things that are pretty

I currently live in a country that has never seen a modern comfort it couldn't wrinkle its nose at.

And so, I'm really missing central heating this week as London enters a "deep freeze" (highs of 2C) that makes for vaguely chilly days outside but seriously freaking cold evenings inside.

What does this have to do with books?

Well, since I'm already whining about my humble abode, thought I'd throw in a random "I miss the ability to properly decorate" complaint. Which brings me to this link.

Other book news.... on the weekend I went to Greenwich Market, where I found super cheap used copies of David Nicholls's Starter for Ten (bound to be a good read, if One Day is anything to go by) and Andrea Levy's Small Island (anyone heard of it? is it good? it was a two-fer).

Why yes I am stocking up on Christmas break reading as I write my final essay of the term.


when did Travel Writing become boys-only?

I was perusing the Travel Writing section of Foyles today (because, of course, I should have been at home doing readings and preparing for a presentation) when I was struck by all the male authors. Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, lots of dudes named David.... and I started wondering why this genre of writing -- the adventure -- is dominated by men almost to the exclusion of women.

Worse, I started thinking about the travel books I've read or encountered that have been written by women, and it donned on me they fit into a handful of Harlequin-inspired sub-categories within the travel genre. Where men's stories are all raw adventure, hiking boots in-hand, jump-on-a-boat, ride-a-motorcycle, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants deals, women's travel stories can be.... well, I was going to say "girly," but then thought better of it. Let's say, intensely focused on the self, the home, and sex.

For example, Around the World in 80 Dates? Let's call that the Sex and the City sub-category. Under the Tuscan Sun -- if the movie is anything to go by -- is a "find yourself away from it all and, cross your fingers, love too!" book. Eat, Pray, Love straddles the "find yourself" and the "find your taste buds" categories. Then you have something like Out of Africa, which rounds things out a little, but dwells less on adventure and more on the contrived and not-so-contrived differences between the writer/European audience and the "other"/African residents, tribespeople and servants.

You can see I got myself a titch worked up. Then I came home and searched through the Chapters database for "travel" and "adventure and literary travel." Things got better from there, actually. There's more of a diversity of women's writing on travel, and it isn't all of the Sand in My Bra/humour fold or the "Paris! Men! Shopping!" genre.

Still, some questions carrying forward:

Do women who write about travel slip into the natural style of women's magazine writing because that's what women want to read about? Would we prefer to read about "a woman alone in (insert country here) overcomes cultural differences" than "a woman startlingly begins hitch-hiking through the Middle East, then hops onto a train across much of Asia, a boat across the Pacific, and a motorcycle through the Canadian west coast"?

Do popular women's travel titles simply reflect a high interest in the memoirs of those who have lived "happily ever after" in our Oprah-inspired age of "buy shit, live the dream?" And what is the male counterpart to "buy shit, live the dream" if they are busy reading travel stories about guys retracing the steps of Genghis Khan?

Finally, am I being terribly humorless about all this, and should I really set my mind to school work?

descriptions that work, and descriptions that don't

"His expression is keenly alive with self-interest, which makes him appear blind and alert at the same time."

I'm sorry, but isn't that line kind of awesome? It's from Tessa Hadley's "The Trojan Prince," in the November 15th issue of The New Yorker. It's actually quite a simple tale of a young man who thinks he knows everything about what he wants, but would have a hard time putting any of those wants into proper words. He's easily angry and yet internalizes his frustrations, and he finds himself in the middle of a bizarre (cousinly) love triangle.

But that's the line that sticks with you. Here is some of the rest of Hadley's description of James McIlvanney:

"He's only sixteen, despite the man's overcoat and the new tweed cap. His hair is jet-black and very straight, and his face is composed of strong fine lines, clean and clear and exquisite like his pink-and-white skin; his eyebrows are as well-shaped as a woman's, his curved lips pressed shut as if he were holding in important news. The jut of his cheekbones and jaw is masculine enough -- strained and resilient. His expression...."

I marvel at writers with such ability to describe what a person actually looks like. I would think the challenge is to translate enough of your imagination to the page so readers are on your train of thought, without literally being like, "Think of Ben Affleck, right? Like, ok, I'm thinking of a guy who looks like him, but maybe with closer-knit eyebrows and a slightly less pronounced chin? Ok, ok, ok -- now we have our hero. Now, the heroine... Well, you know Barbra Streisand in "The Way We Were?" Ok, this girl looks the opposite of that!"


from the Twittersphere

Because 140 characters is pretty much the perfect quantity of non-academic information I can currently comprehend....
  1. Margaret Atwood is on Twitter!
  2. In Los Angeles, a story of part-library, part-used bookstore... part comment on American politics.
  3. It's NaNoMo... or time to pick up your pens, those of you who want to write novels or exercise your imaginations or blog or just be awesome. At Lifehacker, tips on writing, clarity and being more awesome than you already are.


"The Dinner Party"

After listening to Monica Ali read this story for the New Yorker, I really feel like I need to read Joshua Ferris's work.

As Ali discusses after her reading, it is actually kind of difficult to make out whether the hero of the short story is, in fact, a hero. Really, one of the nagging elements is the feeling you're missing something. It's kind of like the feeling you have when you're talking to a couple and have accidentally stumbled upon an issue that causes them to fight. You didn't know it was coming, but there it is. And it's awkward. In fiction form, this is tantalizing. (In real life, you wish you could find the right words to make a polite exit.)

Has anyone read The Unnamed?



The way Lorrie Moore opens her short story "Debarking" -- originally published in The New Yorker in 2003 -- actually makes my fingers itch. The idea of not being able to escape a tiny golden band literally makes me a little sick. That probably says something about me. Nonetheless, thought I'd share:

"Ira had been divorced for six months and still couldn't get his wedding ring off. His finger had swelled doughily -- a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition was how he explained it. 'I'm going to have my entire finger surgically removed,' he told his friends. The ring (supposedly gold, though now that everything he had received from Marilyn had been thrown in doubt, who knew?) clinched the blowsy fat of his finger, which had grown twistedly around it like a fucking happy challah. 'Maybe I should cut the whole hand off and send it to her,' he said on the phone to his friend Mike...."
(p. 35 from the 2008 Faber and Faber Ltd. edition of Moore's Collected Short Stories)