BOOK REVIEW: Kink ed. by R.O. Kwon & Garth Greenwell

Kink: StoriesKink: Stories by R.O. Kwon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: February 9, 2021

 

This is a collection of fourteen erotic short stories with a common theme of asymmetric power dynamics. [That’s an excessively syllabic way of saying Dominant / submissive, top / bottom, or Sadist / masochist relationships.] As is common with anthologies, a meaningful overall rating isn’t really possible. I found a couple of the included stories to be highly evocative or engaging, many were good, while others were just okay – plagued by the usual suspects that impair erotica such as characters without depth / intrigue or thin story. That said, none of the stories were poorly written.

To be fair, a broadly appealing erotica collection is a tall order. For one thing, erotica is the most idiosyncratic of genres. Like Horror, if it’s too tame for one’s tastes, it’s boring; if it’s too wild, it grosses one out — or otherwise become unreadable. [I suspect few (if any) readers will have the latter problem with this collection; some might have the former. (That is, given the likely readership demographic.) If you are picking up a book on kinky erotica, you are unlikely to be triggered or otherwise shocked or offended by anything contained herein.] In addition to the varied levels of intensity readers look for in erotica, there is the question of whether varied sexual orientations and identities are of interest to a given reader. This book covers a lot of ground in this regard, including heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and transgender characters.

Because the anthology is so qualitatively and topically varied, I’ll say a little about each story.

1.) “The Cure” by Melissa Febos: I found this to be a strange choice for the collection and – particularly – for opening the collection. It’s about a lesbian who decides to have sex with straight men because she’s having trouble in her customary dating pool, but since she likes sex, she decides to pursue it in the form least laden with complication. So far, it could be fine, but it devolves into a laundry list of what she finds disgusting about intimacy with men. Now, one would expect a lesbian to find having sex with a man unappealing; just as anyone might when having sex outside their preferred orientation. However, it does raise the question: Why am I supposed to enjoy reading about this in a book of erotica? I think it’s fair to say that reading about people enjoying having sex is more erotic than hearing about people who aren’t enjoying their experience.

2.) “Best Friendster Date Ever” by Alexander Chee: This is a story about a hookup between two gay men who meet via a dating site, and who find themselves in a mutually appealing top / bottom sexual experience. While it’s not a story with a great deal of depth, it would have made a better opening because at least if features two people who are having intercourse because they like having sex with each other [as opposed to because there’s nothing on Netflix and each is the best the other can do on short notice.]

3.) “Trust” by Larissa Pham: As the name suggests, this story revolves around the issue of trust and the challenges that subject presents in a relationship of dominance and submission. When the couple goes on a getaway, the story mirrors the experience of trust-building in sexual encounters with the non-sexual circumstance of the male (dominant) driving off for the day without telling the female (submissive) that he’s leaving — or when / if he’ll be back. There’s some interesting insight into submissive psychology to be seen in this story.

4.) “Safeword” by R.O. Kwon: In this story, we see an issue that was touched upon in the previous on (and which later recurs,) which is what happens when one member of an intimate relationship is more into the kinky aspect than is the other. In this case, it’s a sadomasochistic relationship in which the female masochist is more desirous of the sadomasochistic aspect of the relation than is her male partner. The couple goes to a dominatrix so that the masochist can get what she desires and the man can learn to better pleasure [i.e. pain-ify?] his partner.

5.) “Canada” by Callum Angus: This atmospheric piece describes a girl’s relationship with a female to male transgender. It’s one of the shorter pieces, and – as the title suggests – it plays heavily on the setting, Canada, to create ambiance.

6.) “Oh, Youth” by Brandon Taylor: The story centers on an attractive young man named Grisha, and the appeal he has for some middle-aged people – particularly the infatuation that develops between the husband in a married couple that he is staying with temporarily during a college break.

7.) “Impact Play” by Peter Mountford: A recently divorced man enters into a serious relationship with the woman he was having an affair with when his marriage ended. He and this woman share an interest in kink and fetish sexuality that his previous wife apparently did not. We don’t learn much about his ex-wife, but we do learn quite a bit about his cousin, Betsy, whom he treats as a confidant and with whom he has a special relationship.

8.) “Mirror, Mirror” by Vanessa Clark: Diary entry of a well-endowed transgender escort. The story explores the fetishized nature of the main character’s occupation.

