Vacation Reading

Noplobomo was a bit of a bust this year, but I’m not surprised. I assumed that Thanksgiving travel would kill my resolve and, indeed, it was a self-fulfilling assumption. Still I think the exercise returned some awareness to my rather neglected blog and I hope to post more regularly (whatever that is) thru the end of this year and into the next. Writing it down makes it so, right?

Vacation reading usually means a carefully curated stack of books to fill any down time, airport waiting, too excited to sleep, or generally quiet moments that might be encountered on a vacation. (The phrase “carefully curated STACK” goes a long way in explaining why I generally prefer road trips to air travel.) But there’s another form of vacation reading; currently I am working on curating a list of books to help me get ready for vacation and I’m hoping to get some suggestions from y’all.

Next year the husband and I are taking a bucket list trip to see the Northern Lights in Iceland and Norway. We’re going with a tour group so there isn’t a lot of actual trip planning to do. And since it is too early to start packing, even for me, I need to occupy my mind with some sort of preparation so I am looking for books to read that will help me understand Iceland, Norway, and/or the aurora. I’m a big fan of using fiction/historical fiction to help me get a feel for places, but obviously non-fiction can give me more bang/facts for the buck/reading effort.

It’s not going to be all-vacation-reading-all-the-time, but I have recently read the following two books.

Iceland: Land of the Sagas by David Roberts and Jon Krakauer was a superb photography book. The stunning photos of Iceland are accompanied by text that is part travelogue/cultural observation and part a retelling of some of the famous Icelandic Sagas. The sagas are old, classic literature of Iceland (think Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey) which are a cross between American tall tales and Greek mythology. The book would have benefited from a few maps since geography and geology are very significant in Icelandic tales, but otherwise I quite enjoyed it.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman is…exactly that. Gaiman puts his writing talents to work telling some of the original Norse myths, stripping the stories down as close to the originals as possible. It was really interesting reading these tales that have had such a huge influence in his own writing as well as in recent pop culture. In school, my mythology education was almost exclusively confined to the greek and roman tales. I’m hoping that the cultural implications that might be found by exhaustively comparing greek and norse mythology will somehow just seep into my brain by some form of osmosis since I’m not willing to put that much effort into anything these days. I really enjoyed the one about the mead of poets. Also, I never really understood how Ragnarok was considered the end of days, but it may or may not have already happened – until the perfect final words of the book.

A few years ago I read and enjoyed Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, a novel based on the true story of a woman accused of murder in Iceland in the late 1800’s. After hunting on the internet and consulting with my favorite booksellers, I have a few other titles on my list, but I’m open to suggestions. I’m not particularly interested in the current Scandanavian mysteries that are all the rage now (Steig Larsson, Jo Nesbo, etc.) unless you can tell me that it would really give me a feel for life in small Norwegian fishing villages above the arctic circle.

Reading for vacation. Reading on vacation. Reading as vacation. I’m good with all three.



More on happy endings

I wanted to write some comments about happy endings yesterday, but I was not about to put any more of my words on the same page with Annie Proulx’s words. Her works are moving higher on my to-read list while my own fantasies about writing fiction are getting smaller in the rear view mirror.

Would I write happy endings? Probably. I’m a sap at heart. I like happy ending books that make me cry. That being said, I actually like sad books that make me cry, too. I enjoy being pushed to the emotional edges. I just don’t always appreciate it when I’m reading in public and I find myself sobbing. Two rules of travel: 1. Always carry a book. 2. Always carry a kleenex.

I loved the story (true or not) about Darwin only wanting to relax with fiction that had happy endings. It reminded me of one of my favorite stories about D#2. One of the first chapter books she tackled on her own was Stone Fox. I’m guessing she was probably seven years old when she holed up in her room reading Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner. We heard a loud crash and I raced up the stairs to investigate. D#2 had reached the end of the book and had hurled it across the room. She was curled up on the floor by her bed, sobbing uncontrollably. When I asked if she was OK, which she clearly was not, she managed to choke out (spoiler alert), “he died!” And thus she learned a cruel lesson of literature, the dog always dies. But she also learned the magical lesson that books can transport you and make you care and feel about characters and people.

We always read aloud to both girls, from before they could understand what we were saying until well after they were reading as much as they wanted to on their own. All thru elementary school and into middle school we made time for reading chapter books. The husband memorably scared the bejeezus out of them with the Lord of the Rings, while I voiced characters in more volumes of the OZ books than I knew existed. We also listened to books on tape (yes, literally cassette tapes) when we traveled. We had many favorites, but nothing could top Jim Dale reading Harry Potter.

D#2 wasn’t sure she wanted to learn to read when she got to first grade. Why should she make the effort when people could just read to her? Fortunately her teacher knew the right way to motivate/bribe her. Both daughters went thru phases of wanting to read anything NOT recommended by their mother, but it wasn’t too long before they were pressing their favorites into MY hands. As grown women, the daughters are still avid readers and part-time writers.  And that, my friends, is a happy ending.

Happy Endings

Last night, author Annie Proulx was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards.

(True confession: I have never read anything by Annie Proulx. I know, I know, I know…she’s on my list.)

