2018年4月20日 星期五

"Arrival" by Ted Chiang (2015)

"Once I have the basic idea laid out, I set my mind to multiprocessing: one section of my mind deriving a branch of mathematics that reflects the network's behavior; another developing a process for replicating the formation of neural pathways on a molecular scale in self-repairing bioceramic medium; a third devising tactics for guiding private industrial R&D to produce what I'll need."

The cover of this book is somewhat misleading.  It's actually a collection of short stories, only one of which inspired the 2016 film Arrival.  For this reason I'll be discussing the stories on an individual basis.

1. Tower of Babylon

The title is fairly self-explanatory, with the exception being that Jahweh never smites the Babylonians for their impudence.  It's far more fantasy than science fiction, but it offers an intriguing premise.

2. Understand

Two beings of greatly enhanced intelligence engage in a duel.  According to the "Story Notes," this is the oldest story in the collection, and it shows.  It has some interesting ideas, but it's not as polished as the other stories here.  Reminded me of certain characters within Frank Herbert's Dune novels.

3. Division by Zero

A mathematician discovers an unsettling truth.  It's the most depressing story here, but it's well executed.  Bears some strong similarities to the following entry, Story of Your Life.

4. Story of Your Life

The story on which Arrival is based, though in a far more stripped-down form.  I liked it much more than the movie, though I still found it a bit implausible.

5. Seventy-Two Letters

Members of the aristocracy deal with a population crisis in a world that never experienced an industrial revolution.  This is my favorite of these stories.  I loved the author's invented system of magic.

6. The Evolution of Human Science

I'll call it a paper appearing in a future scientific journal.  It's very short.

7. Hell is the Absence of God

A man tries to rejoin his wife in heaven, within a world where heaven and hell are manifested daily.  I liked the way angels were presented, but it seemed like it needed more of a philosophical underpinning.

8. Liking What You See: A Documentary

College life within the context of being able to "switch off" one's perception of facial beauty.  It goes on far too long, and I couldn't figure out why the characters wouldn't just switch over to some other physical measure of attractiveness, such as build, height, or even the sound of someone's voice.

Related Entries:

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2018年4月19日 星期四

Avengers: Infinity War: 6 Days and Counting

I don't know about where YOU live, but where I live it'll be 6 more days (next week Wednesday) until I can finally see the third Avengers movie.  I doubt I'll make the first showing (gotta work), but I'm determined to see the earliest showing possible.

To recap, what are the films in the MCU so far?  They are:

1. Iron Man
2. The Incredible Hulk
3. Iron Man 2
4. Thor
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
6. The Avengers

7. Iron Man 3
8. Thor: The Dark World
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
10. Guardians of the Galaxy
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
12. Ant-Man

13. Captain America: Civil War
14. Doctor Strange
15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
16. Spider-Man: Homecoming
17. Thor: Ragnarok
18. Black Panther

...and I compiled that list from memory, with only one mistake.  Excluding Black Panther, which I don't believe is available on DVD yet, I've seen all of the above movies at least two times.  Some of them, like the first Iron Man and The Avengers, I've seen at least FIVE times.

I still think the first Iron Man is the gold standard of the MCU, not only because it was first, but also because it's an excellently put together movie.  The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: the Winter Soldier, and Spider-Man: Homecoming are other personal favorites.  My least favorite MCU movies are probably Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which I've never felt much connection to.  I've vented on the subject of Thor: Ragnarok elsewhere, so I'll leave it alone for now.

Going into Avengers: Infinity War, what am I expecting?  Well for one thing, I expect that Thanos is going to be a disappointing villain.  If you've read Starlin's Infinity War comics, you'll know that he's basically just a(nother) big purple bad guy with an ill-defined goal.  I'm sure the Russos did their level-headed best to give him more depth, but with a two-hour runtime and a movie crammed full of characters I doubt there's much they could do.  If they prove me wrong, I'll be happy.

The criticism that the MCU has a "villain problem" is, I think, justified.  Of all the MCU films so far, the only villains I've really enjoyed were Abomination, Loki, the Winter Soldier, and the Vulture.  The Red Skull was completely two-dimensional, but it worked for the type of propagandistic movie he was in.  Ultron was, in my opinion, the biggest wasted opportunity.  I'm really hoping they do something more with Thanos, but giving him adequate time to develop would seem to imply a "scaling down" of this movie.

