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?
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.