9.) “Reach” by Roxane Gay: A man and wife enjoy the former tormenting the latter with a steady stream of indignities as a fetish in their romantic life. It’s one of the more sensual pieces of writing in the anthology.

10.) “Gospodar” by Garth Greenwell: I would rate this as one of the two strongest entries in terms of story. It’s not the typical erotica in which the character comes out the other side of the story completely unchanged except for being momentarily spent. A submissive gay man meets up with a dominant in Romania that he learned about through the internet. The interaction starts off swimmingly, but it takes a hard turn south. The story is quite visceral, but provokes thought on the nature of consent where power dynamics are in play.

11.) “Scissors” by Kim Fu: This story is set amid a stage show in which sharp objects are used to undress a performer in motion. Attendees aren’t just after the prurient appeal of the striptease, but the vicarious visceral fear.

12.) “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror” by Carman Maria Machado: This story has some superficial commonalities with the previous one – i.e. it largely takes place in a theater in which frightening shows are put on that feature a damsel-esque central character. However, it’s also quite distinct from the previous story. It’s the longest story and is the other entry that I consider strongest in terms of narrative qualities. The central character is a young girl [called “Bess” though that isn’t her real name] who becomes the protégé of the main character of the aforementioned horror show. The story is all about the changing nature of their relationship as the protégé grows from girl to woman.

13.) “Retouch / Switch” by Cara Hoffman: This ethereal piece is about fluctuation in sexuality and identity. It’s one of the shorter pieces, and features a dreamlike quality.

14.) “Emotional Technologies” by Chris Kraus: This piece frames the dominant / submissive relationship in artistic and philosophical terms. It’s erudite and among the most thought-provoking pieces in the collection. In particular, it discusses the role of an acting “technology” (most people would call it a “method”) that uses somewhat cruel and savage tactics to achieve the desired outcome. Because I’m a nerd who likes thinking about things that are “out there,” I really enjoyed this story. Others may find that the erotic adventure is undone by the philosophizing.

If you’re intrigued by what you’ve read so far, you should definitely give this one a read. While it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s well-written and has broad appeal. It takes chances in some ways, but stays inside the lines of most readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Inferno [a.k.a. Hell] by Henri Barbusse

The InfernoThe Inferno by Henri Barbusse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a translation of the French novel, L’Enfer, which is alternatively entitled Hell or The Inferno in various English language editions. It’s a short work with a simple premise, but is nevertheless psychologically and philosophically intriguing. An unnamed narrator, lodging at a rooming house, discovers that he can see and hear into an adjacent room. The book describes what this man witnesses, as well as doing some philosophizing about what he sees and the conversations he hears.

While the events of the book are voyeuristic and said voyeur does witness various sexual dalliances, it’s not a graphic – and certainly not a pornographic – work. The author is as much interested in the pillow talk as he is in the acts of intimacy, which it’s not clear how well he can see anyways.

It should also be pointed out that not all of what the narrator witnesses is carnal in nature. It could be argued that the most fascinating scenes involve an old man who is dying. In addition to the non-erotic intimacy of dying, itself, there’s a scene in which a priest comes to offer the dying man last rites. At first the old man is agreeable enough to this, but as the priest’s dogmatism and accusatory tone becomes oppressive, the man has enough and tries to send the priest away. The scene turns expectation on its head as the priest is so fearful for the man that he ultimately tries to just get the man to say the bare minimum needed to ensure his salvation. But, by that time the man — who doesn’t seem fearful at all – is no longer interested.

Another intriguing scene sits toward the end of the book. It’s one in which the story goes meta- on itself. The narrator, this time dining at a restaurant, witnesses a well-known writer who is sitting at a nearby table tell his guests about his new writing project. What he describes is the same as the book one has just read (in subject but not in tone) – i.e. it involves a boarder who is a voyeur, peeking in on an adjacent room. The difference is that the fictitious author wants to make it all humorous. This offends the narrator’s sensibilities. The narrator presumably wishes such a book to be more like the one that one is almost finish reading – deeper and more philosophical.

I found this book to be thought-provoking and evocative. It puts the reader into the voyeur’s seat and shows one people’s behavior when they think they are alone, they think they are only with a loved one, or they are engaged in intimate activities with someone with whom they don’t have a truly intimate relationship. It makes one think about how well one really reads the people one comes in contact with.

