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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BOOK REVIEW: Blue ed. by Ameena Hussein

Blue: The Tranquebar book of Erotic Fiction for Sri LankaBlue: The Tranquebar book of Erotic Fiction for Sri Lanka by Ameena Hussein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is an anthology or erotically-themed short fiction and poetry of Sri Lanka.

Readers who are interested in cultural idiosyncrasies, particularly related to sexuality, will find the works included offer fascinating insights. That said, readers whose primary experience with erotic fiction is, for example, French erotica will probably find the stories tentative and occasionally creepy in a desperation-derived way (e.g. the hotel employee who sneaks into an admired guest’s room and – among other things — sniffs clothing.) For readers outside South Asia, one must read these works with a recognition that it is a culture that is less open about sexuality, in which the sexes don’t co-mingle as freely in youth, and where people have to take love when and where they can get it to a greater extent than readers from elsewhere may be used to. That said, the characters in these stories tend to be from a more open and progressive segment of society, but they are still operating within the constraints of the society. Some readers will find the tentativeness endearing and nostalgic, others may find it slow or tame.

Before describing each work in brief, the reader may wish to be made aware that – unlike many works of erotica – this book does not target a particular sex or sexual orientation. By that I mean, it bounces around between straight, lesbian, and gay male relationships in its stories.

– The Proposal: The first-person narrator has a friend who is on the outs with his girlfriend, and said narrator has an opportunity to bed said girlfriend. There isn’t much deliberation about whether a “bro” should be put first here

– Sex in the Hood: A poem about art and life in challenging environs.

– Undercover: A middle-aged woman whose marriage has gone lukewarm, gets groped at a movie theater, and returns the next day.

– Me and Ms. J: An ex-pat in Brussels looks back on a youthful lesbian dalliance with an older woman.

– The Lava Lamp: When girlfriends end up staying together overnight, the lava lamp becomes a representation of the couple’s flow with each other. A short piece.

– Bus Stop: A young man works up the courage to advance a relationship with a pretty girl he’s been seeing (wordlessly) at the bus stop for months. This is one of the longer and more developed pieces.

– A Courtyard: An imagery-intensive poem not only about a courtyard, but what is glimpsed across it. Probably my favorite of the poetry.

– Veysee: If you thought my mention of a hotel employee who sneaks into a guest’s room and sniffs her clothes was creepy, this story about a porn-addicted thirty-something carrying out a covert relationship with an under-aged girl takes creepiness to a new level. (Though there are hints of recognition on the part of the character of the error of his ways.)

– No: This is less erotic than a commentary on things that go unsaid in sexual relationships because the individuals involved don’t know how to broach the subject, or because they are operating on fundamentally different wave-lengths. I should say that it’s not that it lacks the sensuality of erotica, but it deals heavily with consent being mowed down.

– I’d Like to Hold Your Hand: A poem describing how the author would like to proceed from holding hands to ecstasy.

– Bi-Cycle: This is a very brief dreamy piece about the author’s personal dilemma.

– Bookworm: A bookish young man gets ushered into sexuality by the shopkeeper of his favorite bookstore.

– What Reminds Me of You: A sensual poem of nostalgia for a past love.

– Room 1716: A lobby manager at a hotel in Colombo develops a secret crush on Alicia, a tourist from an undesignated Western country. When Alicia makes a short overnight trip, the manager arranges for her to keep her room without charge. Said manager then sneaks into the room to investigate clues about her girl-crush.

– 76, Park Avenue: A Russian (or other undesignated Slavic) man has a relationship with a Sri Lankan woman.

– Flower Offering: A sensual poem about flowers – literal and symbolic.

– Hot Date: A guy ends up in drama through pursuit of the most sexually willing girl.

I found this book to be interesting. As I said, to relate to many of its characters and their motivations one has to be aware of setting and cultural norms. It has a mix of more and less developed stories and characters. (Though there are no isolated sex scenes, as sometimes occur in erotic works.) There’s a lot of power-dynamics playing out, but not at all in the explicitly sadomasochistic dominant / submissive way. There are many characters and actions that a reader might find unsavory (e.g. the grown man who acts like he’s fresh out of puberty and has no self control is a recurring theme) but loathsome characters can be as readable as likable ones. (Only indifferent characters are unreadable.)

I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in taking a world tour of erotica.

