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Books to quicken the romantic pulses

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There's a reason why "Cupid" and "stupid" rhyme: Nothing has caused more inane behavior than that little fat kid's wicked arrows. So daft and incomprehensible is Love that poets and scribes throughout the ages have always had a tireless fountain of drama from which to draw inspiration for their plots and meters. Homer's first subject, The Iliad, would have been little more than a small pamphlet if Paris hadn't lost his wits for Helen. Shakespeare's Sonnets would have been naught but a time and place on the bathroom wall in a swarthy pub if it weren't for the cruel overstatement of love. Though a Hallmark holiday it may be, it's only fitting that we'd have a day to celebrate the impulse responsible for the majority of our world's population and problems, and that there'd be, of course, innumerable new volumes of prose and verse dedicated to its infinite intrigue and mystery. Here are just a few new toppings for that big pizza pie of amore.

-- Noel Black

Noble Aphrodisiacs

They say don't judge a book by its cover, but this one, with its Pepto-Bismol pink and 1950s linoleum-turquoise jacket, virtually jumped off the shelves. First published in 1952, this is a collection of aphrodisiacal dishes, all of them discovered before 1936 by the author who assures that they work. Venus in the Kitchen attained cult status upon publication and is still in print some 50 years later, leading me to think that there must be something to that claim.

Of course, collecting the ingredients for some of these recipes would require the stealth of a hunter on safari or, at the very least, a more sophisticated meat market than one is likely to find in America. Crane cooked with red wine, cutlets of wild boar and leopard's marrow simmered in goat's milk are three dishes that guarantee virility while requiring a taste for adventure.

Colorado cowboys and cowgirls will be happy to note that Rocky Mountain Oysters are indeed stimulants for love: Included in Venus in the Kitchen is a recipe for a savory Pie of Bulls' Testicles. And who would have known that sparrows' brains are effective stimulants? According to the recipe, Aristotle recognized this fact and wrote about it.

For the less adventurous, this slim volume includes more mundane dishes like curried chicken, breast of veal, eggs scrambled with caviar, and frogs' legs ("a noble aphrodisiac"). The recipes are simple and the language is droll and authoritative. In the section on oysters, for example, the delicious-sounding recipe for Oysters in Champagne ends with this terse comment: "Not everybody cares to treat oysters in this fashion."

Did you know that anchovies "have long been famed for their lust-provoking virtues? Or that marmalade made from carnations "is very useful for people of cold temperaments"? Cinnamon, it seems, has been famed as an aphrodisiac for centuries.

Venus in the Kitchen is treat for the epicure, the bibliophile and the merely curious alike. Many of the recipes are approachable and intriguing. Try this one on your valentine:

Oysters in Fricase

Put a little butter into a stewpan, a slice of ham, a bundle of sweet herbs, and an onion stuck with two cloves. Stew it a little on a slow fire then add a little flour, some good broth, and a piece of lemon peel. Then put scalded oysters to it, and simmer them a little. When it is ready, thicken it with the yolks of two eggs, a little cream, and a bit of butter. Take out the ham, bundle of herbs, onion and lemon peel, and squeeze in a lemon.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Call 911

Here's a valentine for yourself if you are mystified and often mortified at the current state of male-female affairs. Cynthia Heimel holds no prisoners; she simply skewers everyone at hand.

The author of one of the funniest books on relationships ever written, Sex Tips for Girls, and well-known sex columnist for alternative newsweeklies for many years, Heimel gets personal in her new book, revealing the gory details of her short-lived second marriage to "Mr. Right." Needless to say, it didn't exactly work out, but the insights she gained are priceless. Like this:

"How do marriage counselors sleep at night, knowing all they know about marriage and not screaming it to the world? They should stand on their rooftops in their pajamas with a megaphone shouting: 'Citizens! Never Marry! ... Marriage is a bloodbath!

"But no, everyone keeps mum. No one tells about the sniping in the kitchen, the words like grenades flung across the bed, the radioactive silences in the rose garden ...

"My husband and I looked right into each other's souls and wanted to kill each other. I don't know why. I don't know how I ended up locking myself in the bathroom and puking into the toilet for the sake of love."

