Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Erotica

Happy Endings – Thien-Kim Lam

If your taste in rom-com books tends towards the smutty (like mine does), then your ears will prick up when you hear the premise of Happy Endings (like mine did). A sex toy salesperson has to team up with her restaurateur ex-boyfriend to make her dream of opening her own shop come true. But will their chemistry bubble over and spell disaster for them both? It’s a steamy, second-chances romance about unfinished business, good food, and homemade orgasms.

Happy Endings - Thien-Kim Lam - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Meet the players: Trixie Nguyen, sex toy salesperson extraordinaire with a passion for empowering women to own their Os and a desire to prove herself to her traditional Vietnamese parents, and Andre Walker, who has recently inherited a flailing soul food restaurant from his mother and is struggling to keep the wolf from the door.

Years ago, when they were both living in New Orleans, they had an intense romance… until Andre left Trixie, with just a “I’m sorry, I can’t, don’t hate me” Post-it note by way of explanation. (What a guy!)

Now they’re both living in Washington DC, and (of course) they unexpectedly run into each other when Trixie is selling vibrators at a party hosted in Andre’s restaurant. The night is a smashing success for both of them, and there the (brilliant!) idea of pop-up sex toy shops alongside soul food buffets is born.

Both Trixie and Andre feel the weight of others’ expectations, albeit in different ways. Both are desperate for business success, believing it to be the key to their happiness. Both of them feel they have something to prove to their parents. And both of them are hot-hot-HOT for each other, even though they know it’s a mistake to mix business with pleasure. It makes for a very, very steamy novel, just like I like ’em. Now, that’s just my personal taste; if you’re liable to clutch your pearls at an exposed breast, this is not the book for you.

(Or, actually, maybe it is. Happy Endings is sex-positive, pro-pleasure, and full of encouragement for those who might need it. Lam clearly believes, as does Trixie, that pleasure is for everyone, regardless of gender, size, age, or inclination. So, you know, maybe don’t write it off completely, even if that’s not usually your jam.)

It may seem like I’m revealing a lot here, but the first few chapters of Happy Endings (well, most of them, if I’m honest) are exposition-heavy. You don’t need to read between the lines one bit.

Another bummer: as a Coeliac, I couldn’t help but cringe at the fairly frequent jibes about gluten-free restaurants. Lam used them throughout Happy Endings as a symbol of the evil gentrification that Andre was so desperate to defeat. I tried not to let it bother me, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. His fried chicken sounds delicious, but would it really be worth days in a sick bed or hunched over a toilet bowl (not to mention a shortened lifespan), when I could get a decent GF feed up the road? Hmph.

But other than that, Happy Endings was a delight to read. The blurb maybe overstates the stakes a little (they’re comfortingly low), and there’s a cast of supportive, empowering characters that keep the mood up. All told, it’s a fun second-chance romance with a sweet message and (as the title suggests) a happy ending for all involved.

P.S. Lam is clearly an awesome lady, too. As well as writing books herself, she founded Bawdy Bookworms, a subscription service that “pairs sexy romances with erotic toys”. I checked immediately whether they deliver to Australia (they do!) and immediately put a subscription of my own at the top of my wishlist.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Happy Endings:

  • “Happy Endings was the perfect book for my Vegas trip. It held my attention over all the noise of a pool party.” – Kendra Pierson
  • “The only downside? There is a lot of talk about food and it made me hungry. Other than that, it was an excellent read.” – Tegan H.
  • “Andre is kind of a stick but he will grow on you.” – kathleen g

Delta Of Venus – Anaïs Nin

Not to be indelicate, but Anaïs Nin was basically the original cam girl. Delta Of Venus is a collection of fifteen erotic short stories that Nin originally wrote for the “personal use” of a “private collector” back in the 1940s. She was paid a dollar a page, after Henry Miller turned down the assignment at the generous rate of $100 per month; luckily, Nin earned enough to bankroll the smut Miller wrote with his “integrity” intact. The stories weren’t published until 1977, after Nin’s (and the “private collector”s) death.

Delta Of Venus - Anais Nin - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Feel free to scroll down if you want to get straight to the review, but I can’t resist the opportunity to give a bit of biographical detail about this oft-maligned trailblazer before I get started. Nin’s first book, a defense of D.H. Lawrence (yes, of Lady Chatterley’s Lover fame), was published in the 1930s. It made her a fixture on the literary scene, as did her vivacious personality and her boundless generosity. Still, she didn’t get the attention she deserved from mainstream readers and press until much, much later. Her exploits in literary erotica, as I mentioned, gave her the capacity to fund the work of the middle-aged, impoverished, would-be writer Miller; he went on to be lauded for books like Tropic Of Cancer, while Nin remained relatively unknown. She also funded the dreams of countless other down-on-their-luck male writers the same way. She made their careers possible, but effectively none of them saw fit to open any doors for her. Nin self-published four books, managed to sell a few others, but for the most part she was either mocked by critics or (worse) ignored. Today, she is best known for work she probably thought would never see the light of day: Delta Of Venus and, of course, her private journals (which were just as steamy).

