The Coming Together series is a worthy project headed by Alessia Brio, with the proceeds going to benefit various charities, in this case the National Center for Lesbian Rights. I’ve contributed stories to a couple of the anthologies, and feel a bit guilty for not doing more, so you can understand why I approached reading the book for this review with some trepidation. Nobody wants to be less than supportive of such a good cause.
I shouldn’t have worried.
I have to admit that I’d only read the two volumes my stories are in, but those were both excellent, so there was no reason to doubt that this one would be just as good. My only real complaint, in fact, is that the table of contents lists the stories’ titles, but not the authors’ names. If I’d seen those names right away I’d have known I was in for a treat. Most of the authors are familiar to me, several have written for my own anthologies, and they’re all in top form here.
As with anthologies in general, not every story will appeal equally to every reader, which isn’t a bad thing. Variety may be even more important in erotica than in other genres. Some of these pushed my buttons harder than others, but my buttons are on the jaded side, and I tend to like a story to be about more than sex, or about sex in new and complex contexts.
This (plus the masterful writing) is why Lisabet Sarai’s “Sundae Bloody Sundae” was the standout here for me, or at least the piece that sticks in my mind the most. Can a Dominant/submissive relationship be expanded to deal with problems like eating disorders? How far can dominance in a sexual context go to counteract a submissive’s self-destructive tendencies? Don’t worry, there’s plenty of deliciously hot sex on the way to answering that question.
Salome Wilde’s “The Princess’ Princess” appealed to me in a different way, with a fairy-tale aura but believable characters, and lush, vivid imagery. Kate Atwood’s “The Same But Different” is memorable for the imagery of D/s sex against a TV news background of raging fires in Australia; some of this worked for me, and some of it didn’t, but that’s just a matter of personal taste. The first story in the book, “Angel” by Ms Peach, was well-done and fit the book’s theme of “girl on girl” in the sense that the phrase is subtly different from saying “lesbian.” One of the characters is pretty clearly straight and fooling around with the other just as a reaction to breaking up with her boyfriend. But (personal taste again) I was happy to find that all the rest of the stories came down clearly on the lesbian side of the spectrum. I was also happy to find such a wide range of erotic scenes, vanilla to kinky, heartfelt to one-shot, and of settings, including an art gallery, a hot air balloon, and outer space.
The outer space story, “Fair as the Moon, Clear as the Sun” by Laurel Waterford, also one of my favorites, was already familiar to me from Women on the Edge of Space published by Circlet Press. Another reprint that I loved the first time around and enjoyed revisiting was the highly original “Winner Take All” by Andrea Dale, first encountered in The Harder She comes: Butch Femme Erotica edited by DL King for Cleis Press. I’m fine with reprints—in fact my two stories for Coming Together anthologies were reprints—and there may well have been more than I noticed, but my first reaction was that I wished there had been a list of where they had been previously published. On second thought, though, I understand the necessity of keeping expenses as low as possible when charities are getting the proceeds, and every page saved counts, which also applies to the lack of author names on the t able of contents. I shouldn’t complain.
There are things to praise in all of these stories, and I highly recommend the book as a whole. In fact I expect that the entire series of Coming Together books is well worth reading. Where else can you get so lucky while doing good?
Ah, the fabled Mile High Club. Talk about an extremely narrow theme for an anthology. You've got your airplane bathroom - even in first class, it's a place where people void their bowels - or your seat, which is about as comfortable as those hard plastic desk seats in high school. Oh yeah, and the cockpit. Not much there to work with fantasy-wise, and it shows in the lack of diversity. I also wondered if this anthology was a reprint because I've read several of these stories before. However, I suppose if joining the Mile High Club is a huge fantasy for you, you might want this anthology.
The well-written contributions are by veterans of the erotica scene. In Alison Tyler's “Planes, Trains, and Banana-Seat Bicycles,” a couple is offered a trip to a remote island by her richer sister. Nothing about the trip appeals to them, but he uses it as an excuse to playfully torment her. It's so nice, so romantic, to see a couple in sync with each other. They know who they are, and that’s sexy.
“When Your Girl Friend Wears a Very Short Skirt,” by Thomas Roche, shows how a master at the genre can take the same scenario and make it transcend the others. He's such an entertaining writer. His characters leap off the page.
I know I complained about sex in the bathrooms, because ick, but Stan Kent's Aisle Seat did the best job of making me forget stagnant water pooled on the floor and the sickeningly sweet scent of airplane hand soap. Stan is the author of the (in)famous Shoe Leather series, and his continuing appreciation for fine women's shoes shows in this piece, as well.
Julia Chambers begins her lush, erotic, pseudo-memoir My Renaissance with an “Author's Note” stating her intentions. After rummaging in the fabulous pornography collection at the British Museum Library, surveying Reage and de Sade, Black Lace and the twentieth century classics from Olympia Press, she complains that pretty much everything she has read was penned with a male audience in mind. Her extensive research really didn't unearth what she was seeking in the way of salacious literature: erotica created by “women who wrote from the cunt by way of a mind that considered sexual parity with men to be a given.” So she decided to produce her own.
