Greetings, citizens! Now that we're closing in on sweet sweet Friday, I think a little pleasure is in order, so let's talk books with food and sex. With these particular tools, writers and readers have such strong inclinations in one direction or another ? sometimes I suggest a writer try a sex scene for a certain story and they either light up or instinctively shake their heads. Once I exchanged novel drafts with a colleague and we returned to each other a week later, me saying, "I think it's overusing landscape a little," and him saying, "I think it's overusing food a little." In the end, he kept his landscape, and I kept my food.
For those of you who write, I suggest challenging whatever your inclination may be ? if you always cut to the bedroom scene, stay in the living room. If you have a character remaining a little opaque to you, toss them in bed with someone. It may not make the final story, but you may find it extraordinarily helpful to know them in this way. Plus, a good sex scene that doesn't fall back on clichÃ© is not an easy task. Similarly, what food do they eat when no one's watching? Sardines on toast, ice cream with peanut butter on top? What's their comfort food and what's their idea of culinary taboo?
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So what books do you turn to when you want to see a provocative sex scene, a sensual food-fest? For sex, I'm not necessarily talking a heap of full-on sex scenes (although for a teen in the 1980s, Judith Krantz was indeed instructive), but allowing your characters' sexuality to play a useful part in the story. Wallace Stegner's wise, mournful, and richly textured Crossing to Safety contains no sex scenes per se, but it's very attentive to married sex, the power shifts it reflects, and the old-fashioned, surprisingly erotic awareness of when conception follows reconciliation ? quite frankly, with infertility on everyone's mind these days, I had to ask around to confirm that sex and babies are still related. They are! Who knew?
This past year Jane Smiley described every single sensation and moment of a lot of sex scenes in Ten Days in the Valley. Responses were all over the map to this novel, but I have to say I was delighted to see a writer unapologetically apply her immense gifts to write about sex in a way I don't think I have seen ? with an almost preternatural awareness of every vessel, every muscle, every nerve.
Of course, John Updike gave us Couples back in the day, along with any number of heightened sex scenes in other work. The book certainly reflects its era, as far as gender politics go, and that ain't pretty, but I have always loved his descriptions of bodies ? the soles of feet, a wrist, posture, the turn of the hips.
Let's not forget movies, though, and let's not forget Pulp Fiction. Remember Bruce Willis as Butch, fresh off reneging on his agreement with Marsellus to throw the fight and instead beating his opponent nearly to death? Back at the hotel room, his girlfriend, played by Maria de Medeiros, is all big eyes and Dutch-boy haircut and halting accent, and my first fear as she chattered about pie was that she was going to incite him to violence again. But he's pure tenderness with her ? not a reversal of his character but clearly another innate part of it. We don't see them have sex, but we see them about to, we hear their private vocabulary for it. It all feels so absolutely specific and particular to this couple, and the scene totally changes how we see Butch. It's fantastic.
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When I was working on my novel, it quickly became clear that I couldn't have a book about bodies without writing about sex. I'd also argue you cannot have a book about culture without writing about food. If a family sits down to dinner I love to know what they're eating and see what it tells me about them. But I also purely enjoy seeing those words on the page. Remember the Laura Ingalls Wilder books? They are all about food ? making butter, butchering hogs, harvesting. Let's blame her for my obsession, shall we? In the nicest possible way.
But back to culture, back to food: Memoir writer MFK Fisher may be the avatar of this group, and deservedly so. In The Gastronomical Me, in particular, food is the means of expressing, experiencing, and contrasting lust, worldliness, marriage, infidelity, illness, incompetence, even evil. Fisher's not big on humor, and she purposefully leaves out a lot of personal details, but she tells you every single meal, from an egg sandwich to a hung pheasant to truite au bleu, in prose so clean and rich and precise it should be taught in MFA programs everywhere.
Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies single-handedly made me desperate to learn about Indian food. There are also times in that book when it broke my heart to see a person simply trying to cook her standby dishes ? the culture wasn't translating. For years Laurie Colwin wrote with wit and warmth about food for Gourmet, and her novels are filled with descriptions of brunch, of dinner, of lamb chops, cheese, capers, salmon... Cooking is part of her characters' way of living their lives as they choose. It's celebration, it's keeping your claws embedded in your social class, it's the choice to live richly or live parsimoniously, regardless of how much money is spent.
It's also seduction ? sometimes disastrous. In Deborah Eisenberg's breathtaking story "Window," a slightly naÃ¯ve, increasingly enthralled young woman goes to an older man's cabin in the woods. He gives her red wine, wild mushrooms gathered from the forest around them, sautÃ©ed with wine and served over noodles. It's clear she's never eaten such simple, delicious food. The description of the dinner is brief but of almost magical intensity, and at this moment the story feels a bit like a fairy tale. She's taken in, and somehow what follows is that much more terrifying because of that first intoxicating taste.
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Well, I'm spent. For tomorrow's very last blog, I may throw caution to the winds and talk movies, talk bad TV, talk whatever. I think I'm allowed to branch out from books ? though the unsmiling and heavily armed Powell's representative who has shadowed me all week offers no clue. We'll just have to see how it goes.