If you are interested in the psychology of intimacy and solitary behavior, this book raises some interesting considerations. I’d highly recommend it for individuals not too weirded out by the book’s voyeuristic aspect.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Power of Mesmerism by Anonymous

The Power of MesmerismThe Power of Mesmerism by Anonymous
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Occasionally, a book comes along that is so ill-named that one needs to first discuss what the book is and isn’t. If one only read this work’s title, one might think it’s an early self-help book on hypnotism. It is not – not by a longshot. [Mesmerism, named for Franz Mesmer, is an alternative name for a system he called “Animal Magnetism” that involved a prototypical form of hypnotism along with other practices – most or all of which have been proven to have no scientific merit whatsoever. Because the “magnetism” part of animal magnetism bore no fruit, and only hypnotism proved at all useful, the word “mesmerism” became a synonym for “hypnotism.”] If one read the subtitle, the words “erotic narrative” would clue one into the fact that the book is racy fiction. That it is, but that still may not mentally prepare the reader for the particular nature of this piece of Victorian Erotica.

Even for readers generally comfortable with erotic content, this book may be unappealing owing to three controversial forms of content. First, there’s sexual activity that occurs without consent. The fictitious way in which hypnosis is portrayed in the book is key to understanding this issue (it’s a fantastic depiction that is common in fiction, television, and movies because it makes an interesting plot device.) In the book, mesmerism can be used to make the subject do anything the the hypnotist asks them to, and the subject is perfectly amnesiac (i.e. they remember none of what transpired in the trance state.) Real hypnosis cannot be used to force a person to do anything they don’t want to do, and while a suggestion to forget can be made, results will vary. Some subjects will have no memory of the trance, but others will remember what happened with perfect clarity. I should point out that this isn’t the harshest non-consent scenario because all of the characters eventually are made (at least vaguely) aware of what has happened and are depicted as being “into it.”

Second, much of the content is incestuous (and, on a related note, while the lead character’s sister seems to be physically mature, she is presumably not of legal age of maturity – not today’s, at least.) The story revolves around a young man who comes back home from school, having learned the tricks of mesmerism. He first employs them on his younger sister, then on some household staff, then upon his parents, and finally on a cast of friends and family. The final point which some readers will find excessively offensive involves a lecherous and perverse clergyman. [Though individuals offended by portrayals of depraved clergy probably don’t read many historic works of erotica because from at least “The Decameron” (AD 1351) onward a hypocritical and libidinous priest is par for the course in erotic scenes. As one can imagine, the Church and writers of erotica have not gotten along, historically.]

As is common in erotica that leans pornographic, story and character development are nearly non-existent in this work. It’s largely one sex scene after the other with the only internal logic being that they be more scandalous / decadent as they proceed.

Any recommendation must be qualified. If you can’t deal with sexual activity, this book is definitely not for you. But, furthermore, if any of the three types of content I mentioned above are non-starters for you, this also isn’t your book. If you read historic fiction and don’t mind the aforementioned content, you can find this book on Project Gutenberg and other public domain outlets on the web.

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BOOK REVIEW: SFSX, Vol. 1: Protection by Tina Horn

SFSX (Safe Sex), Vol. 1: ProtectionSFSX (Safe Sex), Vol. 1: Protection by Tina Horn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is “The Handmaid’s Tale” meets “Ocean’s Eleven.” Well, admittedly, that’s a concise pitch-line offering more confusion than information value. Allow me to clarify. This series is set in a dystopia in which morality and sexuality are controlled by the state, and efforts are underway to eliminate any “deviant” sexual activity (i.e. any sexual activity not involving a heterosexual married couple having vaginal intercourse – preferably with a strong procreative intent.) Within that world, it’s a heist story. [Some might argue that it’s more a prison break, but because it involves people breaking into a secured facility in order to get others out, I stand by my descriptor. That said, it really combines the two because one of the prisoner’s takes agency to affect escape]

The story’s protagonist is a woman named Avory. She once worked a giant sex club / dungeon called “The Dirty Mind” before “the Party” [the conservative guardians of morality] consolidated control. When the Party did come to power, they raided The Dirty Mind. Avory escaped with a client who she’d fallen for, the two got married, and they were trying to live “normal” lives in compliance with the new laws. When this façade falls apart, Avory goes back to her old [kinky] friends seeking help. However, she’s seen as a turncoat by them. They don’t trust her, and they decline to help her. But things change when the Party publicizes its new activities.

