These nine books will distract you from your elbow-to-elbow fight for the armrest.
One of my worst nightmares is being stuck on a plane without a good book to read. Happily, after much trial and error — and packing far too many books — I've finally realized what makes a perfect carry-on book:
You want a book — either fiction or nonfiction — that's complex enough to smother your annoyance when the guy in the row ahead reclines his seat into your lap, but not so intellectually challenging that it demands a dictionary. No plotless wonders with paragraph-length sentences; you need to be able to put the book down when the person sitting by the window needs to step over you to get to the bathroom.
Mostly you want something that's intriguing enough to make you forget that you're 34,000 feet in the air and, in your heart of hearts, you don't really understand how the plane stays up.
The books I've chosen meet these criteria beautifully, and, as such, they've all been awarded the Nancy Pearl Wanderlust Award for Great Airplane Reading.
'The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread'
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, by Don Robertson, paperback, 224 pages
You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll totally delight in meeting 9-year-old Morris Bird III (whom some classmates unkindly call Morris Bird the Turd) as he decides to skip school one autumn afternoon in 1944 and walk across Cleveland to visit his best friend, Stanley Chaloupka.
Morris sets off with an alarm clock, a dollar and some change, a jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter, a map, a compass and — to his great dismay — his 6-year-old sister, Sandra. Along the way he gets delayed by a cigarette riot and Sandra's whining insistence that she be allowed to play a game of jacks. He also drop-kicks a football into a coal wagon (much to the annoyance of the football's young owners) and is rescued by Miss Edna Daphne Frost.
Eventually, as the afternoon winds down, Morris and Sandra collide with history; they arrive at Stanley's block at the exact moment when above-ground gas tanks belonging to the East Ohio Gas Company explode. (The explosion and subsequent fire would kill 130 people and destroy a square mile of Cleveland's east side.)
Among the many other wonderfully drawn characters we meet are a passionate optician named G. Henderson LeFevre and the object of his lust, Mrs. Imogene Brookes, who is described as "a rare beauty if there ever was one, a woman of immense passions and appetites who really didn't belong there in Shaker Heights living out her years in a succession of blank matronly conditioned activities and responses."
I loved Don Robertson's The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread when it was first published in the early 1960s, and I am thrilled that a whole new generation of readers is now going to read it, too.
The Arrival, by Shaun Tan, hardcover, 128 pages
My next recommendation manages to tell a compelling story without using any words. Shaun Tan's book, The Arrival, is a picture book — but not one intended for young children. Author/artist Tan shares with us the wonder, excitement and fear that accompany a recent immigrant when he leaves his homeland and family to make a new life far away.
There's an aura of menace and looming danger in the pictures of the immigrant's country that is reminiscent of Giorgio de Chirico's painting "Mystery and Melancholy of a Street," and you can understand why he would want to leave in search of a more welcoming, less fearful situation. Still, the two sequential pictures of the man sorrowfully saying goodbye to his wife and young daughter — the first shows the three holding hands; the second depicts the letting go — may just break your heart. Taking a ship to a new land, he finds himself in an unfamiliar setting, surrounded first by indifference and then — slowly — acceptance and friendship from those he meets.
Tan brilliantly universalizes the immigrant experience by making the country of arrival a surreal place that is as wondrously strange to the reader/viewer as it is to the immigrant himself. The buildings are weirdly sized and shaped; people travel by dirigible; what's produced in the factory where he works is nothing that either he or we can identify for sure; and the local animals are bizarre — though the vaguely Dali-esque, four-legged oyster-mouse creature who first befriends the immigrant looks adorable enough to be real.
Tan conveys so much in each of the pictures that every one — whether full page or smaller — calls out to be pored over. The power of visual art to tell a narrative tale that is both nuanced and complex has seldom, if ever, been demonstrated more clearly than here. Book groups for middle-school students and above (including adults) will find much to discuss.
