Airplane Reading

airplane readingLong-distance travelling is a marvelous thing to do for several reasons: it broadens the mind, builds the character, and so on and so forth; but for someone like me, who cannot drive a car, it is marvelous for another reason, which is that when I begin a long-distance journey I do not have to do a single damn thing for several hours. Whether it is a train, a ferry, a coach, another person’s car, or an airplane that is transporting me, I am not responsible for making it go or directing it in any way. All I have to do is get on the right one, and then my work is done. When I go home to the States for Christmas, this is particularly pleasing because it means that I have an eight-hour flight (eight hours, a full workday) to myself. Other people, I have gathered from furtive observation, spend some of these hours watching films, or talking to each other, or sensibly trying to combat the effects of jet lag through sleep.

I read.

You will understand me, I am sure, when I say that packing reading material for eight hours is not a task that ought to be approached lightly. This is partly because I read at an inconveniently high rate of speed. When we were kids, my parents used to take my brother and me to upstate New York to visit family friends who, at the time, lived at West Point. This, too, was a drive of eight hours’ length. I used to bring an entire shopping bag full of books–not just to stow in the boot of the car, but actually into the back seat with me–lest the unthinkable happen and I should finish one thinly-fictionalized retelling of the childhood of a historic European princess before our next rest stop. (These books constituted a large portion of my youthful reading, and also a really embarrassingly large amount of my total knowledge of European history until I was about seventeen.) My point is that I get through books, particularly if there are no distractions. Being sealed in a pressurized metal container is kind of ideal for me in that regard.

Anyway, about three days before any major flight I start to get antsy about airplane reading. The book (I can only really take one on the actual plane) has to be thick, obviously, but not too heavy to be carried comfortably in my shoulder bag. It has to be engaging and very well-written, but preferably not too experimental. At cruising altitude with the very real possibility of a screaming baby, or a dehydration headache, or a personal-space-consuming seat mate, to contend with, you don’t want to be reading something that demands intense focus. (I tried to read Piers Plowman, the thirteenth-century theological dream epic, on a plane once. It was an error of judgment, that’s all I’ll say.) Middlebrow mainstream literary fiction and popular non-fiction tend to work quite well: Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Bill Bryson and Hans Fallada have all been successful choices. (Actually, the Hans Fallada book, Alone In Berlin, gave me nightmares. It’s about a German couple living in Nazi Berlin and forming their own two-person resistance. It does not end happily.)

At the three-day mark before I left the UK to come home for Christmas this year, I was having some difficulty. I had started a book called Lanark, by the Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray. It’s on the Guardian’s list of the top 1000 novels ever written, and was also, according to the cover copy and Google, widely considered to be the best Scottish novel of the last century. Unfortunately, I wasn’t enjoying it much. After a week (which for me is basically eternity) I hadn’t read more than sixty pages of the thing. The prospect of being trapped on an airplane with no entertainment other than Lanark (on-board films aren’t generally an option for me, partly because I don’t think they’re any good but mostly because I can’t get the little headphones to work) was distressing. But I also felt a kind of stubborn loyalty to the book. It wasn’t totally uninteresting; it was just very, very odd.

So on the day I flew out, I went to Blackwell’s bookshop in the morning. This was a mistake. At the best of times, Blackwell’s is a trap; around Christmas, corporate strategy is to all but put little dangly lights around the place in the manner of anglerfish, in the hopes of luring you into the jaws of consumerism. I mean to say, three for two deals are fickle friends. I bought three books, because I am a fool and a weakling. (If you’re interested, which of course you are, they were: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, and Ghostwritten by David Mitchell.) I boarded the plane with Lanark in my hand luggage and my three back-up options in a Blackwell’s carrier bag.

As so often seems to be the case, my preparations turned out to be entirely unnecessary. I cracked the spine of Lanark before the plane left the runway, and I turned the final page (the five hundred and seventy-third) about half an hour before landing in Washington. This happens more frequently than I would like it to: a book initially unprepossessing suddenly redeems itself and from that point on, finishing it becomes an absolute imperative. I would prefer that either an initially unprepossessing book remained so and I could abandon it without feelings of remorse (this will never happen), or that the book would be prepossessing from the beginning. But very often these days I will begin something which, for the first thirty or sixty or a hundred pages, appears to have only limited merit, but which after that opens up into vistas of innovation or at least of interest. Possibly this is merely the effect of acclimatizing to a very idiosyncratic novel; I couldn’t say.

