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

“Kinsey wanted Dellenback to film his own staff. There are three ways to read that sentence, all of them true.”

If you’re the kind of person who would like to know the story of how researchers discovered that electrical dick machines can stimulate knee orgasms in paralysed people, oh boy, do I have a book for you.

To give you an idea of the tone of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, here are a selection of chapter titles:

  • Dating the Penis-Camera: Can a Woman Find Happiness with a Machine? [Spoiler: Yes!]
  • Re-Member Me: Transplants, Implants, and Other Penises of Last Resort
  • The Upsuck Chronicles: Does Orgasm Boost Fertility, and What Do Pigs Know About It?

This is a hilarious chronicle of science, and the ridiculous lengths some people will go to figure out the most efficient way their bits can fit in people/objects. After Bonk you’ll come away with ridiculous stories, an appreciation for Roach’s sense of humour and renewed gratefulness for puns. This thing is almost annoyingly funny. I kept sniggering, but really, really didn’t want strangers sitting near me on the train to ask me what I was reading. “Oh no, it’s not like that, it’s funny, I promise. Why are you moving seats? There’s no pictures!”

Mary Roach, for our entertainment and knowledge, performed the following acts during her research: measured the length between her clitoris and urethra; observed penile surgery in person, during which metal shafts were inserted right up a man’s shaft; had sex with her husband inside a confining magnetic tube so that researchers could see what people look like inside during the beast with two backs. She then managed to make my most prominent impressions of her as a person ‘shrewd, hard-working and extremely funny’, instead of ‘the woman who was really into weird sex stuff’. She worked too hard for me not to recommend this enthusiastically.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

“The beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone. If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?”

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a post-apocalyptic ode to human invention with meticulous pacing and a number of strong central characters. Mandel finds fascination in things we in modern society take for granted: a computer screen glowing in a dark room; the satisfying sensation of warm running water; bright lights shining in the distance, beckoning us towards a city which we know is safe and filled with food.

The narrative shifts between characters during the initial outbreak of the hyper-deadly virus and a group of actors and musicians who, after the fall of modern civilization, wander through towns performing Shakespeare. We’re shown why “survival is not enough” and the importance of art in difficult times.

It’s easy to get engrossed: the pacing is absolutely rock-solid, so I tore through the whole thing in one sitting. I started out liking very few of the people whose perspective we take as they’re all so deeply flawed, but finished (for the most part) understanding why they act the way they do. The shifting perspectives give us different views on the same events and cast things we thought we understood in a new light. Mendal has a good eye for the way emotion and tragedy can turn people inward, and how small events can seem monumentally important to the person they’re happening to.

There’s an interesting perspective on the way humans impact the environment, eschewing the more common portrayal of humans as a purely destructive force on the landscape, and the atmosphere is thick with melancholy. Mendal always returns to the beauty humans can create together, whether it’s through architecture, electricity, or stage performances, and this makes watching the world falling apart sorrowful rather than merely frightening.

The biggest problem is that the ending action sequences with the troupe of artists aren’t as tense as they’re supposed to be. By this point I’d already watched the end of the world, and Kristen felt like a composite-human created to show the traumatic effects of a post-apocalypse who isn’t characterized distinctly enough to carry the future sections by herself. Whether the ragtag symphony survived a dramatic stand-off just didn’t feel important, as I didn’t know or like any of these people anywhere close to the same degree as Miranda, Clark or Arthur from before humanity’s fall. As such, the climax lacked emotional investment.

Still, Station Eleven was intriguing and, despite its inconsistency, a lot of fun. The mood is sad but tender, and there’s some nice writing strewn throughout. I wish it was more even, but if someone was looking for a real page-turner with a nice sense of pathos it’s worth picking up.

 

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

“But there are no absolutes in human misery and things can always get worse.”

Imagine William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury crossed with It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia and you have something close to Suttree. One main character is a brooding rebel who has rejected his family’s wealth and lives on a river catching fish, spending his time drinking heavily and living painfully. Another fucks watermelons.

This is an outrageous and astounding novel. Seemingly aimless, true, but if you stick with it you’ll love how it can both amuse and devastate you.

A good way to approach this is as if it’s the adult equivalent of Huckleberry Finn, a series of loosely connected short stories that make up a greater whole. You follow a vagrant named Suttree as he travels through the underbelly of filth-encrusted Knoxville, Tennessee. There is no obvious plot, merely life in all its banality and wonder in a harsh place where angry, drunken homeless men maraud the streets and life can “always get worse.”

The writing is great, but McCarthy has most stunning prose of anyone alive so that can be taken for granted with him at this point.

