At the end of July, I went to North Carolina for my family reunion. Every other year, we rent houses on the beach in Ocean Isle, and for one week we swim in the ocean, drink, play boardgames, and eat boiled peanuts. It’s divine. As with all of my vacations, I take time to log the books I spot.
I’m happy to report that, for 2009, literacy is alive and well on the east coast! I saw people reading! The woman next to me on the eastbound flight chuckled at an Onion article on her Kindle, and then turned (clicked?) to Finn by John Clinch, and kept murmuring with admiration. (I made a mental note to check this title out.) A businessman across the aisle read a hardcover about smart management. I think another woman nearby was reading The Bible, though part of me wanted it to be a tattered first-edition of some Henry James novel. Mass market mysteries abounded, as did self-help books like The Power of Now. A mysterious man in the Charlotte airport perused a collection of T.S. Eliot poems.
My grandmother–whom we call Grammie Kids because she is a mother of six–was reading an issue of Reader’s Digest and an old mass market edition of Skipping Christmas by John Grisham. She said Granddaddy wouldn’t let her pack anything else, and that he had only allowed her to bring light and thin books. (Her revenge? She “forgot” to pack his underwear.)
My eighteen-year-old sister flew through a few books while we were there, namely American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld and Frenemies by Megan Crane. She reads about a book every two days over the summer, and when I ask for a review she always says, “Good.” As is the case with nearly every family vacation, people passed around Philippa Gregory’s books like they were crack; I haven’t tried them yet, namely because my mother describing the plot of The Other Boleyn Girl (“And then…!”) is about all I can handle. My poor sixteen-year-old brother–who will probably be valedictorian–insisted on bringing his school assignments, and spent two weeks not-reading a brief history of FDR’s first 100 days. (I remember in Hawaii he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X; the spine fell apart after the first couple of days and so he started bringing individual chapters to the pool.) In Ocean Isle, he spoke longingly of the Sookie Stackhouse series–those “True Blood” books–that he wanted to start.
Someone in my extended family was reading Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich (she’s from South River, New Jersey, where my dad’s from, although this isn’t his family we were visiting). Everyone was passing around a memoir about fishing; the title escapes me, but I do remember that the author grew up in Spotswood, New Jersey, just like my mom and her siblings. At the end of the trip, my mom started The Condition by Jennifer Haigh. She bought it because, except for a single letter, the author’s name is identical to my aunt’s. The marketing department couldn’t have predicted that, could they? My mother had also recently finished The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff and kept referring to my Aunt Jennifer as her “sister wife.”
And me? I read three books on the trip. The first was Woodsburner by John Pipkin, recommended to me by my friend Steve. This wise debut novel is inspired by a little-known event in Henry David Thoreau’s life: a fire he accidentally started in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, a year before he built his cabin on Walden Pond. Not only do we get a fictionalized Thoreau who, “hugs his knees tightly, watches the half-mile-wide fire, and considers the many individual acts that led to this moment,” but we get a cast of other characters also affected by the conflagration. My favorite is Oddsmund, a Norwegian immigrant with a “dead infant tooth wedged alongside his adult incisors like a misplaced apostrophe.” He’s so in love with his employer’s wife that his lust leads to a night-time liason with a pumpkin. Predictably, this was the point in the book where I decided I loved it. (On Goodreads, someone suggested that if the novel were called Pumpkinfucker, sales might improve.)
My next book was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. The hype on this Swedish thriller is well deserved. After a boring opening chapter about finance scandals (really, it was awful), the story picked up, and, man oh man, it didn’t let me go. The plot is terrifically constructed–I’m certain I learned something about the beauty of story–and I loved the cold weather, the aquavit, the endless cups of coffee. I’m not sure I can wait for the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, to come out in paperback. (Although, and I must say it: I did wonder if the cliches in the book, like “pretty as postcard,” were exact translations. I’ve heard Sweden is boring, but, really? In the prose department, I wasn’t wowed. But, and maybe for the first time in my life as a reader, I didn’t really care! )
There was also a real pleasure in reading a popular book. Usually, I’m reading something no one has ever heard of, and I’m occasionally ignorant of huge bestsellers. When Grammie Kids described to me the runaway hit The Shack by William P. Young (“And God is a black woman. She looks like Maya Angelou!”), I had never heard of it; cut to a week later, I’m at the airport, and I count two copies in my gate alone. Sometimes I feel like everyone’s eating this thing called scrambled eggs (What are those, I wonder. They look good.), while I’m enjoying a delicious chantarelle and pecorino frittata. What a snob I am.
My last book was Bonsai by Alejando Zambra, from the Contemporary Art of the Novella Series published by Melville House. This is a beautiful-looking gem-of-a-book, which I read–tired, sunburned on my kneecaps, and terrifyingly freckled–during my flight home. Actually, it was so short, I read it as I enjoyed my $8.00 in-flight meal. I was smitten by Bonsai, with its story-within-a-story-within-a-story, and confounded (in the best way) by its end. I need to re-read it, if only for sentences like this one: “Julio and Emilia’s peculiarities weren’t only sexual (they did have them), nor emotional (these abounded), but also, so to speak, literary.” Ah, chantarelles!
For Book-Spying-Trip #2, I went to Laguna Beach. I’m sorry to say that I spotted very few readers there. (Oh, California, I thought, don’t embarrass me further.) Most of the adults were too busy swimming or chasing little kids around. The teenage girls spent a lot of time spraying Sun-In into their roots as their male counterparts tried to make them laugh. There was one gorgeous sixteen-year-old girl whom I was mentally casting in a French film. She might have been wearing lipstick. On the beach! Almost all of the teenagers were tattooed (none with dragons); one girl, she couldn’t have been more than fifteen, had a tramp stamp. Really. Clearly, I wasn’t doing much reading myself. The man next to us, however, was very studious with copies of Hemingway and Arthur Miller, and he wore a beanie like an old-timey Stevedore. I made up all kinds of stories about him: his delicious loneliness, his journal of beautiful sentences by dead authors, his tiny sand-crusted apartment with the bad overhead lighting. That was a good novel, this one I was writing in my head. On sale, summer 2012.