Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach

I've been meaning to read Mary Roach ever since her first book starting garnering acclaim. Now that she's got an entire lineup, I figured I'd start with Bonk, because as far as I'm concerned, it's pretty hard to miss with a humorous book about sex. For the most part, I was right; this book was consistently hilarious and more informative than I thought it would be.

As others have pointed out, though, calling this a book about sex would be slightly misleading. This is a book about sex researchers, and it sketches out a quirky history of how we have tried to chart, catalog, and understand how sex works. The book covers the usual suspects (Masters and Johnson, Alfred Kinsey, etc.), but also includes more than you'd ever thought you'd learn about pig insemination, rhesus monkey courting rituals, and uterine contractions in hamsters, among other things. Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of modern sexuality- male impotence, for instance, or female orgasmic ability- and unravels an eclectic and often bizarre mix of interview, citation, and the occasional personal anecdote that sets out to explain how science has attempted to catch up to them.

Roach's footnotes play a starring role, too. Most pages are peppered with footnotes that lead to somewhat random asides. These tidbits often have only a tangential relationship to the material, but are so weird and interesting that I began looking forward to them.

I tore through this book, and had only one minor qualm with it, which I've only now been able to elucidate now that I've read some other people's thoughts on it. At first I thought it might be that the concept wasn't unified, but it really was; the material is organized decently and reads very well. Then I thought I was bothered by the pages where Roach suddenly gets coy, ostensibly because she doesn't want to embarrass her children. Bonk presents a readable mixture of the clinical and the explicit, but every now and again Roach suddenly becomes a little demure; the chapter on sex machines comes to mind, for example. Honestly, though, I find it difficult to keep my dignity intact while arguing that I want to be more titillated.

I've realized what it is now, though. As fearless and thorough as this book is, its scope is weirdly limited. For all its humor, it sticks to the clinical mood set by the studies it documents. Heterosexual vaginal intercourse is the star player, and anything else... say, oral or anal sex... is only given its due at the periphery. There are entire chapters on orgasms, and they are often presented in the context of fertility rather than recreation. Now, don't get me wrong... I was actually fascinated by the studies that tried to link female orgasmic response with conception, and the implications that had for human sexuality. I just thought that the book could have gone in more directions with the material. Especially considering the end, where Roach discussed Masters and Johnson's findings that committed homosexual couples have, qualitatively, the most satisfying sex... and then the book ends. Wait, what? Let's talk about that a little more!

That doesn't make this book any less fun to read, though. Roach is a deliciously funny author, and her take on this subject is provocative and educational without being raunchy or offensive. I'd definitely recommend this to readers with low inhibitions.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Book Review: Talk to the Hand, by Lynne Truss

This was a quick read that elicited a lot of sympathetic head-nodding and a few wry grins, but didn't really ignite a whole lot of deep thought. I mean, that wasn't really the point of the book, I guess. It follows the same curmudgeonly formula as Truss's previous book, this time tackling our society's ubiquitous rudeness instead of the misuse of punctuation. This one doesn't quite hit the same right notes, though.

Truss admits right off the bat that she is writing a "moral homily" that doesn't have any real point other than to bemoan the obvious. So, I suppose that it isn't much surprise when that's exactly what I got. The book is divided into six separate chapters, each of which covers a distinct form of self-entitled rudeness that forms the current social status quo. The chapters are really mini-essays that are a mix of personal anecdotes, muddled citations from other books, and funny asides. The effect is essentially like reading an exceptionally long blog rant.

Truss certainly isn't off the mark here, but ranting about rude people is a little less satisfying than ranting about comma abuse. I think we can all agree that class divisions are Bad and politeness for politeness's sake is Good, so what we're left with is: rude people suck, and we should treat people like we want to be treated. Okay. The book is short, though, so the point isn't overly belabored.

The most interesting part, to me, is one of the random asides where Truss contrasts British and American society. Her observations of rudeness are presented through the lens of traditional English restraint and passive-aggression, and she has an amusing love-hate relationship with American directness that would both stop rudeness in its tracks and is uniquely rude, itself.

Other than that, though, this was just a short, idle read for me. It was amusing, but didn't really go anywhere... I'd recommend Eats, Shoots, and Leaves as a more effective example of Truss's wit.

Verdict: 2 / 5

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Graphic Novel Review: The Walking Dead, Vol. 3: Safety Behind Bars, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

I'm not sure how I feel about this one. As a whole, I liked it more than the previous Walking Dead volumes; the story is tighter, and it does the "we're our own worst enemy" motif a lot better. But the formula repetition and the ridiculous characterizations and dialogue make it hard for me to acknowledge its strengths.

Safety Behind Bars picks up right where the last volume leaves off: the survivors cautiously begin exploring the prison to see if it might serve as the sanctuary they have desperately been looking for. As they begin clearing the place of its undead residents, they discover to their surprise a few living residents, as well. Despite being relatively safe from the dead for the first time, it quickly becomes clear that the wolves are still within the walls; it's just a question of whether they were let in or were already there.