The blurb for Delta Of Venus promises “a stunning collection of sexual encounters from the queen of literary erotica” (so you can see why I picked it up, right?). The preface, taken from Nin’s diaries, explains that the collector for whom she wrote “likes it better when it is a narrative, just storytelling, no analysis, no philosophy,” (page viii). Basically, he told her to write all the arty shit she wanted in her own time, and stick to the sucking and fucking on the pages she submitted to him. Nin rose to the challenge, but being told to focus only on the sexy bits led to “violent explosions of poetry” (page xi). She drew on her own and her friends’ experiences, like an old-timey Carrie Bradshaw, and gave them as much literary flourish as she could get away with.

And, yes, we now know the identity of this enigmatic horny benefactor: Roy M. Johnson of Oklahoma (1881-1960), who made his fortune in oil. These men, honestly…

Delta Of Venus definitely has a different “vibe” to Miller and Lawrence, whom we might now consider to be Nin’s contemporaries. She really penetrates (ha!) the psychology of sex, as I presume it was understood at the time. She consciously inserts the sensual and the feminine into the story; as she wrote in her own diary, through this project she “realised that for centuries we had only one model for this literary genre [erotica] – the writing of men,” (page xiiii). She conceived a “language of the senses”, according to the academic types who have all-too-recently actually paid close attention to her work.

Not to contradict myself, but I must warn you that the collection definitely throws you in the deep-end of an icy cold pool: the first story, The Hungarian Adventurer, involves (among other things) graphic depictions of incestuous rape. Don’t confuse sensual and feminine for delicate or fragile! Some of the stories in Delta Of Venus have aged particularly badly (e.g., The Boarding School, which features abuse and gang rape in a Catholic institution), and all are problematic in some measure (by today’s standards, anyway). My advice? Don’t pick this one up if you have any sensitivities around sex or gender or violence that could be triggered by graphic un-woke descriptions of all of the above.

Still, I didn’t hate it? I was surprised, at times I blushed, but I wasn’t as sickened as perhaps I should have been – I was certainly never bored. The quality of Nin’s prose, her mastery of language and insight into desire, don’t excuse the challenging content but they make it damn readable.

Plus, my deep-rooted sex positive feminism simply can’t divorce the content of Delta Of Venus from the context in which it was produced. Nin wrote explicitly about sex in a time when doing so was the sole purview of rich white men (and the irony of a rich white man paying her to do it is simply too delicious to ignore). She wrote about abortion, extramarital affairs, all manner of “inappropriate” desire, without judgement and without fear and without diminishing her characters (something that many writers struggle to do today). Had Delta Of Venus been published for public consumption at the peak of Nin’s “career” (which is not saying much), I can’t even imagine what would have happened to her. She would have been pilloried, by the public and the press, and either died a notorious martyr or a penniless nobody. In that view, we’re lucky to have access to this crucial work today, and it’s worth a read… if you dare.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Delta Of Venus:

  • “Not as erotic as Playboy would have me believe…” – J.J. SPANO
  • “some seriously disturbed stories. child rape isn’t my favorite.” – JS
  • “This was a gift for a friend having surgery.” – dbeedle
  • “I suggest a more accurate title for this book, “Bored with Copulation” by Inane Nincompoop.
    Don’t expect this shoddy diary to enhance your bag of sexual tricks to surprise your lover.” – Where Waldo?
  • “it is a collection of short stories which I don;t reaaly care for. I would rate it as rather trashy! no comparison to 50 shades trilogy” – Cybergrammie

Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller

This is it, people: the one we’ve all been waiting for! Get yourselves a glass of wine and strap in, because after dozens and dozens of books, after a year of searching, I have finally found it: some classic literary smut! If that’s not your thing, look away now, because I tell you what – Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer had me clutching my pearls.

Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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To understand Tropic Of Cancer, you really need to understand the life and times of Henry Miller. See, Tropic of Cancer, much like The Sun Also Rises, and On The Road, is what we call a roman-à-clef (which is a fancy way of saying that Miller wrote a diary and just changed a few names before he published it). Miller grew up in the States, born in 1891 to German-speaking parents and only learning to speak English fluently during his school years. As an adult, he had – shall we say – a complicated romantic life. By way of example, at one point he had an affair with his first wife’s mother. He supported himself through a string of odd-jobs until his second wife took him to Paris. There, she encouraged him to begin writing, and he threw himself whole-heartedly into a life of bohemian squalor. Paris was the place for it, after all; the city was chockers full of debauched artistic types (Hemingway, Joyce, and Beckett all hung out there during the same period), so he had plenty of company.

As he was writing Tropic Of Cancer, his first book, he began a torrid affair with Anaïs Nin (and it was her diaries, published later, that made celebrities of them both). Then, a plot twist: Miller’s wife began an affair with Nin as well. Unsurprisingly, they divorced in 1934, the same year that Tropic Of Cancer was published.