There's also the idea that one or more of the MCU's main characters will die during Infinity War.  Iron Man?  Captain America?  Hawkeye?  Drax?  If I could pick a character to kill off it would be Black Widow, because I find her extremely irritating.  I'm betting that it's Iron Man, Captain America, or both.  We already know that Captain America will be in Avengers 4, but he might just be appearing in flashbacks.

If nothing else, the special effects should be great.  Marvel Studios has spent a ton of money on this movie, and the previews seem to indicate new levels of citywide carnage.  I'm hoping they don't set too much of the movie on Earth and/or in Wakanda.  This movie should be bigger than that, with characters moving across galaxies.

In a real world context, there's the issue of representation.  Marvel is of course feeling the unparalleled success of Black Panther, and the characters and places from that movie might carry a weight in Infinity War that they ought not to have.  I'm guessing they'll go light on Thor, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, and Hulk, and heavy on Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, and Black Panther.  Don't get me wrong, Black Panther has always been a favorite of mine, but I don't think he should be front and center against Thanos.  What's he going to do?  Scratch Thanos to death?

Hopefully Infinity War will feel like the end of a chapter in the MCU, and not just a lead-in to Avengers 4.  If Marvel's smart, they'll know we've been waiting since 2008 for this to happen, and that anything less than a grand finale's going to disappoint a great many people.  Killing off Hawkeye or Vision isn't going to be enough.  This one has to hurt.

Whatever they do, I'm hoping it's a well crafted story without too many plot holes.  Of course when dealing with purple giants and Asgardian gods there are bound to be plot holes, but I hope they aren't glaringly large.  If they get the characters right - and I have every reason to believe they will - and if the actions of these characters make sense, I'll be happy.

Oh, and having Deadpool show up at the end would be nice.  Not that I'm holding my breath.

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2018年4月17日 星期二

Some Other Movies From 2000

2000.  I was either about to get, or I had just gotten, married.  I was either about to be a first-time father, or it was a done deal, and I was adjusting to the fact.  I was living in a very primitive apartment in Taichung - on the west coast of Taiwan - and I wasn't watching a lot of movies.

We had no Internet in the place we were living.  We didn't own a DVD player.  We had was a VCD player, but our selection of films was limited to whatever we could find at local night markets.

Sometimes, when we were very bored, we went to this place near our apartment and rented a Laser Disc player, and a few movies on laser disc.  Yes, I was at that time the King of Soon-to-be-Abandoned-Technologies, and it didn't bother me one bit.

The big movies that year?  Gladiator, Mission: Impossible 2, and Cast Away.  The first X-men also appeared, establishing the longest-running superhero franchise yet.  Who knew, way back in 2000, that a flood of superhero movies was on the way?

Some Good Ones

1. Best in Show

It's not Spinal Tap, it's not even A Mighty Wind, but this mockumentary about a dog show is still very funny.  My favorite bits involve the lesbian poodle handler.

2. Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe directed this autobiographical movie about his time as a rock journalist.  I still think it's the best film Crowe ever did, and the soundtrack is great too.

3. Frequency

Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel star as a father and son able to communicate across three decades.  It doesn't make a lot of sense, but aside from a truly corny scene at the end it's not bad.  ...whatever happened to Jim Caviezel?  Did playing Jesus destroy his career or what?

4. Finding Forrester

Sean Connery and Busta Rhymes in the same movie?  Yep, and you have director Gus Van Sant to thank for it.  Van Sant directed this after his disastrous Psycho, which may explain the lukewarm response.  I really enjoyed this film, and it made me want to see the films in Van Sant's filmography I haven't seen yet.

5. Mission to Mars

Brian de Palma's version of 2001.  It's a decent movie, even if the characters aren't particularly likable and/or interesting.  As stories of space survival go, you'd be better served by The Martian, but it features some memorable movie deaths, and the ending is predictably uplifiting.

6. Road Trip

Ah - the tried and true road trip movie.  Road Trip, Tommy Boy, The Sure Thing - the list is practically endless.  When the formula works, it's hilarious, when it doesn't...

