Reading in the Sky

This week’s review topic was extraordinarily slow to come to me. It wasn’t until I found myself scrounging through Amazon’s Kindle listings and my mom’s bookshelf for in-flight reading material that I really even realized what to write. Then, of course, I realized that my problem was my topic.

I’ve done more traveling this year than in all the years preceding this one combined. An international relationship and somewhat reckless penchant for adventure have led me to reach a new level of understanding of my entertainment preferences and the limits of reading to escape boredom. For reading to fail as a solution to boredom is a problem I never anticipated having, but as my old entertainment staples (YA fiction) have become the staple of my academic work, I’ve had to explore new genres and topics than I would previously have considered.

I’ve discovered, for example, that I love gothic fiction; that I devour the slightly-creepy usually historical worlds in these kinds of stories. I’ve also found a new love of non-fiction, which I never expected, as until only a few months ago I considered all non-fiction a struggle and completely separate from the kind of ludic reading experience I usually seek when I’m trying to escape. In general, my travel reading has to be interesting enough to make the time pass without actually distracting me from what’s going on; a too-engaging book once got me lost in London when I missed the stop I needed and ended up having to ride an entire route before I got back to a place I knew. In the past it has had to be fiction, as most of my pleasure reading had to be, but more recently there have been non-fiction titles that fit the bill. Whether indicative of a shift in the genre or in myself I may never know. Books I pick out for traveling have to be long enough to fill the time but short enough that I’m mostly finished with them by the time I return, as I hate being left with the end of a book after the trip that was meant to accompany it is long over.

My first intentional foray into gothic fiction was The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. I picked up the book based solely on name recognition from a tiny terminal shop at Halifax-Stanfield in April. The Little Stranger, however, differs greatly from Waters’ more well-known Tipping the Velvet. Though full of women who resist the proscribed roles for their lives, The Little Stranger has only a mild romantic subplot and pushes the line between historical fiction and horror. Set in post-war England, the story tracks the possible haunting of a crumbling estate house and the old aristocratic family (similarly crumbling) that lives there, who first doubt and then come to fear the presence in their home. The question remains, however, as to whether the house is actually haunted or if the events that transpire are the work of a member of the family, their one remaining maid, or their doctor, who is also the story’s narrator. The depictions of paranormal activity and the mystery are compelling, the interpersonal plots are fascinating, and though the book is far from a light read, it was engaging enough to pull me through a four-hour flight even full of sadness at having left my lover behind in Halifax.


A similar story but lacking the paranormal element is Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton. I pulled this title based on a recommendation of it as a read-alike to The Little Stranger, and though it wasn’t what I was expecting, I wasn’t disappointed. There is no haunting in this book, but there are certainly ghosts; told as a mock-memoir of a dying woman’s life as a servant, the book traces a catastrophe that struck the family that kept her, finally revealing a truth for which our primary character is the sole remaining memory-holder. Told almost exclusively from the servants’ quarters, the tale unfolds with details only the servants could have known, from the stories told by laundry and food to the ones that emerge from toddlers’ mouths in the nursery.


The Forgotten Garden is another of Kate Morton’s novels, and is told in similar style, switching tellers between three generations of women trying to track their heritage and find the truths about their pasts. Infused with fairy tale elements and allusions to The Secret Garden, The Forgotten Garden fascinated me in roughly the same way I am fascinated by family and local histories. It’s a similar kind of tale, of course, albeit one with plenty of literary enhancement. I won’t reveal the underlying mystery in this story, but Morton has definitely taken on the idea of Mary Lennox and transformed her into a very real (and far less petulant) adult character.

What about you? Do you read when you fly, or do you pick some other kind of entertainment? What factors influence your decisions? Do you have any recent favorites?

Books Reviewed:

The Little Stranger / Sarah Waters. Riverhead Trade, 4 May 2010. U.S. $16.00
The Forgotten Garden / Kate Morton. Atria, 7 April 2009. U.S. $15.00
The House at Riverton / Kate Morton. Atria, April 2008. U.S. $16.00
Cover images from Amazon; post image “Aeroplane” from puddy_uk on flickr.

17 replies on “Reading in the Sky”

I don’t think that I have any ‘travel specific’ types of reads — I generally pick up whatever I have lying around and packing it. (Though I do tend to favor glossy mags for flights.) The last book I read while traveling was ‘Monsters of Templeton’. I bawled through the last chapter of it on this tiny plane — the kind with one seat on one side and two on the other — and was sure that everyone was giving me the side eye.

