Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

22725443 Hausfrau: A Novel

by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna is a thirty-seven year old American expatriate who has lived in Switzerland for the past nine years.  She is married to a Swiss banker and is the mother of three young children.  After nine years in Switzerland, Anna barely speaks the language, nor does she drive, and relies mostly on the train system to get around.  And get around, she does.

Anna is the quintessential bored and lonely housewife.  I wanted to sympathize with her – and did in some ways – but found it difficult because she brings a lot of her suffering on herself.  Bruno, her husband, is weary of Anna’s “fucking misery,” and urges her to seek therapy and take a German language class.  Maybe if she finally learns the local language, she won’t feel so isolated.  Therapy doesn’t help her all that much – mostly because she withholds so much information from her therapist.  In German class, she immediately meets a man and throws herself into an affair.  It’s not her first.  In fact, her daughter, not quite a year old, is the product of an affair – but only Anna knows this.  She also makes a girlfriend in German class – another housewife, this one transplanted from Canada.  Mary is almost Anna’s opposite, though – sweet, squeaky clean, eager to help, naive and innocent in many ways (although there are some scenes that unfold that leave the reader wondering if Mary isn’t, in fact, a conniving, malicious bitch disguising herself as a sweet housewife …).  Anna has difficulty accepting Mary’s friendship – part of the frustration with Anna’s character is her seeming unwillingness to help herself.

Essbaum is an award-winning poet and writer, and her ability to weave a mesmerizing story is undeniable.  This is a taut, sexually charged and psychologically intense story with parallels to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  There is a lot of suspense in wondering how far Anna will take things, and if she will get caught.  The end, while almost inevitable, is stunning.


Further Out Than You Thought by Michaela Carter

further Further Out Than You Thought: A Novel
by Michaela Carter

The Century Lounge was warm and red, like a womb.  The walls were red, and the curtains — everywhere there were curtains — between the main stage and the backstage, between the private dance booths and the showroom — red velvet curtains.  Day and night were a constant gloaming, and always the room smelled of perfume, of sweat, of pussy and cigarettes.  The red and lilac lights lining the main stage sent rays through the smoke as the dancers walked the room with their lit cigarettes, as the leaned toward the ears of the men, also smoking, or eating a burger and fries, but watching, all eyes, as the girls, in passing, whispered, ‘Wanna peek, up close, twenty bucks,’ the chiffon and black lace like forgotten wings waving behind them.”

So opens Further Out Than You Thought, Michaela Carter’s debut novel about a twenty-something girl named Gwen who assumes the persona of “Stevie” and dresses up in little girl dresses, ruffled socks, and Mary-Janes, and dances in a strip club in Los Angeles to pay for graduate school.  Gwen is a poet who is haunted by her mother’s death in a car accident years before, who has an eating disorder in her past, and who finally ran away from a father who was married to his law practice.  Gwen was only going to strip for a year – and she had rules that would prevent her professional life from intruding into her personal life – but here she is, five years later, still taking her clothes off for money, and the hard and fast lines between her onstage and offstage lives have become increasingly blurred.  Gwen lives in a cockroach infested apartment with her deadbeat, pothead boyfriend, Leo.  Upstairs lives their best friend, “The Count,” a man who is in love with Leo and who is dying of AIDS.  Suddenly, Gwen finds herself at a crossroads: she is pregnant with Leo’s baby.  For days she agonizes about whether to keep the baby and whether to tell Leo.

Set against the backdrop of the L.A. riots following the Rodney King trial in 1992, the story is a little haunting, a little trippy, and a little erotic.  The reader is treated to front row seats to a strip club, and backstage passes, as well as a view into the heart and mind of one particular young woman who has her whole life ahead of her, but is floundering.  Does she have what it takes to be a mother?  Does she even want to be a mother?  Can Leo pull his head out of his ass and learn to be a responsible adult and a father?  These are the questions Gwen grapples with.tlc-logo-resized

I was interested in reviewing this book for TLC Book Tours mainly because I’m a Southern California native myself and well remember the Rodney King trial and the L.A. riots.  I remember the glowing horizon off in the distance that could be seen from our balcony thirty miles away, the ash floating in the air, and the images on the news of looting and fire and violence.

