Reading on a Jet Plane

All my books are packed, I’m ready to go . . .  (apologies to John Denver and Peter, Paul & Mary)

Last week, I went to the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute in Seattle — a four-day educational conference for independent booksellers. Packing my clothes was easy; people in the book business are not known for being fashion-forward, and January in Seattle does not require the layers of fleece, wool, and down that are needed in Chicago. So after I filled my carry-on suitcase with jeans, yoga pants, and sweaters, I started the difficult task of deciding which books to take — always the trickiest part of trip preparation.

9780062279972-1What about the book I’m reading that only has 50 pages left to go — worth bringing, when I might finish it at the gate before the plane even takes off? And that big, fat, HEAVY new hardcover — what if I haul it along and end up hating it? Should I bring something that I’m obligated to read so I can’t keep putting it aside the way I do at home? How about something mindless that I can leave behind?  I always bring 150% of the books I think I’ll have time to read on a trip– ever since I was delayed overnight in the Frankfurt Airport, where I ran out of reading material and was forced to buy the only non-pornographic English language option available, The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy. Now my greatest fear is being stranded without a good book, or two, or three.

And yes, I do know about e-books. They’re fine; I have my IPad loaded with them. I just don’t enjoy reading them the same way I enjoy reading real books. They serve the purpose the same way eating at McDonald’s does the job when you’re on a road trip. I’d rather eat at McDonald’s than go hungry, but I don’t feel nourished the same way I would if I ate real food. And besides, what happens when the e-reader runs out of juice and there’s no power supply available, or it malfunctions?

As I was pondering my book options for the trip, it dawned on me that I really only needed to bring two books — one to read on the four-hour flight to Seattle, and one for “insurance” in case of delays. After all, I was going to a booksellers’ conference where I was going to be given dozens of wonderful new books to read and share with my colleagues. So what did I bring? The Wind Is Not a River, by Brian Payton (which I’d just started reading but knew I was going to love) and Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell (which I wanted to finish reading because the author is coming to Lake Forest for an event in February).

The Wind Is Not a River is my favorite kind of book — it’s a war story and a love story, and it focuses on a somewhat obscure piece of history. Set in Seattle and Alaska during World War II, the novel contains two narratives. Journalist John Easley impersonates a Royal Canadian Air Force officer to investigate the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. (The U.S. authorities didn’t allow journalists to cover the invasion since they felt Americans would panic if they knew how close the Japanese actually were to America’s mainland.) He accompanies an American crew on a bombing run over the islands and is shot down. For months, he lives in a cave, foraging for food and evading the Japanese occupiers. Meanwhile, his wife Helen passes herself off as a showgirl and joins a USO group headed to Alaska to entertain the troops — but her real purpose is to track down her missing husband.

The Battle of Attu, the only World War II land battle in North America.

The Battle of Attu, the only World War II land battle in North America.

Author Brian Payton expertly moves between the two stories, which are equally compelling. John’s battles against starvation and gangrene and Helen’s desperate attempts to get information from unwilling officials are both vividly rendered. His writing beautifully evokes the stark, unfriendly landscape of the Aleutian Islands. In her review in the Chicago Tribune, Beth Kephardt says: “Payton’s great gift is characterizing a specific place and time; I would read anything Payton writes about landscape.”  (To read the complete Chicago Tribune review, click Chicago Tribune/Printers Row.)

Soon after John is shot down, he meets another survivor — a young airman from Texas. Payton describes their encounter in language that perfectly evokes the scene, yet makes me think of E.B. White’s rule for writers — “Omit needless words”:

Then, just as swiftly as it began, the fog stalls its retreat. Like a wave racing down the beach to the sea, it hesitates, reverses course, then comes flooding back again. They walk toward each other in the gathering mist, the preceding color and light now seeming like a dream. They approach each other with widening grins, like they’re the only ones in on the joke. And when they meet, they hug each other long and hard, like men who had cheated death together — like men convinced the worst is behind them.

Of course, the worst is not behind them. The journey ahead for John Easley and Karl Bitburg will test their courage and endurance — just as Helen’s search reveals the strength and determination she never knew she had.

