My book came out in Sweden this autumn, and my publisher Fri Tanke kindly flew me out to Goteborg for the launch at the city’s annual book fair.
They also managed to score me some sweet press in the papers here – including a full page image of my face, which ain’t something to sniff at.
I got my lovely Swedish friend Moa Ceder to translate the reviews for me. Can’t help but be very touched by a few of the compliments, most of all this:
“Combining humour with analysis is unusual to say the least… I have never read any popular science which has amused, sickened and thrilled me as much as this book… above all, Cormier is brilliant at combining wild thoughts with measured ones… it is impossible not to be swept away by an author who is so faithful to her curiosity. Well-managed profanity is the strength of the book. Cormier has no trouble making a clean sweep of scientific jargon, but she does it with the attentiveness required to maintain credibility. And so the book becomes a playhouse rather than a textbook for both readers and author, a collective game around the one feature distinguishing us from animals: the ability to fly despite not having the slightest semblance of wings.”
Without further ado, here are the reviews, in full.
First you laugh, then you reflect
The pages are laden with amazing questions, experiments and bizarre facts I did not know that I needed to know until now, writes Malin Lindroth of Zoe Cormier’s irresistible popular science.
By Martin Lindroth, July 21 2016
A dull sort of popular science is the type that speaks to the reader as a student at a school desk. It does not matter how interestingly or knowledgeably the topic is handled. If the author’s voice never leaves the comfortable position of the podium, I will lose patience. This is not because I have to be entertained at all cost, but because I believe popular science in particular, with its somewhat unique relationship between reader and author – one being a layperson, the other an expert – requires a different mode of address than pure non-fiction books. Combining humour with analysis is unusual to say the least.
This is why I am excited when Sex, droger och rock’n’roll lands on my desk. The fact is I have never read any popular science which has amused, sickened and thrilled me as much as this book.
The book, which is written by science journalist Zoe Cormier, is irresistible in tone as well as choice of topic. Using as a starting point the three greatest pleasures of humanity throughout the ages – sex, drugs and music – Cormier untangles the hedonism in our bodies, brains and history of science. The pages are buckling with amazing questions, experiments and bizarre facts I did not know that I needed to know until now. Who could have guessed that the genitals of ducks may have evolved in a kind of arms race with each other? That ecstasy was concocted in a shed by a scientist who tested drugs on himself as well as his wife? That a small bit of brain tissue, the size of a pinky fingernail, is the place where concerts take place? First you laugh (or grimace, or are stunned). Then you reflect. When Cormier is at her best, this is how she conducts her research.
The entertainment value is high, and, sure, at times it feels as though I am in the process of reading ten annual copies of the ‘90s publication En ding ding värld [equivalent to the Weekly World News]. But above all, Cormier is brilliant at combining wild thoughts with measured ones. As one of the founders of the science collective Guerilla Science she has dissected brains in jelly and served them for dinner, simulated the everyday life of a lab rat, and conducted neurological experiments on an island made of hay – all aiming to, as she puts it in the preface, “liberate science” and challenge the prejudice that “sigh-entists” are boring men in white coats. The same desire infuses her debut book.
At times I become slightly numb due to the fast pace, throwing me from the oral sex habits of hyenas to strange theories about human breasts, to dizzying journeys into the human ear. But on the whole, it is impossible not to be swept away by an author who is so faithful to her curiosity. Well-managed profanity is the strength of the book. Cormier has no trouble making a clean sweep of scientific jargon, but she does it with the attentiveness required to maintain credibility. And so the book becomes a playhouse rather than a textbook for both readers and author, a collective game around the one feature distinguishing us from animals: the ability to fly despite not having the slightest semblance of wings.
Zoe Cormier: ”Not enough research is done on sex, drugs and rock’n’roll”
In order to understand humankind we have to look at why we have such a unique position in the world of animals, in relation to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. This is the view of author and journalist Zoe Cormier, who will be appearing at Bokmässan Book Fair in Gothenburg next week.
Zoe Cormier comes from a family where most members have pursued artistic and aesthetic careers. So when her aunt director Mary Harron, who does not have a scientific education, said that she found Zoe’s book entertaining, it made her particularly happy. ‘She thought it would be much drier and more technical, as it is about science’, says Zoe Cormier when I reach her in London via Skype.
Next week she is coming to Bokmässan Book Fair in Gothenburg to discuss her book, which has now been translated into Swedish with the title ‘Sex, droger och rock’n’roll’.
She hopes she will get to exchange a few words with writer and musician Patti Smith who is also going to be there.
Zoe was only twelve years old when her father, who promoted bands at rock festivals, took her to a Patti Smith concert for the first time. Zoe loved spending time with her dad when he was working.
‘He often worked from home, so I would listen to his phone calls and meet his friends when they came to visit. It was often clamorous in our house with heavy metal, reggae, funk, Nirvana and Alice Cooper.’
Zoe went to so many gigs as a child that her mother called her ‘my backstage baby’.