This volume is, in some respects, exactly what I was waiting for. Kirkman professes that he is writing the long-game zombie story, so it eventually must move to the place where the immediate zombie threat fades into the background and the vileness of plain old human beings becomes the problem. This is a great start, with questionable motives and actions on all sides, and a balance of power that is shaky from the start and degenerates fast. The main arc revolves around a serial killer that begins preying on the newly secure survivors, and the culprit is so eye-rollingly obvious through the art choices in some panels that the eventual reveal doesn't offer much in the way of surprise. Afterward, however, the story is deliciously tense as the reader waits to find out what the death toll will be. There is also some nice development of the larger story, including a fairly surprising resolution to the heavily foreshadowed subplot with Tyrese's daughter and her boyfriend (which has profound implications for all of them). There are also some scenes with Allen, Dale, and Andrea that promise some interesting developments in the future.

But Rick and Lori. Jesus, those two. They've been the king and queen of cliched, awkward dialogue up to this point, which is remarkable given the fact that most of the dialogue in the book is fairly awkward. But man, these two are fucking irritating in this volume. I ultimately enjoyed reading this volume, but these two deserve being called out for their shenanigans.

Rick's character has gone completely off the map, and I honestly can't tell whether this is supposed to show the character's fraying mental state or the writer's indecision as to what to do with him. He swings from moralistic white-hat to authoritarian cyborg to remorseless thug and back to Howdy Doody again, all in the space of a couple pages. The most egregious side-effect of this is shows up near the end of the volume, where he delivers a ridiculous monologue on how he's a cop, and therefore has authority, and that's why everyone looks up to him, damn it, so can't you just do this for Jack Bauer... I mean, can't you just do this for Rick Grimes? It's literally cringe-worthy, and the reactions from the other characters are convenient to the point of phony.

Meanwhile, Lori suffers from a bad case of Written By a Man Syndrome. "WHY ARE YOU SO MEEEEAN, RICK? WHAT ARE YOU, MY DAD? I HATE YOU! I HATE ALL MEN! Oh, sorry, I'm pregnant, you know, and I have all these crazy girly hormones. Silly me. Do what you think is best! You're always right!" Feh. We get it, Kirkman. Men are in charge, here. This is already apparent by how the other female characters act (including the strong ones), so you really don't have to turn your female lead into a crazy shrew to reinforce the point.

If you can get past the horrible things that come out of the noiseholes of these two, however, this is a solid volume. It goes a long way in carrying forward Kirkman's promise of a deeper, character-focused zombie story. Especially poignant is the survivors' reactions to the inmates, and the possible consequences thereafter. The volume ends on a cliffhanger that made me hungry for the next volume.

I'm finding as these go on, though, that I'm being less charitable with them, and I think it's because I watched the first season of the AMC show at the same time. The show has excised the sloppy characterizations and weak dialogue of the books. The characters are truly sympathetic and believable in the series. Heaven help me: it's better than the book. But from a general perspective, I like the direction that the first three volumes have set up, and I have high hopes for the story as it continues. My only hesitation is that the same formula has been more or less repeated through each of these three story arcs, and I don't know if my excitement about the series will last if it isn't switched up soon.

Verdict: 3.5 / 5

Monday, December 13, 2010

Book Review: Billy Boyle, by James R. Benn

I've never been a mystery reader, and only started exploring the genre this year, when I began working as a librarian and inherited the helm of a mystery book club. I decided to give this one a try, since I've always liked stories with WWII settings. I expected a somewhat pulpy noir book, considering the setting. That's largely what I got, but I ended up being surprised; I loved this book a lot more than I thought I would.

This book introduces Billy Boyle, a cop from South Boston that has heretofore made do on the largess of his family and community connections. We learn early on that he is the nephew of a famous general, and thus he finds himself on his way to what he believes is a cushy desk job in the military. Instead, he is shipped off to England, and told that he is to put his detective skills to work under the personal supervision of the English and American military brass. A German spy threatens to reveal the secret plans being hatched to liberate Norway from the Nazis, and Boyle has been enlisted to ferret him out. As the investigation gets underway, though, a prominent Norwegian minister (and a possible suspect) commits suicide, and Boyle has reason to believe that foul play was involved. Along the way, Boyle unexpectedly earns two new companions who treat him like a bonafide detective instead of a jumped-up beat cop who knows the right people: an English Second Officer named Daphne Seaton, and Piotr Augustus Kazimierz, a mousy Polish baron that goes by "Kaz." As Boyle works to prove himself up to the task given to him, he realizes how entwined the various crosses and double-crosses really are, and how dangerous his new job really is, to both himself and to those involved with him.

The cover art and plot synopsis lead me to believe that I would find a lightweight, setting-focused read. I was fine with that, because that's exactly what I was in the mood for. Benn handles the premise just right; the first few pages transported me back to the 40s pretty effortlessly. The history is well-researched, but never dry or self-important, offering just the right balance of authenticity and readability. And the slang made me happy. I keep trying to bring back phrases like "say, Mac, what's the big idea" with varying levels of success, so I was wholeheartedly content with Boyle's "gee whiz" vernacular (although, the running joke of Kaz and Daphne trying to decode it got old pretty quickly).