It was an interesting conflation of circumstances that led Tropic Of Cancer to even see the light of day. Firstly, it was the editorial support of Nin – not to mention her financial backing – that got the manuscript to a publishable standard. But even with her guidance and injection of cash, there was the matter of finding a publishing house that would take it on. That’s where the legendary laissez-faire attitude of the French saved the day. See, British and American publishers were constrained by tight obscenity laws and unwilling to take risks on “dirty books”, while the French – predictably – did not give a shit. As such, Tropic Of Cancer was published in Paris for the first time in 1934, but it did not reach the English-speaking world until 1961, after many lengthy legal battles.

You might think I’m overstating it. How could a book possibly be so filthy that it warranted 30 years of controversy? Consider the opinion of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno, who said that Tropic Of Cancer is “… not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.”

Given that that’s the case, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I fucking loved it!

“It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

Tropic of Cancer (paGe 1)

Tropic Of Cancer isn’t a stream of consciousness, but it’s something adjacent to that. It’s set in France during the late 1920s and 30s, focusing on Miller’s life as a starving artist. There’s no real linear narrative, and Miller fluctuates fluidly through the past and the present and his philosophical musings on life. It’s basically a string of anecdotes about his friends, lovers, work, life, and neighbourhood, with the occasional epiphany and some fun facts thrown in.

“The physiology of love. The whale with his six-foot penis, in repose. The bat-penis libre. Animals with a bone in the penis. Hence, a bone on… ‘Happily,’ says Gourmont, ‘the bony structure is lost in man’. Happily? Yes, happily. Think of the human race walking around with a bone on. The kangaroo has a double penis – one for week-days and one for holidays.”

Tropic of Cancer (Page 2-3)

And, yes, there is a lot of filth. I can see why the conservatives kicked up such a stink (which is unusual for me – usually, I’m left wondering what could possibly have caused such offense). I did notice, though, that Miller really writes more about hunger and food than he does about sex. I assume that’s because, well, most bohemians were homeless and starving. Nin once observed to Miller that “in Tropic Of Cancer you were only sex and a stomach”, and that is probably the best assessment of this book that anyone has ever made.

The sex and debauchery that he does describe seems more angry than lustful. It’s abundantly clear that he was trying to make a point, rather than titillate the reader (not that he was opposed to a bit of titillation, mind you – he and Nin both made their pocket money writing erotica to order, mostly for private collectors). I read some commentators say that the pornographic passages “no longer shock” the modern reader, but I’ll happily stick up my hand and say that references to inserting reptiles and rodents into a woman’s rectum were still pretty damn confronting for me.

There’s also a lot of quibbling among the various readers and critics as to whether Miller was a misogynist, and whether Tropic Of Cancer was a misogynistic book. I’m sure he was, to an extent, but to me most of the woman-hate-y passages read as so tongue-in-cheek that I couldn’t imagine even Miller himself taking them seriously. Plus, the men in the book were hardly a picnic. I keep coming around to the same question: does it matter? Whether Miller hated women seems to be largely beside the point. What matters more is whether today’s reader can think critically about his misogynistic portrayal – real or imagined – in a contemporary context. I’d hate to think that some incel fuck-knuckle would read this book and use it to justify his hatred of women, but I’m also a firm believer in “you don’t read the book, the book reads you”. Misogynists will find misogyny in anything they read, regardless of the author’s intent.

There is a sequel, Tropic of Capricorn, published five years after Tropic Of Cancer. It too was banned in all English-speaking countries for nearly 30 years. It actually covers an earlier period in Miller’s life, so I guess that makes it a “prequel” more than anything. When the two books finally reached the English speaking world, together, Miller became a household name. He was hailed by the Sixties counter-culture as a “prophet of freedom and sexual revolution”. Miller did what Kerouac did, but better than Kerouac did it, while Kerouac was still in grade school.

I couldn’t possibly recommend this book blindly. It’s too smutty, and Miller makes liberal use of the c-bomb and all other manner of creative profanity. Tropic Of Cancer is artistic and esoteric, in the extreme. So, if the appeal of Paris for you is strolling the Champs E’lysses and taking in high fashion and fine art while munching on croissants, this is not the book for you. If, on the other hand, the idea of filth, hunger, homelessness, squalor, and despair gets your motor running, and dying in a Parisian gutter of venereal disease sounds romantic, then Tropic Of Cancer is probably just your speed. Guess which camp I fall into… 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of Tropic Of Cancer:

  • “Lordy what a waste of ink and paper.” – C. Richter
  • “I hated this book. About as erotic as a software manual.” – Golindrina
  • “This is an easy read if you’re an English Lit. fellow at Princeton.” – Rob Wallace
  • “This book reminds me of sitting out on my back porch listening to my drunken neighbor telling dirty lies…sometimes funny and sometimes annoying. It is a definite rambler but entertaining at times. The book was good enough to finish” – Stephen F. Brecht
  • “Beautifully offensive” – Jorge
  • “Wife seems very happy with the books ;-)” – Mark D
  • “If you want to improve your vocabulary and have a rollicking good time doing it, the sexist pig Miller is your best bet! TREMENDOUS VITALITY!” – Richard Stark