She emails a photo of herself as a pre-potty-trained toddler where her parents have facetiously put a cigarette in her mouth as she listens to music wearing headphones.
In another picture she is nineteen years old and works as a bartender at a nightclub in Toronto where many different characters would gather, from leather-clad gay men to rappers and members of Scandinavian death metal bands.
‘It was a stage of my life where I got a lot of what today comprises much of my “training”’, says Zoe. While working at the nightclub on evenings and weekends she studied English Literature and Biology at university. She specialised in acoustic communication between different animals.
After finishing her studies she moved to London where she started working as a news reporter, predominantly writing about climate change and chemicals in agriculture. Then followed the newspaper crisis, and she increasingly made a living organising different events at music festivals.
That was when it dawned on her that she could combine her background in science journalism with her experiences of sex, drugs and music.
‘Writing has always been my greatest passion and it was really exciting to write this book’, she says, recounting that muddy festivals in London were where she learnt to love such a variety of things, and began trying to connect them.
‘At music festivals you have a mishmash of most things. There’s sex and drugs as well as massage and yoga, and a whole lot more. The only thing not quite represented is ”science”.’
Why? According to Zoe, science is often trapped within a formalised template and presented in a rigid way.
‘Many seem to think that research is simply following a series of strict rules, despite the fact that the history of science provides so many examples of the opposite.’
Researching is just as much to do with being a rebel, being open to things that may surprise you rather than looking for confirmation of what we already know, Zoe stresses.
Sex, drugs and rock are three expressions strongly associated with each other, almost as if they were synonymous. Why is that?
To this question, Zoe refers to the ancient and famous words, ”wine, women and song”, a phrase used around the world in several different languages. These are three ingredients often seen as vital to anyone who wants to live a good life, even though we do not need them for our immediate survival.
‘There is much to enjoy in life – sport, travel, flowers, theatre – but these three things are especially enriching. Yet we also look down on them as “sinful”.’
The thing Zoe finds hardest to understand is when different societal forces attack music. She talks about the Pakistani rock singer Amjad Sabri who was shot dead by Taliban militants in June this year on a road in Karachi, and how Islamists are trying to ban music in Mali, a country known for its musical traditions.
‘There is much to suggest that we used music before language, and I do not think we would be who we are without music.’
It is not uncommon for people, even in humanist, intellectual circles, to express a patronising view of music. For instance, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has compared music to intellectual ‘fast food’.
He has said that music teases the brain’s highways a bit like a sweet dessert would – and that language works more like a main course which for various reasons is more cognitively nourishing. Zoe says that Pinker has revised his statements since being criticised. However, she thinks this viewpoint has long-plagued the academic world and prevented scientists from developing therapeutic methods which could, for instance, use music instead of pharmaceuticals.
‘There is much to suggest that we used music before language, and I do not think we would be who we are without music.’
Recently studies have shown that music may have a beneficial effect on several conditions, such as stroke or schizophrenia. Musical therapy appears to help autistic children manage social interactions. Patients with Parkinson’s Disease may find it improves movement. And very premature babies appear to get a favorable growth curve if they are played music.
Yes, the list is almost endless. Zoe’s finds this lack of research particularly mind-boggling considering the great health benefits that could be gained.
Even the science of sex is peculiarly dark and depressing says Zoe, even though sex can be such an elixir of life. According to her, this is because scientific research has been governed by homophobia and misogyny.
‘Some studies have an atrocious political agenda,’ she says, discussing the positive feedback she received a few years ago when she wrote an article about Vulvodynia, a painful disorder affecting the vulva.
In the article she talks about a 38-year-old woman who saw eight gynecologists and was incorrectly treated several times in ways which aggravated her condition.
Finally the woman was told she should seek help from a psychiatrist.
Despite data showing that one in six women have experienced Vulvodynia at some point in life, there are gynecologists who do not even know of it.
‘Many will say that conditions relating to the genitals or sex are all in the brain. This is now understood as a simplistic way of looking at things.’
Simply saying that symptoms are either in the body or the brain is wrong, given what we now know about the brain’s role in various conditions involving physical pain.
‘If the woman had complained that her foot hurt the doctors would never have said it was because she was hysterical.’
That humans have such a unique response to sex, drugs and rock is partly due to our developed nervous system, says Zoe, who has tried many drugs but never heroin.
In the book she dedicates a few lines to friends – both alive and dead – with addiction problems, stating that drugs ‘are supposed to be treats – not lifestyles’.
Facts: Zoe Cormier
Zoe Cormier was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. She studied Literature and Biology at university before moving to London to work as a journalist.
She has written for The Times, Wired, Nature and The Guardian, and co-founded Guerilla Science, an organisation aiming to present science in a new way.
Her book Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll has recently been published by Fri tanke, translated by Lena Kamhed and Arne Norlin.
Next week Zoe is coming to Gothenburg to talk at the Bokmässan Book Fair.