So, I didn't expect the Great American Novel, and I didn't get it. But I finished this book a much bigger fan than I thought I'd be. The story's execution was somewhat predictable, and the pace gets muddied by various adventures that only serve to give Boyle cool, sexy stuff to do. But this book is just so damned readable. Boyle fits the archetype of the charming, serendipitous detective, but he is also full of self-doubt, and morally ambiguous enough to make him unpredictable. The supporting characters, while somewhat inconsistent in their development (for example, Kaz is layered and interesting, while Daphne is... not), are all uniformly likeable. Benn improbably creates an intimate "Scooby Gang," including the mucky-mucks at the top, in the middle of a vast and dehumanizing wartime setting.

The only reason I didn't give this five stars is because of the afore-mentioned Gumpish pace breaks. Also, the ending stretches credibility just a little bit more than the rest of the already improbable story, and I can't let go of the fact that Boyle solves the mystery based on a time-tested medical cliche that is flat-out incorrect. Honestly, though? I still liked the book.

I guess I am revealing myself to be a bit of a biased reviewer; I am willing to forgive a lot in books like this simply because I enjoyed reading them, whereas you get less leeway if I don't get my bread and circuses. There's a lot here at which to turn up your nose if you are a bonafide literati. And by that, I mean the smug, wispy buttholes in horn-rimmed glasses and ill-fitting sweaters, hanging around used bookstores in the hope of finding a Pynchon first edition. If you don't like WWII stories or light mysteries with plenty of noir homage, this one might not do it for you. However, I found this book to be a lot of fun. While it wasn't perfect, it has a lot of potential. I am definitely checking out the next in the series.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Graphic Novel Review: Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories, by Zack Whedon

This is a slim volume of super-short vignettes that offer some origin and foundation stories for the characters from Dr's Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. The graphic novel is lean and mean, but it's a highly amusing read. I'm an unabashed fan of the the original web video, so I loved every bit of it.

The stories here are very short, with five separate stories fit into 78 pages. Even so, everybody gets a turn. Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible get introductions that dovetail nicely into the canon. Penny gets a questionably relevant but undeniably sweet examination, as well. Best of all, there are closer looks at bit players like the Evil League of Evil, Moist, and even Johnny Snow.

The beauty here is in the small touches. The vignettes are not entirely standalone; they connect in subtle ways that bring the whole volume together and make it feel like a coherent "origin story," or at least a genuine prequel to the official story. New bit players like James Flames and the hilariously crass newscasters fit perfectly. Even the introduction is deliciously funny.

My main complaints with this are a few wonky panels in the art, and the bite-sized portion. But this was exactly what I was hoping it would be: a pitch-perfect extension of the original's tone and lore, and hopefully an appetizer for future installments. Even if you aren't a fan of Dr. Horrible, this is a good pick for those who like their superheroes and supervillains a little quirky.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Book Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Omnibus, Vol. 1

So, it appears my sudden, random fascination with graphic novels and my rediscovery of Buffy have collided. I originally meant to buy and read the Season 8 books that Joss Whedon actually worked on, but since I'm in the middle of rewatching the entire series, I decided to wait until I was done with that and go through this hefty volume of early Dark Horse comics instead. I liked it, but I didn't love it.

This volume covers two seminal moments in the Buffy canon: her showdown with Lothos in Los Angeles, and her subsequent stay in a mental asylum (which, by the way, is referenced in possibly my favorite episode of the television series, and made that story a particularly satisfying read). It also contains a Las Vegas adventure that explains what happened to Pike, a vignette of Spike and Drusilla, and a lighthearted story featuring a young Dawn.

A canonical, non-Hollywood version of Whedon's original script was enough to hook me, but the whole package actually looked good. And it was good. Different, but good. There are a few confusing moments: some of the vampires in The Origin inexplicably look like Man-Bat, and it took me a few pages to figure out what the deal was with the conjoined twins in the Vegas story, due to the artwork being somewhat questionable. Overall, though, the stories were great reads.

Something was just a little off the mark, though, and I can't put my finger on what it is. It seems a little fanboyish to declaim that this suffers from a pronounced lack of Whedon, but maybe that really is the issue. My favorite part of the Buffy television series is the character arcs and dialogue, and neither feels quite true in these comics. It's as if everyone is doing an impression of the Buffy characters, instead of being an extension of them. The inclusion of Dawn is interesting, too; the explanation for it makes sense academically (everyone has memories of her being there, including Dawn herself), and the resulting story really is cute and fun to read. However, it still feels a little like a convenient excuse to make filler stories.

Honestly, though, I really did like reading this. The sheer amount of material justifies the price, and even the worst of it is still great for Buffy fans. I don't think I'm quite enamored enough to buy another Buffy Omnibus, as I understand there's quite a few. But I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who wants a better version of the movie, and has an interest in pre-Sunnydale Buffy.

Verdict: 3 / 5