In any case, I hauled my Blackwell’s books all the way through border control and immigration at Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. (formerly the world’s least congenial transportation hub, now perhaps only the second or third worst on the planet due to the introduction of machines that scan your passport for you. The rest of the world adopted these several years ago, but in the land of the free we don’t like to admit that our systems could be bettered in any way, so things like airport efficiency tend to suffer accordingly.) You may be pleased to know that I finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle last week, so at least it has not been an entirely pointless exercise.

One final observation: airplane books are very much like umbrellas. If you take them, you may not need them, but if you don’t take them, boy will you be sorry. I once got stuck halfway across the Atlantic Ocean with nothing to read but the jacket copy on Selected Letters of John Keats. In the end I gave up and (unable to make the headphones work again) watched the person sitting in front of me watch Despicable Me 2. There are better ways to spend eight hours. Bring enough books, is all I’m saying.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten New-to-Me Authors Read in 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ’em out.

This week’s topic: the top ten authors whom I read for the first time in 2014. I read a lot of authors for the first time this year; it was a year of exploration and I loved nearly every minute of it.

1. Beryl Bainbridge. My first book of the year, Master Georgie, was also one of the best–rarely have I ever read something so emotionally charged, written with such subtlety and compression. Although I didn’t read any other Bainbridge novels this year, The Bottle Factory OutingAn Awfully Big Adventure and According to Queeney are definitely on my list.

2. Mary Doria Russell. The Sparrow is a disturbing, gorgeous book about faith and first contact with an alien civilization. Although it’s less tightly wound than Master Georgie, here Russell also deals with an emotionally charged plot and themes very subtly. It’s a masterclass for anyone who wants to write fiction.

3. Katherine Faw Morris. Young God was without a doubt one of the best books I read this year–possibly the very best. How could it be otherwise? It’s got a thirteen-year-old North Carolina hill-dwelling drug lord called Nikki for a protagonist. She’s motherless, violent and magnificent.

4. Sarah Waters. HOW HAD I NOT READ HER BEFORE. HOW. This is the writer who gave the world the metaphor of a woman who resides in her own skin with a smooth fullness that suggested she’d been poured into it like toffee into a mould. That is a first-class metaphor, you guys.

5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Author of Americanah, about which I think I raved earlier. Also, gave an interview in which she said she was a feminist and seemed utterly bewildered by the idea that anyone with any sense of human rights might not be a feminist. What a pro.

6. Anne Carson. Anne Carson redrew the boundaries of poetry for me this year. Her collection Glass and God obsessed me in early October the way that life-changing writing does. I also wrote about it for Quadrapheme.

7. John le Carre. The master of British understatement and tragic post-imperial malaise. I read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy this year and started The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. No one writes espionage novels like this guy did.

8. Jane Smiley. For the devastating spin on King Lear in her novel A Thousand Acres; I haven’t read any of her other novels and apparently no two are the same, but she too understands how to hold strong emotions in tension with each other, without over-explaining. What an amazing book.

9. David Foster Wallace. I read his first novel, The Broom of the System, this spring. (He published it when he was my age. He wrote it as an undergrad, alongside his thesis on Wittgenstein. Bastard.) Broom is ridiculously funny and biting and makes no fucking sense at all. I can’t wait to get Infinite Jest out of storage.

10. Olivia Laing. All people who write and all people who are alcoholics/have ever known an alcoholic/have ever known someone who knew someone who was an alcoholic (by my calculations that covers everyone on the planet) could benefit from reading The Trip to Echo Spring. Her writing is sharp, economical but somehow lush, equally well adapted to describing the innermost workings of John Cheever’s short stories, the dipsomaniacal obsessions of Raymond Carver, or the thoughts and feelings in her own mind as a train takes her across America.

