[This is text of the book reviews from episode 71.]
As mentioned in previous episodes, I worked in independent bookshops for years—if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be one of my regular customers who’d ask for recommendations for yourself or for gifts this piece will give you an idea.
This writing will include the books I read about sex and sexuality prior to having The Pageist blog and podcast, as well as books I’m currently reading that are worth considering for the sex geek in your life for the holidays.
Back in episode thirty-six I went over the books I’d reviewed on the site before starting the show, but this is a bit different. These are books from before I could have met any of you wondrous humans. I’ve kept a reading journal and notes for years, but those notes aren’t as comprehensive as what I usually do here so these will be brief summaries to give you an idea of if you’d like to check out each one for yourself.
The Bookshop Experience
First, if you came into the shop looking for a recommendation I’d ask, ‘What was the last thing you read that you really liked?’ Or ‘What sort of books does the person you’re shopping for like to read?’ Then go from there.
Hey, friend! Welcome back to The Library (which would totally be the name of my kinky bookshop), grab a coffee or tea. Let’s find some books.
That person you’ve been dating is into some hardcore nerdage along with their sexiness? Congratulations! Let me show you to:
The Science of Sex. Non-fiction books about how sex actually works.
I’m currently reading Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski. It’s incredible—it’s one of those books that challenges all sorts of things about the way we view sex; particularly female sexuality. The full review will be in depth and super nerdy, but I want to give people the chance to get it for their favourite sex geek before the holidays. It should be required reading for high school seniors. Basically—everything we’re taught is inadequate or inaccurate.
If you’re looking for something a little less heavy, but no less educational, I recommend Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach. Everything Mary Roach writes is hilarious, well-researched and informative. If you enjoy trivia—did you know pig farmers sexually stimulate sows because it’s been shown they become pregnant easier if turned on during insemination?—then this is for you.
She goes to a lot of really cool places like Albert Kinsey’s attic and laboratories where they study how sex works and reports on what she finds and learns—she has a passion for new information that comes through in her writing. She also had a great TED talk about orgasm called 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Orgasm.
Most of Mary Roach’s book is about human sexuality, but if you’re looking for more about how sex works in the animal kingdom, I recommend Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex by Olivia Judson. This one is very fun. It’s about the utterly bizarre sex lives of animals and insects, explained in the form of letters. So some creature will ‘write’ in to Dr Tatiana about their problem and she’ll answer the question. (I really want to re-read this one and Bonk, but who knows if I’ll ever have time and I need new copies, as I jettisoned mine at some point.)
The entries that stand out in my mind from over fifteen years ago were one about an insect where the female had no vaginal entry so the male had to stab his penis into her abdomen to implant semen, which just seems like an egregious design flaw, and another where the sperm was some ridiculous number of times longer than the insect or being. I can’t recall if it was a worm or what. Basically, if you’d like some trivia to scare people off at cocktail parties, this is the book for you.
Who else are we shopping for?
Oh, your brother’s got a one track mind, but he’s also into history? What about some:
History of Sex. Non-fiction about what people have been getting up to. (They’ve been getting up to a lot.)
Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers and Passionate Politics by Eleanor Herman. This was a follow up to Herman’s successful Sex with Kings, but I wasn’t interested in what insanely wealthy, endlessly powerful dudes got up to. Women who still had ridiculous rules to abide by, even when monarchs, were interesting, though. Some got up to some seriously sexy shenanigans. Others did a little and then paid for it with their lives. Some beheadings happened. History isn’t as boring as your teachers tried to make it.
Which was pretty much the theme of History Laid Bare: Love, Sex and Perversity from the Ancient Etruscans to Warren G. Harding by Richard Zacks. This one is only available used now, but it’s inexpensive, easy to find and fun as hell. It’s a chunky little book chock full of bits and bobs your history teachers left out. I’m kicking myself for having got rid of it and it’s on my wishlist as part of an effort to rebuild my library. It’s a great bathroom book (or coffee table book, depending on the age of people who hang out at your house). People don’t mind waiting for you to get ready to go out, if they have something interesting to flip through.