I’m not entirely sure why the cover images in this post are so huge. I don’t think I did anything differently than normal. They’re not usually that way, are they? I’m on a different computer so maybe it’s just a thing I’ve never noticed.

I get really antsy when I fly. Not nervous, but unable to keep my attention on anything for very long. I’ll be flying later this week, so I’ve held off on reading the new Jasper Fforde book for just this purpose. I’m hoping that a long-awaited and much-anticipated book will keep me busy instead of ending up out of my mind with boredom.

I find that short story collections are best for flights and train rides. They’re easy to get absorbed in but also easy to put down when there’s an interruption. My worst decision ever was to bring only a Dostoevsky novel on a flight. Favorite short story authors include: Raymond Carver, Kate Chopin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Shirley Jackson, Graham Greene, Sherwood Anderson, Flannery O’Connor, and John Cheever.

On long-haul flights, I prefer to booze and watch bad movies. Also, then nobody annoyingly asks me to turn off my reading light.

Books are better for shorter flights, I find. Erik Larson’s books have been entertaining–Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck are two good ones that read like fiction but are all researched fact. They’re nicely done.

One of my goals for the year, as well as to read at least 50 books (going strong–I’m at 15 now?) is to read more non-fiction. Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand is as captivating as many novels. It follows the story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic miler, who was lost at sea in WWII. The story is seriously awe-inspiring and Hillenbrand does a good job of making military history interesting.
Does anyone have other suggestions for non-fiction neophytes like myself?

If you’ve never read Julia Child’s My Life In France, it is amazing. I couldn’t put it down, and it usually takes me forever to get through biographies.

Other entertaining non-fiction I’ve read over the past couple of years:

Brafman, Ori and Ram Brafman — Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior (This takes a broad rather than deep look at why people do some of the more irrational things they do, like continue to bet when they already have a loss and such. Interesting and not too psychology-dense.)

Gresh, Lois and Robert Weinberg — The Science of Superheroes (Looks at the science behind some of the more famous comic book/movie superheroes and mostly how they’re not really practical, but it was fun thinking about it. If you’re well-versed in the backstories of guys like Superman, Spiderman, the X-Men, etc, the extensive explanation they give might be a little old. But it’s fun!)

Israel, Betty — Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century (Fascinating stuff about what it meant to be single, how single women were viewed, and how that perception was transformed over the course of the 20th century.)

Karlan, Dan, Allan Lazar, and Jeremy Salter — The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived (On fictional characters from books, myths, legends, etc, who shape our pop culture today. Loved it.)

Nafisi, Azar — Reading Lolita in Tehran (Memoirs from a professor who taught a secret English language literature course in her home to a group of Iranian women, and her life there throughout the conservative revolution. Fascinating stuff. Also, I had a chance to hear her speak once, and she’s an amazing woman.)

Nugent, Benjamin — American Nerd: The Story of My People (On the different typologies of geeky folks in America today. Ha.)

Rehak, Melanie — Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her (If you enjoyed Nancy Drew or other YA “series” books in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, this is a fascinating look at the dark underbelly of ghostwriting and the series machine, with a particular focus on the lady authors behind Nancy Drew. It kind of shattered my childhood illusions, but it was very enlightening.)

I’ve been meaning to pick up the Nancy Drew book and just haven’t gotten to it, but Reading Lolita in Tehran is one of my favorite memoir-type books of late. Which is another thing I’ve discovered about myself–while some memoirs are dull and I wonder why the author thought hirself special enough that everyone would want to read about it, a good memoir is excellent.

Biographies and memoirs are a good starter, but I also started out reading some of the feminist-theory-lite books like The Purity Myth and Manifesta that are full of content but written for a non-academic audience, so they’re fairly light reading for non-fiction stuff. This particular trip I’m reading The Social Animal by an author whose name I can’t currently remember, but that’s my review for next week so I’ll hold off on giving too much away just now.

I like compelling non-fiction for flights. The last book I read while flying was Dave Cullen’s Columbine. Nothing has quite met that.

I got irrationally excited when I saw that you bought a book at Halifax/Stanfield airport. It is my favorite airport named after an underwear manufacturer. I also like the birds that fly around in there.

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