And why do we do it? Ms. Heimel, also known as the Problem Lady, answers succinctly:

"It's the sex, of course. Primordial-ooze sex, the people's choice. The conspiracies of the selfish gene make the machinations of the military-industrial complex look like tic-tac-toe."

Framed by the swift advance, swifter retreat and ultimate breakup of her marriage, Heimel offers 29 chapters of hard-earned wisdom on most of the imaginable pitfalls of dating and romance.

Like looking for Mr. Right:

"I had been looking at my watch, humming and tapping my foot for an entire decade. There had been several Mr. Wrongs in quick succession. There was the tantric yoga guy who believed that having an orgasm sapped him of his vital juices, who talked seriously with his mother about men on the moon." Been there? Yep.

Here's Heimel on the Renaissance Man.

"I forbid you to go out with this guy. I forbid you even to ask him for directions. Any fellow who defines himself as a Renaissance man is telling you, in shorthand, 'I am full of quiet yet all-encompassing knowledge and no matter what you know, I will always know better than you and will chuckle with a quiet condescension whenever you challenge me and I might even smoke a pipe. Plus, I don't make any money ever, but that is not my fault. It is the fault of the system."

Don't worry; her barbs aren't all aimed at the male species. Here's Heimel on the much-overrated myth, Women's Intuition:

"Do women have a special locus in the brain, possibly a node or even a nodule, that gives them a greater power than men to see the concealed, hear the mute, grasp the unfathomable? Is there really such a thing as women's intuition? No. Thank you and good night."

And finally, here's Heimel on my favorite romantic fantasy, Love at First Sight:

"We must always remember that Love at First Sight is a mere plot device for the film-as-sex-act metaphor. You need conflict. You need pre-orgasmic tension. Nobody cares if a couple falls into each other's arms in act three if in act two all they do is sip a little coffee and take tedious strolls on the beach. Love must conquer all. The course of true love must never run smooth.

In movies we call it romance, in real life call 911."

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Get Up and Go

The great thing about anthologies is that there's almost always something worth reading. The bad thing about anthologies is that you often have to wade through a bunch of junk to get to that something.

The infinite possibilities of erotic fantasies and the fact that most people have their particular favorites means it often can be more miss than hit when it comes to anthologies of erotic literature.

In an attempt to accommodate readers' wide variety of tastes, and to open worlds of possibility for the more inquisitive readers, a new generation of erotic anthologies that include something for just about everybody has been flooding the market. Think Carol Queen, Susie Bright, M. Christian, Thomas Roche, Jill Nagle, Tristan Taormino and others of the heady feminist porn set. These writers are interested in inclusion, the whole spectrum of race and culture, power play, fetishes, body type. The joy of inclusion is that everyone is welcome; the bummer is that maybe you aren't into all that.

Cleis Press' newest anthology, Erotic Travel Tales (edited by Mitzi Szereto, author of Erotic Fairy Tales: A Romp Through the Classics also from Cleis) is a prime example of the newest breed of the all-inclusive erotic anthology. So if you're open-minded or get turned on by possibility, and if you love to travel, to read travel literature, fantasize about traveling, and like to bring your libido along with you, this book is for you.

Erotic Travel Tales brings us erotic adventures from every corner of the planet. Starting with a world tour phone sex fantasy in "Europa," we are then quickly whisked off to Venice for an old-world hustler sob story as young Tadzio gives up courtly love for a sordid shag in "Vaporetto. In "Mitsuko," Ann Dulaney leads us into the world of Japanese hospitality and the ultimate culinary sacrifice a housewife must make for her husband's career. Tabitha Flyte takes us into the Himalayas for an adulterous tent rescue. In diary style, "Journey of My Hands" mostly paints eccentric character sketches from a male-on-male masseur's various house calls in Paris. A bored bohemian girl buys more than a bike in rain-soaked Amsterdam.

One of the best-written stories in the collection, "Season of Marriage," is a first-person account of a young Muslim-American woman's arranged marriage to a man in Ceylon. Though she's not a virgin, she is fed up with American men and decides to give into her mother's wishes for an arranged marriage. Mary Anne Mohanraj then invites us into the honeymoon bedroom where she first meets her new husband at the thunderous beginning of the monsoons.