Because of the nature of comic books / serialized graphic novels, the first thing I feel I need to say is that I found this to be a complete and satisfying story arc. This format often fails in this regard because it’s a challenge to keep an eye on an overall run arc while building that overarching story from component stories [that are truly stories.] Often the end of a volume feels like a speedbump rather than a conclusion. However, that isn’t the case here. That doesn’t mean the story is not left with someplace interesting to go. It is. However, if all one read was this volume, one would experience a self-contained story. In short, I felt Horn [and team] did a great job of balancing “leave them satisfied” with “leave them wanting more.”

I also found character development to be well-done. The characters are all developed, unique, and we can see their combination of motivation and internal conflict. Flashbacks are put to good use to give the reader enough insight to see why this gulf exists between Avory and her former best friends. However, these are kept to a few panels (usually at the beginning of each issue) and so they don’t bog the story down.

By this point, this probably goes without saying, but in the interest of due diligence: this book is graphically sexual. The artwork and dialogue are explicit. I won’t get into an extended philosophical discussion of whether it’s pornography or erotica. As I said, there is a story, and all of what is shown is in service to that story. That said, nothing is held-back, either. One of the book’s key points is the importance of consent as shown in the contrast between the consensual activities in the club and the “reconditioning” activities carried out by the Party. Long story short, there are some cringe-worthy scenes, at least to laity to sadomasochism. So, if you are sensitive to such matters or are purchasing this for someone who is, buyer beware.

I found the story gripping and also thought-provoking. If you are not averse to graphic sexual content, I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sins of the Cities of the Plain by Jack Saul

Sins of the Cities of the PlainSins of the Cities of the Plain by Jack Saul
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Project Gutenberg page

 

This is a short work of Victorian erotica that describes the sexual adventures of a male prostitute of the variety then called a “Mary-Ann.” The “Mary-Ann” was an effeminate male who — to a large extent, but not exclusively — serviced male clients. The story is presented in an epistolary form. It opens with a chapter that’s written as if by a john of the pseudonymous author / main character. This opening sets up the rest of the work by explaining how this john, a Mr. Cambon, came to use Jack Saul’s services, and – furthermore – how he then became involved in the publication of this story.

After the details of Mr. Cambon’s interaction with Jack Saul is presented, the book proceeds as if a diary conveying the saucy bits of Saul’s sex life (both professional and personal.) While Saul explains that he prefers engaging older male clients, the book presents a mix of homosexual and heterosexual activities (both in his work and in his personal relationships.)

There is some ancillary matter in the book. After Saul concludes [what is presented as] his personal story, he offers some second-hand accounts of individuals in the same line of work. Here one learns about the worst elements of these sex workers in the form of “George,” an anti-Semitic mary-ann who engages in blackmail and other heavy-handed and sociopathic tactics that – as far as we know – Jack Saul doesn’t engage in. [Although, under the direction of a client, Saul does take part in some unsavory practices.]

There are also a couple of essays at the end, one on sodomy and another on tribadism. If you’re like I was, you have no idea what tribadism is. That brings up a point worth mentioning. If you decided to read this work, you may want to have a good dictionary near at hand. The slang and terminology of the sexual domain have not aged well, and you may find yourself needing to look up many words. (Though, admittedly, context often gives one a strong clue.)

If you’ve gotten this far, it should be clear that there is a great deal of explicit sexual content in this book. While readers of some modern-day erotica might not find it particularly racy, it’s graphic in its descriptions and does involve a wide range of practices.

This book shines a light on a domain of Victorian society that one will not learn about from Dickens or Austen. Like most pornography, it’s not particularly well-developed or artistically grand, but it’s intriguing in its own way.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Convent School by Rosa Coote

The Convent School: Early Experiences of a Young FlagellantThe Convent School: Early Experiences of a Young Flagellant by Rosa Coote
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This novella is a work of Victorian erotica. Given the Victorian era’s legendary hyper-moralism and widespread desire to downplay of sexuality, one might be forgiven for thinking of the term “Victorian erotica” in the same vein as “Medieval Electronics.” However, the psychology of interest revolves around the question of whether repression produces obsession, resulting in sex becoming more entangled with guilt and punishment than it is with love and romance. The Convent School tells the sexually-charged story of a girl / young woman / woman who receives a lot of spankings before, during, and after her time at the titular convent school — in the latter case, as an unfaithful married woman.

