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I love to travel. Plane, train or automobile, any destination—ask, and I’ll meet up with you. When I make a list to plan a trip, reading materials fall right behind picture ID in order of importance. But, when a woman of a certain age travels across the ocean on her own, this woman, anyway, packs as light as she can possibly muster. For the most part, books are not light fare. I do not like nor do my eyes like, reading on a device. What's a book-loving traveler to do? So many books with so much time to read.
I recently spent four days in Glasgow, two weeks in Sicily, and three days in Dublin. Glasgow reminded me of Buffalo before the Buffalo billion began to take effect—a struggling, post-industrial city. If it were in the U.S. it would fit neatly in the Rust Belt category.
I was there to meet up with a friend. He was busy completing the West Highland Way hike, so I was on my own for a few days. What to do? After a long, exhausting flight across the country, I decided to indulge in my favorite pastimes: sleeping in, a morning walk and a visit to a coffee shop. Then I headed out to find a book store for some serious browsing. Glasgow had it all. I stayed in a lovely Airbnb apartment just a five-minute walk from the Canal Clyde. A twenty-minute walk along the canal brought me to the Sauchiehall St. portion of Glasgow’s famous Style Mile. Style Mile boasts a pedestrian walkway and has been described as a ‘paradise for shoppers’.
I had packed one book by a favorite English author, P.D. James. She is called “the champion of the detective mystery” by the New York Times and, until her death, she resided in the U.K. It seemed like a perfect fit. But I knew I would need more books over the course of the trip, so to deal with the space/weight suitcase problem, I decided that when I finished a book, I would leave it behind for the next traveler. This made me a better guest and it gave me permission to buy more books (another favorite pastime).
After a perfectly made cappuccino and sumptuous pastry, I walked Style Mile and discovered Waterstone Books, a bookstore designed for browsing. Tables of favored U.K. authors (though Elizabeth Strout and Dan Brown books were scattered throughout), low prices, lots of sales (buy one get one half price), a friendly atmosphere, helpful, informed staff and places to sit. In other words, heaven.
When buying books, I look for reviews. I immediately picked up two books. The first, Dark Circle by Linda Grant, Orange Prize winner and Man Booker short-listed. Set in mid-20th century London, it chronicles the tuberculosis outbreak and its treatment in a changing time. Antibiotics were slow in coming to the rescue and health care was transitioning to a national system in England. I’m a retired nurse. I love historical, medically-oriented fiction and, from the list of accolades, I gleaned that she can write.
(An aside here: one of the events detailed in this book is the advent of national health care—yes, in 1952, a national health care system was adopted in the United Kingdom. We were almost a century behind providing a compassionate health care system for our citizens and now it is threatened.)
Also on the table and included in the sale was The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. This book won the Man Booker and Charlotte Rampling, and Jim Broadbent graced its cover, combining two of my most beloved diversions, reading and movies. Read the book, see the movie. In Sense Of An Ending, Julian Barnes wrote a stunning slip of a book (a mere 150 pages) that exposes human relationships with truths so profound I had to put it down at times to digest it. A mystery lies at its core.
I was compelled to buy both books. After all, it was a sale. I was saving money.
The next day, jet-lagged and still in recovery mode, I reasoned that I should wait for my friend’s arrival to do any serious sight-seeing, so I took my morning walk and returned for coffee, pastry and more browsing. Another author popped out: Alexander McCall Smith with his collection of love stories, Chance Developments. At home, I like to have short stories on my nightstand. I may be reading a tome and need a break; I may be reading a depressing story and need a break; I may want to savor a novel and read it slowly. With short stories on hand, I have a fall back. Why should my travel nightstand be any different from the one at home? But this is where I went one step too far. I found another book (to take advantage of the sale), not acclaimed, or reviewed by anyone of repute. But the adventures of a woman of retirement age who moves to a beautiful village in France caught my attention. I broke my own rules and bought it. Thirty pages in, Not Quite Nice, became my first bequest to a future Glaswegian traveler.
My friend was kind enough to help me with my now burgeoning suitcase and off we went to Sicily with enough reading to last through our visit there. I browsed in a few book stores in Palermo. The language barrier prevented purchases. But a book store anywhere is worth walking through, browsing, and soaking up the energy. I highly recommend it for mental, spiritual and intellectual well-being.
In Dublin, I was back on the scent. Almost finished with The Dark Circle, I needed a plane read. Irish book stores sell more American novels—or maybe, the Irish book stores I went to are chains. They were not nearly as inviting as the one in Scotland. Louise Erdrich’s, LaRose, was prominently featured on a book table—certainly more expensive than Scotland (no sale) and 435 pages of book weight, but I had been waiting for this one to morph into paperback. Erdrich is a favorite and I reasoned it wouldn’t have to fit into my suitcase since I would carry it on the plane.
Now, I wanted something Irish to take home—I had already acquired lots of Irish (and Scottish and Sicilian) since I have grandchildren and shop first for them. I had purchased a second suitcase to bring home the gifts, so one more book couldn’t hurt. Right? In my life, when it comes to purchases, rationalization comes in very handy.
Letters Of My Life by Mary O’Rourke, an Irish politician, made the cut. I love books written in letters and this one recounts the personal and political life of a now eighty-year-old woman. She writes to various people from her past (some famous) that tell the story of her relationship to them. Another nightstand treasure!
On the very long plane ride home and extended periods waiting in airports, I thought about my upcoming summer reading list: beach reads, always fun both to discover and consume. To find a true beach read is not an easy task. Danger lurks. A beach read must be light, fast and fun, but it must also be convincing and intelligently written. It’s easy to slip over the line into silly romance or adventure, or go the other way into intense literary novels. For instance, LaRose is a wonderful literary novel—believable characters and situations, lush with Native cultural detail and a great yarn, but it opens with the shooting of a child. Not a beach read.
Former beach reads include: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, both set in gorgeous places (escapism), beautifully written and plotted (essential) and not disturbing (mandatory).
Anything by Ruth Reichl, but especially Garlic and Sapphire. Reichl is the former New York Times food editor. She is an excellent writer and her memoirs read like novels--and include recipes.
In my daughter’s Little Free Library, I found Days of Awe by Lauren Fox. Mother-daughter bonds and friendships are treated with surprising twists and funny dialogue.
For this year’s beach reads, I browsed Talking Leaves bookstore and the Buffalo Public Library. I found The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, a first-time novelist reviewed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, etc. All had great things to say about it. This is a family story centered around a trust fund (the nest) initiated for four siblings after the last one turns forty and how it can all go wrong. D’Aprix Sweeney is a terrific storyteller and I look forward to her second novel. I have been to the beach twice with this book and it’s a perfect match.
I leave for another trip soon, so I shall resume reading LaRose, interrupted and replaced by lighter fare when I returned home. The library provided another Julian Barnes classic.
A book recommended to me though I have yet to categorize it, is a new publication: News Of The World by Paulette Jiles. Also, one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Strout, published a new novel: Anything Is Possible. Love the title. May be uplifting and optimistic enough to fit into the beach read genre.
As for my plan to shed books as I traveled, I failed. The only book I left behind was the one I didn’t read. My exceptional ability to rationalize is the problem. The prolific PD James is in short supply at the Buffalo Public Library, so a donation is in order; I could not relinquish the Julian Barnes book either. As a writer, I like to revisit the greats. I hadn’t finished the short stories or essays, and I hadn’t quite capped off Dark Circles when it was time to go home. Bad guest.
On my return from Arizona in July (prime beach read month), I will be on a search for more good reading. Any suggestions?
The Ultimate Author's Chair
Mon Jul 10th → Mon Aug 14th
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