|Illustration by Todd Cleland
Love on the page
We may spend most the year reading books on history, politics, crime, baseball, self-improvement, travel, and diets, but when Valentine's Day comes, books about love - like truffles, roses, and sentimental cards - are the only choice. We asked some readers and writers to tell us their favorites.
"This is My Beloved" by Walter Benton
Barely 20, in Cambridge, in summer, we found ourselves in love. He was a skinny, motorcycle-riding poet. He introduced me to Ray Charles, Handel's "Water Music," Kansas City, and Walter Benton's "This is My Beloved."
The diary in free verse of a 1940's Manhattan romance became "our book." We reveled in the lush, sensuous images of new love, the intoxication, the unabashed adoration: "...your hands are tender, your mouth is sweet - and God has made no other eyes like yours." And years later I sobbed my heart out to Benton's litany: "When a star falls, I shall wish for you/When the moon is new, I shall wish for you/When a bird looks into my window, when a leaf falls before me, when I find a fern in flower - I shall wish for you." Unforgettable: the boy, the time, the book.
Pat Waring, Times Calendar editor
"Love...What's It All About?"
- a writer muses
In the last 14 years I've spent a lot of time asking that question. I write novels. Each one has love at its center - plots hang on it, the characters embrace and/or run from it. I've written about marital love, elicit love, mother love, self-love, even denied love. My stories evolve around people who, for one reason or another, struggle with love. It is the human condition to want it. We spend an inordinate amount of youthful time pursuing it, many years cultivating it, and in age remembering it. And when we're not living it, we want to read about it.
Susan Wilson, Oak Bluffs,
A memoir of the Senses" by Isabel Allende
Novelist Isabel Allende's "Aphrodite" is a feast of sight, sound, touch, and taste - loving combination of cookbook, Karma Sutra, epicurean history, and personal memories that must be experienced with someone you love.
The book cries out to be caressed. The paper feels like pleasure; the illustrations are sumptuous; the recipes get the juices flowing; and her prose makes desire delicious.
Cuddle up with your lover and read "Aphrodite" together. Somewhere between the chapter on hors d'oeuvres, "first tickles and nibbles," and desserts, which she describes as the "crown of the intimate orgy," you will discover new levels of enjoyment.
Anna Marie D'Addarie, Times associate editor
"Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte
I remember reading Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" as a teen, probably about the time the concept of romance first entered my consciousness. Although the book describes a dark, obsessive type of love story, I still recall the romantic description of Catherine and Heathcliff, desperate to be together, wandering the moors and calling each other's names into the wind.
In the years since I read the book, however, experience has taught me that romance in literature does not necessarily translate well into the reality of marriage. Somehow, the sound of my own "Heathcliff" bellowing my name from the basement does not hold quite the same magic my teenage self imagined.
Janet Hefler, Times news reporter
"Abelard and Heloise"
Like many of the best love stories, that of the famous and contentious medieval teacher and philosopher, Peter Abelard, and his beautiful, brilliant student, Heloise, has no happy ending. The two fall in love, produce a child (Astrolabe), and even secretly marry; but Heloise's uncle, furious and unforgiving, arranges for Abelard to be attacked by thugs and castrated. Heloise then enters a convent and Abelard becomes a monk. They never see one another again, but their life-long exchange of letters reveals a love that is unending.
Separated in life, they lie joined in death. Their tomb is in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Philip C. Craig, Edgartown, mystery writer
"Katy and the Big Snow" by Virginia Lee Burton
This book suggests something important about love, something that my youngest son Christopher helped me to understand. It's the first book Christopher, now eight, wanted to read to me all on his own years ago. He would read it two or three times a night before falling into sleep.
The story is about a "beautiful red crawler tractor" named Katy who plows out the city of Geoppolis during a terrible blizzard, in essence about a machine who falls in love with a city and saves it. My son felt some truth about life in the story, a truth illuminated to this day through his remarkable love and patience for building Erector-set cities and robot machines out of Legos.
The type of love that Christopher noticed in "Katy and the Big Snow" is so curious that one day it would not surprise me if it helped him to build some sort of machine that could save others, maybe even a city of others.
Dan Sharkovitz, English teacher, Martha's Vineyard Regional High School
"The Last Valentine" by James Michael Pratt
Yes, this book is about a love story, but it is not a "romance novel." It is actually a war story, taking place during World War II, which is the era during which I met true love. It is an emotional story, written in 1996, but without the mandatory sex scenes that readers seem to demand in modern love stories. It is, rather, a book of hope and faith and devotion - and tragic love.
Shirley Mayhew, West Tisbury, contributor to "Martha's Vineyard Writing"
"Evening" by Susan Minot, and more
I am right smack in the middle of reading "Evening," Susan Minot's 1998 best-selling novel when I get the request to write 100 words about the best book on love I've ever read. This is one of the most beautifully written, brilliantly woven, heart-wrenching love stories I've ever read. But it was Ram Dass and his landmark 60's hippie wisdom in "Be Here Now" that opened my heart in the first place. But now Hafiz (Rumi's student) pops in with: "And love/Says/ 'I will, I will take care of you,'/ to everything that is/Near."
Nancy Slonim Aronie, director, Chilmark Writing Workshop
"Possession" by A.S. Byatt
British writer A. S. Byatt has written one of our era's best novels about romantic love and the difficulty of sustaining it. She does it by bringing together two academics - one a feminist scholar, the other an underemployed post-doc - and sending them on a journey to learn the truth about a romance between two long-dead Victorian poets. In the process, Byatt recreates some wonderful Victorian poetry. By letting her modern-day characters excavate an old-fashioned 19th-century love affair, she helps us re-experience it in all its loveliness but without losing our modern-day sophistication and cynicism about the possibility, "true" love.
Brooks Robards, Northhampton and Oak Bluffs, poet and Times freelance writer
"The Love of your Life:
What we Learn from Living
in the Grip of Passion" by Susan Baur, PhD
For everyone who's every felt dazed, baffled, and beat up by love, this clear-eyed examination of passion by psychologist Susan Baur provides refreshing perspective. She studied more than 200 individuals swept away by overpowering romantic passion with results ranging from idyllic to catastrophic. Neither pessimistic nor dewy-eyed, her book makes it clear that when it comes to passionate love, we don't have our hand on the steering wheel and are just along for the wild ride.
Julian Wise, teaching assistant, Oak Bluffs School and Times freelance writer
"High Fidelity" by Nick Hornby
Rob, a fittingly cynical romantic for our time, owns a record store in London, with the obligatory music-geek staff. When his girlfriend, Laura, gets fed up with him and moves out, he's propelled into a soul-searching examination of his perpetually dissatisfying love life. Sometimes funny, sometimes excruciating (for him), Rob's dissection of his "Top Five" breakups shows him that his fantasies of the perfect woman with perfect taste in music (and lingerie) may not be serving him well. After Laura helps him to see what he has right in front of him from a new perspective, he can finally envision a happier, and more realistic, romantic future.
Sally Barkan, former assistant director, Oak Bluffs Public Library
"Emma" by Jane Austen
In Jane Austen's world we enter the country drawing rooms of Georgian England where the day's highlight is a walk into town or a nap. The elegant interiors, sylvan settings, and cadence of the language take us away from our noisy times.
In the famous opening line we learn, "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition....had lived nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." We know Miss Woodhouse is about to be sorely distressed and vexed, and we sit back with a chuckle, assured of a bumpy ride leading up to a happy ending. Hello, Mr. Knightly!
Holly Nadler, Oak Bluffs, writer, and owner of Sun Porch Books.