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BOOK REVIEW: Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

Story of the EyeStory of the Eye by Georges Bataille
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This story follows a couple through a destructive series of events as they chase sexual hedonism. They aren’t a couple in the romantic sense so much as friends who share in common both intense sex drives and also a particular psychology. It’s a psychology commonly associated with rebellion against a repressive upbringing. This rebellion manifests both in a longing for perverse and taboo activities, and also in an urge to debauch the virtuous. This love of depravement is first seen in the pair’s actions with a conflicted girl of their own age, Marcelle, and in the climax and conclusion with a young priest in Seville. In yet a darker turn, the two also conflate violence and sexual arousal.

Character development is not particularly strong in this book, and without the requisite background, the actions of the unnamed male narrator and his companion, Simone, can seem hard to believe at times. (To be fair, the book is more surrealism than realism.) While lack of character development and character complexity are a common problem in erotic literature, this book is also smothered in Freudian belief about how strange sexual drives always and everywhere exist in the subconscious in a struggle to break free. In other words, Bataille may not have felt he needed to set up the reader for the bizarre behavior of the narrator and Simone because he saw the pair as not as unusual, but merely as how most people would behave if they were a bit braver and less inhibited.

Marcelle is the most multi-dimensional character. We see her on a teeter-totter that balances primal urges and constraining morality, or shame and abandon. But we don’t get much depth of her either because she is treated largely as a puppet or plaything for the lead characters.

The novel shares some tendencies in common with the works of Marquis de Sade, but it also displays some differences. The eroticizing of degrading virtuous characters is a theme that holds over. It might also seem that the involvement of a Catholic priest is a continuation of Sade’s philosophy as well. However, there’s a difference. In Sade’s work (and similar works of erotic political philosophy) the priests are lecherous and are villains in league with the aristocracy. Bataille’s priest is a man minding his own business, who would like to be virtuous, but the young priest just doesn’t have the inner strength in the face of a strong-willed debaucher.

From the discussion above and the comparison with the works of the Maquis de Sade, it should be clear that there is a great deal of graphic sexual activity and even a little bit of graphic violence in this book. For readers who aren’t disturbed by that, and who are amenable to a bit of bizarre and surreal activity, the book is intriguing both as a story and for its psychological insight. If you read horror, and aren’t disturbed by fetish sexual activity, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Velderet by Cecilia Tan

The VelderetThe Velderet by Cecilia Tan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The dual protagonists of this novel, Merin and Kobi, live in a society in which equality is the supreme value, and in which sexual freedom is nearly complete (except where it bumps up against the aforementioned value.) For many, this would be a utopia, but the problem for Merin and Kobi is that they crave subjugation. That might seem an unusual desire, but one need not look far to see how urges develop for little apparent reason other than a person being told that such activities are prohibited or taboo. Merin is a straight female serving as legislative worker bee. Kobi is a bisexual male who bartends at a leisure club that not only serves drinks but facilitates virtual reality cyber-sex. The two are roommates (part of equality is a pairing of unattached without consideration of gender or sexual orientation), and one evening in a buzz-fed stupor Kobi admits that he would like to know what it’s like to be enslaved.

This story in which these two try to figure out how to develop an underground community of those who revel in power dynamics as part of sexual activities, plays out in a larger geo-political and historical context. It turns out that the reason that this society (i.e. the Belledonians) is so keen on equality in all activities is that they were once a slave-owning empire, and they basically killed off another race of people who they’d enslaved (i.e. the Gehrish.) So, it’s a guilt-driven policy. As the individual level actions play out, this society is in trade and security negotiations with the Kylarans, a more technologically advanced society that still practices slavery. There is a fear that the Kylarans might decide not to trade as equals but to colonize the Belldonians.

The resolution of the story brings this sadomasochism fight club story line into contact with the larger geo-political story, and that raises the stakes and presents one with varying philosophical stances on the dominant – submissive relationship. While the Belledonians had brutally oppressed the race they subjugated (i.e. the Gehrish,) the Kylarans have a much more traditional, protocol-driven, and complex approach to these power dynamic driven relations. For example, leaders must spend time as slaves before they can progress upward in the chain of command.

As I hope has been made clear, this book combines erotica with sci-fi and sex scenes are ubiquitous and kinky. Readers who are squeamish about such matter will probably want to steer clear. However, if one isn’t disturbed by sex, and sexual power play, this story is readable and intriguing. I would recommend it for those who are intrigued by stories at the nexus of science fiction and erotica.

