Sunday, June 23, 2013

Review of Jeremy Edwards' "The Pleasure Dial"

So, there are these two writers walking down the street, and they’re headed towards the same intersection. One’s a joke writer—we can tell because he keeps talking to himself and cracking up at his own material. The other one writes erotica; we can tell it’s erotica and not porn because he always types with both hands—you’d be amazed how many pornographers you can catch single-handed. Anyways, these two guys bump into each other at the intersection like a schlemiel and a schlimazel, and their latest manuscripts get all mixed up together. That’s when the joke writer—let’s call him Mr. J—turns to the erotica guy—who we’ll refer to as Mr. E—and says “Hey! You got smut all over my gags!” To which Mr. E replies “No wonder you never shut up! And look at this; you got funny all over my sex!” J picks himself up and says “Your sex was already plenty funny, buddy—I mean, have you actually seen it on a cold day?” E looks around and says, “Never on a first date.” Mr. J says, “Gosh! Since when did you start dating yourself?” Mr. E says “I’d heard it was good for the prostate.” J says, “Now that’s really funny coming from a guy who types with both hands.” Mr. E bends over and starts picking up pages from out of the gutter. “My,” he says, “you’re really ‘on’ today, aren’t you, Mr. J?” “Hardly,” J replies, “everybody knows you’re just a little moron, Mr. E.”  [Insert rim shot here.]

The first thing you should know about Jeremy Edwards is that his jokes are a lot better than mine. The Pleasure Dial is a laugh-out-loud sexy; tickle-me-till-I-pass-out funny, brain-gasm-inducing work of sheer genius, and one of the most scrumptiously entertaining novels—erotic or otherwise—I’ve had the pleasure to read in quite some time; an unforgettable, couldn’t-put-it-down, never-wanted-it-to-end reading experience, the sort of which have become increasingly all too rare nowadays.

The Pleasure Dial transports us to the thriving entertainment world of 1930s America, dominated by radio and the movies, recently reborn, if not always reinvigorated, with sound. The story is a lovingly irreverent homage to that golden age of radio comedy (Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello) and the great screwball romps of the day, without the pesky Hayes Code censorship—think Carole Lombard and William Powell in My Man Godfrey or Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in The Front Page with the same razor-sharp double-entendre-rich repartee and considerably fewer clothes. The veritably Shakespearian ins and out of the plot are summarized by chief protagonist, radio gag-writer Artie Plask, thusly:

“Here’s what I have on my list so far: (1) A radio show in which the star, an irascible and conceited Hollywood legend is doing comedy when he thinks he’s doing drama—and he mustn’t find out. (2) A second radio show, whose star, though a dream of an employer in and of herself, is viewed with suspicion by star #1 because she is an intrafamily rival. (3) A fledgling mannequin manufacturing company that we’ve promised will show a profit shortly, and with whom my personal appearance is so closely identified in the suspicious mind of radio star #1 that I am forced to wear a disguise in his presence—because he mustn’t find out that the mannequin executive who stood up to him is really one of his own writers.”

If you think this sounds like something with the potential to be hilarious, you’d be right. The jokes fly fast and low, sneaking in under the blood-brain barrier before we even get them, and when we finally do, we have to mark our place and take a few minutes to roar till the belly is quite literally aching with pleasure!  The “juicy parts” aren’t bad either, especially considering that Edwards’ special brand of funny is on the sex like white on rice.  Reluctantly, I have to limit myself to only three short examples:

He lowered his ass to the edge of the bed, his hard-on wrestling his thigh for top billing. Your jokes made me laugh today,” she continued. This was his kind of foreplay. “Which one did you like best?” “The one about ignoring.” She tittered at the memory. There’s a customer waiting and I don’t want to ignore him. I don’t want to, but I’d like to. Yes, that would work well in Heffy’s voice. “Thank you. That’s a subtle one.” “I love that word, don’t you? Subtle. It sounds like a softly licking tongue.” Artie knew a song cue when he heard one. He pulled the sheet away from her body and focused his attention on the sex-damp blond fur he’d thereby revealed.
Or this:
Elyse blinked back tears as she backed the car out. “Yesterday my life was perfect; a house full of laughter-conjuring, clitoris-pleasing heroes. Apart from the nuisance of having to keep my clothes on whenever Daddy was around, the place was paradise on earth.”
And this:
The face of Elyse Hefferman being tongued to orgasm by the head-giving head writer had to be the most compelling thing that had ever appeared on this stage, thought Artie. Elyse, one could tell, approached every climax with the control and self-assurance with which a painter approached a blank canvas. The artistic mastery expressed in her face was overlaid with sensory pleasure, burgeoning arousal, and erotic anticipation—hers was the fiery-eyed face of a genius watching her creation come to life exactly as she had envisioned it.

