It’s officially spring. That means the Michelin Man outerwear is coming off, and hopefully much more than that if you heed the following book suggestions, which, with a little finesse and basic hygiene, will help you woo a paramour, catch the attention of a cute stranger on the subway or in the coffee shop, and help spark conversations, passions, and many changings of the sheets.
1. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Don’t let the creative writing major-esque title fool you. The brilliant German poet’s letters are rife with transformative and inspirational tidbits on life, love, ladies, and solitude. Rilke’s advice to the young poet Franz Xaver Kappus pulses with an urgent, luminous charm, and compels us to take action, which leads to, you know, action.
Choice quote: “Only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.”
2. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Much has been written on the intoxicating combination of food and sex, but none quite so sumptuously as Like Water for Chocolate. Magical realism, forbidden and doomed lovers, and delicious recipes make this book a twofer: a conversation starter and a built-in dinner date. And, much like the exquisiteness of a good meal, “You don’t have to think about love; you either feel it or you don’t.”
Choice quote: “When nobody eats the last chile on the plate, it’s usually because none of them wants to look like a glutton, so even though they’d really like to devour it, they don’t have the nerve to take it. It was as if they were rejecting that stuffed pepper, which contains every imaginable flavor; sweet as candied citron, juicy as pomegranate, with the bit of pepper and the subtlety of walnuts, that marvelous chile in the walnut sauce. Within it lies the secret of love, but it will never be penetrated, and all because it wouldn’t feel proper.”
3. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda
Neruda’s original name was Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, but his poetry translates to the much more succinct “Do me now!” [Ed.: Translation may not be 100% accurate.] You’ve probably heard the most famous of his erotic analogies, “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees,” but there is so much more in this evocative collection, written, impressively, when Neruda was still a teenager.
Choice quote: “I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair.
Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets.
Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me, all day
I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps.”
4. Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx
Close Range houses the short story that inspired the award-winning film Brokeback Mountain, and just like Jack, one of its lone, brittle protagonists, we just don’t know how to quit you, Annie Proulx. All of her characters in this gorgeous collection are hard (sorry) and harsh and hot-blooded, involving unexpected passions, violence, and the wrong kinds of love we are all drawn to at one time or another, however grand and foolish they may be.
Choice quote: “They seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying, son of a bitch, son of a bitch, then, and easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together, and hard, Jack’s big teeth bringing blood, his hat falling to the floor, stubble rasping, wet saliva welling, and the door opening and Alma looking out for a few seconds at Ennis’s straining shoulders and shutting the door again and still they clinched, pressing chest and groin and thigh and leg together, treading on each other’s toes until they pulled apart to breathe and Ennis, not big on endearments, said what he said to his horses and his daughters, little darlin.”
5. The Princess Bride by William Goldman
What’s sexier than laughing your ass off with this beloved favorite? Nothing. Oh except maybe “Twoo Wuv.”
Choice quote: “I love you,’ Buttercup said. ‘I know this must come as something of a surprise to you, since all I’ve ever done is scorn you and degrade you and taunt you, but I have loved you for several hours now, and every second, more. I thought an hour ago that I loved you more than any woman has ever loved a man, but a half hour after that I knew that what I felt before was nothing compared to what I felt then. But ten minutes after that, I understood that my previous love was a puddle compared to the high seas before a storm. Your eyes are like that, did you know? Well they are. How many minutes ago was I? Twenty?’”
6. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
Who else but Audre Lorde could so exquisitely write about putting finger bananas up her lover’s vagina? No one. This memoir, or “biomythography” as she calls it, is incredible in so many ways, and Lorde’s assertive, startlingly sensual prose illuminates what it was like to be a black, lesbian poet and badass in the 1950s. A must-read for everyone, but especially for girls who like girls.
Choice quote: “I held you, lay between your brown legs, slowly playing my tongue through your familiar forests, slowly licking and swallowing as the deep undulations and tidal motions of your strong body slowly mashed ripe banana into a beige cream that mixed with the juices of your electric flesh.”
7. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
If you can forgive the several hundred pages about farming, (and you probably should), Anna Karenina is, as Nabokov once said, “a flawless book,” a masterpiece of intrigue, seduction, adultery, suicide, and grand, life-ruining passions, all told while Russia was on the brink of massive social transformation. It’s mesmerizing and frank and reading 800-page Tolstoy novels in public rarely fails to impress.
Choice quote: “They’ve got no idea what happiness is, they don’t know that without this love there is no happiness or unhappiness for us—there is no life.”