I closed The Wind Is Not a River just as the plane was beginning its descent into Seattle. As I looked out the window at the gorgeous scenery of the Pacific Northwest, I imagined Helen Easley boarding the ship that would take her to the Aleutian Islands to look for her husband. I had to remind myself that what I’d just read was historical fiction, and that Helen and John never existed. But they seem just as real to me as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald do in Careless People, another book with two narratives. In the fall of 1922, Scott and Zelda moved to Long Island; around the same time, in nearby New Jersey, a double murder (a married minister and his mistress) took place. In her well-researched work of history and biography, Sarah Churchwell connects these stories in surprising and insightful ways.  Next week, I’ll be interviewing Churchwell, an American literature scholar currently living in England. I hope she has a peaceful plane trip, with plenty of time to read!

Do You Keep a Reading Journal?

Gloria's book journal

Gloria’s book journal

One of the unexpected pleasures of Books on the Table has been reconnecting with old friends. I recently heard from Gloria, who worked at Lake Forest Book Store for several years and then moved to Door County, Wisconsin. Gloria, who had a rewarding career as a nurse, turned to bookselling later in life.  Her first job was at Borders back in the days when applicants had to take a difficult test to prove their “bookworthiness”.  In response to “10 Books I’d Save in a Fire (or a Flood)”, Gloria commented:

When I was a child my family home had two devastating fires (one electrical/smoking related and the other set by a sibling playing with matches). No one was ever hurt but many treasured possessions like books and photos were lost. Then as a young mother, I lost my children’s baby pictures to a cold-hearted burglar. So . . . my mind is prepared and my old childhood books are already gone. (After reading two of my current recommendations, Ru and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, I place my losses in the perspective where they belong.) What I would save now are these little ‘What I Read’ journals. For the last several years I write a short synopsis of everything I read; include the date, my reaction, little tidbits like “bought off the table at LFBS(!)” or “read during January 2014 deep freeze”. As I get older I sometimes don’t remember what I had for dinner last night….these journals refresh my memory of all the many great, and occasional not so great, books I’ve read. I know people who’ve done this much of their lives. Lucky them!

Gloria has met many other book lovers in Door County, including one who has little boxes filled with index cards with information about books she’s read, and one who has a list of all the books she’s read going back to high school. That’s impressive — although when I was in high school, I did have a little journal full of “meaningful” quotes from poems and songs. I would be embarrassed to read that now, especially when I recall that one of those quotes was from the Grateful Dead: “What a long, strange trip it’s been”.

My collection of book journals -- not a word has been written in any of them.

My collection of book journals — not a word has been written in any of them.

I’ve never kept a book journal. I have a collection of  lovely blank books that I bought with the intention of keeping track of the books I’ve read (and want to read)  but those books are still empty. Every time I bought a beautiful hardbound journal, I thought that would be the one that would inspire me to record my reading. Now, I’m trying to remember to list my books  on the “Recently Read” and “In My Stacks” pages of Books on the Table, but I’m not even doing very well with that. I wish I’d kept a journal of all the books I’ve read, starting in childhood. This year, I’m going to keep track of the books I’ve read, and I’m going to keep a list of books I plan to read. It’s certainly an easier resolution to keep than losing 10 pounds or working out every day!

Apparently, even successful authors have difficulty remembering to use their reading journals. While procrastinating this morning, I found a post called “The Reading Resolution” on the Jungle Red Writers (“smart and sassy crime fiction writers”) blog. Deborah Crombie says:

I have attempted, on numerous occasions, to keep track of WHAT I read. I have a book journal, with, well, maybe three pages filled out.  I’ve put books in my personal journal, occasionally. (And don’t ask how long it’s been since I made an entry in that!)  I’ve made notes on what I’m reading now and again in my calendar.

Deborah’s fellow author, Julia Spencer-Fleming, admits to the same problem:

What I DO want to try in 2014 is keeping a book journal. I get so frustrated when someone asks me, “what are you reading?” or we do

The pristine pages of one of my book journals.

The pristine pages of one of my book journals.

one of our book recommendation posts here on JRW, because half the time, I can’t recall the name or author of the great book I devoured just last month!

Does anyone have any suggestions for a really good-looking book journal to make it easier for me?

I’m sorry, Julia, but I have some very good-looking journals and they haven’t made it any easier for me . . . good luck!

