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May 20, 2008

Booksmart: Book Reviews (A Wolf at the Table, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex)

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and SexA Wolf at the Table(By Augusten Burroughs. St. Martin’s Press; 256 pp., $24.95.)“A Wolf at the Table,” the new memoir by Augusten Burroughs, treads the same ground as his previous bestseller, “Running With Scissors,” only with more horror and less humor. A lonely, sexually confused boy growing up with a jittery mother and a violent, alcoholic father (the titular wolf) provides the book with its leitmotif. Burroughs’ writing style — a wide-eyed, solipsistic prose that hits plenty of resounding notes even as it teeters on the edge of mawkishness — is the kind of thing readers either love or hate.At age 5, young Augusten first becomes aware that his father is abusive. His mother has whisked the boy off to Mexico because, she says, “Your father is not safe to be around.” When they eventually return to the family household, evidence of the old man’s malevolence begins to pile up. There are beatings, tongue lashings and threats of murder. There is gun and knife play, emotional terrorism and animal cruelty. Through all of it, Burroughs’ internal love-hate pendulum continues to swing back and forth.All too often, though, the writer slips into trite and repetitive descriptions of discovering “nature,” playing with his dogs and meeting new friends. These passages can be overlong and boring. Moreover, they are not unique in the course of almost any young boy’s coming of age. One begins to wonder why the author is making such a fuss.Space does not permit a discussion of the problem of authenticity in Burroughs’ previous work. Suffice to say that the memoir is an inherently dodgy medium and that “A Wolf at the Door” is far from the best of its genre. —Paul KopaszBonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex(By Mary Roach. W.W. Norton; 288 pp., $24.95.)Mary Roach’s last book, about cadavers, was called “Stiff.” It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to make that and the title of her new one, “Bonk,” interchangeable. Maybe it’s her single-syllable last name that leads her to these handy one-word double-entendres. In any case, the author knows how to, as she might put it, copulate science with humor. Half the fun in this fact-and-study-loaded book lies in the puns, asides and footnotes. Take, for instance, the background info on the god Priapus that Roach provides in her discussion of the history of erectile dysfunction. Most readers likely know Priapus to be a lesser rustic god of fertility with a permanently erect member. But do you know that he was first cursed (by Hera) with impotence and ugliness before being banished to a career of gardening for all eternity? Nonetheless, his lust multiplied in such enormous proportions that he finally grew a penis so large it rendered him immobile. Priapus got his revenge by sodomizing any creature attempting to steal produce from his garden. Ouch, Bugs Bunny.See? Mythology is more than you might remember from school. So are history and scientific inquiry, especially when Roach herself becomes part of certain studies requiring her to strip down and engage in what are commonly referred to in the animal kingdom as “rituals of mating behavior.” Alfred Kinsey had nothing on this woman. Well, actually, he and his ilk are her starting point. Even if you’re familiar with the work of such sexologists as Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, you’ll still find “Bonk” a marvelous compendium of all that has ever gone into the attempt to comprehend the functioning of mammalian sexual response. And, to quote Roach, “If you know what’s good for you, you will not do a Google search for scrotum + elephantiasis.” —Mary Welp