Can’t you see a young, ditzy Carole Lombard as Elyse? For Artie’s fast-talking, even faster-thinking, comedy-writing girlfriend, Mariel Fenton, my imagination cast Rosalind Russell. And then there’s the beautiful, Garbo-esque Lila Lowell, every-man's-fantasy sexpot of the silver screen, who really does want to be alone—in her modest, book-lined bungalow, playing checkers with her lesbian lover. Edwards gives us, if not a cast of thousands, a vast troupe of memorable, wise-cracking supporting characters who can trace their laugh-lines back to Vaudeville and the Catskills; Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, the Marx Brothers, The Great Gildersleeve, Abbott and Costello, and the list could go on and on.   
Jeremy Edwards is that rare writer who is at once a consummate professional and a gifted entertainer. His well-polished prose are unfailingly engaging; his style sometimes cerebral, yet always affably accessible. Charming, sexy and smart, wry and rollicking, intoxicating and, oh yes, funny as hell; The Pleasure Dial is enthusiastically recommended.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review of short-story collections by I.J. Miller and Sharazade

Sex and Love by I.J. Miller

Transported: Erotic Travel Tales by Sharazade

“Show, don’t tell!”  What the hell does it mean anyway? The phrase has taken on the musty stench of dogma in the dark satanic mills of English pedagogy; repeated and echoed like a sacred mantra in junior-college lecture halls, extension night classes and continuing-education seminars wherever “creative writing” is supposedly being taught. “Show, don’t tell” we are told again and again, though seldom shown a reason why. In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne and King insist that “thanks to the influence of movies and television, readers today have become accustomed to seeing a story as a series of immediate scenes . . .

Narrative summary no longer engages readers the way it once did.   Since engagement is exactly what a fiction writer wants, you’re well-advised to rely heavily on immediate scenes to put your story across. You want to draw your readers into the world you’ve created, make them feel a part of it; make them forget where they are. And you can’t do this effectively if you tell your readers about your world secondhand. You have to take them there . . .” (2nd edition, 2004, pp 8-9)

I suppose it’s true that once you’ve seen Star Wars Episode IV you can never again abide the pedestrian pacing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, let alone those long drawn-out stretches of silence in the genuinely silent vacuum of space. Still, have readers really turned into such slack-jawed, mush-brained, dull-witted, attention-deficit-suffering rubes over the last several generations? (I realize this may be the wrong question to ask in light of the seismic success of Dan Brown, Dean Koontz, Stephanie Meyer and E.L. James, not to mention ratings for Honey BooBoo or the latest Kardashian-infested “reality” show.)  Sorry, I don’t buy it. It’s bullshit. If we’re going to have a catch-all dictum for effective fiction-writing, it should be “Damn the dogmas! Engage the reader, anyone you can.”

And how does a writer go about engaging his readers? How does she effectively draw them into her world and keep them interested?  Clearly there is more than one way to do this, as demonstrated by two recent collections of well-crafted short erotic fiction from I.J. Miller and Sharazade.  

What I look for in any successful anthology is variation and contrast. Each story should be unique, with different characters speaking in their own distinctive voices, from varying points of view; diverse settings, shifting tempi, new and unfamiliar conflicts and struggles. Without some creative attempt at “mixing it up” a story collection can feel like a concert in which every song is played in the same key at the same tempo; each song may well be lovely in its own right, but eventually, the subconscious gets tired of hearing the same old key in the same ol’ same ol’ time, and goes into sleep mode.  The beauty of any anthology—or well-programmed MP3 player—is  the freedom users are afforded to dip in here and there, casually at any point, picking and choosing stories that look good like desserts at a smorgasbord, leaving whatever may not suit their tastes at the moment. If I have any complaint that may apply equally to Miller’s Sex and Love and Sharazade’s Transported, it is that both suffer from too little variety and too much same-ness of tone and timing.  This is in no way to say that there’s not a lot to like in both collections—both are warmly recommended—potential readers should simply be aware of what they’re getting into.