-- Noel Black

Glowing Embers

A book of love is by its very nature a book of heartbreak. This rediscovered masterpiece, first published in Budapest in 1942, puts a story of love, friendship, betrayal and pride into a package as noble and elegant as a Faberg egg, quietly breaking the reader's heart while soothing it with its timeless beauty and exquisite restraint.

Set in a castle at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains in the year 1941, Embers tells the story of two old friends who have not seen each other since 1900, when they last dined together following a stag hunt on the castle grounds. The castle is the family home of the General, an aristocrat who befriended the visitor, Konrad, while in boarding school as a child. "From the first moment, they lived together like twins in their mother's womb,'' we are told, and we are drawn deep into the texture of their friendship as the book sets up the background for their momentous reunion.

In the ensuing years, Konrad has fled Europe for the tropics and a life of anonymity while the General has fulfilled an honorable military career. But both of their lives have been silently driven by a third party, the General's dead wife Krisztina. On the occasion of their reunion, the framework for the entire book, silences are ended, questions are answered and the entwining loves of the three key players are examined with a quiet tension that borders on a whisper but feels as if it will erupt at any moment.

Born in Kassa, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1900, Sndor Mrai was a leading literary figure in 1930s Hungary, but was driven out of the country by the Communists in 1948 because of his vocal antifascist stance. He eventually came to the United States where he committed suicide in San Diego in 1989. Embers is the first of his large body of work to be translated into English, and Knopf plans to translate more in the future.

This glowing translation has quickly become an international best seller and it's no mystery why. Its language is masterful, and its moral argument is tight and skillfully drawn. In 200 short pages, Embers combines suspense, history, music, art, love, friendship and beauty into an intoxicating literary feast, smooth as a glass of port, whirling to the rhythm of a Viennese waltz.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Game of Chance

They just don't get much more sentimental than the Irish. So what could be better than a gooey, schlock-filled collection of poems to either: help you cry into your beer, or help you get luck-o'-the-Irish lucky this Valentine's Day?

Ireland's Love Poems (edited by A. Norman Jeffares) is definitely of the coffee-table variety as anthologies go; you won't find any footnotes or scholarly essays (though there is a brief historical intro). The poems are arranged randomly and span the ages from the pagan Brehon Laws to the Ulster Cycle, and include works by Swift, Boland, Yeats, Joyce and a few more contemporary poets like Seamus Heaney.

It's generally best to approach books like this with a certain amount of faith in chance operation and fling it open to the page where Love itself would bid you read. Here we go, page 48, the last lines of "Love and the Years" by Alfred Allen: "Love is a thing that's gathered, chance by chance,/ Out of life's ever-changing random dance."

Though there's plenty of well-wrought and flowery sentiment, there's also a healthy sampling of blunt and bawdy verse to be found here too. Take these lines from an anonymous young woman, pleading to a doctor for his hand in marriage:

If you make me your wife, Sir, in time you may fill a
Whole town with your children, and likewise your villa;
I famous for breeding, you famous for knowledge,
I'll found a whole nation, you'll found a whole college.

Take heart, shoegazers and goths -- there's no shortage of bleak, modern desperation here either. "The churn of stale words in the heart again/ love love love thud of the old plunger/ pestling the unalterable/ whey of words," broods Samuel Beckett in "Cascando."

Here's one favorite, an anonymous poem called "I Wish My Love Was a Block of Wood," for the disaffected Romantic in all of us:

I wish my love was a block of wood
And I a burning coal.
I'd hold him in my warm embrace
And roast his wee arsehole.

Who knows, you may even be inspired to pen your own wee verse. I know I have! So I leave you with this:

A heart-shaped box of chocolates proves you love me
But on the 15th fifteen pounds I've gained
A bouquet of 12 roses red is lovely
But a love that dies in one week seems a shame.
Oh but give me some verse
That is slightly perverse
With a handful of rhymes
Even barely sublime
It'll stay with me forever
While I stay light as a feather
And our mattress will stay always

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