To read “The Reading Resolution” blog post, click Jungle Red Writers. Contributors to the blog are Deborah Crombie, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Hallie Ephron, and several other mystery/suspense novelists.

Salvaged Pages — 10 Books I’d Save in a Fire (or a Flood)

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar . . . He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.  Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader (1925); one of the books I’d save in a fire.

IMG_0014Earlier this week, a pipe burst at Lake Forest Book Store and within minutes, the entire basement was flooded and thousands of books were ruined. Certainly this was a catastrophe, but the store has insurance and the books can be replaced. Right before this happened, my colleague and I were chuckling over “Planning for Natural Disasters”,  one of the seminars offered at the upcoming American Booksellers Association Winter Institute: Why would anyone go to that, we wondered, when there are fascinating alternatives like “Sad and Dark YA Literature”? Now we know.

The flood made me think about what books I would try to save if there were a fire or flood in my house. (I’m not speaking literally, you realize! If there’s REALLY an emergency, I will not be standing in front of my bookshelves wondering which books to take. This is an academic question, like “If you could only take one book to a desert island, which one would you choose?”) Which books would I miss the most? Which ones can’t be replaced? Not many, it turns out. Most of the books I own would be easy to replace. I’d be sad to lose my signed ARCs from author events and trade shows, but those wouldn’t be the ones I’d grab on the way out the door.

The books I would want to save are books that belonged to me as a child, or to my parents and grandparents.  Many are long out of print. Just looking at their covers takes me right back to my childhood. They are falling apart, with loose pages, broken spines, and missing dust jackets.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie This version (1910) belonged to my grandmother, who was born in 1904.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
This version (1910) belonged to my grandmother, who was born in 1904.

1 x 1 by e.e. cummings My grandmother was in the habit of writing to authors she admired, and a postcard thanking her for her fan letter is in the book.

1 x 1 by e.e. cummings
My grandmother was in the habit of writing to authors she admired, and a postcard thanking her for her fan letter is in the book. Think it’s worth anything?

 

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl My aunt was kind enough to give me a lovely inscribed book, and I took a marker and corrected her spelling of "niece".

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
My aunt was kind enough to give me a lovely inscribed book, and I took a marker and corrected her spelling of “niece”. Not very nice!

The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall I reread these 3 books (all in one volume) over and over again.

The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall
I reread these 3 books (all in one volume) over and over.

The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf My grandmother (born in 1908) apparently received this book when she was 20, and years later added a bookplate with her new married name. I used this for research on my honors thesis when I was 20.

The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf
My grandmother (born in 1908) apparently received this book when she was 20, and years later added a bookplate with her new married name. I used this for research on my honors thesis when I was 20.

Little Plum by Rumer Godden A wonderful story about a lonely little girl and a Japanese dollhouse . . . so sad it's no longer in print.

Little Plum by Rumer Godden
A wonderful story about a lonely little girl and a Japanese dollhouse . . . so sad it’s no longer in print.

The Fabulous Flight by Robert Lawson I tracked this book down on Ebay -- it was a childhood favorite that I borrowed from the library again and again.

The Fabulous Flight by Robert Lawson
I tracked this book down on Ebay — it was a childhood favorite that I borrowed from the library again and again.

Mary Poppins Opens the Door by P.L. Travers Originally my mother's, I added my name and address. I don't know who colored the illustrations!

Mary Poppins Opens the Door by P.L. Travers
Originally my mother’s, I added my name and address. I don’t know who colored the illustrations!

Silver Pennies My mother gave me this lovely little book of poems when I was five, and I circled the poems I liked and crossed out the ones I didn't.

Silver Pennies
My mother gave me this lovely little book of poems when I was five, and I circled the poems I liked and crossed out the ones I didn’t.

The Lonely Doll Learns a Lesson by Dare Wright Apparently some people find the Lonely Doll books creepy; I would never give up my  collection.

The Lonely Doll Learns a Lesson by Dare Wright
Apparently some people find the Lonely Doll books creepy; I would never give up my collection.

IMG_0011I asked my friends and colleagues which books they treasure most, and received some interesting responses.