 Sex and Love

In the twelve short stories featured in Sex and Love, I.J. Miller tells a good deal more than he shows. Nonetheless, there is some very fine, imaginative writing here, and the author always trusts his readers’ intelligence—something increasingly rare and refreshingly welcome. One hears endearing echoes of John Cheever in the way Miller presents his characters’ backstories; the way their rather conventional aspirations are explored, the very ordinariness of their dreams. Cheever’s style may seem dated nowadays, his reliance on secondhand narrative as quaint as his ‘50s suburban-middle-class sensibilities; yet his insights still ring universally, poignantly true, and Miller has learned the older author’s lessons well. The most revealing human truths; the most compelling drama is often discovered within the commonplace; the most seemingly ordinary moments in our lives in which the deepest understanding is born. Throughout Sex and Love, Miller demonstrates a talent for probing psychological complexity, often revealing the pain and poetry of dysfunction in surprisingly entertaining ways.

Highlights of the collection include the first two stories, Lonely Man, a cautionary tale about what happens when we allow ourselves to be led by the “little brain, and Cell, perhaps the best of the lot, an imaginative depiction of a thoroughly modern seduction. Things We Shouldn’t Do takes us into the head of an assistant manager at a Caribbean resort, who accidentally discovers his wife’s dalliance with a co-worker, and finds his life infected with cancer-like doubt. Cyberslut is a fascinating look at identity and self-perception in the surreal world of on-line sex chat; The Bachelor, a Rashamon-like rehash of events that may have happened or might still occur after an encounter in a strip club; Tennis Pro, most Cheever-esque of the stories ends on a touching but deeply gratifying note, as does Husband and Wife an authentic reflection on how marriage changes a couple, with an entertaining, satisfyingly sexy ironic twist at its climax.

There’s much to commend here, even if the language isn’t always as fluently adept or finely finished as we might have wished. At times, it feels as if the same narrator has insinuated himself into each successive story, so there isn’t enough contrast to keep things as interesting as they could have been. Still, on balance, Sex and Love is an admirable achievement, offering abundant rewards to the serious reader.  Sample the stories at random, take your time, and enjoy.

[Note that the longest story in this collection (as well as its weakest link), Single Woman, has also been published separately under the title, Climbing the Stairs.] 



In Transported: Erotic Travel Tales, Sharazade employs a very different method for engaging her readers, namely, by bringing them directly into the stories as characters themselves.  Seven of the nine stories in this collection employ a “shared first-person” point of view, with the author referring to herself as “I” and to the reader as “you”.  This lends a certain immediacy to the proceedings; an added layer of intimacy and excitement that many readers will find compelling in small doses. (The convention does tend to get old after reading a few stories one after another.)  The author’s style is relaxed and informal, in an easy-going vernacular, engagingly explicit but seldom off-puttingly vulgar. Each story revolves around a different destination or mode of travel, lending a nice unified feel to the compilation as a whole.

I was particularly impressed with the second story. Flaws is a masterpiece of sensual-literary craftsmanship (or would that be craftswomanship?) almost perfectly structured, with a pleasing and powerful erotic payoff at its climax. The narrator, traveling by train to a job interview in Chicago, reflects, obsessively about her physical flaws; only to forget them during a torrid encounter in a narrow sleeping compartment. (Flaws employs a conventional first-person point of view.) This story is alone worth the price of a download.

Other highlights include Sales Pitch, in which a twentysomething sales clerk in an airport “travel store” enjoys a steamy encounter with a customer; Just Browsing, relating an anonymous—but all the more arousing—encounter in the art section of a bookstore. As the narrator peruses a book of shunga (classic Japanese erotic prints), a stranger looks over her shoulder, and soon the two of them begin to act out the stories depicted in the prints.  Shore Leave colorfully evokes an early-morning sexual encounter on a beach. Onsen tells the story of a lovers’ weekend at a hot spring hotel (onsen) in Japan; this story is considerably more detailed, and delves more emotional depth than any of the others. (I was happily reminded of a similar episode in Donna George Storey’s Amorous Woman, which is, in itself, quite a recommendation.)

Transported is a quick and easy-to-read collection that may be just the thing to while away a few dull hours on a long layover or sit up with through the night in coach on a train. (Be careful, though; you never know who might be looking over your shoulder!)  Readers in the mood for well-written, simple sexy escapism won’t be disappointed.