Lit for your lover, this Valentine’s Day
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
OK, OK, it’s Valentine’s Day, and it’s kind of ridiculous, but it’s also nice to get something, or give something. Like a book, or a poem, or a short story. Any excuse to hit up the bookstore will do, and if it’s Valentine’s Day, we’ll take it!
Herewith your expertly curated recommendations:
Erika Anderson, Online Editor, Electric Literature
Poets know about the heart. So, on Valentines Day, I give you three books about the heart, and how it knows no boundaries. Sometimes the best love stories are the ones that break our hearts. So, these are books for a refined Valentine, and not a new-found love. Enjoy!
My first book, is a given if you know me: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Yes, it’s a classic, but a classic for a reason. [Admit it, you’ve probably never even read it.] It is a fabulous read filled with love, revenge, the supernatural, and like the poet Anne Carson says in her poem “The Glass Essay” which is based on the novel, “hanging puppies.” What more could a girl want on Valentines Day? This is not your “typical” Bronte novel — there is no madwoman in an attic — there is just a, bitter, misanthropic man with a bloody and broken heart pining for his lost love and dragging everyone around him down into his own private hell.
My second book, Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, is a story, again, about love-loss told by a gender-less narrator. It is a sensual, poetic, captivating read filled with the erotic nature of wanting what you can’t have. Winterson does it all. She writes gorgeously, lyrical novels, children’s literature, screenplays and now, a memoir, but inside her heart of hearts, I believe she’s a poet. She has such a unique way with words.
Helen Philips, author of And Yet They Were Happy and Here Where the Sunbeams are Green
These are three (not-exactly-romantic) books I’ve given my husband Adam over the course of our decade together:
If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino, because this is how it ends:
“Now you are man and wife, Reader and Reader. A great double bed receives your parallel readings.
Ludmilla closes her book, turns off her light, puts her head back against the pillow, and says, “Turn off your light, too. Aren’t you tired of reading?”
And you say, “Just a moment, I’ve almost finished If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.”
Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges: “If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder — which, repeated, becomes order.”
My Brother’s Book by Maurice Sendak:. In an interview just before he died, Sendak defined loving your children as “(taking) them for what they are”… good advice for any sort of love.
Paul W. Morris, Director of Membership, Marketing and Literary Awards at the PEN American Center
Andre Aciman’s Harvard Square and Teddy Wayne’s The Love Song of Jonny Valentine: I recently moved and all my books are still in boxes. Being short on time, anything I would give as a gift would be a copy of something that recently landed on my desk at work. Both these novels hit very different nerves, but both hit that sweet spot in the end, and the climaxes are definitely worth the wait. Perfect presents for that potential love.
I met a man on Thursday, and now we are in love. It’s really nice. Until Thursday, I even had a Facebook post in mind for Valentine’s Day. It was going to be a Liz Lemon quote. “Happy Valentine’s Day, no one!”. But Liz Lemon DID find love, and on Thursday, so did I. But what do you read when you’re in love? The first thing that comes to mind, honestly, is recipes. My instincts are disgusting and domestic, as usual. I don’t know much about him yet, but I do know that he likes Frank O’Hara, so he can read me some of that. He can read me anything, because I love the sound of his voice. I just googled Frank O’Hara poems and found a nice, short one called Song. He can read me that, while I stare at his face.
Tobias Carroll, writer, Vol. 1 Brooklyn
Hopefully, the sort of romance I’m about to reference will appeal to those in committed relationships and proud single folks alike. I am, in this case, alluding to the romance of the open road, of which Melissa Holbrook Pierson writes deftly in her book The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing. Her focus is, more broadly, long-distance motorcycling, but it’s an ode to solitude and to communities in equal measure — and a tremendously moving one at that. The romance of places is also not to be denied, and Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland comes at you in layers, blending Kpomassie’s youthful infatuation with Greenland with the more complex society he found after arriving there as an adult. And John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird vividly summons the geography and inhabitants of a small island off the coast of Scotland. And for all that he captures the daily lives of the island’s population, he also evokes vistas and histories that can feel deeply foreign. Read these; maybe you’ll be captivated by the allure of a distant destination, or perhaps you’ll find the next destination for a trip with your significant other.
Maris Kreizman, creater of Slaughterhouse 90210
The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall: The man of my dreams probably won’t be the most romantic fellow in the world, but boy, will he be well-versed in television. Alan Sepinwall, who’s basically the Albert Einstein of recapping, has written the perfect primer for him. The Revolution Was Televised is a nostalgic tour through the past 15 years of TV, which means it’s full of conversation starters for the kind of banter I most value. Is there anything more tender than discussing how Coach Taylor led West (and then East) Dillon to victory, more passionate than debating what happened in the final scene of The Sopranos, more arousing than speculating on how Peggy Olson will fare during the Summer of Love? No need to whisper the poems of Neruda or Shakespeare in my ear, dream guy, when the words “Joss Whedon” or “Saul Goodman“or “Dharma Initiative” are all the sweet nothings I could want.
Drenched, stories of love and other deliriums by Marisa Matarazzo. All the teenage baby-sitters in town get pregnant at the same time, leaving the parents baby-sitterless and desperate. A young boy replaces a man’s liver with a fish. A man with rose quartz for teeth saves a handless girl from drowning. A young woman fills the apartment with water for her lover to swim in. Love is magic in these stories. Strange, but definitely magic. What you should really do is not only buy this book, but read it aloud to your sweetheart. Good things will come of it.
And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Philips. This is a novel built from many two-page stories about a young couple setting out to build a life together. The world is full of floods, mermaids, fires, weddings and monsters. Bob Dylan is there, and so is the Virgin Mary. All the fabulism makes for a portrait of love that is surprising, yet very true.
Julia Jackson, writer
My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. This collection isn’t about buying bullshit diamonds and teddy bears on a consumerist holiday. This is about love, and all that love entails — heartbreak, betrayal, awe, confusion, desperation, joy, and yes, sometimes even simple, unadorned romance. If you feel like getting slayed, check out “Natasha” and “The Moon in its Flight” in particular. Bonus: Besides an object that fully encompasses all that is love, the book could also easily serve as a primer on how to write a short story. It’s that good.
Courtney Maum, writer and Electric Literature humorist
To me, Valentine’s Day is a holiday that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It’s too loaded with expectations and room for disappointment, and it has very little to do with the day-to-day reality of romantic life. So my recommendations fall into the category of black humor — my favorite kind.
The Wetlands by Charlotte Roche — If you (or your partner) can get through the sexual proclivities and sub-par grooming habits of the 18 year-old protagonist depicted in this novel, you can get through anything. Sickness, health, and birth.
The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq — swingers, naked cults and naked beaches — all this against an argument for cloning as a replacement for sexual reproduction. It’s bleak, it’s wry, and it’s fantastically human — a touching portrayal of what it means to love, and become bored by love, in this modern age.
Vacation by Deb Olin Unferth — Disclaimer: this crystalline novel is about the end of a relationship, not the beginning. But to my knowledge, no other book so beautifully and humorously paints a portrait of the incomprehension and absurdity that comes at love’s end.To me, Valentine’s Day is a holiday that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It’s too loaded with expectations and room for disappointment, and it has very little to do with the day-to-day reality of romantic life. So my recommendations fall into the category of black humor — my favorite kind.