Sue chose her ARC of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which she remembers reading on her porch to her family while on vacation in Michigan . . . she recalls her husband asking her not to read any more unless he was there! She could tell it was a classic from the first page. Molly is still sad she lost her inscribed copies of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Littlephoto 1 House series, but still has a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, given to her by a beloved teacher and mentor 30 years ago. Ann is most attached to her copy of The Secret Garden, signed by Tasha Tudor, as well as “The Needlepoint Book: 303 Stitches, with Patterns and Projects by Jo Ippolito Christensen.  I purchased this one myself in the 80’s.  I threw the cover away a few years ago because it literally was torn to shreds.  I wish I could remember the cost.  Explanations and illustrations are wonderful in this book.  Of course, the projects are quite dated, but the stitches remain the same.  I saw the same version of the book on Etsy listed as “vintage” for $9.95.”

photo 1Most poignant was Kathy’s choice: Salvaged Pages,  a collection of diaries written by young people, ages 12 to  22, during the Holocaust, most of whom perished before their liberation. This is a book that should never go out of print.

What about you? Are there books in your library you would hate to lose?

 

Perfect Reading Weather

It’s currently -15 degrees in Chicago — and that’s at noon, with the sun shining. Yesterday I saw a Facebook post from Garrison Keillor’s bookstore in St. Paul, Minnesota, showing a digital thermometer reading -14 degrees, with the caption, “Dear Rest of the World, in Minnesota we call this ‘book weather’. Enjoy.” Thank you, Common Good Books, for giving voice to what I have always thought: the worse the weather, the better the day.

www.randomhouse-1I love to hibernate. If I am reincarnated as an animal, I would like to be a bear. The only problem is that bears are not literate, and I like to spend my hibernation time reading. On New Year’s Day (which is always a wonderful day to stay home in pajamas), I finished reading Rachel Joyce’s Perfect. I adored this lovely novel, and have been thinking about it ever since. Joyce tells two stories, in alternating chapters: the story of Byron, a young boy whose innocent childhood comes to an end when something happens on an ordinary morning on the way to school, and the story of Jim, a middle-aged man whose life is crippled by obsessive-compulsive disorder. The reader may or may not anticipate the way in which these two lives end up intersecting ( I didn’t!), but that doesn’t matter — the beauty of this book is in the characters. Perfect is one of the rare character-driven novels in which the plot is well-paced and full of surprises.

As I’ve said before, I have no problem with unlikable characters in literature. The best fiction helps us understand human nature, and unlikable characters are necessary for that. Still, it’s a real pleasure to read about lovable characters. By “lovable” characters, I don’t mean “endearing”; I mean characters that the reader grows to understand and love. There are no perfect characters in this book. They all make grave mistakes that have unforeseen and unfortunate consequences, but they are trying to do what they think is right. Byron and his friend James develop “Operation Perfect” to protect Diana, Byron’s mother, after she is involved in a potentially dangerous situation. Diana is a kind, fragile. and sensitive woman, married to a domineering husband, who is easily manipulated. (She is reminiscent of another sad and lovely English woman, Princess Diana  — am I reading too much into the fact that Rachel Joyce named her Diana?) She loves her children fiercely, but is ill-equipped to care for them — and Byron takes on the burdensome role of parent.

Whatever happened, he must never tell his mother what she had done. Of all the people to know, she was the most dangerous. He told himself this over and over while her fingers crept through his hair and the rain pattered on the leaves and the thunder grew tame.

Perfect is filled with ambiguity, which is part of what makes the book so haunting. Are some of the events imagined by the characters, or did they really happen? And does it matter if they actually occurred? Because, as Byron notes, “Within months, everything had changed, and the changes could never be put right. Nothing could atone for his mother’s mistake.” Jim knows that the obsessive rituals he is compelled to perform won’t prevent tragedy from striking, but his rational mind is overpowered by his need to compensate for what he sees as unpardonable sins: “How can he start again with Eileen? What about the rituals? . . . What she has no idea about is who he is, what he did in the past and all that he must continue to do to atone for that.” Did he really do anything unforgivable?

I’m looking forward to discussing this book in person and online — it raises many, many interesting questions about friendship, class, marriage, parents and children, guilt, truth . . . and perfection. As my first read of 2014, Perfect sets a high standard.