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Posts Tagged ‘Mary Roach’

Today’s Thing I Like is nonfiction writing in general, and author Mary Roach in particular. If you aren’t familiar with her work, check out the books linked below or this interview with Seth Shostak at SETICon 2012.

Nonfiction can be a fiction writer’s best friend. At its best, it includes detailed, character-driven explorations of real-life situations and challenges, and can provide the sort of solid foundation a more speculative piece needs to succeed. I’ve mentioned this before, but avoiding abstractitis is key to good writing.

Specifically:

No matter how abstract your topic, how intangible, your first step is to find things you can drop on your foot.
— John Maguire

Nonfiction helps you do that, and Mary Roach is a great example of a quality nonfiction writer.

I have yet to read all of Roach’s books but Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void were terrific. Her books take a somewhat off-beat topic and delve in, deep. She’s also funny. The level of detail is satisfying and succeeds in painting an engaging portrait of her subject that is also educational. Packing for Mars, for example, is a great way for writers to familiarize themselves with the nitty gritty of space exploration, how we got to where we are now, and how we’ll get to where we’re going.

To note, if you’re interested in popular nonfiction about the intricacies of digestion or Mars exploration, check out Giulia Enders’ excellent Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, and Steve Squyres’ Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet.

Read, then write:)

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If we do find aliens someday, I hope they are carbon-based and heck, while I’m wishing, mammals. Why? Because I want to try their food.

On some days I think that food is as close to a universal language as we’ve got. This is hardly an original thought, but the millions of cookbooks and posts and discussions on food and its importance only serve to make my point.

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Food is good stuff. It supports us, sure, but it also helps define us as individuals and as social animals. What did you have for lunch today? How did you get your ingredients? How did you cook it? Did you share it?

Many folks’ introduction to other cultures happens over a meal. I grew up in a small town that was relatively isolated in terms of culture. Meat by the loin, heaping helpings of potatoes, sweet corn, one overcooked and somewhat suspect green at the edge of the plate. That sort of thing. I still have a soft spot in my tastebuds for pork and sauerkraut, but by and large the food was straightforward, hardly adventurous.

My parents took care of that.

Facing down a future with nothing more radical than chicken and waffles (yes, my poutine-loving Canadian friends, it’s a thing and you’d adore it:), the parental units got their hands on books like The New York Times Large Type Cookbook and Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook (both of which I still have on my shelf) and went to work. My palate and my social perspective are better for it.

An article on NPR talks about a group of Hungarian foodies fighting anti-immigrant prejudice with dinner. What a brilliant idea. Eritrean sourdough pancake bread, Somali fried bananas, or Afghan pie with fresh Syrian cream cheese? Sign me up, and while I’m there introduce me to the people too.

Think about your day, and the role food played in it. Did you go out to the barn to harvest eggs? Or did you open the refrigerator? What would breakfast look like (yours or mine) if the international shipping industry shut down?*

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Food is a big deal, and sharing it is sharing part of who you are. It’s why we invite people over for dinner instead of going out, It’s why Italy, of all places, has made significant progress in gluten-free food awareness as a way to make sure that gluten intolerance doesn’t get in the way of social communion.

Honestly, I’ve always felt that one major flaw in much speculative fiction revolves around food. Let’s see, fantasy = stew plus berries and mead, science fiction = rations that sound a lot like the worst protein bar you’ve every had or meals in a pill.** That’s not entirely fair but it’s not all that far off, either. It’s also not, from my food-oriented point of view, all that realistic.*** Sure, humans can put up with a lot when we must. Conflict, migration, that first year away from home, all times of upheaval, culinary and otherwise. But people still remember their traditions.

What we really want is that moment when life returns to normal, and among other things “normal” means real food. Whether your definition of “real” means Thanksgiving dinner or a Ramadan feast or congee, we use food as a touchstone. Lose that, and we lose an important piece of ourselves. (That doesn’t mean we can’t change, as my childhood diet attests, but it’s not like I’m eating hydrolyzed protein three meals a day either. Things got better. And hey, I feel the urge to add yet another footnote!****)

I’ve always been a bit shy but I learned early that one surefire way to start a conversation is to ask someone what they eat.

So if aliens arrive and invite us to the table, I’ll bring a fork.

* Note to everyone suffering from imagined caffeine withdrawal right now: yaupon is a caffeine-containing tea plant native to the United States. Because aliens, zombies, or no, mornings need a boost, amiright?

** For future reference, fellow SF Canada writer Krista D. Ball has a highly detailed and useful book on realism in fantasy food (just how long does it take to make stew and how in blazes do I carry leftovers?): What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank.

*** For a fascinating look at the intersection of food and space exploration, check out NASA’s Food for Spaceflight or read the section on food (titled “Discomfort Food, When Veterinarians Make Dinner, and Other Tales of Woe from Aerospace Test Kitchens”) in Mary Roach’s excellent Packing for Mars.

**** A good example of this is our family’s holiday smorgasbord: a few years ago we made the shift from Grandma Johnson’s handwritten recipes (so homey!) for dishes like Swedish meatballs and limpa and roast pork to the spectacular versions of same in Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit. Yes, an Ethiopian-born immigrant throws down on traditional Swedish food and wins big. See what I mean? The food still says home, only better:)

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