Whatever happened to Seann William Scott?  That guy made a lot of mediocre movies much funnier.  This movie, The Rundown, American Pie... he should have been a much bigger star.  I'm guessing that at a certain point he got tired of playing the same character over and over.  But while he was doing it, he was doing it better than anyone else.

Road Trip isn't Scott's funniest movie, but it's still good for a few laughs.

7. Bring It On

A cheerleading movie with a really weird sense of humor.  In 2000 most guys would have dismissed it as a chick flick, but the screenplay was well written, and the director knew what he was doing.  That director, by the way, was Peyton Reed, better known as the director of Ant-Man.

8. Shaft

In 2000 almost no one knew who Christian Bale was, while Samuel Jackson was still riding high off the success of Pulp Fiction.  Jackson was certainly cool enough to play Shaft, but director John Singleton wasn't always up to the task.  It's a good movie, but not great by any stretch of the imagination.

Jeffrey Wright though.  He's so great in this movie that he just about hijacks the entire film.  A movie centered around his character would have been SO much more interesting.

Fun Fact: In his first movie, WAY back in 1972, Samuel Jackson played a character named "Stan Lee."

9. Rules of Engagement

Samuel Jackson (again!), Tommy Lee Jones, and Guy Pearce star in this William Friedkin-directed military courtroom drama.  One gets the feeling that his role as a Marine accused of murder was more of a stretch for Jackson, not that that's a bad thing.  It's a bit slow toward the end, but it's still a solid movie.  Much better overall than Shaft.

The negative reviews it received up on release were, I think, largely due to similarities between this movie and A Few Good Men.  It was 2000 after all, and 9/11 hadn't happened yet.

10. Space Cowboys

Tommy Lee Jones (again!), Clint Eastwood, James Garner, and Donald Sutherland star as four older astronauts who finally have the chance to see the Earth from space.  Eastwood also directed.

It's not a terrible movie, but the predictable self-sacrifice near the end lacks the emotional impact it ought to have had.  Garner and Sutherland's characters are also very underdeveloped.

It's also funny - watching this movie in 2018 - to muse upon the careers the four actors in this movie have had.  There's Eastwood of course, moving from Rawhide, to the spaghetti Westerns, to Dirty Harry, to a host of other films.  There's Jones, briefly glimpsed in 1970's Love Story, then in Coal Miner's Daughter, Cobb, and more recent movies.  There's Sutherland, celebrated in 70s movies like Klute, M*A*S*H, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  And there's Garner, who spent most of the 50s in TV in Maverick, the 70s in The Rockford Files, and who may have had the most varied career of all. They collectively represent a ton of film history.

Fun Fact: Though depicted as having served together during the onset of the Cold War, the actual ages of the four actors varied widely.  James Garner, the oldest, was 72.  Clint Eastwood was 70.  Donald Sutherland was 65.  And Tommy Lee Jones was a relatively spry 54.  Garner and Eastwood served in the military during the Korean War (Garner won the purple heart twice, and Eastwood was a lifeguard)  Sutherland, though old enough to have served, is Canadian, and Jones wasn't old enough to join the military until 1964, right around the time the Apollo program was gathering steam.

11. Wonder Boys

Hey it's Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and Iron Man in the same movie!  Michael Douglas stars as a college professor and former novelist, Tobey Maguire is one of his students, and Robert Downey Jr. is Douglas' agent.  It's not bad, but as "washed up novelist/writer's block" movies go, Finding Forrester was much better.

12. Thirteen Days

The perpetually underrated Bruce Greenwood stars as JFK, with Kevin Costner as his closest adviser.  The "thirteen days" is a reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was a tense thirteen days indeed.  This movie's good, if a bit unconvincing.  I'm inclined to blame the director, who seems to betray a lack of faith in the material.

13. Pay It Forward

Remember when Kevin Spacey wasn't the Antichrist?  When he was just a good actor, who starred in good movies?  Sure, there's a certain irony to this story of a teacher who befriends a young boy, but if you can look past Spacey's alleged personal failings, this is still a good, if not excellent movie.