I tend to keep a few simple notes while I’m reading a novel so I can keep track of moments or themes that strike me as particularly important or interesting. Despite the fact that, as mentioned above, Suttree is essentially plot-less, I had almost three times as much written when finishing than I normally do. Part of that is probably length, as this is a hefty book, but this also speaks to just how rich in detail and subtext it is. You could re-read each page and find a fascinating detail you missed the first time round. With a great mixture of the profound and the hilariously crude, this was a fitting and satisfying book for me to finish my reading of McCarthy on.

Still, it didn’t fully hook me until quite late in the story. I needed to get used to the strange, drifting narrative. Let Suttree wash over you like cold water: adjust, be patient. You’ll be rewarded. There’s something great lurking beneath the murky surface.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

  
“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”

A man has been arrested and he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know who is trying him, or under what authority they operate. He doesn’t even know what crime he supposedly committed. When he proclaims his innocence and appeals to his accusers’ common humanity, he is reprimanded as “that is how the guilty speak.”

Welcome to The Trial by Franz Kafka, where the world is a series of confusing systems which are almost impossible to navigate through without losing your mind or being crushed by the futility of it all. There’s something humorous about the absurdity here though, as farcical characters scramble around and appear to have no idea what they’re doing (which is normally making someone else’s life worse through sheer incompetence); this is comedy in its blackest shade.

The line between despair and ridiculousness to the point of hilarity is a tightrope that Kafka never quite lets you climb down from. There’s an overwhelming sense of tension, but I would struggle to point to exactly where it comes from. I normally take at least a few breaks while reading even a book as short as The Trial, but I finished it quickly as I wanted the sense of impending doom to bloody end already! In a good way. Sort of. I’m glad I read it, anyway. It’s not often a novel can distil desperation into its purest form, after all. It was like a good thriller, but one where you’re propelled forward by a sense of incredulousness and disorientation. Very unusual, very effective.

A messy book by design, even if you you’re the kind of person who has a real thing for Camus and thus keep alternating between a look of frustration and laughing hard, don’t go in expecting a traditionally satisfying ending. If you let yourself get swept up, though, you’ll put it down and feel like the annoyances of everyday adult life make just the slightest bit more sense.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

“There’s got to be something wrong with us. To do what we did.”

Capote’s non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, delves into the minds of two petty thieves: the charming and ruthless Dick, and the sensitive and rash Perry. One night in western Kansas, they tied up four members of the Clutter family, then shot each of them from point blank range in the head. They didn’t take anything of significant value from the house. They didn’t even know the family. Why? Why did they do this?

If you are expecting an astounding hunt of the killers, this is not it. The investigation just doesn’t have enough to go on, so they follow leads to dead-ends over and over again. The best parts of In Cold Blood are when it becomes a character study, exploring what made two men, one of whom seemed to grow up in a caring family, commit first-degree murder with no apparant motive. These are confused, angry men, so if you have ever tried to summarise your motives for just about any difficult decision, you will go into this knowing that there can be no easy or even clear answers.

One of the interesting things about storytelling is that audiences voyeurs. Once we’ve begun watching, we have no choice in the matter: we are locked in, watching situations that in any other context would make us feel guilty for impinging on people’s privacy. That’s why this book is so uncomfortable to read, and also why it’s so thrilling: we simply shouldn’t be seeing any of this. The details from In Cold Blood (purportedly) happened. That complicates the reader-story dynamic considerably.

Truman Capote makes a claim of objectivety, and then examines situations which he has no way of assuring us actually happened, even explicitly dramatising his subject’s thought. We aren’t only thinking about ‘characters’ now, we’re thinking about the truth that a family was brutally murdered, and this tragedy has now been adapted for our entertainment, and some details here were surely added for dramatic effect.

This attempt at a different way of investigating and displaying the truth feels occasionally contrived. Yet it’s above all entertaining, and that’s a confusing compliment to give a book that is meant to be about objective cruelty.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre

“Look… we’re getting to be old men, and we’ve spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems. I can see through Eastern values just as you can see through our Western ones. […] Don’t you think it’s time to recognise that there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?”

Spy novels have never gripped me. I don’t know why – maybe I grew up so surrounded by over-the-top versions of suave, sneaky secret agents that a “serious spy novel” almost felt like a contradiction in terms. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a very serious spy novel set in the Cold War. Great Britain is soaking, battered and tired, and the men who are tasked with “protecting” it are just old enough to long for days when their country felt glorious. While occasionally dry enough that you could confuse the pages for sandpaper, this a satisfying, occasionally confusing read.

George Smiley, our protagonist, is a round, pasty, recently-fired fellow who wears ill-fitting suits and until recently was one of the most intelligent and formidable spies in British intelligence. MI5—sorry, “The Circus” (Carre, due to his own extensive history with intelligence services for the UK, was asked to change numerous details in the novel to avoid revealing too much real information) has been given evidence that one of his old chums is a Russian mole. He is tasked with finding the traitor.