That brings us to mention the first of two [overlapping] groups of readers who are unlikely to find any appeal in this book, and who would be advised to steer clear of it. First of all, anyone with delicate sensibilities regarding sexual activities will likely find this work over the line. If you are expecting something like Bram Stoker’s Dracula that is sensual but in only a vaguely sexual sort of way, you’ll be in for a rude shock. This story is presented with a pornographic level of graphic detail. It holds nothing back and leaves little to the imagination. I should point out that the story gets more graphic as it progresses. So, for example, before the girl is sent to convent school, the main sexual activity goes on behind closed doors between the girl’s matron-like tutor and the girl’s father (or so the reader is led to believe,) with the girl’s solitary self-exploration forming the most graphic portion. However, by the time she is a married woman being punished for the transgression of infidelity the story reaches a brutal level of graphic detail.

The second group are those who are piously religious. In written tradition that predates the Victorian era, and which includes works like Boccaccio’s The Decameron and any work by the Marquis de Sade, the clergy are presented as libidinous and hypocritical. [At least, that’s how the clergy who feature in the story are portrayed. While it could be argued that they are exceptions to the rule, it might also be claimed that these authors are saying something about how the inability to engage in romantic sexuality will – rather than resulting in the desired asexuality – result in a perverse weaponization of sexual activity.]

As for who would read this book, beyond the obvious — those for whom sado-masochism and bondage / domination has great interest or appeal, the readership is a niche group with interests in history and / or psychology as it [they] overlap[s] literature. It’s fair to say that this is a work that might have been totally forgotten had it not been for the fact that Alan Moore revived the pseudonym and fictitious biography of the author of The Convent School for use in his graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (a work that imagines a collection of Victorian era fictional characters (Allan Quatermain, Mina [Harker] Murray, Dr. Jekyll, and Captain Nemo) brought together as a team of heroes. Having said that it might have been completely forgotten from the annals of erotic literature, it is available on Project Gutenberg.

Normally, here I’d give a recommendation or anti-recommendation, but this whole review serves that function, so consider yourself forewarned / informed.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hogg by Samuel R. Delany

HoggHogg by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re familiar with Samuel R. Delany, it’s probably as a writer of science-fiction. His most famous works are “Dhalgren” and “Babel-17.” However, this book isn’t science-fiction, and I’m not sure that there is a consensus term for the particular genre that would categorize it. Astute readers will point out that it’s described as “erotica” right on the cover. But, in as much as erotica is a genre whose dominant intention is to evoke feelings of arousal, I’m not sure the majority of people would classify it that way (though I have no doubt there is a fetish community that would.) This isn’t to say that the book isn’t loaded with sexual activity. It is, across virtually every page, but the way those acts are presented — I suspect — will be found more cringe-inducing than arousing to the average reader. I’m specifically talking about the extreme unhygienic behavior that takes place throughout this book – much of which is tied up in sexual activity, but not all of it. Let it be known that I’m not commenting on the nature of the sexual activity, which is pansexual. I’m not even talking about the moral disgust of the fact that most of the scenes in which a woman is present involve rape of a particularly vicious nature, and that child molestation takes place throughout. By the same token, horror isn’t a good classifier either, though the book does have many horrifying scenes, and might best be categorized by a type of horror subgenre. If horror is a genre designed to evoke fear, “Hogg” is a book designed to evoke disgust – and it does so with great success. So, the first thing a reader should be aware of before taking on this book is that you may throw up in your mouth at one or more points during the reading of it.

So strong is aversion to disgust that probably most readers will have given up on this review by now and given up any intention of reading the book. Those who are still here, however, may want to know whether the book has redeeming qualities. The answer is: Yes. It has a smart story, psychological intrigue, and skillful use of language (even if much of that skill is directed at making one physically queasy.) While “Hogg” is often painful to read, it is adroit storytelling.

