Sunday, July 20, 2008

Review: Woman: An Intimate Geography

In Woman: An Intimate Geography, published in 1999, Natalie Angier takes on a complex and often misunderstood subject: the biology of a woman's body. Angier goes over the basic machinery of the female body as well as the role of hormones in influencing female behavior. In the latter half of the book, she discusses society and evolution's influence on women's behavior. It's complicated stuff, but Angier does a fantastic job of condensing the information and conveying it in an entertaining way, with some really vivid prose.

The author has really done her homework for this book, referencing study after study on human female behavior as well as female behavior in primates and other types of animals. However, this is definitely not a textbook; Angier calls the book a "celebration of the female body." She does have a feminist agenda in the book, though it's an agenda I happen to agree with, so you won't find many complaints from me.

Angier takes on female stereotypes with a vengeance, complicating them time after time with examples from scientific studies. She succeeds in painting a more far-reaching picture of female behavior than most would imagine, particularly through her exploration of aggression in females. Angier also holds her ground well in refuting evolutionary psychologists who seem to traffic in gender stereotypes (the Madonna and whore dichotomy, the women as passive and monogamous and men as philanderers theory).

I'll admit that it took me over a year to finish reading this book. Why so long? I compare this book to chocolate truffle cake: delicious and rich for all the reasons mentioned above, but best in small servings. Angier's prose does get convoluted at times; what bothers me is that I can't imagine anyone talking the way Angier writes ("membranes ruffle up like petticoats" and "eggs pop apart like poked soap bubbles" and I don't think anyone in the history of the English language has used the phrase "a mutinous crew of mad-haired Valkyries"). It's clever but not very natural-sounding. Also, the book is quite dense in information, so a little time to digest each chapter is needed. Finally, the feminist agenda comes on strong at times, though Angier carefully bases her arguments in research.

Still, I loved this book almost as much as I love chocolate cake (which is saying a lot). Angier does an amazing job of unraveling some of the mysteries of biology and behavior. Also, Angier's celebratory tone is refreshing. I really liked that this is not just a factual book with health tips, which has been done, and is often done badly. Angier's research smashed so many of my previously held ideas about femininity to bits, and I love books that can challenge your ideas to that extent. This book is guaranteed to make any reader rethink her ideas of what it means to be a woman.

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