Carre shines when it comes to dialogue, and seeing these fiercely intelligent men and women match wits is a treat. All the characters have detailed, interesting backstories. They feel relateable in their concerns and worries, and provide an interesting look into how real spies might think and operate. Just what would a life of betrayal do to your psyche? When you have tricked so many people, do you have it in your heart to truly hate the person who switches your world over and bamboozles you?

The amount of paperwork sifted through is impressive, as is that a book with so little action can feel so tense. Like with any good mystery story, you have the puzzle pieces from almost the beginning, but you can’t quite tell what the picture is until it’s finally all put together.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

  
“The world changes too fast. You take your eyes off something that’s always been there, and the next minute it’s just a memory.”

The Book of Strange New Things is a melancholy novel about love and devastation. That might sound like a contradiction in terms, but Faber approaches the well-worn territory of inter-species colonialism with a gentle, sad touch that makes some very old tropes feel new again. This was written as Faber’s wife was dying, and a desperate longing for the restoration of someone in your life you can feel slipping away from you makes the Book of Strange New Things a sad but memorable read.

It might be a sign of the times that a novel exploring religion and aliens has received rave reviews — would it have twenty years ago, when the lines between “literature” and genre-novels were more obvious? Probably not. This change is for the better:Peter, the protagonist, is a Christian missionary sent to outer space. Letters to and from his wife punctuate the narrative; back on Earth things are falling apart. Meanwhile, we watch as the inhabitants of this new planet adopt a religion they might not understand and the strange world begins to shake Peter’s faith.

When talking about all of this, genre definitions are stretched in usefulness. It’s sci-fi, true; but there are many who might hear that and therefore dismiss this book, putting it in a box where they perceive human emotions as being secondary in importance. There’s a literary resonance here reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin, and a nuanced approach to religion that should intrigue fans of sci-fi, literary fiction readers, believers and (thankfully for me) non-believers alike.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

This is an extreme novel. Everything is heightened: language, characters, events, emotions. The beginning feels like the start of a light-hearted adventure in the vein of Robinson Crusoe, with wacky characters, funny misunderstandings, and a protagonist in search of excitement. You only hear whispers about the strange captain who will be manning the Pequod, the ship our protaganist will be leaving on, and hints of madness. As the book goes on, though, the stakes get higher and higher as Ahab and his mad pursuit of the famous white whale dominates the narrative. Our narrator barely even mentions himself in the last half of the book. The danger and insanity gleaming in the captain’s eye is both intriguing and clearly going to lead to disaster, but he’s all the more fascinating for it, arrogantly casting himself as a worthy opponent of not just the white whale but the world itself:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. […] Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

The ornate, beautiful language — “the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude” — is great to read, and references to the Bible, ancient Greece, Rome, Shakespeare, and others feel purposeful rather than solely as something meant to be impressively ‘learned’, as they make small events feel like they’re part of something large and important. These influences, combined with how difficult life on the seas was in this period, mean you almost believe Ahab when he speaks as though they’re hunting Gods rather than leviathans. All of this, combined with the sheer length of this thing, make the book almost as epic in scale as the whales it’s so fixated on.

The middle was why this was not an easy read, though, specifically absolute pain-staking detail in the sections where Ishmael puts the stories’ momentum on hold to talk to us about whale biology. Some of these help you better grasp the bravery and difficulties in the life of whale hunter, not to mention the the dangers posed by the white whale Moby Dick himself, but others drag the pacing to a grinding halt. These aren’t weaved very carefully with the narrative, mind, or explained by characters; they’re just detailed, over and over again, as though you’re reading an encyclopaedia.

Still, taken as a whole ‘Moby Dick’ is an obviously great novel. The beginning and ending 200 pages were some of the best prose I’ve ever read (Melville has earned his reputation), and there was even a surprising amount of action. The characters are engaging, too. If you’re a patient reader, don’t let this book’s reputation fool you. With a great sense of humour tempering the more serious moments, it’s more fun to go through than you might expect.

I never want to read about cetology again, though.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

“…and there you have it, another body on the floor surrounded by things that don’t mean much to anyone except to the one who can’t take any of them along. ” There is nothing as unsettling as not knowing what the hell is going on.

House of Leaves takes some fairly standard horror tropes – a wealthy family moving into a new home, moving hallways, encroaching insanity – and slides them into a book about a book about a book about an academic analysis of a film (called The Navidson Record), and because it’s all smart, tense, and inventive, this novel is far more engaging than it sounds.

There’s something wrong with the house the film takes place in. Something very, very wrong.