A well-told story; worth the read.

Let’s Talk About Sex

This month’s reading selection for my book club was Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James.  Rest assured that we don’t always choose such cheap literary work; over the years, we’ve read everything from classics to memoirs to non-fiction, to contemporary fiction – the majority of it pretty good quality stuff.  Erotica is a genre we had not yet delved into, however, and given the current popularity of the Fifty Shades phenomenon, it was inevitable that our book club would follow suit with I’m guessing hordes of other book clubs in choosing this book (in fact, it was my idea – before I read the book – for my book club to choose this one because it was an as yet not covered category of reading material for us – and hey, I thought it would be fun!).

Last night we gathered at my house for our “discussion” (I use the term somewhat loosely since most of our discussions wander way off course and tend to be rather disorderly – but that’s half the fun).  It was, I think, the biggest turnout we’ve ever had for a discussion in nearly nine years of gathering – there were almost 20 of us.

Which just goes to show you: sex sells!  Everyone wanted in on the discussion – even my husband, who provided a male point of view (and comic relief).

To set the mood, I created a playlist of music especially to enhance the subject matter:

Sex by Berlin

Let’s Talk About Sex by Salt-n-Peppa

I Want Your Sex by George Michael

#1 Crush by Garbage

I’m a Slave 4 U by Britney Spears

I Touch Myself by the Divinyls

Do Ya Think I’m Sexy by Rod Stewart

Love to Love You Baby by Donna Summer

Love Serenade by Barry White

Like a Virgin by Madonna

Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye

Sub-Mission by Sex Pistols

Don’t Cha by Pussycat Dolls

Afternoon Delight by Starland Vocal Band

Cockiness (Love It) by Rihanna

Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye

Oh My God by Pink

Erotic City by Prince

Urgent by Foreigner

Penis candy and bona fide porn was provided (as well as, of course, alcohol, to perhaps loosen inhibitions.  Okay, that’s a lie – we always have alcohol at our book club discussions, even for Little Women).

I had really hoped that we would take turns reading aloud from the Penthouse Letters issue (because in some twisted way, I thought that would be very entertaining), but alas, the discussion never made it that far.  I had also hoped that we would delve more into the differences between porn and erotica, but the discussion didn’t go too far in that direction.

So what did we talk about?  I think everyone there agreed that Fifty Shades of Grey is very poorly written.  Some of us absolutely hated the book – I expressed my disdain for it here – and many, despite agreeing that it’s poorly written, still found it to be enjoyable.  The overall redeeming quality, it seems, is that the mere popularity of the book has supposedly opened the door for women to feel more comfortable talking about sex.

Apparently, even in this progressive, enlightened age, women still, by and large, feel shy about talking about sex – at least with those who really matter: their sexual partners.  I can’t deny this.  Speaking for myself, I have no problem having very graphic sexual conversations with my close girlfriends, but talking about it in explicit terms with my husband – specifically, addressing in clear terms what I like and what I want – is very, very difficult.  This seems to be common, judging from last night’s discussion.

Why is this?  It seems that though we women have come so very far with regard to demanding and expecting to be treated as valuable, equal human beings alongside our male counterparts in most aspects of life, in the bedroom, we still seem to be programmed to feel that it is our role to please, and not necessarily to be pleased.  In other words, we still accept a somewhat inferior position.  The bedroom is a man’s domain, and on some deep level, women still feel like it’s their lot to just go along with it.  Much of this comes from upbringing, and I’m sure much of it comes also from our culture’s obsession with projecting unrealistic feminine stereotypes (think models and perfect-looking celebrities) that most of us average chicks know we can never measure up to, as well as all those products that manage to make us women feel like we are disgusting, smelly creatures.  No wonder so many of us feel insecure and shy about asking for what we want in bed!