I have to admit that this rather high-handed, self-consciously intellectual foreword predisposed me not to like this book. However, I ended up enjoying My Renaissance despite myself, although it's not at all similar to what I would have written under the circumstances.
The book begins with a delightful framing narrative. On her fiftieth birthday the author encounters, by chance, “the American”, a lover from three decades earlier, an affair that ended suddenly and inconclusively. “The effect of the voice on my memory was astounding. My blood was shaking and I could not breathe for fear I would gasp like a banked fish.” He tells her “I still have your panties.” and of course the reader immediately starts to imagine what sort of history the two of them share. Over coffee, he tries to rekindle their relationship. Gently but firmly she rebuffs him and returns home to bathe (clearly an experience the author finds sensual as it is recreated multiple times in this volume). The sudden apparition from her past tempts her to look back. She begins to recount the erotic adventures she enjoyed when she was twenty, spending a year teaching English in Milan and exploring her burgeoning sexuality.
Her initiation into the unrepentant carnality of the Milanese begins at the hands (and tongue) of one of her students, Mrs. Corallo – a wealthy, voluptuous matron who wastes no time seducing the lovely young Englishwoman whom the Italian insists looks like Botticelli's Venus. Although the narrator is not completely innocent, her afternoons with “Mrs. C” prove tremendously educational, and not only in the ways of the flesh. Mrs. C. gives Julia both tangible and intangible gifts – a copy of Dante, a sense of fashion, a new appreciation of her own desirability.
Trying to escape the unwelcome attentions of a fellow teacher, Julia accepts the offer of a free apartment in a dodgy area of town. Here she becomes entangled with Luigi, the landlady's son, a young man with the face of an angel and the body of a god. Every night he visits her; they share an exquisitely physical passion that seems to sustain itself without any intellectual or emotional connection.
Luigi kissed me and licked his semen from my lips and I tasted myself in the folds of his wings. I remember his arms around me and the strong smell of our sex on our skins and while I was musing on the beauty of this man I fell asleep. I was awakened by the morning pouring in through the open window, a shower of golden light. I flung back the covers that Luigi had obviously lain across me when he left and for a few luxurious moments admired the honeyed richness of my limbs, still langorous with the exertions of last night, and ran my hands around my breasts and over my belly. I rose warm and naked, plugged in the kettle, and commenced the rituals of the day.
When Julia discovers Luigi's sordid daytime occupation, he loses his halo. However there are dozens more virile men eager to partake of her charms. From each lover she takes new knowledge, most especially knowledge of her own sexual power.
In one of my favorite chapters, the narrator travels to Florence and meets a painter, who prevails upon her to sit for him in the pose of Venus rising from the sea. Although there's no explicit sex in their interlude together, the erotic tension is devastating. One wonders whether fucking might not have spoiled it.
In another episode, one of Julia's adult students, a married man who is short and unattractive but also urbane, articulate and persuasive, convinces her to masturbate in front of him, while he does the same. All the while he regales her with filthy, explicit fantasies. This scenario is perhaps the kinkiest in the book, and possibly the one that aroused me the most.
Ms. Chambers' sexual tastes are aggressively vanilla, at least compared to mine. Again and again, starting in the foreword, she reminds readers of her total lack of interest in anything involving restraint, pain or the like. After a while, one wonders whether she in fact protests too much.
Knowing me, you might expect that I'd get tired of an erotic book without the slightest whiff of D/s. However, Ms. Chambers’ luscious prose kept me reading. She describes all her (or her narrator's) experiences in Italy with an eye for sensual detail. We feel the warmth of the sun, taste the wine and the coffee. Our heads swim with the women's perfume. I don't know Italy at all well, but her sharp observations on the society of Milan and the nature of its inhabitants reminded me of my own early experiences in foreign environments.
This erotic coming-of-age tale winds up very neatly, bringing Julia to her first incandescent encounter with “the American” and its sudden end. After this peak experience, she leaves Milan, claiming homesickness, possibly having learned everything the city had to offer.
The emotions fueling this book pulled me back to my own period of erotic awakening. I remember a time when adventures of the flesh waited around every corner, a time when I suddenly and inexplicably became an object of lust.
I often wandered around Milan in a daze, the ground falling from under my feet, my belly on fire and my womb contracting in spasms of remembered desire – the images that filled my head of others filling my body were more inebriating than any drug and I would sway from the straps on the tram, aware of the scandalised eyes on my shaven armpits (only the travestiti on Corso Garibaldi shaved their underarms).
With all her adventures, though, she remains fundamentally alone, joined only superficially with her partners in pleasure.
My sex life was for the most part skin play, surfaces like light on water, like neon flashing on the painted night faces, like the flames of candles flickering over my naked form. All intercourse was of the flesh.