Another one of this type is Sexy Origins and Intimate Things by Charles Panati. (Why did I get rid of these books? I do not know. Ugh, self.) Anyway, this one is a fat reference book of over 400 pages of words to do with sex and sexuality that is also mostly out of print, though it’s available for Kindle for just a few dollars. It was originally released in the late nineties so I would be curious to see how they handle transgender and sexuality terms since those have changed so much in the intervening nineteen years.
Your niece has decided to pursue a degree in sexuality? Well, there are worse ways to annoy your conservative siblings.
General Sexuality – But very specific types. Non-Fiction about less mainstream facets of sexuality.
A History of Celibacy by Elizabeth Abbott is great. I took so many notes when I read this one. Sexuality isn’t sexuality if someone isn’t trying to repress it—their own or someone else’s. This well-researched book covers a very long time and a wide-range of people who practise celibacy for various reasons. From the religious to the athletic; from the famous to the anonymous.
If she wants to study relationships between women, I highly recommend Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present by Lillian Faderman. Romantic Friendships would now look (from the outside) like gay relationships. They were highly emotionally passionate relationships between same sex couples (they existed between men, too) and could often be physically affectionate. They were encouraged because men and women were segregated except in marriage. Once men realised women could support themselves financially and have sex, romantic friendships became a threat and the dreaded word ‘lesbian’ was invented and that was that. This book is an excellent chronicle of real life romantic friendships between women, how they were portrayed and how people lived them.
The title is a paraphrase from the Christian Bible, 2 Samuel 1:26: where David says “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was extraordinary, surpassing the love of women.”
If your niece is really interested in romantic friendships—I mean really interested, I recommend Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England by Sharon Marcus. This is a densely academic piece about these sorts of relationships in a specific time period. I can only recommend it if she’s into what it would be like to be from a certain socioeconomic class (well-off) in Victorian England or enjoys reading academic work, but if she is into swooning letters from women who kept their beloved’s hair in their lockets then she’ll love it. I did.
If she’s looking for something specific to study, Boston Marriages: Romantic but Asexual Relationships Among Contemporary Lesbians by Esther D. Rothblum and Kathleen A. Brehony. There aren’t many books out about asexuality, and this may be the first. It’s quite academic, but not entirely unreadable for a lay audience. I’d still probably only recommend it for people studying asexuality—if so then it’s a must read and a classic.
Whoa, your highly conservative aunt who finally got out of the soul-killing, decades-long marriage has started dating? That’s great! Three guys at once?! AWESOME. She gets a memoir, I think.
A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance by Jane Juska. At 66, Juska placed an ad in the New York Times to find someone to have ‘a lot of sex’ with. This is a memoir of how that went. This book was pretty open about the good times and the bad—she didn’t pretend it was all a fun time. And she spent a good amount of the book talking about other aspects of her life, like her damaged relationship with her son—I mean, you don’t get to 66 without having lived some life—but it was nice to see someone taking control of her life at any age. I was reading this in the bookshop I was working at at the time and my manager was side-eyeing me with a fierceness. What? Like she was never going to be sixty. Women deserve sexual happiness at every age.
If that one doesn’t sound good, a classic is Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies. This could possibly be the first sexuality-related book I read. It was originally published in 1973 and is a collection of actual fantasies of women from diverse backgrounds, taken from hundreds of personal interviews. It was groundbreaking and taboo-busting. It’s a great way to let women know their fantasies are normal. The author has other books that follow on from this one, as well, though I haven’t read those.
Who else are we shopping for?
Your friend is new to the kink scene and needs information on Dominance and submission?
