Bookmarks Issue: 
Mary Roach

A-BonkMary Roach, best known for her previous books Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers ( 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003) and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2006), writes with humor and wit about rather embarrassing topics that nonetheless pique curiosity. Here, she examines sex.

The Topic: Despite the pervasiveness of sexual imagery in modern culture, scientific research on sex remains somewhat taboo. Mary Roach attempts to lift the veil in Bonk by uncovering the wide range of experiments and theories scientists are pursuing to explain the birds and the bees. While for many people research on sex is associated with the psychoanalyst’s couch, Roach’s account focuses on gauges and gadgets, particularly ones that allow her to share entertaining anecdotes about sex and its related organs. Thus, the book is neither a comprehensive look at the modern science of sex nor a self-help manual (who needs another one of those?), but a rambling romp through research into human reproduction.
Norton. 288 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0393064646

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"An irrepressible eagerness shines throughout Bonk, the joyful urge to show off the fruits of the journey. … Bonk is a wonderful read, and if you memorize one cocktail-party fact to take away from Roach’s two years spent on this book, it should be this: A Chicago study has shown that men’s colognes actually reduce physical arousal in women." Jack Boulware

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"She doesn’t just report on such phenomena as sex-toy factories, pig inseminations or early 20th century plaster casts of vulvas; at the Female Sexual Psychophysiological Laboratory, she measures her arousal with a ‘vaginal photoplethysmograph’ to help study the correlation (or lack of same) between women’s physiological and psychological states of sexual response. … It’s Roach’s willingness to put herself front and center that guarantees both credible intimacy and intimate hilarity." Tara Ison

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Like its predecessors, her new book is a showcase for Roach’s hallmark wit and innovative, thorough approach to research. With her first-person approach, readers venture wherever she does, their embarrassment defused by her uninhibited style." Fred Bortz

St. Petersburg Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is as light as a science text can get. … But Bonk will help build anyone’s library of sexual euphemisms and provide plenty of ammunition to alter the trajectory of cocktail party conversations, for as long as people continue to invite you to them." Vikas Turakhia

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"After a while, though, the gleeful anecdotes start to blur, the gadgets start to merge, and you just want to smoke your cigarette and go to sleep (maybe it’s impossible to avoid innuendo when writing about sex). … Roach provides a generally lively, if occasionally smarmy, account of sex research, but she misses an opportunity to help us think about the values we place on research, science, sex, and, especially, good sex." Rebecca Steinitz

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Even the more serious parts of Bonk are aerated by authorial stunts. Most notably, in investigating exactly how researchers study coital imaging, she volunteers to enter an M.R.I. machine with her husband. … What emerges from this experience? One party-perfect anecdote and not much interesting information." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

Most critics liked Bonk. Several reviewers wanted to like it, but just couldn’t. All admired Roach’s wit and uncanny ability to find the right quotations or anecdotes (which, time and again, were described as packaged for a cocktail party). But even those who strongly praised Bonk seemed a little weary of Roach’s jokey storytelling genre, which comes at the expense of exploring fundamental scientific psychological questions. Several reviewers felt that sections of Bonk could have done without an additional witticism or Roach’s personal participation. At the same time, most readers seemed to get exactly what one would expect from a book with this title—a lighthearted fling that neither the reader nor Roach expects to be serious but that keeps both smiling all the way through.