Three nonfiction, one fiction

The first two are by Paul Theroux, and detail long, exhausting voyages to all kinds of places. Theroux is a brilliant observer of people and places, well-informed about history and literature. Most importantly, he’s got an attitude I like: he’s traveling because it’s difficult, and he takes the long way around almost every time. The Great Railway Bazaar covers the longest train trip he could arrange in 1975: from London to India, then a plane to Japan, a few trips on the high-speed lines, then back to London via the trans-Siberian. It takes him six months. For Dark Star Safari, which I haven’t yet finished, he begins in Cairo and heads south by land to Cape Town, talking ruins and neglect and the contrast with the hopeful Africa of the early sixties, when everything seemed possible just after independence.

Traveling not just despite, but because of the inconvenience and difficulty really stoked my desire to take a long motorcycle trip this coming spring. There’s a similar theme in Bookdwarf’s current reading, which I’m likely to pick up next: Ultramarathon Man, in which the author runs hundreds of miles not for the fun, but for the pain. OK, he does it for the sense of achievement and the endorphin rush, but that still translates to doing it to prove he can stand the pain.

Next up: a galley I snagged from Bookdwarf, about what the world would look like without humans. It’s called, naturally enough, The World Without Us, and the key illustration is this chart of what collapses and what sticks around. The answers are not all obvious: yes, plastics and nuclear waste are forever, but cockroaches won’t do so well without heated buildings, and our pet cats will do better as wild predators than our dogs. The World Without Us touched on a lot of themes I was already familiar with, but in new ways. I’d recommend it to anyone who liked An Inconvenient Truth, or that New Yorker article about the guy who tracks rubber ducks in the ocean.

Finally, the funny one: The Spellman Files, the debut novel by Lisa Lutz. It’s about a family of private investigators and the ways that their work interferes with their family life. You thought your parents were suspicious of your new date? Try having them run a thorough background check on every man you meet. Think you can keep your sister out of your room? Not if she’s a 12-year-old with a lockpick and a grudge. It’s a great concept, and Lutz does a good job with it. There are a few places early on where I think the narrator’s voice slips a little, but the characters take hold very quickly and build into something which is laugh-out-loud funny but also really sweet. I’d recommend this to anyone.

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