BOOK REVIEW: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, the Serial KillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This clever novel revolves around two sisters who seemingly couldn’t be more different, but who are never-the-less bound by blood and fate. The protagonist, Korede, is a diligent nurse who is respected for her rock steady and no-nonsense nature. She’s precise, meticulous, hardworking, but plain looking. The relevance of that latter bit is that her sister, Ayoola, is stupid beautiful (i.e. the kind of pretty that turns people into blithering idiots in her presence), is a little flighty, and is a serial killer.

While Korede is too smart to fall for Ayoola’s self-defense explanations for deceased boyfriends completely, Korede never-the-less assists Ayoola with disposing of bodies while trying to let Ayoola’s explanations soothe her conscience. But while Korede is morally-conflicted and guilt-ridden, the blood bond is such that her stance is never in question. That is until a handsome young doctor that Korede has a crush on and a friendship with becomes infatuated with Ayoola. This development sets up the ultimate test of the sisters’ bond.

Braithwaite does a great job of peeling away the layers of the characters. The beautiful sister / serial killer is only the most obvious example of the risk of taking people at skin depth. We learn that other characters aren’t as they appear when we can see them more fully. And as the morality tale is playing out, we are offered a lesson in how beauty (as with any other envied trait) can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

I found this book to be gripping and highly readable. The story is strong and the character development is well done. If you’re looking for an entertaining read in a strong story, I’d highly recommend it.

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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: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)All Systems Red by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella’s protagonist is a security cyborg that is corporately-assigned to protect a survey team of human scientists. What makes the story intriguing, not to mention humorous, are the features that we consider human frailties that are witnessed in the thoughts and behaviors of this cyborg. There is his discomfort in interacting with humans. He refers to himself as a “murderbot” and displays some of the awkward mannerisms that are familiar to me as an introvert, though — in this case — they aren’t so much about being easily overstimulated as being uncomfortable with the fact that humans see him as giant robot with great capacity for violence. (Hey, it dawns on me that maybe it is the same with me.) The Murderbot also displays the human traits of laziness and desire to be entertained, and is often watching serial shows when an ordinary robot would either be doing work-a-day tasks like downloading protocols or would be off-line.

The most salient human trait is that he bonds – if awkwardly — with part of his team, and – even though he’s lazy by nature – he goes to great lengths to make sure they survive. Because the Murderbot is notably lazy, the reader must consider whether his willingness to put his life on the line comes from something beyond his protocols. The reader doesn’t know to what degree the cyborg is free, though we do know it has hacked the governor unit that overrides autonomous functions, and so one knows it’s freer than most units in its line of work. [Of course, “putting it’s life on the line” isn’t necessarily as solemn a matter as with humans because murderbots are notoriously difficult to kill, and can suffer severe damage and be quickly repaired / healed – provided they have access to the requisite facilities.]

I won’t get into specifics of story except to say that it takes place on a remote planet that is newly being charted, and the Murderbot’s team is one of a couple teams independently surveying different parts of the planet. Things go wrong and the Murderbot’s team of humans must find out who is the culprit, why said culprit has done what they did, and get out alive.

I enjoyed this novella. The subversion of expectations that comes from the cyborg being perhaps the most neurotic of the characters provides plenty of opportunity for humor, not to mention light philosophizing about the nature of being human and how trust forms. Readers of sci-fi will certainly enjoy this story, non-genre readers should give it a try as well.

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BOOK REVIEW: Intimate Ties by Robert Musil

Intimate Ties: Two NovellasIntimate Ties: Two Novellas by Robert Musil
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume collects two recently-translated novellas written by the Austrian author, Robert Musil. Originally published in Musil’s native tongue in 1911, the novellas in question are: “The Culmination of Love” and “The Temptation of Silent Veronica.” Both novellas revolve around a woman tormented by love relationships and indiscretion. In the first, the woman is haunted by marital infidelity, and in the second, the titular character is entangled in an unconsummated love triangle gone awry.

While I can’t speak to how true the translations are to the original, I will say that the language is beautiful and is the highlight of book. However, these works shun story, and so readers of popular fiction will find them unengaging, and may come away thinking that the book’s greatest feature is its brevity. I will say, that “The Temptation of Silent Veronica” was more pleasurable to read as it built up some tension. Readers of prose poetry may enjoy the play of words and emotional content of these novellas.

For readers of literary fiction and prose poetry, I would recommend “Intimate Ties.” However, I suspect readers of popular fiction will find the book tedious. Particularly, likely to think so are those who pick up the book thinking it is romance or – even more so — erotica. While the themes revolve around love and relationships, the “action” is more in the character’s mind than in the bedroom.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories ed. by Jay Rubin

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short StoriesThe Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories by Jay Rubin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book contains 35 short stories by many of the most prominent Japanese writers (at least among authors whose works are translated into English,) including: Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Natsume Soseki, Yukio Mishima, Banana Yoshimoto, Yoko Ogawa, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, and Haruki Murakami (who contributes the book’s Introduction as well as two stories.)

