Carry-On Books To Take You Up, Up And Away Nancy Pearl confronts one of her worst nightmares — being stuck on a plane without a good book to read — by analyzing what makes a perfect tarmac book. Here are her nine picks for books to squeeze into your carry-on luggage.
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Carry-On Books To Take You Up, Up And Away

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Carry-On Books To Take You Up, Up And Away

Carry-On Books To Take You Up, Up And Away

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Okay, so you're ready for summer vacation. The bags are packed, the airplane tickets are in hand, the neighbor said he'd water your lawn. There's just one nagging question: What book should you take?

Librarian Nancy Pearl is here with some answers. They're what she calls great airplane reads. And this first book that I'm holding up actually has a man holding a suitcase. It's called "The Arrival," by Shaun Tan. Am I saying the name correctly?

Ms. NANCY PEARL (Librarian): You are. And this is a fabulous, fabulous book. It's a book without words, and yet it tells a really complicated story. It's a picture book, but it's not intended for young readers. And what it is is the story of a man who leaves his homeland to come to a new country. And you get the scenes in just wordless, wonderful, wonderful pictures of everything that happens when he says goodbye to his family. And there's one picture in there, Steve, where his wife and his daughter and he are all holding hands and then letting go. And that's a picture, I think, that just will break your heart.

And what Shaun Tan does in that book so wonderfully is really universalize the sense of what it's like to come to a new world.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should mention when we say that this is going to a new world, this isn't exactly someone going to New York, but you see the person in a harbor. The city behind the harbor looks kind of New York-ey. Here's somebody in what must be the immigration hall. It looks a little bit like Ellis Island. It's an extraordinarily strange version of New York, but this seems to be where the person is going.

Ms. PEARL: But it's surreal enough so that it both takes a common situation, the immigrant coming to America, and yet at the same time, because it's not quite the America that we know, it just adds that kind of surreal dimension to it.

INSKEEP: So the first in our stack about great airplane reads is about someone taking a long journey, and let's pick one of the smaller books here: Robin McKinley, "Sunshine." According to the blurb, it's pretty much perfect.

Ms. PEARL: I have rarely met anyone who's read "Sunshine" who has not loved it. It's the story of a young woman named Rae Seddon who is driving home one morning from making cinnamon rolls at her stepfather's coffee house when she runs into a group of vampires.

It turns out that she is going to be used as bait for this very enigmatic vampire named Constantine. Constantine overcomes his natural desires to do with her as vampires tend to do. And Rae discovers in herself the means to get them both out of this very sticky situation, and then her troubles really begin.

Now what Robin McKinley does in this book so well is mix the real and the fantastical. When you start the book, for the first 15 pages, there are like clues here or there that this is not the world that we really know, although everything is very familiar.

Cinnamon rolls, and then all of a sudden there's a line that says: But when the Voodoo Wars happened…and then you think, wait. What world am I in?

INSKEEP: So we've got two books in a row here that start with the real world and make it strange, make it new.

Ms. PEARL: Three books, actually.

INSKEEP: Oh, we've got another one. Which one?

Ms. PEARL: There's another one. "The Thin Place."

INSKEEP: "The Thin Place," Kathryn Davis, a novel.

Ms. PEARL: Now, what you want in an airplane book, you want a book that is complex enough that you're drawn into it so you can forget that you're having this elbow war with the person next to you over the armrest and you can overcome your anger at the person in front of you who's tilted his seat back into your lap. So you want a book that really grabs you and takes you away.

INSKEEP: And something that when you're forced to hold it about four inches from your face, because of that seat, it still reads pretty well.

Ms. PEARL: Right.

INSKEEP: You want a nice font - a nice, big font.

Ms. PEARL: And yet you don't want something so complex that when it's interrupted by those announcements of putting our your seatbelt, etc., that you're going to lose your place and never be able to recapture.

So you don't want plotless wonders, and "The Thin Place" is one of those mesmerizing, mysterious books that does exactly that. And this is how it begins.

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 21st 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.

So you get this beautiful writing, and you get this mysteriousness. And it's set in a small town near the Canadian border named Varennes, and Varennes is a thin place. It's a place that is where the border between the real and the inchoate, between the living and the dead, is very permeable.

INSKEEP: And should we draw anything from the fact that Kathryn Davis, the author, is recorded here as having received a Kafka prize?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PEARL: Indeed.

INSKEEP: The next book we have here is from Thomas Perry, "Metzger's Dog."

Ms. PEARL: The thing that should tell you everything you need to know about that book is that Metzger is a cat. Add to that that it's a thriller, and it's about some urban terrorists who are determined to take down Los Angeles.

INSKEEP: Do you mind? I just flipped it open at random here…

Ms. PEARL: Yes, please do.

INSKEEP: …and came to classic Raymond Chandler writing here. Chinese Gordon's body was hunched forward over the steering wheel, his right foot still on the gas pedal and his teeth clenched as the van knifed into the space between two cars and shot up the Harbor Freeway. Love it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Love it.

Ms. PEARL: And it's just a lot of fun. It's one of those getting-lost-in-on-the-airplane books.

INSKEEP: Well, let's travel through one more book in the stack. One more.

Ms. PEARL: Okay. The other thing is just a wonderful picture book, which if you're traveling with a four to seven year old, this is a book that I think that you would really, really like. Now we always hear the term, when we're talking about literary fiction, metafiction, which is basically fiction about fiction. But "Chester," by Melanie Watt, is the first meta-picture-book that I've ever run across.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PEARL: Not maybe there are others, but I have not found them. So the book opens with Melanie Watt, the author, explaining that she's trying to write and illustrate a book about a mouse, but her cat, Chester, does not care for that idea. He thinks that it's his book, and he is in charge of creating it.

So there's Melanie trying to write her picture book, and there's Chester with his red magic marker in hand, or in paw. Melanie thinks she's gotten the upper hand of Chester because she has a picture of him in a pink tutu. And this is a huge insult to Chester, who believes that his name stands for charming, handsome, envy of mouse, smart, talented, envy of Melanie, really handsome.

Chester comes up with his own revenge on Melanie. And I think what is so much fun about this is to get some four to seven year old talking about whose book is it, really? Is it Chester's book, or is it Melanie's? And who's won that battle between them?

INSKEEP: I already know what the kid's going to say to that.

Ms. PEARL: The cat.

INSKEEP: No. He's going to say it's my book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PEARL: Oh, that's right.

INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl, great to have you come by.

Ms. PEARL: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: You can see illustrations from "Chester" and "The Arrival" and read excerpts of Nancy Pearl's other book recommendations at our Web site, It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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