So, despite a lot of school-girl-like giggling last night, it was an enlightening discussion.  Although I don’t think I agree with the notion that Fifty Shades is managing to break down barriers.  At least not for me.

My friend Wendy presented me with this gift for allowing her to host the festivities at my house. I wonder if this comes in a nursing style . . .

Little Birds by Anais Nin

Little Birds by Anais Nin

Apparently, Anais Nin is known for her masterful erotica tales.  This was my first foray into Anais Nin literature (I have a couple other books by her), and I have to say that I wasn’t impressed.  Maybe I’m just all smutted out, desensitized to it all by reading several racy books in succession . . . I don’t know.

Little Birds is a collection of short stories.  I would liken them to what Penthouse Forum letters from early twentieth century might have been like, had there been Penthouse Forum with a better literary style back then.  Basically, sex for the sake of sex.  Unless I’m missing something.  But weird stuff, told in a sort of dreamlike, hazy style.  Dirty old man getting off on flashing little school girls (in the title story); strangers meeting up on the beach and going for it; men making love to paintings; lots of impotence and frigidity that is cured only by weirdness.

Didn’t really care for it.  Maybe I’ll like Henry & June, which is an excerpt from Anais Nin’s diary, better.  If I get to it.

For now, I think I’m going to take a break from smut and change gears.

Wifey by Judy Blume

Wifey by Judy Blume

Sandy Pressman has been a good girl all her life.  She collected cashmere sweaters as a girl, never let a boy go too far, married right out of college, and had the two kids, one of each gender, that was expected of her.  Now, after almost twelve years of marriage, Sandy is bored and frustrated.

So where did things go wrong, Norm?  So what happened?  It seemed all right then.  Comfortable.  Safe.  We had our babies.  We made a life together.  But now I’m sick.  You can’t see it this time.  There isn’t any rash, no fever, but I’m sick inside.  I sleepwalk through life.  And I’m so fucking scared.  Because every time I think about life without you I shake.  I wish somebody would just tell me what to do.  Make the hurt go away.  I wish a big bird would fly up to me, take me in its mouth, and carry me off, dropping me far away . . . anywhere . . . but far from you.  I want my life back!  Before it’s too late.  Or is it already too late?  Is this it, then?  Is this what my life is all about?  Driving the kids to and from school and decorating our final house?  Oh, Mother, dammit!  Why did you bring me up to think this was what I wanted?  And now that I know it’s not, what am I supposed to do about it?

Norm, her husband, is really kind of a dick, although I assume probably fairly typical for men of that particular era.  Set in 1970, Norm runs a dry cleaning business and expects dinner on the table when he gets home from work, a wife who puts out once a week whether she feels like it or not, and who doesn’t think or question things too much.  He’s also somewhat of a germaphobic priss – he rolls over onto his wife on Saturday nights, and then rolls back over into his own, separate twin bed to sleep, but not before vigorously washing up, gargling, and spraying the room with Lysol because he can’t stand the stink of sex.  And no oral sex!  It makes him gag.

What’s poor Sandy to do?

One morning, a man rides his motorcycle onto the Pressmans’ back lawn after Norm has gone to work, waking Sandy.  She goes to the window and watches him drop trou and get himself off right there on her lawn, waving to her when he’s finished.  Suddenly, Sandy is besieged by fantasies – and very real propositions from various men in her life, some of whom she gives in to, including her best friend’s husband, her sister’s husband, and an old flame from her pre-married life.