The thing is that aside from the young boy's utopian scheme, this movie bears some strong similarities to Mel Gibson's 1993 film, The Man Without a Face.  To add to the irony, some of the trouble Gibson's character finds himself in bears an uncomfortable likeness to the accusations more recently leveled against Spacey.

14. What Women Want

Speaking of Mel Gibson (and also Helen Hunt, who costars in both this movie and Pay It Forward), he stars in this movie about the battle of the sexes.  Gibson is an ad exec who finds he can read women's minds.  It's a thoroughly charming movie, and Gibson was the ideal choice for the role.

15. Chopper

Eric "Hulk" Bana stars in this Australian prison movie.  It's watchable, but there are moments when the low budget really shows.  I liked the first part in the prison, but after that I had trouble staying interested.

16. Nurse Betty

If you look very closely, you'll notice that now-forgotten model Sung Hi Lee is one of the nurses in the TV show Betty worships.  God, in the late 90s I was so in love with Sung Hi Lee.

In Nurse Betty, a young woman goes into an extended (if amusing) psychosis after witnessing the violent death of her husband.  Renee Zellweger stars, with Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock playing the men who killed the husband.

Zellweger is excellent in the lead - it might still be her best performance.  But I'm just not buying the fact that Freeman's character doesn't bother to check the other rooms near the beginning of the movie.

Some Bad Ones

1. Bait

Jamie Foxx when he was better known as a comedian.  It was Antoine Fuqua's second movie (after The Replacement Killers and before Training Day), and you can tell that both he and Jamie Foxx haven't quite found their rhythm yet.  The mix of crime thriller and Foxx's need to generate laughs is VERY jarring.  That, and the second half of this movie just doesn't make a great deal of sense.

2. The Way of the Gun

Ryan Philippe - now there's an actor that never quite found his niche.

This movie is Christopher McQuarrie's version of the spaghetti western, complete with a truly gruesome third act.  Despite some great performances by Benicio del Toro, James Caan, and Juliette Lewis, most of this film is dreadfully boring.  It starts out great, finishes in epic fashion, but between its beginning and end it's incredibly talky, and the attempts at plot development detract rather than add to its conclusion.

Fun Fact: Geoffrey Lewis (now deceased), who plays one of Caan's associates, was Juliette Lewis' dad.  He was perhaps best known as Clint Eastwood's best friend in Every Which Way But Loose.

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2018年4月12日 星期四

"The Anatomy of Violence" by Adrian Raine (2013)

"I do believe that in tomorrow's world we can rise above our feelings of retribution, reach out for rehabilitation, and engage in a more humane discourse on the causes of violence."

Adrian Raine is a professor of Criminology, Psychiatry, and Psychology.  Aside from this book he has written two others, all concerned with the psychopathology of violence.

At the outset I should say that if I'd known he was a psychologist I wouldn't have bothered with this book.  I have long harbored a dislike for psychology and psychological methods, stemming primarily from (what I perceive to be) a lack of empiricism.

Let me put it this way: a mechanic, a doctor, and a psychologist observe a man drive a car down the street.  

You ask the mechanic: "Why did the car move down the street?" and he'll tell you about the gas pedal, the fuel lines, the fuel injectors, the pistons, and other contrivances.  Sure - he'll start with the gas pedal, but eventually he'll work his way back to the man driving the car.

Then you ask the doctor.  "Why did the car move down the street?"  He'll tell you about the driver's brain, his lungs, his heart, his circulatory and nervous systems, and other bits of anatomy.  Sure - he'll start with the brain, but eventually he'll work his way back to the engine.

But the psychologist?  Well, 9 out of 10 will argue that the man's brain wasn't a factor, and that the workings of the car aren't worth discussing.  And if they does acknowledge the car, any discussion of the vehicle will be restricted to emotional states and predispositions!

I hope you'll forgive me for sounding crotchety.  Let's just say that as a teacher I've had a long acquaintance with Psychology, and I wasn't eager to renew that acquaintance through this book.  In my opinion psychologists - those fence-sitters of the academic profession - do little good and far more harm.

As for the book?  Well, it presents itself as a study of the biological causes of violence, but there's a generous helping of bullshit to go with all the hard science.  The author talks about brain imaging, genetic predispositions, nutritional factors, and resting heart rates, but in the midst of all that there are a host of dubious studies, and still more dubious conclusions.  