2014 in First Lines

I was inspired to do this by this post at Annabel’s House of Books, but instead of quoting myself, I wanted to show a sliver of what I’ve been reading this year. These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

January: “I was twelve years old the first time Master Georgie ordered me to stand stock still and not blink.”–Master Georgie, by Beryl Bainbridge. This is a tiny explosion of a book about the Crimean War, narrated from the point of view of the eponymous Georgie’s adoptive sister Myrtle, who follows him to war but has a terrible secret. I completely loved it. Start your New Year off right with this.

February: “I am staring at myself in a hotel bathroom mirror.”–This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited, by Justin Cartwright. One in a series of slim volumes called The Writer and the City, Cartwright’s book sees him returning to Oxford (where he was a student) some decades later, to discover how it and he have changed. As a recent graduate, I loved how clearly he describes the impact this city had on him, and identified completely with his love for and connection to it. Very much indulgence reading, because that’s what February is for.

March: “Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.”–Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens. Dickens for winter, always. I got to him late this season, but as usual it was worth it. There is the usual infuriating feminine martyrdom (in this case Florence Dombey, who is a poster child for emotional abuse and daddy issues), but the writing, as you can see, is ace.

April: “The dead die hard, they are trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, until such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them.”–Echo’s Bones, by Samuel Beckett. Read for a review in Quadrapheme, and, as you may be able to deduce, pretty tough going, although I found deciphering Beckett’s fevered musings pretty rewarding too.

May: “I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne.”–Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. Be careful with this book: an intense, frightening depiction of violence, hate and poverty in the rural South. It will move you. It’s very good. Maybe don’t read it if you’re already feeling a little delicate.

June: “The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly–in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.”–Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. A light but touching and remarkably well-written novel about an elderly Italian man who goes searching for the story of the American woman he fell in love with fifty years before. A perfect summer read, proving that happy endings don’t have to be stupid or far-fetched.

July: “I’m not sure that I can claim to have taken my place in the human alphabet, even as its honorary twenty-seventh letter.”–Pilcrow, by Adam Mars-Jones. Given that this novel is narrated by a little boy who is essentially bed-bound by a wasting disease, bits of it aren’t exactly fast-paced. And yet it’s sweet, solemn and captivating.

August: “You are the man with the slow resting heartbeat, the calmest person in any room, the best man in a crisis.”–Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies: RSC Adaptation, by Hilary Mantel and Mike Poulton. Sorry but do I even need to discuss this? It’s the play adaptation, with commentary on the characters, of two of the best novels written this decade. It’s amazing.

September: “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest invention, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.”–The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. I only ever seem to read this book when I’m going through some sort of personal crisis. Maybe because, being about the comic book superheroes of the 1940s and 1950s, it provides some truly epic escapism.

October: “The two young men–they were of the English public official class–sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage.”–Parade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford. All the rest of the novel is in that precarious word “perfect”. Because when things are perfect, there’s nothing else to do to them except destroy them. This is a hell of a book, and very long, but the most authentic portrait of English society in the years leading up to, during and after WWI that I know of.

November: “It was the closest kingdom to the queen’s, as the crow flies, but not even the crows flew it.”–The Sleeper and the Spindle, by Neil Gaiman. Pretty sure I’ve already discussed this here, but my God is this a wonderful, beautiful book. Like all the best fairy tales, it is not really for children.

December: “The Elite Cafe was entered by a staircase from the foyer of a cinema.”–Lanarkby Alasdair Gray. I’m still working on this; it’s not easy either, and it’s very long, and the section I’m in at the moment is like a weird hybrid of James Joyce’s Ulysses and those whacked-out cartoons that Monty Python did between sketches, but it’s becoming progressively more interesting. It’s also supposedly the greatest Scottish novel of the last century, so there’s that.

Looking at them, I wouldn’t say these are a perfect representation of my reading in 2014–it ignores the swathe of eighteenth-century novels and criticism I covered, the nineteenth-century social history and literature, and most of the best contemporary novels I read, as well as the poetry and the ridiculous number of war books I ended up with in the latter half of the year. But it does provide a slice, and suggests that my reading is pretty much evenly balanced along gender lines, although I need to do better with writers of color. I’ll be posting again soon about the end of the 30-day reading challenge and my personal top books of 2014 (who doesn’t love a good end-of-year list?)