The Thin Place, by Kathryn Davis, paperback, 304 pages
Kathryn Davis' novel is a mesmerizing and mysterious tale that opens with three adolescent friends on an aimless walk:
There were three girlfriends and they were walking down a trail that led to a lake. One small and plump, one pretty and medium-sized, one not so pretty and tall. This was in the early years of the twenty-first century, the unspeakable having happened so many times everyone was still in shock, still reeling from what they'd seen, what they'd done or failed to do. The dead souls no longer wore gowns. They'd gotten loose, broadcasting their immense soundless chord through the precincts of the living.
In five short sentences Davis sets the stage for this remarkable and unpredictable story set in Varennes, a town near the Canadian border. The town's denizens seem ordinary enough: Helen Zeebrugge copes with the various indignities of old age; ex-hippie Andrea Murdock researches the past; Buddy the dog does his doggy doings; Gigi the cat works on fully experiencing every one of her nine lives; and 12-year-old Mees tries to understand the strange gift she's been given.
But Varennes is a "thin place," a shimmering, permeable division between the real and the inchoate, between the living and the dead, and strange things happen almost as a matter of routine.
Davis uses a variety of points of view to tell her story, including those of two- and four-legged animals, but to give a plot summary would be unfair to readers — suffice it to say that you've never read anything like this before.
An Infamous Army, by Georgette Heyer, paperback, 512 pages
Georgette Heyer took the title of her novel about the epic defeat of the Emperor Napoleon at Waterloo from a remark attributed to the Duke of Wellington. Wellington famously (and ruefully) described his understaffed, undermanned and under-equipped troops — which included the remnants of ragtag armies from all across Europe — as "an infamous army."
Hayer is best known as the iconic author of dozens of romances, most set in England during the Regency period of 1811 to 1820, when King George III was declared unfit to rule and his oldest son was named Prince Regent of Britain.
Like Hayer's romance novels, which are always solidly grounded in authentic period detail and richly convey both the time and the place, An Infamous Army skillfully brings the past to life. Heyer scrupulously and exhaustively researched the battle of Waterloo, and she presents it here in all its heroics and bloody loss of life. In fact, much of the dialogue between Wellington and his men is taken directly from Wellington's diaries and letters.
But An Infamous Army is also a romance: In addition to the characters based on real people, Heyer has invented a beautiful and strong-willed young woman, Lady Barbara Childe, and a handsome and dashing British Army officer who loves (and tames) her. Romance fans will certainly not be disappointed, and fans of historical fiction may be more than pleasantly surprised to discover Heyer's not-inconsiderable storytelling talents.
Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton, by Sara Wheeler, hardcover, 320 pages
Remember Robert Redford in the film Out of Africa? When I finished Sara Wheeler's engrossing and fluent Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton, I realized what a terrific choice the casting director made with Redford.
This novel moves Redford's character, Finch Hatton (1881-1937), into the spotlight, illuminating this complex, dashing, non-conforming man. Wheeler takes us through his childhood in a once-wealthy family, his happiness at Eton and his fascination with the wide open spaces of East Africa, where he spent both his happiest and most bitter days.
For World War I history buffs, there's plenty of captivating material on warfare in East Africa, in which Finch Hatton was a combatant:
It wasn't the troglodyte world of the trenches, but it was another kind of hell. The war in East Africa — virtually unknown to the outside world — was, in its safari through purgatory, a negative metaphor for the Kenyan paradise of the epoch handed down in literature and myth. And the campaign remains buried under the weight of history, whereas Karen Blixen's luminously famous first line — 'I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills' — has irreversibly enshrined the lyrical romance of the same landscape.
Although Finch Hatton left no diaries — indeed, he left nothing to indicate an inner, contemplative life at all — Wheeler gives us a strong sense of a man who seems to be beloved by all who met him. If you have any doubts, just read Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa and Beryl Markham's West with the Night, and you'll see. Book clubs looking for a "mini-series" of books might consider reading Wheeler, Markham and Dinesen over a three-month period.
