Saturday, September 23, 2006

Vacation Reading

Whenever I am planning a trip, the first question my mother asks me is “Do you have your clothes together?” And, what she means by this is have you gone shopping for a new travel wardrobe, especially one that fits the location (e.g., a warmer climate) or an occasion (e.g., Christmas with the in-laws or a work-related conference). Heaven forbid that anyone kept track of what I wore from one sales conference to the next or that anyone cares about what I’m wearing.

Her concern for being properly attired in new clothing even extends to my children. Case in point: as I was planning our summer trip to France, my mother repeatedly told me she thought colorful polo shirts and khaki pants made such sharp travel outfits for little boys. And mind you, she meant polo shirts in matching bright colors, but that’s another issue.

As much as my mother annoys me, I have to admit that I likely came into this world hardwired to need a new wardrobe whenever I take a trip. However, the wardrobe I’m talking about is a book wardrobe. It’s true, I could go to my “closet” and pull out some little number that I own free and clear, that’s been hanging around for the right occasion to be read—after all, this is precisely why I have built a library. But, no, it’s only proper to shop for new books before embarking on any new travel.

First, where to shop? Any bookstore where browsing can be done is a good place to start. A full-service independent bookstore is always best, but when your neighborhood is lacking, a chain will do. If you need a mystery, however, then you better head for a mystery bookstore, pronto.

Now, what book to choose? A lot depends upon what where you’re going, what you’re doing, how you’re getting there, and whether you’re taking any children. For a long car trip, the driver may want you to read aloud. Mysteries, narrative nonfiction (microhistories and travel essays are nice, especially anything by Bill Bryson), and long magazine articles (Outside, New Yorker, Gourmet) work well.

If you’re flying, a lightweight mass market—a thriller or a mystery, say—with strong entertainment value is ideal. You might even need to make a decision about leaving the book in a seat pocket if you finish it on the flight. Some literary novels also make great vacation reading, especially if the setting is your vacation spot (for example, take Shadow of the Wind with you to Barcelona, A Moveable Feast to Paris).

If you are in any danger of finishing your book on the flight, you will need to have a backup book, especially if you’re traveling in a foreign country where any English-language book you find will likely be John Grisham and, if that weren’t bad enough, it will cost three times the list price.

And, remember, you can never take too many books with you.

In April, John and I flew to Costa Rica with a pile of mysteries and thrillers to share, which was a first for us. We alternately lounged on the beach or by a pool and sat at the resort bar or the bar in town (Montezuma) for close to six days. Between that and six flights, I managed to devour four books. Herewith:

#9, Confessions of a Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella
Many people on this flight had high-quality fiction (spotted: The Plot Against America, Shadow of the Wind, Middlesex). Even so, I reveled in Shopaholic’s bright pink jacket. This chick-lit novel was a delightful kick-off to vacation reading—a perfect page-turning airplane book. Utterly predictable with a highly likeable lead character and a London setting were good enough for me. Later in San Jose, I found the fourth Shopaholic book on our hotel’s lending-library shelf and managed to read about half of it before I became disgusted with how painfully predictable it was and cast it aside. (Shelf-sitter)

#10, Pythagorean Solution, by Joseph Badal
With comparisons to The Da Vinci Code and a Greece setting, Pythagorean Solution seemed promising. And, despite the promise, it turned out to be laughably bad. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Badal self-published the novel, then had it picked up by a publisher for wider distribution, and in so doing, an editor asked the author to make certain “improvements,” thereby ruining the book. Everything about it was weak—characters, plot, pacing. Had the gratuitous rape scene happened any sooner in the novel, I never would have finished it. (Purchased at Once Upon a Crime mystery bookstore in Minneapolis specifically for the trip)

#11, The Calcutta Chromosome, by Amitav Ghosh
In a word, amazing. I’ve owned this book since 1998, and I’m not quite sure why I waited so long to read it, but thank goodness I finally got to it. Calcutta Chromosome is smart, with a complex story about malaria and medical discovery. And, there is a conspiracy and a touch of the supernatural. Awesome characters, none of whom I liked very much, were well drawn. Strongly recommended for those who like William Gibson or Richard Preston. (Purchased at Prairie Lights in Iowa City, IA)

#12, The Thai Amulet, by Lyn Hamilton
Last summer on our drive from the Black Hills to St. Paul, I read aloud to John the first book in this archaeological mystery series, The Xibalba Murders. And, even though it wasn’t perfect, I liked the protagonist and the format, and I have wanted to read another one since. The Thai Amulet was quite good. Protagonist Lara McClintock is an antiques dealer who travels to wonderfully exotic locales and, like all good amateur sleuths, stumbles across a body or a situation where she’s forced to become involved in the investigation. The author weaves in a parallel story from some historic period in the area where the book is set. Recommended. (Shelf-sitter, purchased at Once Upon a Crime a year or two ago)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Catching Up, Part 2

Continuing with a few short reviews of the books I have read this year:

#5, Toast, by Nigel Slater
A host of foodstuffs and meals trigger memories of childhood, resulting in powerful vignettes from cook, cookbook author, and columnist Nigel Slater. His passion for food runs deep and redeems what could have been a devastatingly sad story of, among other things, life with a mother who succumbs to asthma.