8. Loose Woman by Sandra Cisneros
This book of poems is as erotic as Neruda’s, but with more blunt sexuality, intoxication, and late-night phone calls to your ex. Cisneros is el huracán blowing down your spring cherry tree, and then making you light her cigar after it’s all said and done. She’s also funny, with titles like “I Am So in Love I Grow a New Hymen” and “I Am So Depressed I Feel Like Jumping in the River Behind My House but Won’t Because I’m Thirty-Eight and Not Eighteen.”
Choice quote: “Say my name. Say it.
The way it’s supposed to be said.
I want to know that I knew you
even before I knew you.”
9. Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
It’s hard to resist a novel that starts with a combative barb: “If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done!” Reading Robbins is such a pleasure unto itself it’s almost masturbatory, but the deft turns of phrase, bracing wit, and unorthodox romance of Still Life with Woodpecker also help.
Choice quote: “Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won’t adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet. That would mean that security is out of the question. The words ‘make’ and ‘stay’ become inappropriate. My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free.”
10. Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
We’re pretty sure Gaitskill originated the term “hot and bothered” with this collection, which is as scintillating as it is disturbing. Thankfully Gaitskill’s prose is also wickedly dark, funny, and unhinged. These stories will break your heart and unclasp your bra before you even notice you are naked and heartbroken. A few of the tales are straight-up sexy — and one was the basis for the film Secretary — but all will leave you achy and swoony and ready to bend someone over a desk somewhere.
Choice quote: “At times she had thought that this was the only kind of connection you could have with people — intense, inexplicable and ultimately incomplete.”
11. Story of O by Pauline Réage
For those who secretly love the Fifty Shades series but are too embarrassed to read them in public, Story of O is for you. It’s got all the steamy S&M, exhibitionism, and master–slave relationships you could ask for, but with lush, galloping prose that isn’t peppered with “Oh geez” and questions posed to one’s “inner Goddess,” as in E.L. James’ trilogy.
Choice quote: “‘As a matter of fact,’ the other voice went on, ‘if you do tie her up from time to time, or whip her just a little, and she begins to like it, that’s no good either. You have to get past the pleasure stage, until you reach the stage of tears.’”
12. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Dreamy, lyrical, as philosophical as it is smutty, The Unbearable Lightness of Being actually has very little that’s light about it. Obsession, oppression, infidelity, and communism are the name of this game, along with the ardent reminder that through all of our doubts, uncertainties, and fears, love and sex are the only things that matter.
Choice quote: “The dance seemed to him a declaration that her devotion, her ardent desire to satisfy his every whim, was not necessarily bound to his person, that if she hadn’t met Tomas, she would have been ready to respond to the call of any other man she might have met instead.”
13. Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
Told by a genderless narrator, Written on the Body is about a great and tragic love affair. But more than that it is about obsession. Winterson’s sensuality and painterly touch make every sentence feel like poem. A poem entrenched in want — insane, unyielding, dire want.
Choice quote: “When I say ‘I will be true to you’ I am drawing a quiet space beyond the reach of other desires.”
Most sexy book lists have to include Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which shocked America enough to ban it for 27 years, but frankly, we prefer the real love letters of Miller and the Queen of Erotica. Eavesdropping on one of the greatest literary love affairs is a pleasure all its own, and one that will certainly add fuel to your fires.
Choice quote: “Things I forgot to tell you:
That I love you, and that when I awake in the morning I use my intelligence to discover more ways of appreciating you.
That when June comes back she will love you more because I have loved you. There are new leaves on the tip and climax of your already overrich head.
That I love you.
That I love you.
That I love you.
I have become an idiot like Gertrude Stein. That’s what love does to intelligent women. They cannot write letters anymore.”
15. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
Cross-dressing lesbians, music hall singers, scandal, kept women, rent boys, and possibly the best DIY dildo scene ever written about Victorian England, Tipping the Velvet has something to please every body. Waters puts the dick back in Dickens, (even the title is a sexual act!) and her prose manages to be as sharp as it is steamy.
Choice quote: “With every step I took away from her, the movement at my heart and between my legs grew more defined: I felt like a ventriloquist, locking his protesting dolls into a trunk.”
16. Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates
Like Gaitskill, Oates is a motherfucking heart surgeon, and Foxfire’s about a badass, roving girl gang in the ‘50s. You might remember the film version starring a doe-eyed Angelina Jolie. Fierce, stark, and with a savage, feminist vigilantism, this novel taps into something altogether primal, and keeping in touch with our animalistic natures helps in other areas as well.
Choice quote: “The heavenly light you admire is fossil-light, it’s the unfathomably distant past you gaze into, stars long extinct.”