Please don’t talk to me, middle seat person. I’m reading.

I spent the last two weeks traveling on business, which meant that I was too exhausted at the end of the day to put two words together for a post, but I got LOTS of reading done in airports, on airplanes, and in hotel rooms and lobbies. While I will spare you descriptions of the many in-flight magazines and celebrity tabloids I read during the enforced no-electronics portions of my flights, here are quick summaries of the books that kept me sane as I criss-crossed the country:

The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides
This was fine, I guess? I was interested in all the characters and I wanted to find out what happened, so it was compelling reading. On the other hand, it was really long and nothing much actually happened and there was almost no resolution of any sort and just because I was interested in the characters didn’t mean I liked them. In fact, pretty much everyone in the book was extremely unpleasant or shallow, so it was a bit like watching a very long, slow train wreck as these characters messed up their lives over and over. I had initially written here that I wanted to warn people about an unflattering portrayal of a character with a mental illness, but all of the characters were portrayed in unflattering ways so the manic depressive actually came out pretty well, comparatively speaking. I loved The Virgin Suicides, so Eugenides has credit in the bank with me, but while The Virgin Suicides felt airy and impressionistic, this dense, heavy, weighty novel feels like it was written by someone else entirely. English majors might like it though, since it seems to feature a lot of inside jokes about literary criticism.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Remember how back in the 1970s a French guy strung a tightrope between the two World Trade Center towers and walked back and forth between the buildings, a hundred floors up with no safety net? This novel describes what was happening in the lives of a number of New York residents on that day, and how they were all connected to the wire walker and to each other. Although it does feature the walker (in real life, his name was Philippe Petit and you can watch an amazing documentary about his walk called Man on Wire), the story isn’t really about him at all. It’s really about New York, and America, in the 1970s–Vietnam, crime in the cities, race, immigration, and how all these things play out in the life a few individuals. As a general rule, I don’t like books that follow multiple characters connected only by the thinnest of threads. However, in this book each character is beautiful and heart-breaking and I found that they all looped together in really satisfying ways. Sad, but lovely.

The Thrift Book by India Knight
I think I’ve explained here before that I want India Knight to be my best friend, so I adored this book, even though it is basically just a list of fairly obvious ways to save money. You know, cook at home, make Christmas presents, grow your own herbs, don’t be fooled by fancy skin creams. Knight puts a fun spin on it by focusing not on getting out of debt or being as cheap as possible, but by talking about all the ways her strategies make you feel (to sound English about it) posher and more glamorous by not trying to hard or getting caught up spending on foolish thing. Plus, she’s funny. At one point she refers to playing Scrabble online as her “ongoing Alzheimer’s prevention project,” which is exactly how I think of Words with Friends. However, if you are not trying to befriend or become India Knight, it’s probably not necessary to read this.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Really fun, and absolutely perfect airplane reading. A sci-fi story that manages to be both a puzzle/treasure hunt and a celebration of 80s pop culture. I think is truly aimed at folks a few years older than I am who spent much more time in video arcades, but I loved it and was so absorbed I was able to read it in even the loudest terminals and restaurants.

Comfort & Joy

By India Knight

I checked this book out from the library after Kinsey discussed it in her post about recommended holiday readings, and it was a very good holiday book indeed.

Here’s the thing about Comfort & Joy: the narrator, Clara, feels just like a very good friend. I wish I could just sit down and chat with her, hearing her opinions about life and sharing my opinions and just comparing our viewpoints. Just like with any friend, most of the time I think she’s very smart and interesting, and sometimes I think she’s being silly and melodramatic, and sometimes I imagine that she would think that I was being the same.

The book is broken up into three years’ worth of Christmases (or Christmi, to use an inside joke from the book). Five pages in, I had my first laugh-out-loud moment; seven pages in, I felt Knight had already perfectly captured an aspect of Christmas with this quote:

“That’s the thing about presents, isn’t it? Especially Christmas ones. The judiciously chosen present, the perfect gift, is offered up in the spirit of atonement and regeneration. It says, ‘Look, I know I don’t call as often as I should, and I know you think I’m grumpy and short-tempered’—insert your own personal failings here; I’m merely précising mine—‘but the thing is, I know you so well and I love you so much that I have bought you the perfect thing. And so now everything’s okay, at least for today.’ Which is all very lovely but a great deal easier said than done, and which is why I can feel the hair at the back of my neck curling with heat and stress.”

Honestly, it actually felt a little odd reading it at my own family Christmas. It is so realistic and engrossing (with some similarities but mostly very different from my own life) that I felt like I was almost experiencing two realities layered on top of each other.


Christmas Reads

Now that Thanksgiving is over I can officially start one of my annual holiday traditions: the rereading of the Christmas books. I don’t tend to decorate much, but there’s a certain set of books that makes it feel like Christmas to me.

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis
I am alternatively thrilled and aggravated by Connie Willis. To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of my favorite books, but Blackout and All Clear were interminable (this does not mean that I didn’t cry at the end, because I totally did). But I adore this book of Christmas short stories and read it every year. Each story has at least a hint of science fiction about them, but the stories span the range of emotions. There’s a romantic comedy that involves aliens invading at Christmas and a haunting thriller about three modern-day wise men driving across the U.S. in a blizzard. In my favorite story, Mary and Jesus accidentally stumble through time into a modern day church during Christmas preparations, and a busy mom has to help them get back to Bethlehem. Plus, the forward to the book includes Willis’s own list of favorite holiday books and movies.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice
This one is not overly Christmas-y–although it does feature a Christmas scene–but  for some reason it puts me in a cozy, holiday state of mind. Perhaps because the story about British teenagers in the 1950s is so pretty and candy-colored that it feels like a fairy tale. I’ve read about a trillion books set in WWII England, but hardly any about the generation that came of age immediately after the war, so this offers a slightly different perspective.

Olive, the Other Reindeer
Yes, it’s a kids’ book, but it’s got a small dog! Named Olive! It’s just charming.

Comfort and Joy by India Knight
This just came out last year, but it immediately earned a permanent place on my list of holiday books. There’s not a lot of plot here, it’s just the story of a modern-day, many-branched English family trying to sort out how to celebrate Christmas. I adore India’s blog and love following her on Twitter because her writing makes you feel like you’ve just sat down with her to have a cup of tea and tell scandalous stories about all your mutual friends. This book feels exactly the same way and is full of all sorts of wonderful family and holiday details. I had to order mine from last year, but now you can can get a nice, affordable American version.

Also, I think all of us would happier people if we all rewatched While You Were Sleeping during this time of year.