Slater’s story is also nicely British-y. I wish I could remember better some of his favorite sweets from my time abroad. What I do remember though are the individual, packaged jelly rolls that I could get at Shepherd’s, my neighborhood grocery store. Each sponge cake was spread with a thin layer of buttercream, which provided a barrier for the thin layer of strawberry jelly that sealed the roll. Far from an elegant bake shop confection, this British equivalent of a Little Debbie snack cake was pure comfort.

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter “Toast 1”:

It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you. People’s failings, even major ones such as when they make you wear short trousers to school, fall into insignificance as your teeth break through the rough, toasted crust and sink into the doughy cushion of white bread underneath. Once the warm, salty butter has hit your tongue, you are smitten. Putty in their hands.

#6, The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy, by Jeanne Birdsall

Humorous situations and wonderfully drawn characters drive this children’s book, which I read for the Storknotes book group. Four sisters spend the summer in a cottage on the grounds of a posh Berskshire estate, Arundel. While their father is busy doing his very important work, the girls have myriad (tame) adventures, including meeting their neighbor, Jeffrey Tifton, and rescuing a rabbit.

I found the cliffhanger ending for almost every chapter—even though not nearly as dramatic as, oh, say The Da Vinci Code—to be somewhat annoying. With such a delightful book does the reader really need to be coaxed to turn the page and read another chapter?

Nevertheless, the Penderwicks' adventures were engaging. Except for the stereotypically drawn Mrs. Tifton (as evil) and Mr. Penderwick (as the absentminded, Latin quoting professor), I loved the girls, especially Jane (who is sporty and writerly, a divine combination) and the mystery series she was writing and living aloud.

Charming and funny, The Penderwicks is reminiscent of many cozy chapter books from my childhood, including Betsy-Tacy and The All-of-a-Kind Family, and begs a sequel for further adventures.

#7, The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
For nearly twenty years, I have intended to read Edith Wharton, and the anticipation was worth it. I know I’ll envy anyone reading The Age of Innocence for the first time. Brilliant, sharp wit, richly detailed—these are the words that immediately come to mind when I think about Edith Wharton, who astutely examines the strictures of New York society in the 1870s. Far from being just a keen observer, Wharton also proves that she is an accomplished novelist with artfully drawn and developed characters, as well as an appropriate amount of tension. I look forward to reading more from the author, and have added Ethan Frome and A House of Mirth to my vast reading list. #58 on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list.

#8, The Last Templar, by Raymond Khoury
I really enjoyed reading this Da Vinci Code-inspired thriller. In fact, long before The DaVinci Code was a twinkle in Dan Brown’s eye, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Eight, and other literary conspiracy thrillers with art, historical legends, and Gnoticism at their center had already captivated me. Who can say if Khoury would have written a novel like this if his publisher hadn't said "You know what we need? Another Da Vinci Code." Nonetheless, The Last Templar and Steve Berry's Templar’s Legacy were published simultaneously (the latter also happens to currently be in my possession, courtesy of fate and the library) and became easy bestsellers.

Khoury’s grail quest involves an artifact; a legend; an exquisitely beautiful, self-possessed, and very smart heroine (archaeologist) who works with a handsome hero (FBI investigator); and a deliciously evil bad guy (Catholic cardinal). While not perfect (cheesy romance and implausibly dramatic climax), it is a satisfactorily even-paced thriller, which one would expect from a screenwriter, and has one of the most unexpectedly gruesome opening scenes I have ever read.

No need to buy the book, even in mass market, but don’t pass it up if you spot it on your library’s shelves.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

You know you're a bookaholic when...

you choose a new purse not for its stylish good looks (although it is stylish and good looking), nor for how good it makes you look.

You know you’re a bookaholic when you choose a purse for its capacity to hold a book—and not a measly mass market either, but an inch-thick, roughly 6x9 trade paperback.

You vow that if you buy the purse upon which you first laid eyes (a smaller but equally appealing suede handbag), you'd be fine carrying the book in your hand. Your shopping companion scoffs. He knows you almost better than you know yourself.

At the end of the day, there is a perfect bag for you—and your book.