Originally published in 1978, this is one of the few adult books Judy Blume has written, and I remember very clearly that in high school, this one and Forever were the two everyone wanted to get their hands on.  I think I finally read Wifey when I was in my twenties (and already married myself), and being quite enamored of its raciness.  All these years later, the smutty parts still seem smutty, but all in all, it’s a goodhearted story of a woman with probably some very common struggles, especially at that stage of the sexual revolution.  Though I would definitely categorize this as an adult read, I wouldn’t categorize it as erotica.  Witty and slightly slapstick, it’s an entertaining and easy read, though I found the ending less than satisfying.

A Brief Glossary of Terms from Tipping the Velvet

Being the word junkie I am, I’m still hung up on a lot of the intriguing terminology introduced to me by Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, to wit:

Fag: Cigarette

Gay: In Sarah Waters’s novel, although about lesbians, “gay” is not used to refer to homosexuality.  Rather, it is used in the traditional way, to describe one who is happy or carefree, and also to refer to prostitutes, as in “gay girls.”

Masher: A woman who cross-dresses as a man, lesbian or not

Quim: Girlie bits; interchangable with “cunt.”

Renter: Prostitute

Sapphist: Lesbian

Tipping the velvet: Cunnlingus (the “velvet” is the tongue, apparently)

Tom: Boyish lesbian (what we today might know as “butch”)

Here’s a good website for further advancement of your Victorian era sexual slang: Victorian Slang – a Guide to Sexual Victorian Terms

. . . and that concludes today’s lesson.  Class dismissed!

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Continuing my quest for quality smut . . .

Set in late nineteenth-century England, we are introduced to young Nancy Astley, narrator of this story, who lives with and is well-loved by her working-class family who run an oyster shop in Whitstable.  One fateful evening, Nancy attends a show at a local music hall where she lays eyes for the first time on Kitty Butler, a masher upon the stage – and Nancy is forever changed.  She becomes entranced by Kitty, and a friendship of sorts blossoms between the two, and it’s not long before Nancy leaves her family to seek her fortune, along with Kitty, in London.  The two become secret lovers and a huge success together on the stage of theaters and music halls throughout London – until Kitty breaks Nancy’s heart.  This is only the beginning, however, of Nancy’s adventures, both sexual and otherwise, which range from tender to violent – at times nearly tragic, and often bawdy and hilarious.  More story than sex, the sex scenes are, however, very ribald and graphic – and yes, many of them are lesbian scenes, for this is a story of lesbianism.  Don’t go getting all squeamish – anyone who is a fan of a good story, regardless of sexual orientation, will appreciate this book.

What I also loved about this book, aside from the stellar story-telling, is the fact that it’s smutty without being to the detriment of anyone’s person.  Not that Nancy doesn’t stumble along the way, or is never victimized, but for the most part, she takes her fate into her own hands and owns it.

Filled with wonderfully developed, colorful characters and well-described scenes and settings, I was transported when reading this to a different time and place – I could see the colors and smell the aromas and hear the people.  In the end, this is a love story – and let me just say that I’m usually too much a cynic to appreciate love stories, but this one left a tear in my eye.  I was sorry to read the last sentence of the book and will miss the characters now.  Sarah Waters is a gifted story-teller, and I can’t wait to get my hands on some more of her work.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, “tipping the velvet” is Victorian slang for cunnilingus 😉


Nine and a Half Weeks by Elizabeth McNeill

Nine and a Half Weeks by Elizabeth McNeill

I said I was on a quest to find some quality erotica, right?  I wasn’t kidding.

I thought I had read this years ago, but now I realize it was only the movie I saw, starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Bassinger – and in all honesty, the only scene that stands out in my memory is the one in which he ties her up and blindfolds her and feeds her different things.  I found that to be very hot and steamy.

Back to the book, though.  It’s a quick read at just over 100 pages, and written in a very minimalistic style: fragments of conversations, flashes of scenes, we never even learn the characters’ names.  It’s a memoir – which makes it all the more intriguing because it all apparently actually happened – and the author writes in the first person; her male counterpart in the story is only referred to as “he” and “him,” and he never addresses her by name in the book (Elizabeth McNeill is a pseudonym).