To sum up, color me unconvinced by The Anatomy of Violence, even though some of the material on serial killers was interesting.  It was this material, in fact, that got me through the book, and had it not been present I doubt I would have finished it.

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2018年4月5日 星期四

Some Other Movies From 1998

1998 was my last year at the University of Washington, and also the year before I moved to Taiwan.  I remember it being a good, if uncertain, time in my life.

The big movie that year was Saving Private Ryan, which remains one of Spielberg's best movies.  Rush Hour, There's Something About Mary, The Big Lebowski, and Mulan were other big movies from that year.  

It's funny to look back at the box office hits from that time.  Despite coming in third at the cinemas that year, how many people have seen 1998's Godzilla recently?  Deep ImpactShakespeare in Love?  I can't help but think that in subsequent years other films have overshadowed their earnings - smaller efforts like Wild Things, The X-Files, and Pi.

Some Good Ones

1. A Civil Action

Robert Duvall all but steals the show from John Travolta - but it's a great movie regardless of this fact.  The best thing about this courtroom drama is its sense of moral ambiguity.

2. BASEketball

Dodgeball it ain't, but it's still much funnier than Half Baked (see below).  Trey Parker and Matt Stone star as two regular guys who invent a new national pastime.

3. Wild Things

The preview would lead you to the conclusion that this movie's just another excuse in tits and ass, but Denise Richards' enormous breasts aside, it's an excellent noir thriller.  Matt Dillon stars as a high school guidance counselor who may or may not be a rapist, Kevin Bacon plays the vice cop investigating him, and Denise Richards and Neve Campbell play two high school students under Dillon's "guidance."

And you know what?  This movie would have only been half as good in the absence of Bill Murray.  I don't know how they talked him into playing the lawyer, but however much money they paid him probably wasn't enough.

4. Rushmore

Bill Murray again, this time with his director of choice Wes Anderson.  I didn't like it as much as Bottle Rocket, but this story about a self-important private school student is well worth your time.

5. Primary Colors

1998 was a good year for Travolta.  Not only did he star in the oft-forgotten A Civil Action, but also co-starred* in the far more likable Primary Colors.  This stab at Bill Clinton is still entertaining, though modern viewers might find more resonance in Emma Thompson's portrayal of "Stanton's" wife "Susan" (read: "Hillary").  It won several awards, and is one of the better political movies.

Fun... Fact?: Various sources have alleged that Travolta has, on several occasions, attempted to leave the "Church" of Scientology, but threats of blackmail concerning previous "homosexual acts" have kept Travolta in the fold... thus far.

6. Pi

Director Darren Aronofsky's first movie.  It's about a mathematician obsessed with a secret code, and bears strong similarities to A Beautiful Mind, which came out three years later.  Pi is of course a lot lower-budget and more abstract, but it's still an excellent movie.  While I haven't enjoyed more recent efforts like Noah and mother!, I'd have to say that everything Aronofsky directed from Pi to Black Swan is great.

7. Savior

Dennis Quaid joins the French Foreign Legion, and visits the scenic Balkans.  It's a surprisingly visceral film, and one of Quaid's best performances.

8. Bulworth

Warren Beatty stars as a senator on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Hearing Beatty rap is truly cringeworthy, but that cringeworthiness is largely intentional, and I think this movie's heart is in the right place.

Some Bad Ones

1. Half Baked

Dave Chappelle before anyone knew what to do with him.  Oh, and some white dudes too.  This is one unfunny comedy about weed.  If you liked Chappelle's Show (as I did), you might get something out of it, but those moments of "almost funny" aren't worth sitting through an hour and a half of people trying (and failing) to act stoned.

2. The Faculty

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (or is it The Thing?) meets Lucas.  There are a ton of people in this movie that were much better known later on.  Elijah Wood spends most of the movie getting bullied, and do you know what that big, scary monster is a metaphor for?  CONFORMITY, my friends!  And conformity's NOT cool.  ...or something.

And Elijah Wood's parents even take away his masturbation privileges.  That's just some weird parenting right there.

