The Eyre Affair expecting something awesome, something engrossing, something with imagination like Lewis Carroll and humour on par with Wodehouse (if not exactly Wodehousian).

But I’m sorry, I just don ‘t consider a character named “Jack Schitt” evidence of clever wordplay. And please don’t even talk to me about Paige Turner.

That’s not to say the book wasn’t enjoyable. I read the whole thing, which is more than I can say for any work of Nicholas Sparks’. I never once felt like hurling the novel across the room, which is more than I can say for Atwood. The story is well thought out and well paced. It’s pretty imaginative, and the characters have personalities. But, at the risk of sounding like a stuck up book snob, a lot of the “clever plot twists” and “witty wordplay” were fairly derivative (okay, I sound like Sheldon, and I have been watching a bit too much Big Bang Theory, but hey, at least I’m not stating that I could do any better. Although I totally could. Alright, actually I couldn’t.). For example, the time travel portions of the book offered nothing new, the love story was predictable (although I was impressed at the reason for the fight, which was actually pretty realistic, and you could understand both characters’ sides), and while a society fixated on books and literature as though it was the newest Apple technology is a pretty awesome idea, it just felt a bit too much like Fforde thought so too.

In fact, it seems that Fforde was quite impressed with himself throughout a lot of the book. Not insufferably (like how I imagine Atwood standing over her readers with a mallet shouting “DO YOU GET IT? DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW SMART I AM?”), but just like a guy who laughs at his own jokes before he’s even finished telling them.

So it wasn’t my cup of tea. Despite the abundance of complaining in this review, it wasn’t a bad book, either. I was just disappointed. On the plus side, all works published by Fforde do seem, pleasingly, to be published with similar covers. This makes me happy.

I believe this was Fforde’s first novel, and it shows. It’s put together well, but there are clumsy parts. A lot of what I didn’t enjoy could be put down to lack of experience, so if anyone wants to let me know that his next few are SO MUCH BETTER, I could be persuaded to give them a go (or it could just be his style, and we’ll have to agree to disagree).

* I don’t think I’ve ever written a review of any of Moore’s books, but for the record: the first one I read was Dirty Job, which I adored beyond all reason. None of his other books I’ve read have ever come close, particularly Island of the Sequined Love Nun, which I still haven’t managed to finish after 2 years. I’ve also read Bloodsucking Fiends (not bad; but, I mean, Abby Normal?! That joke wasn’t even funny when Mel Brooks did it 30 years ago in Young Frankenstein), and You Suck (okay). In the interests of completion, I might read Love Bites, if it’s short enough. And if we carry it in my bookstore so I can read it for free.**

**Don’t talk to me about libraries.

San Diego Day 4 – Saturday, February 20th, 2010 unfinished

Well, first I got up and had a piece of toast…

Music-Language Interactions in the Brain: From the Brainstem to Broca’s Area from 3:30 until 5:00

  • Nina Kraus, Northwestern University – Cognitive-Sensory Interaction in the Neural Encoding of Music and Speech
  • Gottfried Schlaug, Harvard Medical School – Singing to Speaking: Observations in Healthy Singers and Patients with Broca’s Aphasia
  • Aniruddh D. Patel, Neurosciences Institute – Music, Language, and Grammatical Processing


San Diego Day 3 – Friday, February 19th, 2010

This morning, I woke up at the unholy hour of 7am (this is why I’m going into freelance), got fancied up, and went to a symposium called “Watching the Watchmen and Cheering the Heroes: The Science of Superheroes,” where the lineup of speakers was as follows:

  • Jennifer Ouellette, National Academy of Sciences – The X-Change Files
  • Jim Kakalios, University of Minnesota – The Physics of “Watchmen,” or Why So Blue, Dr. Manhattan?
  • Sidney Perkowitz, Emory University – Hollywood Science
  • Tim Kring, Independent Writer and Producer – Science: The Real Hero of “Heroes”
  • Nicole King, University of California  – The Evolution of “Heroes”

Unfortunately, I also had a press conference on the effects of chemicals on breast cancer from 10 to 11, so I had to miss some of the talk. And I’ll get to the press conference in a minute.

First, though, I’d like to say that if all the presentations at the AAAS are this good, this is going to be one hell of a week. This talk was interesting, relevant, and entertaining, especially Jim Kakalios’s speach on his job as a science consultant for superhero movies (in particular, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen), incorporating an earlier, popular talk called “Everything I Know About Physics I Learned from Reading Comic Books,” and parts of his books (The Physics of Superheroes, and the newly published The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics: A Math-Free Exploration of the Science that Made Our World) and youtube videos.

In the gigantic book of conference proceedings we picked up yesterday at registration, the summary for this presentation advertised Milo Ventimiglia, and Masi Oka as discussants on the panel, but they stood us up. Instead, Watchmen’s production designer Alex McDowell stepped in. He wasn’t bad, and he certainly new his limitations as an artist surrounded by scientists, but I did find his constant swearing incongruent, seeing as everyone else was speaking very scientifically about the whole thing, and as I’m sure anyone who’s ever taken a high school science class will doubtless know, the word “fuck” appears precisely zero times throughout the course, except in textbook graffiti, or if you have a particularly colourful teacher. My point is, although I have absolutely no problem with swearing (as anyone who’s spent 5 minutes with me can attest), it was REALLY jarring.

And now back to breast cancer.