Here’s a link to her entire speech, and here’s the best part:

The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on. The poet Wisława Szymborska caught the writer’s dilemma of choosing between hard realities and the longing for the happy ending. She called it consolation.

Darwin. They say he read novels to relax, but only certain kinds, nothing that ended unhappily. If he happened on something like that, enraged he flung the book into the fire. True or not, I’m ready to believe it. Scanning in his mind so many times and places, he’s had enough of dying species, the triumphs of the strong over the weak, the endless struggles to survive, all doomed sooner or later. He’d earned the right to have the happy ending at least in fiction, with its microscales.

Hence, the indispensable silver lining, the lovers reunited, the families reconciled, the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded, fortunes regained, treasures uncovered, stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways, good names restored, grief daunted, old maids married off to worthy parsons, troublemakers banished to other hemispheres, forgers of documents tossed down the stairs, seducers going to the altar, orphans sheltered, widows comforted, pride humbled, wounds healed, prodigal sons summoned home, cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean, hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation, general merriment and celebration, and the dog Fido gone astray in the first chapter turns up barking gladly in the last.



I have a weird relationship with books. Sometimes it’s the littlest thing that makes me love a book or keeps it at a distance from my heart. Often, it is some weird detail that makes the book memorable to me years later. (Examples of all these may come later this month as I run out of ideas during noblopomo.)

At the insistence of D#2, I finally cleared Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell off of my to-read pile. Russell is one of my favorite authors. Although not considered prolific, every book she has written has been both unique and magnificent. Epitaph is a companion book to Doc; I adored this historical fiction novel about Doc Holliday and fell in love with the refined southern gentleman and dentist who became a gun-slinging professional poker player when he moved west looking for relief from tuberculosis. Holliday became friends with the Earp brothers in Kansas, which is where Doc leaves off. Epitaph continues the story, reaching the part that we all know (something) about, the infamous shoot-out at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.

So why had I not jumped on this book when it first came out in 2015? First off, Doc was kind of perfect. Even though I was surprised that the book wasn’t the complete story of Holliday’s life, it still felt like I had the complete picture of the man. The genius of Epitaph is that it doesn’t read like a sequel. It is truly a companion book that could be read before or after or not at all. It has a different narrative style and focuses on different characters. Secondly, I hate the word ‘epitaph’ because I struggle with the pronunciation. I always say the word with a -th sound at the end when it should be pronounced with a -f sound.

So D#2 persuaded (she can be downright demanding that girl) and Russell immediately shut down all my reluctance. I had barely started it when one phrase came to mind and that phrase stuck with me thru the entire book: The construction of this novel is delicious.

It’s not like anything needs to be foreshadowed, the subtitle of the book is “A Novel of the O.K. Corral,” but as Russell draws out the characters, she doesn’t hesitate to remind us that they will have a place in history. With chapter titles, Russell ties this true story of the wild west to the epics of Homer. Granted, most of this tying-together was lost on this ill-educated-in-the-classics engineer, but even I could see the mythic qualities in this tale of flawed heroes, questionable alliances, and perhaps not-so-innocent bystanders. Eventually the construction of the novel takes second place to the plot that races along like a good western should. And then, on page 521 (of 577) Russell reminds us that she is still in control:

If you want a story book ending, stop — now — and remember them in that tender moment. Be content to know that they embarked on a series of adventures throughout the West and that they stayed together through thick and thin for forty-five years.

But know this as well: If their story ended here, no one would remember them at all.

Where a tale begins and where it ends matters. Who tells the story, and why… That makes all the difference.

Mary Doria Russell, please tell me another story.


The Nightingale

I feel like I’ve been on a streak of reading 3 1/2 star books. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah was my book club selection for August. It was good, I enjoyed it, but I have to say that I was disappointed. It is the story of two sisters living in France during WWII. Vianne, the older, lives in a small french village, trying to protect her home and her daughter from the horrors of war. The younger, Isabelle, joins the french resistance.

Kristin Hannah is generally considered a chick-lit author. Her fiction writing is solid, but on the light side and usually with a strong emphasis on relationships. People assured me that this book definitely was a lot more than chick-lit. It wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I LIKE chick-lit, I like reading books that many consider light and fluffy. Chick-lit books are the Hallmark movies of the literary world, and I like watching Hallmark movies. But when you are expecting Masterpiece Theater and you get the Hallmark channel, it is disappointing.

When I read good historical fiction, I am left with the feeling that the author must have really done their research – whether or not this is actually true; I feel immersed in the story and I feel like I have learned something about the place and/or time period of the book. With The Nightingale, I felt that Hannah had told a fine story about these two sisters, but that it could have happened anywhere, any time, any war.

We had a pretty good discussion of the book at book club. We all enjoyed it and I saved my ‘disappointed’ comments for the latter part of the meeting when they were well received and didn’t just put a damper on the rest of the discussion. There were only four of us, but I thought it was one of the more pleasant books club meetings that we’ve had in a while. Now if we could only get a few more people to show up…

I would confidently recommend this book to just about anyone…as long as they enjoy a good Hallmark movie every once in a while.