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BOOK REVIEW: Careless Whispers: Pritish Nandy Recreates the Best of Sanskrit Love Poetry

Careless Whispers: Pritish Nandy Recreates the Best of Sanskrit Love PoetryCareless Whispers: Pritish Nandy Recreates the Best of Sanskrit Love Poetry by Pritish Nandy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

This is the third in a series of [at least] three short, illustrated collections of love poetry. As with the others in the series, the poems are said to be based upon the work of historical poets though not – strictly speaking – translations of these poets’ work. The books were release in 1994 by Rupa & Co. with the sub-subtitle of “Classic India: Images of Love.” This book is different from the preceding volumes in a couple of ways that result in it having a different feel. First, the poems anthologize from the works of various poets rather than having a single inspiration. Second, they changed artists, and the artwork bears little resemblance to the previous volumes except with respect to being erotic in subject matter.

The book begins with a short introduction by Nandy that seeks to both introduce the reader to the anthology which serves as the basis for the poems included, as well as to explain that the poems are not translations but rather work with the gist of that poet’s verse to create new works, and why he took that approach. The source matter is said to have been originally anthologized by a Bengali Buddhist scholar named Vidyakara.

Beyond the introduction, the 50-ish pages are covered with poems and black and white line drawings. The poems are sparse free verse poems. Unlike the previous collections, it is quite clear where one poem begins and the next ends because these are attributed to different authors.

The artist who did the drawings is M. F. Husain. The drawings are not only monochrome, but are more crudely drawn and stylistic. (I’m not suggesting the artist is less skillful. They may well be purposely cruder, intending to reflect a historical artistic style rather than being modernistic like the previous volumes. The previous volumes’ art was very 1980’s.)

Despite the campiness of the titles, which are based on American pop tunes or romantic pop culture references, these books have insightful moments amid language that can sometimes drip with cliché and bland – if lustful — imagery.

If you read love poetry and run across a copy of this book, it’s worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Unchained Melody: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Amaru

Unchained Melody: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of AmaruUnchained Melody: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Amaru by Pritish Nandy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

This is the second in a series of [at least] three short, illustrated collections of love poetry. As with the others in the series, the poems are said to be based upon the work of historical poets (in this case, Amaru) though not – strictly speaking – translations of their work. The books were release in 1994 by Rupa & Co. with the sub-subtitle of “Classic India: Images of Love.”

The book begins with a short introduction by Nandy that seeks to both introduce the reader to Amaru and to explain that the poems are not translations but rather work with the gist of that poet’s verse to create new works, and why he took that approach. Amaru was a Sixth Century poet and anthologist. As for why Nandy rewrote, rather than translating from the Sanskrit, he offers an Italian quote that says that poetry translations are like women, “the more beautiful, the more unfaithful.”

Beyond the introduction, the 50-ish pages are covered with poems and colorful drawings. The poems are sparse free verse poems, and it’s not always clear where one is meant to begin and another end. Because the topic throughout is love, sex, and romance, and the imagery thereof, the poems often flow together — whether that was intended or not is not clear. One can choose to read them as short pieces or as a longer flowing pieces.

The artist who did color drawings (the look to be colored pencil drawings) is Samir Mondal. The plates are always erotic, sometimes symbolically so, but in most cases explicitly so – involving nude figures or sensuous lips.

Despite the campiness of the titles, which are based on American pop tunes or romantic pop culture references, these books have insightful moments amid language that can sometimes drip with cliche and bland – if lustful — imagery.

If you read love poetry and run across a copy of this book, it’s worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Untamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Bhartrhari

Untamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of BhartrhariUntamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Bhartrhari by Pritish Nandy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

This is the first in a series of [at least] three short, illustrated collections of love poetry. As with the others in the series, the poems are said to be based upon the work of historical poets (in this case, Bhartrhari) though not – strictly speaking – translations of their work. The books were release in 1994 by Rupa & Co. with the sub-subtitle of “Classic India: Images of Love.”

The book begins with a short introduction by Nandy that seeks to both introduce the reader to Bhartrhari and to explain that the poems are not translations but rather work with the gist of that poet’s verse to create new works, and why he took that approach.

Beyond the introduction, the 50-ish pages are covered with poems and colorful drawings. The poems are sparse free verse poems, and it’s not always clear where one is meant to begin and another end. Because the topic throughout is love, sex, and romance, and the imagery thereof, the poems often flow together — whether that was intended or not is not clear.

The artist who did color drawings (the look to be colored pencil drawings) is Samir Mondal. The plates are always erotic, sometimes symbolically so, but in most cases explicitly so – involving nude figures or sensuous lips.

Despite the campiness of the titles, which are based on American pop tunes (except this one which appears to be taken from an American romantic comedy film), these books have insightful moments amid language that can sometimes drip with cliche and bland – if lustful — imagery.

If you read love poetry and run across a copy of this book, it’s worth a read.

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