Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Raymond and Tallis, Bergner and Adichie.

What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner

Daniel Bergner’s ‘What Do Women Want?’ is an in-depth and unique take on female desire. Bergner uses scientific experiments and studies, anecdotal evidence, and interviews with experts in the field of arousal (sexoligists, behavioural scientists, and psychologists), to enlighten his thesis concerning the relationship between women and themes such as monogamy, intimacy, porn, narcissism and sex. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Bergner argues that women are naturally the less monogamous and more desire-driven than men and in the process forces the reader to challenge many common conceptions about the sexuality of the sexes.

Emma Brockes for The Guardian suggests that Bergner’s exposition of female desire is hardly a “new narrative” and criticises the implied causation in certain examples which extrapolate from the behaviour of rats and monkeys to human nature, saying they “can sometimes feel a bit flippant”. In addition, Brockes complains that “the potted social histories are cursory”, and dismisses Bergner’s superficial analysis of social or political context as “practically meaningless”. That said, Brockes concedes that there are “good sections” on the subjects of female mental health and reluctantly admits that Bergner’s discussion on the “difficulty of sustaining interest in a partner over the course of a long marriage” is “touching”.

Zoe Williams, also for The Guardian, looks at the disconcerting ramifications of Bergner’s findings and remarks that “the idea that fidelity has no natural defender” is somewhat unnerving. Moreover, Williams comments that it “blows [her] mind a little bit” that Bergner’s conclusions about female sexual energy were not arrived at sooner.

At the New York Times, Elain Blair, like Brockes, is sceptical of the task Bergner has set himself. She comments that despite primatologists finding evidence “that many kinds of female primates initiated sex, while their male counterparts pretty much sat around waiting for the ladies to take an interest in their erections”, in fact “[h]uman arousal and sexual behaviour are difficult to study in a lab.” Blair concludes that Bergner “seems to get lost in the sexiness of it all” – sometimes letting vaginal blood vessels “throb” with arousal - and states that “[t]here is something drastically under-theorized about what all these tentative findings and speculations…might mean taken together.”

NHS SOS: How the NHS Was Betrayed and How We Can Save It Edited by Jacky Davis and Raymond Tallis

This summer marks the 65th anniversary of the British National Health Service and coincides with the implementation of a series of far-reaching reforms. NHS SOS, edited by Jacky Davis, a consultant radiologist and co-chair of the NHS Consultants' Association, and Professor Raymond Tallis, a British polymath who specializes in geriatric care, depicts the “dismemberment” of the NHS as an institution and provides a manifesto for the retraction and reversal of Lansley’s reforms, paying particular attention to the effects of the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

The New Statesman’s Richard Horton writes that NHS SOS “lucidly describes” the way in which Lansley “infiltrated the Department of Health, ignored the advice of his most senior civil servants and implanted his plan to end more than 60 years of consensus.” Horton elucidates upon the “three catastrophic failures” which Tallis and Davis claim resulted in the “end of the NHS”. Firstly, Labour MPs are said to be “culpable” for having effectively “prepared the NHS for privatization”. Then Horton switches the onus to the media’s failure to ask the right questions concerning Lansley’s reforms. Finally Horton laments the “most atrocious betrayal of all”, citing the BMA’s policy of appeasement as the final nail in the NHS’s coffin. Horton calls NHS SOS “a painful story” but resolves that it is “one that we must confront if we are to have any hope of reclaiming what was once ours”.

Bernadette Hyland at the Morning Star is of the opinion that NHS SOS “is a difficult book to read” because “In chapter after chapter we see the way in which determined neoliberals have hacked away at a cherished British institution.” Despite calling NHS SOS a “devastating read”, Hyland achieves a more optimistic outlook than Horton, deciding that “the purpose of the book is to bring together the various individuals and organisations that are horrified by the prospect of the new NHS” and emphasising that “A whole section at the end of the book gives advice on what people can do to save the NHS.”

In a similar vein, Yvonne Roberts, writing for The Observer, provides an impassioned analysis of the nuances contained in Section 75 of the Health and Social Care Act, which removes the Health Secretary’s duty to “secure or provide” free of change “a comprehensive health service for the prevention, diagnoses and treatment of illness”, leaving behind only a duty to “promote”. Roberts, like Hyland, accentuates the optimistic normative ending of the book and advises her readers to “Buy the book, read that chapter, act” otherwise, in her words, “we'll all be sorry when she's dead and gone – and 90% of the country can't afford to be sick.”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In her third novel “Americanah”, former winner of the Orange Prize Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, follows the lives of two former sweethearts from modern-day Nigeria, Ifemelu and her first love Obinze. As a student, Ifemelu makes the decision to relocate and continue her studies in the U.S. Here she suffers a series of tribulations, eventually falling into prostitution. Obinze opts to move to the U.K. where he too is faced with trying times, and finds himself cleaning toilets before he is deported. Adichie tackles pressing issues regarding race, having acknowledged that many of the experiences faced by Ifemelu were very similar to her own. 

Claire Lowdon, Assistant Editor at Areté, unravelled “Americanah” for the New Statesman. Although in parts, examples of racial torments feel “like an anthology of examples - an agglomeration rather than an arrangement”, Adichie is undoubtedly insightful. Her observations “are always sharp, intelligent, humourous and humane” and her commentary “will challenge the way you think about race”. Despite some “wobbles, moments when the whole book risks losing its balance”, Adichie “is a very skilful writer and her talent for illuminating the intricacies of human interactions carries her.”

Mike Peed in the New York Times also acknowledges Adichie’s insightfulness. He praises her as “an extraordinarily self-aware thinker and writer”, and again remarks how “Americanah” manages to challenge our perceptions of race, holding “the discomfiting realities of our times fearlessly before us”. Adichie is “hugely empathetic, both worldly and geographically precise” and her work “never feels false”.

Laura Pearson in the Chicago Tribune, offers similarly impressive praise for an “absorbing love story”. Its ambition is evident, managing to present “a multilayered meditation on learning to belong to one's own life” alongside a romantic novel.  Like Lowdon, Pearson does note that Adichie “indulges in a lot of detail” to the extent that the novel “meanders” and “lags in places”. Yet the novel still remains precise, as Adiche manages to “capture specific emotions with rich, exacting detail”. Accompanied with Adiche’s own experience of life in Nigeria and the U.S., we “get vivid descriptions about the often lonely, disorienting experience of adjusting to a foreign country.”

Like Raymond and Tallis, protesters leading a mock funeral procession in London are critical of the Government's changes to the Health Service. Photograph: Olly Scarff at Getty Images

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.