Nicholson Baker’s newest erotic novel, The House of Holes: A Book of Raunch was so disappointing, I’m not even going to fully review it. I read its initial (largely positive) review in the Times and was so enamored with the idea of the book, in which different characters enter the highly erotic House of Holes, that I went right out that same day and bought it. I read the first three chapters — one in which a girl gets pleasured by a Barbella-style orgasm machine — while eating brunch at a small downtown café, and was so thoroughly delighted that I laughed out loud over my eggs, feeling mischievous amongst my fellow diners, who were completely oblivious to the lascivious yet Times-approved highbrow content of my pages.
I arrived back home, eager to finish the small novel. But when I started reading, all its initial charm had worn off. I quickly tired of the salacious stories, despite their incredible level of inventiveness and imagination. The problem with the novel is the meager amount of attachment the reader has with its hard-to-reach characters. You’d be surprised how spiritless the characters are in a world of such ostensible impassioned feeling. Ultimately, The House of Holes reads like a one night stand: tantalizing at the thought, then, soon, hollow and unsatisfying. (Sorry, Nicholson Baker. I highly commend your other work, particularly your effort to halt the digitalization of everything—particularly books).
In lieu of a complete review, here is a list of alternative sexy but smart books (no Cosmo “Red Hot Reads” here) that are actually worth your time.
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio: I never imagined that a book I read for my Italian history course in the fall would be applicable to a best-sex-in-books list I’d be writing later. Throughout reading The House of Holes, I was reminded of The Decameron, with their assorted story quality, tied into one central theme, location or list of characters. The Decameron, though, unlike Holes, has lots of heart, in addition to spice. It was written in 1350, but you’ll be surprised at it how it gets your heart racing. In one story, a seemingly innocent gardener at a convent pretends to be mute, so that all of the secretly lustful nuns will sleep with him.
The Inner Circle by TC Boyle: A deliciously absorbing (in typical TC Boyle fashion) semi-fictional novel about famous 1960s sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. The book chronicles the Indiana University professor and his revolutionary research through the lens of a fictional student and protégé, 21-year-old virgin (but not for long, of course), John Milk. Kinsey’s beliefs — that humans are animals, and thus, sex is purely an animalistic urge — leads to life-changing decisions from his inner circle (his assistant researchers and their wives).
Angels by Marian Keyes: Say what you want about chick lit, but one thing goes without saying: their sex scenes can be pretty awesome (and no, we’re still not in Cosmo Red Hot Reads territory. This is a step above). Marian Keyes, I think, is one of the best of the (overwhelmingly large) lot. An Irish native, Keyes has sold over 22 million books worldwide, and if you read one of her sex scenes, you’ll understand why. The storylines are chick-lit predictable (in Angels, heroine Maggie’s seemingly rock-solid husband suddenly divorces her and, devastated, Ireland-native Maggie moves to Los Angeles to turn her life around) but the characters warm and easy to relate to — and, of course, all with lively sex lives.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: So maybe pedophilia doesn’t turn the average person on (at least, you would hope not). The exception is Nabokov’s lyrical masterpiece, Lolita. “Her legs,” Nabokov writes of his adolescent muse, “her lovely live legs, were not too close together, and when my hand located what it sought, a dreamy and eerie expression, half-pleasure, half-pain, came over those childish features.” Nabokov’s prose — even when he’s not talking about sex — is charged with it, in the most beautiful, chilling way.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: So it’s not a novel, but if you want sex, you want Leaves of Grass. No wonder Noah read it to Allie in The Notebook. It was all a seduction tool (I see right through you, Noah). One of the sections, called “City of Orgies,” refers to his “continual lovers.” Whitman has a shockingly natural, earthy approach to sex that’s refreshingly beautiful and compelling in the highly digitalized state of sex today.