Monday, August 15, 2005

Written in the Flesh: A Tale of Two Reviews

I'd recently read Brian Bethune's review of Edward Shorter's book Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire in the August 15th issue of Macleans, when I saw another blurry photo of an embracing couple in The Sunday Star. Another review of Shorter's book, this time by Christine Sismondo. Shorter is certainly getting his fair share of publicity, but what was even more interesting was the contrast between the two reviews.

Whereas Sismondo focused on an obvious aspect of the book -- we're doing it more -- Bethune described the book, exposed interesting tidbits, and ended with the excellent writer's typical aggravating leave-them-hanging factoid, which Sismondo never even mentioned. I wonder why not? Sismondo admits to having difficulty following Shorter's argument (this from a York U researcher?!), and it shows. And whereas Sismondo revels in immorality (that's opposite to moral reformer, right?), it's harder to tell Bethune's attitude, although he delighted in reviewing this book. I herewith present examples of how these two compare from beginning to middle to end and discover something important about writing in the process. Details count!

The all-important opening:
Bethune: He starts with a quote from Lady Chatterley's Lover then gets right into this get-you-reading-more nugget: "D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel of adultery, scandalous in its time, is a kind of template for Edward Shorter's Written in the Flesh. Buried deep within the neural pathways of our brains, argues Shorter, is the desire for sexual pleasure -- and for what he calls 'total body sex.'"
What the heck is that? I have to read on.
Sismondo: "When moral reformers, talk show hosts and concerned parents warn of the falling sky -- evidenced by the nonchalant attitude of young teens toward oral sex, public displays of navel and other risky behaviours -- those of us in the other camp will often adopt the rhetorical position that, when it comes to vice, there is likely nothing new under the sun."
Ho hum. Lesson on how to make laissez-faire sex sound like a smug cliche.

Two ways to describe the same point made in Shorter's book:
Bethune: "The absence of personal hygiene cut into the frequency of genital sex -- there are numerous instances of women rejecting husbands who 'stank like goats'....Entire peasant families, their hired hands and often their animals as well bedded down in the same large room. Parents had sex there, not in full view of the older children but in furtive, quick couplings beneath the covers."
What a picture! Stinkin' and crowded. Always wondered how they'd had sex.
Sismondo: "More convincing are his points that modern hygiene, pain relief and privacy are a crucial trinity [nodding off here]...Hard to spend the day having recreational sex when you share a bed with your five children, have acute lower back pain and no Aspirin. And...exploring every erogenous zone would surely have been a much less attractive prospect with somebody who bathes once a year, whether he needs it or not."
Nice try at descriptive detail, but sounds like a business presentation.

The ending, which usually trips up authors, destroying good pieces:
Bethune: "Shorter cites surveys showing the most sexually active people tend also to be the most suspicious of others, and that community involvement in everything from bowling leagues to political parties [is that why politicians are getting dumber?] has been steadily dropping. Our brains may be driving us toward our individual pleasures, but there's no telling where we will all collectively end up."
You can't leave me hanging like that! You can't add another layer of complexity right at the end! Guess I'll have to put this book on my reading list to find out why.
Sismondo: "Maybe a great irony of progress is that we've come all this way, worked so hard to secure our luxurious lifestyle, just so we can revert to our natural hard-wiring, the urge toward an active sex life involving total body sex.

Or maybe we should just count ourselves lucky to be born at the right time."
OK. Don't really get her point. For someone who licks up sex, she never describes total body sex, except in generalities. Bethune did, and he lapped up the opportunity to play with words and their sexual connotations, the more salacious, the better.

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