The stories are arranged into seven sections that are apropos for modern Japanese literature: “Japan and the West” (3 stories,) “Loyal Warriors” (2 stories,) “Men and Women” (6 stories,) “Nature and Memory” (5 stories), “Modern Life and Other Nonsense” (5 stories,) “Dread” (3 stories,) and “Disasters, Natural and Man-made” (11 stories.) This organization scheme, which might seem random applied to most literature, offers some insight into the Japanese mind and experience.

“Japan and the West” reflects a Japan in the vanguard among non-Western nations entering into developed nation status. For a time, Japan sat in the unique situation of being the only rich nation that wasn’t majority Caucasian, and the uneasy balancing act that many Japanese felt is reflected in these three stories. “Loyal Warriors” reflects the long shadow of the feudal samurai era, and – in particular – the custom of ritual suicide. It’s true that “Men and Women” has a certain universality to it, though the individual stories speak to the Japanese experience and history. The section entitled “Nature and Memory” is really more about the latter than the former, and the stories all reflect a concern about remembering, forgetting, and the imperfection of memory. “Modern Life and Other Nonsense” explores the modern corporate existence. “Dread” are the horror stories, a genre that has a lengthy history in Japan. “Disasters, Natural and Man-Made” reflects Japan’s experience with many devastating earthquakes and two atomic bombs.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll not describe or comment upon all the stories. Instead, I’ll pick out a few that I found particularly moving. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t many gems among the others. But my intention is merely to give the reader a taste of what is in this volume.

– “The Story of Tomode and Matsunaga” by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro: A writer receives a letter from a woman whose husband has a history of pulling extended disappearing acts. She asks for the writer’s help because she believes he may know her husband. The writer makes a connection to an acquaintance he has frequently socialized with in bars. The writer notices the man’s appearance in town seems to line up with the dates the woman gave for her husband’s disappearances. It might seem like a mystery solved, but the two men look nothing alike.

– “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima: A junior military officer comes home and tells his wife that he has been put in the untenable position of having to arrest his comrades. Deciding that there is no honorable path, he decides to commit seppuku (ritual suicide,) and – given societal norms – this means his wife, too, will be expected to end her own life.

– “Smile of the Mountain Witch” by Ohba Minako: A mythical mountain witch is transposed into a modern urban setting.

– “Peaches” by Abe Akira: A man revisits a memory from his youth involving his mother and a cart of peaches, realizing that events couldn’t have happened as he remembers, he reconstructs events as he re-imagines his story.

– “Mr. English” by Keita Genji: We meet an office worker who seems like a bit of a jerk, but as we get to know his story, he is humanized.

– “Hell Screen” by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: A prima donna artist painting a hellish artwork for his Lord insists that he must have seen scenes to accurately depict them, and thus he is drawn into the hellishness of his work.

– “Filling Up with Sugar” by Suwanishi Yuten: A woman’s mother has a rare and incurable disease in which the body slowly turns into sugar.

– “Hiroshima, City of Doom” by Ota Yoko: As the title suggests, this is a story of the devastation of Hiroshima by atomic bomb at the end of the Second World War.

– “Weather-Watching Hill” Saeki Kazumi: This description of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami reads a bit like a journalistic account.

– “Same as Always” by Sato Yuya: This is a chilling tale of a mother who uses the release of radiation as a result of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant melt-down as a pretext for murdering her baby in a way that won’t look like murder. It’s so wrong in so many ways, but extremely evocative.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. The stories are great, and I would highly recommend it for readers of short fiction – particularly if one enjoys the cultural insight that comes from reading translated literature.

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BOOK REVIEW: Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No OneThus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No One by Friedrich Nietzsche
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The gist of this philosophical novel’s story is that the Persian sage, Zarathustra, comes down from his cave to inform people of his breakthrough, only to find the townspeople are utterly uninterested. This leads Zarathustra to take his show on the road, where he does better in discovering individuals who rise above the common man, but still they miss the mark of Übermensch – the Superman.

This book somehow simultaneously manages to be abstruse and readable. It can be tough reading when it uses symbolism and leitmotifs that are tough to crack, and when the story arc consists of long sequences of Zarathustra talking at people one after another. [It’s worth noting that I read that this was a particularly challenging book to translate, and so some of the difficulty may result from the edition I read being too literal or not literal enough.] On the other hand, it’s packed with pithy, quotable lines. The most famous of these is, “God is dead.” Others include: “Die at the right time!” “Better know nothing than half-know many things!” and “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.” Also, as I stated the plot in a tiny paragraph, it should be clear that the general flow of events isn’t hard to keep up with.

The quotes I presented above offer substantial insight into the philosophy being presented. First, with “God is dead” Nietzsche is advancing the existentialist fundamental that one needs to look not at religion for life’s meaning or for the means of proper behavior, but one must create one’s own meaning and morality. While some believe that Nietzsche is arguing for amorality, it seems that he’s more arguing to move beyond accepting pre-labeled boxes of “good” and “bad” handed down from on high, and rather insisting that one must make one’s own decisions about such matters. It must be remembered that society’s dictates also include collective prejudices and other negative biases. Second, the whole of the book is dedicated to the recognition that mankind must move beyond its current state of being constrained by the shackles of church, state, and society, and rise to a super-state (i.e. “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.”)