The book tells the story of the unnamed narrator, a boy who is known throughout only by a slang term for “giver of fellatio.” The narrator spends much of the book in service to the titular character, Hogg. Hogg is about as loathsome a character as one can imagine, and he needs the extra “g” because to call him a hog wouldn’t be an insult to swine. He exercises little control over where he urinates and defecates, and prides himself in unhygienic behavior. His job is contract work, but instead of murder he rapes and beats women who’ve run afoul of despicable and cowardly men. The lead character seems to be motivated by a need to please and / or capture the attention of an individual who has no capacity for human connection. The psychotic Hogg seems perfect target for such “affections,” and that’s why after bouncing from master to master, the narrator ends up with Hogg for such a time.

One of the most psychologically interesting elements of the book is its depiction of the bizarro morality of individuals who have an anarchic mindset. At one point, Hogg decides that he can’t tolerate a customer who insists on explaining his reason for hiring Hogg and his crew. In Hogg’s mind, the fact that the man can come up with a reason for the horrific act, other than the pure bliss of it, indicates that the man is crazy and will ultimately feel guilty and be the ruin of them all.

The story is swept along through its climax and resolution when Hogg’s most junior crew member (not counting the narrator who is only along for the ride) goes on a killing spree after an ill-advised penis-piercing. The reader never learns for certain whether this individual just lost his mind as a result of being drawn into Hogg’s world, if it was toxicity from the rusty metal he was pierced with, or some combination of both. However, we know from his chronic, public masturbation that he was never completely right in the head to begin with.

This book is not for everybody. Reading it is almost an act of courage and discipline. As a piece of literature, it’s intense and thought-provoking, but if you find any of the following intolerable to read about, you’ll not get through it: child molestation, rape, violence, the n-word, or coprophilia.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs

The Wild BoysThe Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a work of the Beat novelist best known for “The Naked Lunch.” It’s one of those dystopian novels (like “1984”) that makes for a strange read because the date of the hugely transformed world which it envisions has come and gone with nothing close to it so far. [To be fair, it was written in the late 60’s, first published in the early 70’s, and imagines the world in 1988, but – also – I don’t think this is meant to be our universe.] The world it imagines is one in which hedonistically homoerotic gangs of young men are taking over the world, literally. When they aren’t engaged with staggering amounts of masturbation and intercourse, these “Wild Boys” are a force to be reckoned with because of their penchant for violence and mind-altering drugs.

As I’ve heard said of other works by Burroughs, his drug-fueled writing creates a work that has flashes of brilliance but also tracks where it’s not at all clear where the book is going — if anywhere. Some of the language is poetic and the description fascinating in its surreal psychedelicness. On the other hand, it also manages to make ostensibly thrilling subjects like sex and violence tedious both by dragging along with them till a rut forms and by offering the reader indistinct characters. When I’d gotten to the end, I thought it interesting that there were no named characters, but when I flipped through I saw that there were several recurring named characters, they just didn’t develop any life of their own. Certainly, all the wild boys seem like sex-driven versions of the Borg from “Star Trek” – meaning they are indistinguishable because they have the same motive (in the case of the wild boys: 90% sexual release / 10% fight) and they all behave identically. A number of the other characters are similarly boxed caricatures, e.g. the righteous and naïve military officer.

About two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through, the book has an interesting and comedic sequence in which we find out that America intends to save the day and rid the world of these packs of “deviants.” There is support among local communities from Mexico to Marrakesh — as one would expect from normal people tired of roving gangs of jock-strap covered, knife-wielding youths taking over their cities. At any rate, this seems to be a metaphor for the Vietnam War. We have these high-ranking officers who are under the impression that their technological and resource superiority – but especially their moral superiority – will grant them a quick victory over the primitive and morally bankrupt enemy. As with Vietnam, they are proven wrong.

This is a bizarre book and kind of hard to rate. It begins with an intriguing start in Mexico, but I’m not sure where that line went. It has a long period of drag that reminded me of Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” in that it just becomes so bogged down in hedonism that it manages to make it tiresome. Then this battle line opens up, and that is fascinating and amusing.

As for recommendations, I imagine there is the widest possible set of views on this book, from those who despise it to those who find it to be a masterpiece of a novel. Hopefully, I’ve presented enough for you to make up your own mind about which class you are likely to fall into.