Let’s hit up the:
I’ve already talked about Anton Fulmen’s The Heart of Dominance, but it’s still on my excellent books list. I put it down when Walter got his tumour diagnosis and haven’t picked it up again, through no fault of the book. I just started other books instead—it happens. I’m looking forward to finishing it and having the author on the show. It is great for people who are at any place in their Dominance—and especially if they don’t consider themselves to be a ‘natural Dominant’. It’s going to be a regular go-to resource.
I’m currently reading a couple books for submissives. The first is Erotic Slavehood: A Miss Abernathy Omnibus. This is two collected books by Christina Abernathy. I’ve finished the first, which is Miss Abernathy’s Concise Slave Training Manual. I’m currently reading the second one, which is full of training exercises for s-types, Training with Miss Abernathy. These exercises can be done on your own or with a D-type. There’s a foreward by Laura Antoniou, because of course there is. These books read very much like something Antoniou would use as reference materials for The Marketplace and then take to the n-th degree. If you’re interested in self training or helping your s-type improve, I highly recommend this one.
Another one I love, but am taking a break from thanks to 2017 being a year of illness is Where I am Led: A Service Exploration Workbook by Christina Parker. It’s a year of writing prompts and activities to help service-based people improve their abilities and learn about themselves that can be done with or without a D-type. The activities and prompts would be good to add to a submissive resume to demonstrate your commitment to growth and continual learning.
Also, in the wider realm of kink, I’m currently reading Ask: Building Consent Culture edited by Kitty Stryker. It’s a collection of essays about how consent is (or is not) part of everyday life and what we need to do to be more aware of it in every way. I’ve just started it, but it’s already provided a great deal of food for thought and I’m looking forward to doing a full review. The essays are by people from diverse backgrounds and they write about consent in ways we may not even usually think of. It’s really thought-provoking.
Your twin niece and nephew who just went off to university have come out as gay? Boy, this Christmas is going to be a rollicking good time. No, it’s not that unusual, I’ve known several families where the siblings were gay.
Let’s sidle on over to
Gay and Lesbian Studies
For your nephew I’d recommend a few things. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, which is a set of nine books that follow a group of San Franciscans from the 1970s through to the present day. Colourful characters, laugh-out-loud shenanigans. They’re light reads but also tackle the concerns of the day. You can get them separately or in three omnibus collections that have three books in each. You get really involved in the characters’ lives and want to continue reading at the end of each book so I’d recommend the omnibus editions. They’ll crack you up and break your heart. Really hard to put down.
Another fiction sort of comedy of errors is Blue Heaven by Joe Keenan, who was one of the writers on Frasier, and it shows. The plot is a down-on-his luck, gay songwriter decides to marry his friend—a woman—for the gifts (this was decades before gay marriage was ever going to be legal). They were going to throw a fabulous wedding and make off with all the goods. Well, it all went to hell in a handbasket, but it had me in tears at times and full of Frasier-worthy one-liners. This one is mostly out of print, but easy to find and very affordable. (I also see, looking this one up that Keenan has several other books to his name. I don’t have time to read them and I despair!)
For non-fiction I would recommend Michael Thomas Ford’s collected essays, which are hilarious and sometimes a bit wrenching true-life portraits of life as a gay man in the world. He’s arch and someone I wanted to hang out with as an older teen, young twenty-something. The books of his I’ve read and recommend are Alec Baldwin Doesn’t Love Me and Other Trials From My Queer Life, It’s Not Mean If It’s True and That’s Mr Faggot to You.
Finally, two autobiographies. Both are by Andrew Tobias, though the first one was originally published under John Reid, because the author was in the closet. It was called The Best Little Boy in the World and the part that I still remember was that he never farted as a child. He just decided he wasn’t going to because it was ‘bad’. He didn’t masturbate or have wet dreams, either.
The first book was about a person coming to terms with their sexuality and it’s a classic—it’s important for people to know what it was like from a sort of weirdly boring, non-traumatic, bizarrely logically ‘I’m just never going to act on these feelings’ — yeah that didn’t go so well–sort of way.