For me, this book picked up in the fourth and final part. This section brings together the more intriguing people Zarathustra interacted with along the road. In general, the book started as a slow read, but became much clearer and more readable as I went. The arguments are not hard, nor is the chain of events, but the way things are stated can be a bit incomprehensible. This may be one of those books for which one would be served by opting for a more heavily annotated edition rather than just the raw text.

I’d recommend this book. Whether one accepts its arguments or not, they are worth understanding.

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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: The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The TempestThe Tempest by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The storm (i.e. tempest) in question takes place off a remote, desolate, and magical island upon which lives the usurped and exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero, and his daughter, Miranda. The reader realizes that the storm’s timing is too great a coincidence when it’s revealed that among those on a ship caught in the tempest is Antonio, the usurping Duke of Milan. The learned Prospero has developed some magic abilities and gained control over some of the island’s airy spirits — most notably Ariel — as well as the deformed monster / slave named Caliban. Caliban was the son of a witch who was previously in charge of the island, Sycorax. Under Sycorax’s rule, Ariel and the other spirits were imprisoned, so Ariel and the others are now in indentured servitude to Prospero.

The brilliant mind of Prospero has hatched a plot that isn’t all vengeance, but also intends to get his daughter a worthy husband in the form of Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples. Both father (Alonso) and son (Ferdinand) are washed ashore after the apparent capsize of the ship, but Prospero sees to it that they are separated. The separation not only allows Ferdinand and Miranda to get acquainted, but also allows Alonso to be put through some trials to hasten his willingness to agree to the intended marriage. As Prospero is using Ariel to carry out his plot, under promise that he will free her, Caliban has joined with some drunken sailors and is plotting to kill Prospero so that he can be free of his bookish master. Needless to say, the crude scheme by the trio of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo is easily thwarted by Prospero and his spirit minions.

In the song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who, there’re lines that say: “meet the old boss / same as the new boss.” This play focuses heavily on ideas of hostile take over, the inevitable mixed effects, and how tensions are created that will play out. Ariel has at least the promise of being better off — when she works off her debt to Prospero, that is. Caliban is worse off because he is no longer in the power lineage. Caliban’s partners in plotting see a chance to go from being minions aboard a ship to kings of a tiny dynasty on the island. There is also the theme of relinquishing power, and the difficulty of doing so.

Some fun facts about “The Tempest.” First, it’s believed to be Shakespeare’s last play (although evidence is insufficient for certainty.) Second, while Shakespeare’s plays are typically readily divided into three categories: tragedies, comedies, and histories, scholars are a bit divided about which category this play belongs. It’s sometimes categorized as a “tragicomedy” because of its mixed features.

With the storm-washed, rocky island as setting, and the supernatural happenings on the island, this is one of Shakespeare’s eeriest and most mind-bending works.

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BOOK REVIEW: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, #1)Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The book’s lead, Clay Jannon, takes a job as night clerk at a 24-hour bookstore, having found himself jobless in the wake of a recession that sealed the fate of the tech startup for which he’d been working. The job is easy enough, but the workplace is an enigma. It attracts few paying customers, and mostly exists to serve a regular clientele who come in to borrow very old books that aren’t for sale. Working the night-shift, and with little real work to do, Jannon starts trying to make sense of the riddle of the bookstore, and ends up neck-deep in a world of secret societies and medieval encrypted codices.

The book is an entertaining read. There are certainly things about the story that are a little too easy, such as Jannon having a circle of friends that have the perfect set of resources and capabilities to carry out the story’s arc. This allows Clay to be presented as a scrappy underdog character, but he never has to be constrained by that status because he has a wealthy friend who will buy him anything he needs and a girlfriend from Google with the chops to gain him access to unlimited computing power. All that said, the book is more fantasy than strict realism, and so this isn’t really a problem for the reader who wants to lose him- or herself in an intriguing story. It’s also true that Clay is gregarious and likable and so one can imagine him easily building friendships – though, with a notable exception, he already has these friends before the story starts. But the characters are all distinct, and generate the desired state of liking or loathing.

[When I say “fantasy,” I should clarify that while there are hints about the possibility of the supernatural, readers don’t see real evidence of it. So, it’s realism in the sense that it’s a world limited by the same constraints as ours. However, it’s a world that features a secret society, The Unbroken Spine,” that stretches back almost to the Middle Ages, and which has been striving to decode a book produced by one of the earliest printers because they believe it may hold secrets of a supernatural nature. So, it feels like an urban fantasy / down the rabbit hole kind of story though, strictly speaking, it’s not.]

I enjoyed this book. The story is gripping even if it does feature some deus ex machina Hail Marys. The characters are likable and interesting. I’d recommend it for readers who like mystery and intrigue in the stories they read.

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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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