We all know that, really, the way to a woman's pants is through her brain. So, with another Valentine's Day looming, I set out to read five recently published collections of erotica to find out exactly how hot type gets these days. You'd think that consuming nearly 1,500 pages of love, lust and sex in the course of only a month would've left me a puddle of vibrating exhaustion (I hoped it would). But, although I did have moments of thigh-clenching, lip-biting enjoyment, overall I was more struck by the notion that, like great sex, great sex writing is a delicate balance of imagination and knowing where to stick your verbs. Luckily, the writers in these collections have words (and positions) to satisfy pretty much all tastes. And you can read more about how one finds great smut in our Q&A with Best American Erotica 2008 editor Susie Bright. Don't forget sticky notes and a highlighter. You'll want to mark the parts to be enacted early in the morning on Feb. 15.
To make last-minute V-Day shopping easier,
the O-factor of each book is rated with this scale.
1 Pat the Bunny
2= The Joy of Cooking
3= Breakfast at Tiffany's
4= Valley of the Dolls
5= Anaïs Nin's first trip to a whorehouse
(Harper Perennial, 288 pages, $13.95)
Hot type: "He uses his lips, tongue, and fingers, uses them to give her a taste of herself."
From a futuristic, synthetic, potty-mouthed Jenna Bush in Steve Almond's "The True Republic" to a conservative senator's wife wandering into a D.C. dive bar looking for anonymous sex in "The Candidate's Wife" by James Frey, this anthology really gives it to the GOP. Jerry Stahl takes out his frustration with the Republican party in "Li'l Dickens," which opens with the line: "I did not mean to sodomize Dick Cheney." It's all fun and games for the narrator until Cheney points a gun at his face and the mystery of Harry Whittington becomes all too clear.
Ideal recipient: For the lady who gets hot and bothered by Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! and wonders if she might be bi—she wants a taste of Hillary and Barack.
(Penguin Great Loves,
119 pages, $10)
Hot type: "Their pleasure was long, the night was brief, and though they were unaware of the fact, it was almost dawn when they eventually fell asleep without a stitch to cover them, exhausted as much by their merry sport as by the nocturnal heat."
Not technically an anthology, the Great Loves series is part of Penguin Books' larger Great Ideas series. These pretty little books with tiny prices contain the works of history's greatest writers. For Great Loves, Virgil's Doomed Love sits next to Stendhal's Cures for Love . My favorite is Giovanni Boccaccio's The Eaten Heart . An influence on Chaucer, Boccaccio basically wrote a 12th-century bodice ripper. The women are all eye-burningly gorgeous. The men are fabulously well-endowed. And all have insatiable appetites.
Ideal recipient: The perfect sexual gateway drug for the lady who added "read more classics" to her list of 2008 resolutions.
(Tin House, 250 pages, $18.95)
Hot type: "So magnificent, like being cracked open and offered up to the universe. A life being sacrificed for your pleasure. SEX."
Do Me , an anthology by Portland publisher Tin House, is elegant, surprising and, well, sort of not sexy. Sure, there's Martha McPhee's "The Anthropology of Sex," in which a woman bent over a bathroom sink begs her lover to enter her while surrounded by his wife's well-worn undergarments. Now that's primal. But the rest of the sex in this tome is that sort of literary love-makin' where everything has to be true…and ugly and all too human. And yet, it works because the writing is that good. In Robert Travieso's "Frogs," an awkward boy gets it on with the most popular girl in school. Except (to satisfy the lit crowd) they're doing it in an unkempt pool where each of them feels the frogs that occupy the murky waters swirling around their legs. Ew. Elissa Schappell offers a hysterical tale about a woman in a raccoon suit at a plushie convention.
Ideal recipient: The unflinchingly independent woman. She brings her own bags to the farmers' market.
(Chronicle, 208 page, $15.95)
Hot type: "She used her lips and tongue and her hot breath. Her hair spilled all around me, prickly. I felt like I was on a bed of coals, voodoo-walking."
Complete with a photo of a lady clad only in panties standing over a bundt cake, this collection is more geared toward the beer-bong set. A 17-year-old busboy is sucked off by his club's singer in "Stud" by Michael Lowenthal, and Jami Attenberg's narrator in "Instant Love" has casual sex with guys she meets on the five dating websites she frequents. Hot, but not groundbreaking—or even shocking—stuff. Some of the writing is a little clunky, but the potholes are balanced by smooth prose from pros like A.M Homes and Robert Olen Butler.
Ideal recipient: Does your girl favor blue tights and gold lamé shorts? Drink Tab and roller-skate? It's the perfect literary addition to her MySpace and Facebook reading lists.
(Harper, 608 pages, $24.95)
Hot type: "At the dead end of our lovers' lane—a side street of abandoned factories—where I perfected the pinch that springs open a bra; behind the lilac bushes... where you first touched me through my jeans, and your nipples, swollen against transparent cotton, seemed the shade of lilacs...."
This anthology, edited by Pulitzer Prize winner behind Middlesex , should zip you right back to being 19, when you were seduced by the masters of contemporary fiction in Lit 101. In fact, this anthology is the syllabus. Eugenides has gathered several lessons in symbolism—Chekhov's "The Lady with the Little Dog," Joyce's "The Dead" and Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"—while newer authors like David Bezmozgis and former Portlander Miranda July bring us up to the 21st century. 2007 MacArthur genius-grant winner Stuart Dybek's story "We Didn't" contains the hottest moment in the book, perhaps because it's written in the second person: You are doing it for the first time, on the beach with your young lover, "your thighs opened like wings from my waist." It's sexy—until the police arrive and a dead woman washes onshore. That kills the mood. But, come on, these are classic short stories. They're meant to inspire debates on the contrast between good and evil, passion and reason, not to inspire you to reach for your Rabbit.
Ideal recipient: This collection sings in the hands of a naughty schoolmistress who enjoys the tidiness of a well-written five-paragraph essay.