Taking place in New York sometime in the 1970s, she is a successful, college-educated, independent corporate executive – a product of the sexual revolution.  She has a brief case, clients, her own apartment, lovers that come and go.  She meets “him” by chance at a crowded street fair and embarks on an affair with him that lasts nine and a half weeks, during which time she lives a double life: by day, ever the professional executive, and by night, basically a sex slave – allowing herself to be handcuffed to the table leg at his feet night after night, beaten, ordered around, gradually giving up all autonomy and sense of self to him.

So it went, a step at a time.  And since we saw each other every night; since each increment of change was unspectacular in itself; since he made love very, very well; since I was soon crazy about him, not just physically, but especially so, it came about that I found myself – after the time span of a mere two weeks – in a setup that would be judged, by the people I know, as pathological.

It never occurred to me to call it pathological.  I never called “it” anything.  I told no one about it.  That it was me who lived through this period seems, in retrospect, unthinkable.  I dare only look back on those weeks as on an isolated phenomenon, now in the past; a segment of my life as unreal as a dream, lacking all implication.

It is astonishing to consider the things he gets her to do: crawl on the floor at his feet like a dog while he whips her with a riding crop; dress up as a man so he can take her “as he would take a man,” leaving her bleeding; allow herself to be strung up and tied to the wall by her wrists for hours, gagging her when she begins to cry and leaving her like that for another hour while she is convinced she is going to die from choking on her own terror and mucous; watch him have sex with a hooker; rob someone at knifepoint for the thrill of it – and the list goes on.  It is shocking and disturbing, and, I think because of the almost dreamlike manner in which much of the story is told, it is also utterly compelling.

Nothing had prepared me.  Some years back I had read The Story of O, intrigued by the beginning, horrified after a few pages, repulsed long before the end.  Sadomasochists in real life were black-leather freaks, amusing and silly in their ridiculous getups.  If a friend, a peer, had told me she had herself tied to a table leg at home after a full day’s work at the office – well, it has never come up.  God know I would not have believed it.

Finally, she succumbs to a mental breakdown after nine and a half weeks of being under his spell.  Shaken at his inability to stop her from crying, he takes her to a hospital, where “I was given sedation and after a while the crying stopped.  The next day I began a period of treatment that lasted some months.  I never saw him again.”

It raises some interesting questions, this story: what kind of woman allows herself to be terrorized and degraded like this?  How did she rationalize it as it was happening?  And where is the line drawn between “fetish” and criminal?  Was he – also a successful executive of some sort who wore a suit every day – a psychopath, or just into kinky sex?  Did he move on to another woman who was pliable enough to go along with his proclivities?  And what about her?  Why did she write the book?  Certainly not for fame, since she wrote under a pseudonym and no information appears to be available about her to this day, nearly 40 years later.  Did she need the money a book would garner her?  Did she tell her story to entertain or to caution?

Disturbing and worth the read, but not for the faint of heart.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

Ahh, where to start?

I had to know what all the hype was about.  Categorized as erotica, I admit my curiosity was piqued.  And I was curious, too: what exactly is the difference between erotica and porn?

I will say flat out that I’m not a fan of porn – my own definition/perception being visual images of extremely graphic sex merely for the sake of sex, in which women are generally portrayed as (a) physically unrealistic, and (b) receptacles and/or existing for the sole purpose of providing sexual pleasure for men.

Erotica, on the other hand, it seems to me, would be steamy and sexy, and even graphic, but hopefully with some kind of semi-believable storyline that invites the observer to care about the characters, and in which the characters are fully developed adults capable of participating in the story voluntarily.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, we meet Anastasia Steele, a young, virginal woman on the brink of graduating from college.  At 21, she’s never even masturbated (yeah, right).  Filling in for her friend who has fallen ill, she agrees to interview one Christian Grey, 27-year old mega-billionaire (self-made . . . yeah, right) for the student newspaper, and from the moment she stumbles into his office, falling flat on her face (literally), the sparks begin to fly between them.  Christian woos Anastasia (if you can call stalking her “wooing”), and it’s not long before he has her in bed, first introducing her to “vanilla sex” to get her virginity out of the way, and then introducing her to his fetishist lifestyle, that of BDSM.