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BOOK REVIEW: Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg

CandyCandy by Terry Southern
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The protagonist of this story, Candy Christian, is a caricature of a flighty, young beauty with daddy issues. Candy’s personality mixes cringe-worthy naivete with an endearing – if unjustified – optimism about the virtue of men. This, combine with her laudable but exploitable desire to render assistance, leads to a chain of events in which her trusting nature is repeatedly manipulated, usually without her ever becoming aware she’s been duped (or, at least, without it being admitted to the reader.)

This book claims to be a satire on Voltaire’s “Candide.” While readers may find varying degrees of commonality between the books, they do share some common ground. Both start with the protagonist being educated by a philosopher. In Candide’s case, it is Pangloss (i.e. “all talk”) who insists that Candide lives in the best of all possible worlds. In Candy’s case, it’s Dr. Mephesto (i.e. presumably derived from the Germanic demon “Mephestopheles” whose name means something like “scatterer of lies,”) and Candy’s philosophy teacher harps on the point that a person must find meaning in service, and to be willing to demonstrate that service as – of course – an attempt to bed Candy.

The books are also both episodic, jumping from location to location with adventures occurring at each locale. However, this episodic nature starts late in “Candy,” with the first two-thirds or so taking place in her hometown (Racine, WI) and – only then going on the move. Despite the availability of air travel, Candy doesn’t get around as much as Candide, though she does finish her journey at a Tibetan monastery. Both books have also been classified as being of the “education of a youth” (i.e. Bildungsroman) variety. However, they both have also been criticized on the basis that there wasn’t much of value learned by the lead. That said, Candide offers a clear moral to end the story, whereas Candy’s takeaway is in a more ambiguous twist ending.

“Candy” (the book) hinges on more than one absurd turn of events, but given that the genre is humor, I had no problem with that. [Even Shakespeare, in works like “The Comedy of Errors,” asks one to suspend disbelief in exchange for a laugh and some solid entertainment.]

I will point out one last similarity between “Candide” and “Candy,” they have both frequently been banned on the basis of moral arguments. Which brings me to to a couple warnings. If it’s not been made clear to this point, this book is sexually graphic, and individuals troubled by that may want to avoid it. The other class of reader who may be offended by the work are those disturbed by the book’s frequent victory of exploitative characters. In some ways, the book shares as much in common with Marquis de Sade’s “Justine” as it does with “Candide.” While the tone isn’t at all dark like Sade’s book, the story does suggest that world order is such that the weak and naïve will repeatedly be exploited by the strong and amoral.

I found the book to be humorous. The story is intriguing and well-developed, and – if one can suspend one’s disbelief regarding a few of the more absurd events – the reader will find it engaging. It’s not always a comforting read, but if you don’t mind (or enjoy) that condition, then you’ll likely to find it a pleasant read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Venus in FursVenus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This novella revolves around the relationship of Severin and Wanda. Severin is obsessed with Wanda (the titular “Venus in Furs”) to the extent that he seeks to deify her and to submit to her as a slave. The problem arises that Severin can only take this proposition to a middle ground. He isn’t contented with a traditional spousal arrangement, but yet he is unable to submit to the fullest extent of what it means to be enslaved. He, as have many others, believes that if he submits himself fully, he will become the center of Wanda’s world and she will have no need of other relationships. And, as it has for many others, this “domination through submission” scheme frays and fails in time.

Wanda, for her part, recognizes this disparity and is conflicted about the idea of having a slave. Her rational mind thinks it’s a bad idea, her own cravings are for a man with a more commanding personality, but her hedonistic pleasure centers find it a not altogether objectionable state of affairs. After an extended period of spurning the proposition, she goes all in and agrees to test the proposition. If she is reliable, she does this in order to teach Severin a lesson – though one can never tell about the reliability of claims on motive, particularly when made by a character who is conflicted. What is clear is that Severin’s desire to be both her man and her slave is untenable because what she wants in the former is not seen in the latter. As the story unfolds, Severin is exposed to greater and greater challenges to his ability to maintain the façade of slave.

This novella, first published in 1870, is a bit slow-moving, particularly in the early part of the arc. However, it is an interesting study in psychology and how mismatched motives kill relationships. If it seems intriguing, read it, but it’s not a premise everyone will find intriguing. Some will find it disturbingly kinky, though — it should be noted — others will find it far too tame and lacking in explicit sexuality for a book about an intimate relationship.

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