Despite its rich language and sensual detail, this book left me with a sense of sterility. The narrator glories in her own desirability, but ultimately that comes to feel like narcissism. Even after fifty years, she is focused mostly on pleasure. She delights in her unlined face and still-beautiful body as she prepares to meet her old lover. The connection remains purely physical.
As I indicated, this isn't the book I would have written. It is, however, literate, stylish and unquestionably erotic, in the classic sense of the word. For some readers, that will be enough.
A friend and I were arguing last week. My friend said tablets and eBooks were superior to printed material. I said that printed books were better.
It was a heated debate. My friend said that tablets and eBooks were more environmentally friendly. My friend pointed out that an eBook reader is capable of holding a library’s worth of material. My friend pointed out that eBooks are usually more reasonable – and these points are all true.
My argument was, if the book you’re reading is a pile of shit, you’re not going to damage an expensive e-reader by throwing the damned thing across the room when the text you’re reading has caused deep offence.
Anyway, this month I read Spank: The Improbable Adventures of George Aloysius Brown on my eBook reader. This is a passage from the book.
(Note here I’ve not selected the image of two schoolgirls spanking each other in a bildungsroman discovery of budding sexual awareness, nor have I included the passage of a schoolgirl imploring a headmaster to administer sexual punishment).
When the dust settled and a measure of order had been restored to the Lazy Daze Campground and Sgt. Johnson had pedaled off shaking his head, George bundled Pem back into the van, giving her rear a little pat as he did so. By this time, they were both helpless with laughter. "Oh, George," she said. "I didn't know knew you could be so… so commanding. You should have seen the look on his face when you said he could have his tent back." George, who had seen the look on Herr Schitler's face, swelled with pride as did the little fella who apparently decided it was now safe to re-emerge. "And you my love," he told her, "were heroic beyond the call of duty. For that you shall be rewarded with the field marshal's baton." Pem reached across and gave it an encouraging squeeze. "To the high ground," she said.
Later that evening while it was still light they walked back down the hill to the camping area to apologize to the German visitors whose tent they had briefly highjacked. They walked slowly hand-in-hand because the grass underfoot was still slippery. The toilet that Gretchen had knocked on its side had been righted and restored to its foundation and peace and good order had returned to the Lazy Daze Campground.
They halted at the entrance to Herr Schitler's tent, which was tightly zippered. They could hear voices within and concluded it was safe to intrude.
"Ahem," George coughed loudly, there being no knocker. "Excuse us, may we have a word?"
I know I’m sounding snarky in my old age but I really do find this sort of asinine twaddle irritating. I read this and it made me want to date Andrea Dworkin. How can anyone seriously pretend this is erotica? It has the feel of having come from a gentleman’s club in the 1920s, when bon viveurs would relate anecdotes about rumpy-pumpy, tiffin, slap and tickle and how’s-your-father. It’s as erotic as pubes on the pipe of a colostomy bag.
Perhaps I’m being harsh. Perhaps I was missing my meds when I read this book. Here’s another passage, demonstrating phone sex, so you can judge if it works as an accurate reflection of heteronormative responses to the artificiality of commodified sexuality.
"Mmmmmmm, you're so big, so hard. I'm so ready for you, George. I want you to fuck me. Fuck me, doggy style. Fuck me hard!" George closed his eyes and imagined Pem in that position, arching her back showing him her shapely bottom
then settling in for the ride.
For 30 seconds, maybe more, nothing was said above Sadie's cries of ecstasy. George relaxed his grip on the phone then he heard.
"Was that good for you too?"
"Rather, I mean yes. Honestly, it was a pleasure. You're hot." George believes in giving credit where it's due.
"Thank you, daaaaarling." She said still role playing, that exaggerated Deep South politeness.
"I hope that was good for you, too. Was there anything else? You said you had a special interest."
"Yes, I do." George felt he could confide in her by now. "I have a special interest in erotic discipline. I'm trying to find out if women enjoy being spanked."
"You mean like this, when you bend over me and make me touch my toes. Spank me, George. I've been such a baaaaad girl, George. Punish me."
Andrea Anderson switched on her sound system and George could hear the sound of one hand clapping coming clear across the city from Islington. "I deserve it. Spank me, please. Harder, please sir. Harder. Spank my sorry ass." Andrea turned up the volume.
But by then for George it had all gone terribly wrong.
By that point for me, in fact, probably a lot earlier, it had also all gone terribly wrong. Don’t get me wrong. I love spanking stories. I enjoy well-written erotica that’s pitched from the perspective of a sympathetic character regardless of gender. But I’ve got little time for poorly written misogyny.
If this sounds like the sort of book that will entertain you as a reader, I hope I’ve given you sufficient insight to realise that there is plenty of titillation and ribald lewdness to be enjoyed. If you prefer something that treats sex with a little more sophistication, you might be better selecting a different title.
On an unrelated note: does anyone want to buy a slightly damaged eBook reader?