The rest of the book revolves around Christian trying to get Anastasia to sign a contract he has drawn up outlining the parameters of the Dominant/Submissive relationship he wishes to enter into (ahem) with her, which includes her agreeing to be ordered around by him, to eat what he says to eat, wear what he says to wear, to not make eye contact with him, to eagerly and immediately do his sexual bidding, and to allow the use of such implements as whips, riding crops, genital clamps, hot wax, and butt plugs.  (He’s managed to convince 15 or so other women to enter into this agreement before Anastasia, by the way.)  Ana is conflicted, but she’s falling in love with this sick fuck (of course).  Along the way, there are many, many graphic sex scenes.  As in, after Chapter 8 in which their sexual relationship explodes onto the pages (ahem), there might be two or three pages of non-sex between the sex scenes for the rest of the 500+ page book.

I would hate for anyone to think of me as a prude.  I’m cool with a little rough-housing and role-playing in the bedroom (or wherever) between consenting adults.  I take no issues with venturing beyond “vanilla sex.”  But I did not like this book.

Let’s start with the writing.  It’s just not well-written.  There are obvious grammatical errors throughout, and it just has a very amateurish feel to it.  I never even began to give a flying crap about either of the main characters.  Christian is a twisted, arrogant son of a bitch (with a dark, sad past which is only hinted at and which, I surmise, is supposed to make the reader feel sympathetic towards him, but it didn’t work for me), and Anastasia is just a jackass.  There are too many unrealistic things in the story that make it unbelievable: his ultra-rich status at such a young age; and if he’s so rich and successful – a virtual mogul – what the hell is he doing living in Seattle of all places?  And of course all the men in the story are in love with the oblivious Anastasia; and of course Christian has an “impressive” penis, because no average-sized dick would do for a story like this; and he’s multi-orgasmic!  He can not only get it up over and over again, but he can come and come again, within minutes of his last “release”; and then there’s Anastasia’s mother who is a wellspring of relationship wisdom though she’s on her fourth marriage; and the list goes on.


A short list of repeated phrases that made me want to reach into the book and slap the shit out of someone:

“Oh my”

“Holy shit”

“Holy cow”

“Holy fuck”

“That’s so … hot”

“My inner goddess”

Laters, baby

Shut the fuck up, you annoying figments of the author’s imagination.

Also, it drove me CRAZY that the author is so clearly British, and yet she wrote through the eyes of a young American woman.  It failed.  It felt like she just read about what Americans might be like, but everyone in the book came off as a transplanted Brit.  Why didn’t she just have the whole thing take place in her native England?

What bothers me most of all about this book – and here’s where I get on my moral soapbox – is the notion that submissiveness is what turns women on.  We’ve spent how many decades fighting to get out from under men’s thumbs, to be seen and valued as equal human beings, but according to this story and the almost unbelievably positive and welcoming reaction to it, what women really want is to be degraded, demeaned, humiliated, and fucked silly by a domineering male.

Come on, ladies – really?

I’ve been told by several friends that I have to read the second and third books in the trilogy to really understand and get to like the characters.  Frankly, I don’t want to have to try that hard to like characters or a story.  Although I found a couple (out of several dozen) of the sex scenes to be, shall we say, titillating, this book just didn’t work for me, and I won’t be reading the rest of the series.

That said, I am now on a quest to find some quality erotica.  It’s got to be out there, right?  Stay tuned.

Also, my book club will be gathering to discuss Fifty Shades of Grey in July.  Although I didn’t like the book, I expect the discussion to be a rollicking good time, and I’ll post a recap here, so stay tuned for that as well.