“Focus on the journey, not the destination,” some say, but I say that airports are a drag. Not just airports, but whatever version(s) of public transit one takes to get to the airport (in our case, a bus to one subway line to another “subway” line that is actually a bus) and from the airport (another bus), not to mention the hours in the air. On one hand, I recognize that modern travel is a miracle; on the other, the atmosphere of stress, hurry-up-and-wait, and recycled air…the “journey” is never the best part of travel for me. (Being afflicted with motion sickness doesn’t help.)
However: all that sitting and waiting translates to hours and hours of reading time. I don’t usually pack for a trip until the night before, but I start thinking about what books to bring at least a week in advance. (Here’s what I read on honeymoon last year.)
Despite a Twitter joke about reading Ulysses on vacation, I don’t usually bring monster classics with me when I travel, especially legendarily difficult ones. (Except Anna Karenina, that one time, and I’d already read half of it.) I try to choose books I think will be absorbing, but also easy to pick up and put down frequently; travel involves a lot of waiting and a lot of transitions. This time, I included a mix of fiction and nonfiction, galleys and published books.
The South by Colm Toibin: This popped up on a list of books set in Barcelona. Toibin is one of those authors I knew I ought to read, and I wanted to, but hadn’t gotten around to it till now. The first thing I noticed about the book was its wide, heavy font, and it took a few pages to get used to that. Then I began noticing the sentences, which were short, reminiscent of – yes, I’m going to say it – Hemingway. However, Toibin has a female protagonist, Katherine, who leaves a husband and son in Ireland to come to Barcelona, where she falls in love with Spanish Civil War vet Miguel and makes friends with another Irishman, Michael Graves. I’m not entirely sure what to make of The South and would like to discuss it with someone else who’s read it.
The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz: I won this as a galley from LibraryThing. I was hoping it would be similar to Steven Johnson’s excellent The Ghost Map (about a cholera outbreak in London), and I was not disappointed. Koch’s and Conan Doyle’s stories don’t so much entwine as they do intersect, but the author pulls off the combination pretty gracefully. Koch discovers the cause for TB but announces a cure prematurely; Conan Doyle reports on Koch’s findings. Sherlock Holmes stands as an example of the detective-as-scientist; indeed, he helped popularize the scientific method at a time when society was beginning to look to science for answers, instead of with skepticism.
Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith: I’ve read Zadie Smith’s fiction (White Teeth, On Beauty, NW) and appreciated it, but I really love her nonfiction for the clarity of thought and expression, as well as the topics she chooses. Changing My Mind is heavy on literary criticism (George Eliot, E.M. Forster, Roland Barthes and Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka, David Foster Wallace), but Smith’s writing is worth reading even if you aren’t familiar with the authors or books she writes about. Changing My Mind also includes a season’s worth of film reviews, an essay about an Oxfam trip to Liberia, thoughts on reading and writing, even an essay about the Oscars. Throughout, Smith’s intellect is fierce and focused, sharp and incisive, and not without humor (though she’s no stand-up comedian).
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, and it was available as an e-book from the library before I left for my trip. I read it in one sitting on the plane flight home from Madrid to Boston, and wow. Tony Webster, our narrator, is a man in late middle age, peaceably divorced with one grown child. In order to tell his story, he starts with background on his school days with his two close friends and a fourth friend, Adrian, who joins their clique. The friends go their separate ways after school, and Adrian writes Tony to let him know that he is dating Tony’s first serious girlfriend, Veronica. Tony’s response is extreme, and it comes back to haunt him, despite the mild life he’s lived since.
Graduates in Wonderland: The International Misadventures of Two (Almost) Adults by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale: This was another LT advance copy. I’m a sucker for anything epistolary, and Graduates in Wonderland surpassed my expectations. It fits perfectly between the post-high-school, pre-college novel Roomies by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr, and Rachel Bertsche’s friend-making memoir SWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend. Certainly, as graduates of Brown, Pan and Kapelke-Dale have a certain level of privilege, and I’m not sure how well this book will sit with those who don’t come from the same or similar backgrounds; however, setting that aside, I think this has the potential to be hugely popular with the twenty-to-thirty-year-old set. Pan and Kapelke-Dale are both great writers; they’re funny and honest, and they write about work, social life, managing depression, romance, living in foreign cities and struggling with the language, and deciding what to do with their lives. The subject matter and casual style make for addicting reading.
Five books in seven days, and all of them enjoyable: not a bad vacation! Oh, and we also saw some things.