I have to say, my first press conference was not the exhilerating, life-altering journalistic experience I was expecting it to be. Most of the information presented was later represented at the lecture (which has value if you need to get a story up the minute the lecture ends, I get it, but I didn’t need to, and this is my blog), and at 45 minutes, each press conference left 15 minutes for questions, which here became 10 after the requisite longer-than-expected presentation, and was entirely used up by one snotty British reporter who didn’t let anyone else, including the presenters, get a word in edgewise. So frankly, it felt like a bit of a waste of time. Even the information, about chemicals causing breast cancer (I know, the title of the conference was pretty misleading), was fairly boring to me – chemicals can cause cancer? I’ll alert the media. Oh, wait…

When all that was over, I still wanted to get to Sea World, which closes at 5pm, so I went to one of the shorter topical lectures, this one called “Infectious Diseases Have No Passport: Battling HIV, TB, and STDs on the Mexico-U.S. Border,” given by Steffanie Strathdee.

I’ll admit that my main attraction to this topic is my PERFECTLY REASONABLE fear of Ebola (seriously, if you’re a germaphobe, or a hypochondriac, or a person who lives in Africa, or a normal, sensible human being with a susceptability to deadly viruses, NEVER read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. Just don’t) – but to be honest, the talk didn’t really touch on that subject.

It was an interesting, if slightly dry talk, and the focus was more on HIV than the other things mentioned in the title. I am only slightly ashamed to note that I may have fallen a bit asleep.

And then I ran to Sea World, which, I’m proud to say, I managed to complete in 3 hours (including 2 shows – Shamu’s “Believe,” and a Sea Lion and Otter show), making an appearence at every. single. exhibit. My dad calls it “Sea World on steroids,” and it is only possible if you go by yourself (no one to hold you back), plan your route (which is an adorable thing to do if you have no sense of direction, but whatever, it passed the time while waiting for Believe to start), and RUN.

When SW closed, I took a bus back to the Old Town, thinking I’d go straight to the hostel, and noticed that even though it was 6, things were still open, and there seemed to be a concert going on. I thought Old Town would be closed at night, but apparently, today was their first day of a spring nighttime celebration, and they’d be open until “8 or 9.”

I walked around Old Town as the sun set, and I have to say, as touristy as it was, it was just a nice place to be. The buildings were the good kind of old fashioned, the shops were fantastic and original local places. I especially liked a certain soap and candle store, and a little square surrounded by restaurants and other smaller shops, including places for wine tasting, olive oil tasting, and hot sauce tasting, but everyone there was fairly old and I couldn’t figure out how to take part, or, more importantly, if it was free, so I just wandered around Old Town, listening to the musicians performing in the centre square – well, this is America, so ‘center’ – and enjoying the night.

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics: A Math-Free Exploration of the Science that Made Our World

San Diego Day 2 – Thursday, February 18th, 2010 unfinished

Today was not a very big day.

As 4th year journalism students in JOUR 4201D (science reporting), we are required to do a presentation in JOUR 4000A on our specialized reporting topic. Four of us from 4201 were able to make it to San Diego for the AAAS conference (American Association for the Advancement of Science, or, as it says on the bags they handed out, _____________, which, as I’m sure you have noticed, actually stands for ASSS, but I can see why they wouldn’t want to go with that). The theme this year is bridging science and society, an important and worthwhile goal that somehow seems to get harder and harder to achieve even as communication is refined and avenues for information sharing are built. As everything becomes more specialised, it’s hard enough to bridge the gap between different types science within the scientific community itself, to say nothing of between them and society, which can be uneducated, uninterested, or simply and understandably, distracted.

The conference involves symposia, plenary and topical lectures, specialized seminars, poster presentations, and an Exhibit Hall, and, to lucky students like us who had scored press credentials, access to the press room, and all the press briefings and free coffee that comes with.

Press Passes!

The conference begins tomorrow, and ends on Monday (the 22nd), the day we’re supposed to present. So while we were in Ottawa, prepping for the trip, the 4201 class planned how we would approach the presentation with four group members missing, and it was decided that those going to San Diego would film a short video. That video was to involve the conference and the world famous San Diego Zoo, and would be edited by Sunday in order for those back home to incorporate it into their presentation.

We meant to go to the zoo today, before the conference started, and get most of the filming done. I got all dressed up in my sunny San Diego shorts and tank top, my zoo-themed parrot earings, and a lab coat, and was ready to go (I promise there will be no more talk about my clothes after today, except for when I tell you about my sweater. This is not a fashion blog).

San Diego Convention Center

But instead, it turned out that we still had to register for the conference, so Serena and I met up with the boys and our professor, Kathryn O’Hara, at the enormous and impressive San Diego Conference Center, signed in, and collected our assorted swag. However, we waffled so long on the outside patio (and it was a gorgeous day outside, so no hard feelings there), that it was decided there was no point going to the zoo, it was too late, and we’d have to film something else.

Now, I’m sure everyone has their reasons for the way this turned out, and everything ended up fine, but boy was I bitter at the time. After all, this was my last day to do anything big before the conference started, and I had already missed a day due to what I can only assume were some long-expired pot pies, and I’d done nothing but register for a conference I thought I’d already registered for, and sit around and talk. Plus, the other 4201ers were counting on the zoo. I didn’t wear this ridiculous getup for nothing!

What do you want me to think about Canada?

But whatever, the time for the zoo came and went, and then, at 5pm, it was time for the Canada Reception, where I caused a revolution by inciting everyone in the vicinity to eat on the floor, as the reception hall had about 4 chairs total, the view was beautiful, and the carpet was clean. Very professional we looked, but at least we were comfortable.

At 6:30, we watched the opening ceremonies, and the AAAS president’s address. Chemistry Nobel Laureate Peter C. Agre spoke at the ceremony, and then it was AAAS President.

And that was day one of the conference. I went home, frustrated with the lack of sightseeing, but excited about the next few days (and I planned the events I would attend during those days, and how to fit some sightseeing around it before everything was closed), and in complete disbelief that as the AAAS begins, reading week is pretty much ending, and in less than a week I’ll be back at school, trying to keep my head above water until exams.