The book originally came out in 1973, which was groundbreaking. I would also recommend the follow up The Best Little Boy in the World Grows Up, which was published under his own name in 1998 and is about how embracing who you are is, you know, good. Tobias has a MBA from Harvard and was treasurer of the Democratic National Committee from 1999 to 2017, so he’s been a successful human.
Onto your niece.
There’s this thing about lesbian fiction—for a very long time one or both of the women had to die or go straight before the publishers would agree to publish a piece. Like one of my favourite books—Radclyffe Halls’ The Well of Loneliness. Great title, right? Originally, Hall wanted to give the women-loving-women a happy ending, but the publishers said nope! So it has this depressing-ass ending. This is not a spoiler—if you’re reading any lesbian-based book over a certain age, this is a guarantee. Still, it’s a classic and there’s some swoon-worth bits in it, particularly if you’re into butch-femme roles, which were heavily in play. It was published in 1928 so the language is a bit flowery.
Happy endings for the ladies were so rare, they caused quite the waves—for example in The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (they made it into a film called Carol) no one died and that was a big deal for something written in 1952. I mean… it’s not an entirely happy ending, but I’ll keep it spoiler free. It’s still fairly blatant lesbianism—it’s not The L Word or anything, but you’d have to be blind not to see it—and, again, no one died, and the ladies ending up happy. Crazypants! It’s a classic. Kids should know their classics—we had to walk uphill both ways to read our stories where the lesbians died twice each just to make meaningful eye contact and we were happy about it! It’s about a married woman with a child who sees a young woman who works retail and just falls for her. Swoon.
Another surprisingly happy ending with actual sex this time was Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller. It was published in 1969 and is set on a New England farm in the nineteenth century. Two women—a painter and a cross-dressing farmer—live as a couple. It was tender and realistic and I couldn’t put it down. I read it in one sitting.
Speaking of actual sex—Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. A lot of Sarah Waters’ books have queer characters and themes, but Tipping the Velvet is lesboriffic. It’s a Victorian picaresque so we get to see everything from the slums of the era to high society and there’s lots of graphic lesbian sex. The over-arching story is of Nan, who goes from being an oyster shucker in a village on the coast, to a male impersonator on vaudeville to a kept woman (by a very Dominant type lady I had quite the thing for) and on to another relationship around the time women were trying to get the vote. It’s lush with description, as well. It was made into a quite excellent mini-series.
Another book of Waters’ with Victorian detail galore and a lesbian storyline, though not nearly as much sex, is Fingersmith, which is what pickpockets were called back then. Densely plotted and full of the sorts of things you’d expect in any Dickensian story (except, you know, the lesbians)—orphans, schemers, thieves, backalleys, smog… this one has twists and turns like you wouldn’t believe. It’s compelling, well-written stuff.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend Jeneatte Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which is autobiographical fiction based on her own upbringing by a highly (and I mean highly) religious adoptive mother and what the process of coming out was like in that environment. Winterson’s writing is at times lyrical and evocative and, at other times, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. But it was still weirdly beautiful. It’s a classic and not to be missed.
Ah, the season and entire year is literally draining your will to live and you need a break from all of civilisation?
A friend of mine recommended I read The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel, and it’s immersive. It’s about a Cro-Magnon child who loses her parents during an earthquake in the Ice Age and manages to find her way to a Neanderthal tribe. They take her in, though they find her paleness and blonde hair ugly, and she grows up with them.
Auel had to do all of her research by hand, as it was originally published in 1980, which makes the detail that much more impressive, but it’s easy to sit and read hundreds of pages at a time. There are clearly delineated male and female roles in the Neanderthal tribe and it’s a wonder people haven’t created some power exchange styles based on the Earth’s Children books they way they have with Gor. This book was recommended to me because it was the first sexually explicit book my friend had read, but I haven’t got to that bit yet, even though I’m a few hundred pages in.
That’s what I have for you this time, friend. I hope it was helpful. I’ll leave you with this stack of books to look through—when you’re ready, just bring what you want to the till and I’ll check you out.