Bangkok 8, by John Burdett, paperback, 336 pages
If you like your suspense novels set in exotic locales and you have a high tolerance for grisly and gruesome crimes, then you won't want to miss John Burdett's Bangkok 8. Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep stars in this adrenaline-fueled more-or-less mystery that is distinguished by smart (frequently witty) dialogue, a terrific depiction of place and plot twists galore. The plot involves jade smuggling, sexually deviant behavior and death by snake venom; figuring out what's going on sends Sonchai (who struggles to reconcile his Buddhist beliefs with his knowledge of humanity at its worst) deep into the criminal and sexual underworld of Thailand's biggest city.
I found Burdett's presentation of the Thai sex trade fascinating; it reflects an attitude toward sex that is very different from Western sensibilities, and is apparently characteristic of the Buddhist influence on Thai culture. Bangkok 8 is not the sort of book that I would have ever thought I'd enjoy — it's way too violent and grungy for my normal reading tastes — but I was totally won over by Sonchai and Burdett's insights into the depths and peaks of human behavior.
Chester, by Mélanie Watt, hardcover, 32 pages
In literary criticism circles, you often hear the term "metafiction," which the Encarta Dictionary defines as "fiction writing that deals, often playfully and parodically, with the nature of fiction, the techniques and conventions used in it, and the role of the author." Well, when I read Mélanie Watt's Chester, I figured that I had come across perhaps the world's very first meta-picture book.
The book opens with Watt explaining that she's trying to write and illustrate a book about a mouse, a book that will begin: "Once upon a time there was a mouse. He lived in a house in the country." But her cat, Chester (aka the self-centered furball, according to Watt), won't let her get on with her story; he thinks that it's his book and he's in charge of creating it. (Chester, it should be noted, also thinks the letters in his name stand for: Charming; Handsome; Envy of Mouse; Smart; Talented; Envy of Mélanie; Really handsome.)
Red marker in hand (or paw), Chester goes about editing Mélanie's manuscript, with hilarious results. Just when the reader thinks Watt has gotten the last word, or at least the last picture (of Chester in a pink tutu — could there be a more biting insult to any self-respecting cat?), Chester comes up with his own revenge.
I can't imagine there's a 4- to 7-year-old out there who won't love this collaboration between author and subject, and amused adult readers will want to ask themselves just which of the two is the author and which the subject of this laugh-aloud book.
Sunshine, by Robin McKinley, paperback, 416 pages
I have never been a fan of novels with vampires in them. In fact, until recently I'd never read horror fiction at all — I've always felt that real life is scary enough before you add the supernatural to the mix. But I've always loved the novels of award-winning fantasy writer Robin McKinley, and a friend whose book smarts I respected recommended McKinley's novel Sunshine, so I (somewhat hesitantly) picked it up, started reading and found — to my surprise — that I couldn't put it down.
Set in a world quite similar to ours in the time just after the Voodoo Wars, Rae Seddon, who's nicknamed Sunshine, is driving home from a baking stint at her stepfather's café when she is kidnapped by a group of vampires and locked in the ballroom of an old house.
It soon becomes clear that she's intended to provide the main course of a meal for their starving captive, the powerful, handsome and enigmatic Constantine — who also happens to be a vampire. But Constantine, going against everything Sunshine thought she knew about vampires, resists his powerful urge to drink her blood, and the two form an uneasy alliance against their joint captors.
Just in time, Sunshine discovers that she has apparently inherited the magical talents that run through the blood of her long-absent father's side of the family, and she contrives to set herself and Constantine free. But that's when her troubles really begin ...
Metzger's Dog, by Thomas Perry, paperback, 336 pages
Perhaps all you need to know to decide whether to read Thomas Perry's thriller Metzger's Dog is that Dr. Henry Metzger happens to be a cat. ... So, if you're hankering for a humorous crime story, you can't do better than this one. The delectably complicated plot revolves around Leroy "Chinese" Gordon and his group of antisocial pals who break into a UCLA professor's office in order to score some cocaine, but find, instead, detailed instructions for bringing a major urban city to its knees.
Think Los Angeles, think traffic, think roadblock, think gridlock — then think what the CIA might do after phase one plays itself out, in order to stop these geniuses from producing further mayhem. It's up to agent Ben Porterfield to try to broker a deal with Chinese, his friends and his beautiful and brilliant girlfriend, Margaret — not to mention Metzger's dog.