Danielewski is determined to make you afraid of the dark. Adult fears are made explicitly metaphorical as the house plays on characters’ insecurities and baggage, which gives a focus to the narrative as things get stranger and stranger.

I very rarely get scared when reading books (horror games are another matter). That’s why it was so surprising that while reading this thing, during a couple of moments, I felt true fear gnaw at me rather than the nervous excitement which horror stories normally draw out. It’s also very well paced, as I tore through this thing in around a week. I just had to know what happened.

This is a very, very flawed book though. The sections with Johnny Truant are almost the complete opposites of those about The Navidson Record, for what I’m guessing are tenuous thematic purposes: instead of academic, the tone is casual; instead of claustrophobic or daunting, things are grounded; instead of carefully written, things are sappy and dull. Truant’s prose is painfully cliché times, particularly when it comes to descriptions of women (“blue eyes, like sea-ice”, “eyes would sparkle like the Northern sky”, “everything about her shimmered”), and Danielewski tries to use a stream-of-consciousness style that falls flat. The contrast of the cool academic analysis of The Navidson Record only makes this worse by comparison. I literally groaned out loud more than once when I realised another lengthy Truant section was starting. The formatting changes later in The Navidson Record in the book might also come across as gimmicky if you’re not in a generous mood.

When House of Leaves works, it’s because Danielewski understands how to cleverly subvert readers’ expectations. He plays on our assumptions about genre and the world around us and shreds them, placing them back together with masking tape, out of order, and with confusing annotations. This book just shoots too high sometimes, and becomes pretty silly for stretches as a result. It’s still worth a read, particularly if you’re in the mood for something experimental, just bear in mind you’ll need patience.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Image result for ghostwritten

“I am going to tell you a secret. Everything is about wanting. Everything. Things happen because of people wanting. Watch closely, and you’ll see what I mean.”

Ghostwritten is a globe-spanning novel with ten main characters who are connected by some very strange coincidences. Things start with a gas attack in Tokyo, but over the next four hundred pages things take some very strange turns. If you want a novel that’s unpredictable and varied, this is it.

As always, Mitchell’s writing is just plain gorgeous. He could describe a man waiting in line at the post-office and I’d be hooked. His sentences are funny and expressive with light and easy rhythm. Observations which other writers could make sound trite never come across as simple because of their place in such an unusual narrative and thanks to his flair on a sentence by sentence level.

“We drift, often on a whim, searching for something to search for.”

The sections in Asia often have mythical and spiritual touches, contrasting with the more sci-fi and conspiracy influenced Western stories, which move across St Petersburg, London, and New York. You will be left wondering what the fuck is going on. I mean this in a good way.I can’t talk about many of the locations’ veracity here, but as per usual Mitchell represents modern England more authentically than any other modern novelist I’ve read (barring maybe Zadie Smith). This let me feel in safe hands when I was placed in cultures I’m not familiar with. Ghostwritten’s cities and villages ooze authenticity. The ten narrators feel real, with distinct motivations and personal ticks; a yearning for a secure place in the world connects them all, but their unique perspectives never come across as contrived. A teenager in Tokyo, for example, observes how cultures other than his own have changed his way of thinking:

“Then one of them asked why Japanese kids try to ape American kids? The clothes, the rap music, the skateboards, the hair. I wanted to say that it’s not America they’re aping, it’s the Japan of their parents that they’re rejecting. And since there’s no home-grown counter culture, they just take hold of the nearest one to hand, which happens to be American. But it’s not American culture exploiting us. It’s us exploiting it.”

Some of the most fascinating stuff takes place in Mongolia, where an incorporeal being of some sort is floating from host to host, struggling to understand where it came from. That such a strange idea works so easily is a testament to the way Mitchell can, when he is careful, take you in directions you had never thought of while still satisfying traditional story needs.

Stories slide from realistic to fantastical on a whim, with Mitchell disregarding traditional notions of genre. Despite the disjointed tone and themes, things stay feeling grounded even when events are plain impossible.

Unfortunately, while the final quarter is still powerful on a moment-to-moment level, there are simply too many disparate threads for the novel to satisfyingly tie everything together. Unlike Cloud Atlas, which felt like a very cohesive whole, all the sections of Ghostwritten felt more like fascinating short stories which happened to have connections with each other, rather than as different parts of a cohesive whole. The world-ending plotline felt tacked on to let things end with a bang and add a sense of grandeur instead of giving thematic weight. None of this is helped by Mo Muntervary getting introduced near the end. She has a vital story when it comes to the overarching narrative, but is also the least convincing character. Her chapter came across as an excuse for Mitchell to talk in physics metaphors and exposition in a hasty attempt to set up the finale.

I’m still glad I read this though. Ghostwritten is an imperfect gem, with fascinating character work and prose. It’s just a shame it never quite blends together as a full novel.