3. I Still Know What You Did Last Summer

Worst Caribbean vacation EVER.  Jennifer Love Hewitt spends about 70% of this movie walking around empty rooms, failing to find the killer, AND IT'S SO F*&KING BORING.  This movie's only redeeming features are 1) the guy from Re-Animator, who plays the hotel manager, 2) Jack Black, who plays a Rastafarian drug dealer, and 3) Brandy, who is (was?) FINE.

I still haven't seen the first one, so I have no idea whether this installment is better or worse than that.  I'm guessing the first one was slightly... better?

4. The Avengers

No, not THOSE Avengers!  The other, British ones!  You know, from that old TV show you can barely remember?

Except in this instance we get Ralph Fiennes as the man in the bowler hat, and Uma Thurman as his female counterpart.  Oh, and Sean Connery plays the villain.  Sounds not bad in theory, but the movie fails in the execution.  Whereas the REAL Avengers have varied superpowers, THESE Avengers' only power is boring anyone within earshot to death.

Fun Fact: As I'm sure you know, Sean Connery played James Bond many times, but did you know that there are other connections between The (British) Avengers and 007?  Ralph Fiennes would later appear opposite Daniel Craig in both Skyfall and Spectre, Patrick Macnee (the original John Steed) appeared opposite Roger Moore in A View to a Kill, and Diana Rigg (the original Emma Peel) played George Lazenby's love interest in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

5. Lost in Space

For those complaining about Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes' lack of chemistry in The Avengers, I give you Matt LeBlanc and Heather Graham in Lost in Space.  Leblanc was woefully miscast in this movie, and he also has some of the worst lines.

In 1998 this movie somehow upstaged Titanic, ending its reign as #1 at the box office.  Just the same it's pretty bad, and one wonders if it wasn't an attempt to cash in on the success of the previous year's Starship Troopers.

And what the f*&k is with that cgi-alien-monkey thing?  Who thought that was a good idea?

6. Mighty Joe Young

In the same year that Roland Emmerich directed the very forgettable Godzilla, Disney released this movie featuring King Kong - er - Mighty Joe Young.  Bill Paxton is in it, and I'll watch any movie with Bill Paxton at least once, and Charlize Theron is also in it, her status in Hollywood much improved since the previously reviewed 2 Days in the Valley.

This movie starts out ok, but it goes from boring to nonsensical fairly quickly.  Theron's character is very irritating, and by the end of the movie I found myself hoping that some sort of fatal accident would befall her while running around that amusement park.

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*Co-starred?  The star of this movie is actually Adrian Lester, who plays Travolta's (Clinton's) campaign manager.  Lester's filmography is very short.  He starred in Primary Colors, and only appeared briefly in a few later movies.

2018年3月28日 星期三

"The Nature of Sex" by Dr. Carin Bondar (2015)

"Traditional thinking about the sexual process fails to take into account the fact that alternative systems exist."

Dr. Carin Bondar has a PhD in Population Ecology, and she's perhaps better known as a media personalityThe Nature of Sex is something of an outgrowth of her web series, Wild Sex.

In The Nature of Sex, Dr. Bondar (she goes to great pains to remind you that she's a doctor) explores the mating habits of animals throughout the world.  She discusses hermaphroditism in sea slugs, homosexuality in primates, and the eating of young in several bird species.  Her descriptions of sexuality are skewed towards the humorous and sensational, though she's careful not to anthropomorphize where it's unwarranted.

I found the first few chapters of this book engaging, but after a while it all just seemed too random.  There's no real theme in this book - no overarching structure - and what we get instead is a semi-random list of how animals find partners, how they have sex, and what they do with their babies after the inevitable occurs.  Towards the end The Nature of Sex felt highly repetitive, and I was led to the conclusion that Dr. Bondar might be better at selling sex in media formats where she can show herself to better advantage.  If this book sold well, I think it had more to do with a combination of the title and Dr. Bondar's reputation outside of print.

As science popularizers go, Dr. Bondar isn't the worst offender.  She's fairly rigid in her definitions, and she's not afraid to go over people's heads.  But I'm sure there are better books on animal sexuality, even if they aren't quite as flashy as The Nature of Sex.

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