For a budding author looking for a first-book rise to the top, the word "sex" in the title shears a million competitors off the Amazon best-seller rankings just by being there. Even for a reviewer of my age, for whom the topic of sex has me in the unfortunate position of engaging in anti-union behavior
-- looking down on the unemployed -- a book with that word in the title gets front and center privileges. Among three-letter words, it inspires more inches (column, that is) than any other, except in those parts of the world, where the word "God" is the preferred substitute. (The capital "G", by the way, has something to do with this: the Hindus know how to have their gods and lots of sex, too, merely by desanctifying the G. Can you imagine the son of God making off with the clothes of some skinny-dipping cowgirls the way the god Krishna did with the gopis?)
So for we who, like Krishna, admit that there's a bit of the voyeur in us (the non-admitters are stuck behind keyholes, reaping a lousy view for their denials), what are we to make of a book so brazenly titled as Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to all Creation? Even titillation -- and what other pun word embraces equally both late developers and Playboy readers? -- is a word too flaccid.
Flaccid Dear Tatiana is not. She knows how the other 99.99999 percent loves, and it's kinkier than daytime TV without clothes. Nature's way, it seems, could deflate even a porn star. For example, a certain male species in the Pacific Northwest forests has an implement so big and complex that it does not deflate after the job is done but instead gets stuck in place (male readers will remember that fantasy from their before-sex days when the problem wasn't getting it up but getting it down). Well, this fellow's mate solves her problem by eating his off at the base. Without ketchup, even. Then things go beyond even Hollywood: he turns into a she because "he" is hermaphrodite. That certainly saves on the hormone shots and wigs.
The kinky among you can enjoy this male's novel sex style, too, but you have to be reborn a giant yellow banana slug to do it. Sigh; there's always a catch when it comes to Mother Nature. So, too, with lions. That lordly creature, whose mien has inspired no end of granite statues at the entrances to banks, has also a lordly carnal appetite: "I've heard of lions copulating 157 time in fifty-three hours with two different females," Dr. Tatiana reports, and then, fretful perhaps that her readers might not like the fact that animals can outperform the legends surrounding Henry VIII and any number of tented sheiks, palaced potentates, and exemplary teenagers, she unconvincingly adds, "Honestly."
Somehow I can't believe any of this is part of the decision-making process of the bankers who order in those statues.
But when was sex ever reasonable? Its great virtue, in fact, is that it isn't. Dr. Tatiana's whole book is a paean to unreason
-- or at least the part of unreason that ensures reproduction -- and the many ways Nature does this with beguiling panache. Virgin conception? It was around millions of years before that celibates' kerfuffle over Jeshua ben Miriam. Fastidious about oral sex? Don't read the account of the green spoon worm who doesn't just eat but inhales her mate. Saves on divorce costs, that. That dandyish auto-toff you know suffers from the same feather-anxiety as the male peacock. Just watch what happens when he and his silver-gray Porsche are at a stoplight and a racing-red Ferrari pulls up in the next lane. The hapless Porsche owner can't even do what his plumed colleague does: pull out his second-rate feathers.
Edge aside all these examples for a moment and what we have is an agony aunt for lovestruck
-- or more accurately, reproduction challenged-creatures, not one of which is a human. Unlike most agony aunts, she has some credentials behind her opinionating: Graduate of Stanford, doctorate from Oxford, an evolutionary biologist, award-winning journalist, published in The Economist, Nature, Science, and The Times Higher Education Supplement. As sex-advisers go, she gets between some pretty impressive covers herself. Her non-pen name is Olivia Judson, this is her first book, and she's both hilarious and an expert in her specialty, evolutionary biology. The first 234 pages of her book are page-turning sexual escapades. The next 62 pages are scientific notes and an exhaustive bibliography of papers on subjects you can't imagine anyone ever writing, such as "Host race radiation in the soapberry bug" and "Ejaculate quality, testes size, and sperm production in mammals." Then, too, there's the more promising "Group raids: A mating strategy ...." All this, and if the cover photo tells true, a knockout looker too. Eat your heart out, Danielle.
Despite the frequent gruesomeness (in some eyes, anyway) of the copulations she describes, she's funny. There are several kinds of spiders "where there can be no doubting the females' intention to take head, not give it." There is hapless "Anxious in Amboseli," who cites an oddlot of symptoms ending with the plaint that his penis has turned green (and who, may we ask, would you write if one fine day you glanced down and it was green?). Dr. Tatiana diagnoses this case as an African elephant suffering from SINBAD (Single Income, No Babe, Absolutely Desperate), and aren't the singles bars just dripping with those types these days. She describes the peculiarities of male elephant horniness (green weenie included), and then goes on to point out the interesting fact that that male and female elephants do not share the same vocabulary: "Elephant boys and girls couldn't discuss the same subjects even if they wanted to. I know the feeling."
She fields pleading letters from "Dandy on the Cowpat," a yellow dung-fly who wants to make his sperm more attractive, and fields more ominous ones from "I-Like-'Em-Headless-in-Lisbon," a praying mantis who asks Dr Tatiana if she, too, digs the mortal orgasm of a partner whose head she has just bitten off. There is the female midge who plunges her proboscis into her mates' heads and turns their innards to a soup, "which she slurps up, drinking until she's sucked him dry. . . only his manhood, which breaks off inside her, betrays the fact that this was no ordinary meal." It's enough to bring one back to the missionary position just to keep an eye on things.
Sex straight out of Hollywood-manic, ruthless, deadly copulation at all costs even when the costs are amazingly high. The only thing that holds Hollywood back is the low marketability of watching the likes of sea slugs and mealy bugs screw. (Then again, with one eye on Dr. Tatiana's sales figures, they're probably doing focus groups on it right now.) Between her gift for catchy titles ("The Evolution of Depravity" could sell millions of copies even there was a blank book inside) and her descriptions so graphic that if they were about humans, she would be banned in hundreds of locales, she explains that sex indeed has science behind it, be it Darwin's theory of sexual selection or Ph.Ds trying to fathom why sexual reproduction even exists as compared with other methods. Plenty of creatures clone themselves, for example, and some have survived since dinosaur days by naturally doing without what comes, well, naturally.
Unsentimentally yet wittily comparing the mating habits of the natural world to the human world, she perhaps intentionally reveals to us the wonder of a verb we oft utter but less oft do: love. That humans are enslaved to their predilections is comic. Take the "get bigger in spite of your genes" falsity behind the junk mail ads for men and push-up bras for women. These wail at the same wall as the ads inveigling men into the notion that if they buy a truck with big tires or wear a big cowboy hat they will become bigger, too. The anxieties behind these are laughable to someone whose sense for love renders them unconcerned about prowess between the sheets. So for answers to your concern that there must surely be something more important than the absurdities of desire,
there is: the richness of fulfillment, and few are the creatures other than human who aspire to it. Ask any bug . . . or send a note to Dr. Tatiana at
Praise, success, and huzzahs to her. She invented a new genre, is probably the only one who fits the job description, and if she continues on with more books like this
-- to say nothing of the TV series and syndicated column -- she will make pots of money and be the envy of every developmental biologist on earth. Don't be an oaf, though, and hit on her.