Reading in the Air

Far away is the land of rest
Thousand miles are stretched between
Many a mountain’s stormy crest
Many a desert void of green

–“Lines,” by Emily Bronte

Travel is the cause of much angst, but my husband is more frazzled than I when I travel alone. Mistrustful of flying, he worries that I will not find my flotation device if the plane falls into the ocean (i assure him the plane will stay aloft, and indeed I am optimistic). He also frets that I may leave my meds in a hotel or lose the antique iPad that doubles as an alarm clock since hotels have done away with clocks.

I don’t worry about travel per se. I worry about irunning out of books to read on the plane. In Alison Lurie’s brilliant, comedic novel, Foreign Affairs, a middle-aged English professor boards a flight to England without a book. This novel tops my list of horror reading for Halloween.

I am an expert on essential carry-on reading. It is tempting to pack a giant classic, like Middlemarch, or perhaps Don Quixote, but the avian atmosphere may not be ideal for “serious” reading.. Better to pack two or three small books to suit varied moods.


TINY BOOKS. If you collect miniature books, you can peruse them in line at Customs: they are roughly the size of your passport. Emily Bronte’s poems are available in a tiny Everyman’s Library pocket books edition, with the simple title Bronte, and the book literally fits in my pocket. I also have a minuscule Oxford University Press hardback edition of Chales Lamb’s Essays of Elia and The Last Essays of Elia. Lamb, a charming nineteenth-century essayist, is sometimes pensive, other times whimsical, and always thoughtful. His subjects are various: “New Year’s Eve,””Modern Gallantry,” and “A Dissertation on a Roast Pig.”

NOVELLAS. I am fascinated by the New Directions novella series (Storybook ND), with their attractive, colorful covers and slightly oversized pages. In her brilliant novella, The Road to the City, Natalia Ginzburg’s prose is crisp, pitch-perfect, and witty. The charming, confused narrator, a bored young woman who has nothing to do, is resigned to the prospect of marrying her boyfriend, though she is in love with her cousin. And she secretly wouldn’t mind living like her lazy, quarrelsome, married sister, Azalea. “I nearly always found her in bed, reading novels, or smoking, or phoning her lover, quareling because she was jealous… Then her husband came home and she quarreled with him too.”

COMIC MEMOIR. Ludwig Bemelmans’s comic memoir, To the One I Love Best, set in the 1930s in Hollywood, is the story of Ludwig’s friendship with Elsie De Wolfe, an eccentric decorator and socialite. Bemelsmans was a screenwriter, illustrator, and cartoonist, best kown for the Madeline children’s books, and his observations are lucid and charming . I found it a bit twee, but others love it.

AN OUT-OF-PRINT CLASSIC. Anne Redmon’s brilliant, disturbing novel, Music and Silence, published in 1979, explores the different signifiers between music and silence. Two women, Beatrice, a quiet physician, and Maud, a talented, narcissistic young cellist, live in the same apartment building, and gradually become friends, insofar as either is capable of friendship. Maud’s life proceeds at high pitch and gradually disintegrates into silence after she breaks with her cello teacher. When the music stops, when Maud ceases to play the cello, Beatrice tries to save her from chaos.

AN UNDER-READ CLASSIC. George Orwell’s Coming up for Air is perhaps Orwell’s most astute novel. In this gentle comedy, the narrator, George, a fat, successful, middle-aged insurance salesman, is a hip, brighter version of Babbitt. Aware that England is on the brink of World War II, he anticipates the hell of the after-war period: society changed almost beyond recognition after the First World War. On a trip to his hometown, he is startled by urban sprawl and the demolition of several buildings . So many changes in the course of a few decades. But George remains cheerful and philosophical, despite the inevitable changes wrought by middle age and the future.

BETTER THAN REBECCA. I loved Daphne du Maurier’s The Parasites,  a  novel about a theatrical family. It begins with a dramatic scene: Charles, a country squire, angrily accuses his wife Maria, a famous actress, her brother Niall, a songwriter, and sister Celia, of being “parasites.” They are the children of a famous actor and singer. Are they or are they not parasites on society?  I think this is du Maurier’s best novel, even better than Rebecca.

A MIDWESTERN CLASSIC. Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady is a masterpiece that focuses on the importance of place. The heroine, a vibrant young woman, Marian Forrester, is stuck in a small town in Nebraska after her husband, Colonel Forrester, loses his money. The bank he co-owns has failed, and he felt it was right to reimburse the customers with his own money. Before the failure of the bank, the Forresters summered in Nebraska and wintered in Denver, and Marian is now nearly frenzied with loneliness and lack of society. We see the drama through the eyes of Neal, a boy who loves Marion and then disapproves of her as he grows older and she becomes more desperate.. She claws and fights her way to escape, a bit like a midwestern Scarlett O’Hara. Willa Cather, who grew up in a small town in Nebraska, knew what it was like.

WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON READING ON PLANES? Newspapers, magazines, books?

Changing the Sky & Reading Tea Leaves

I have tried meditation, yoga, and herbal teas to treat anxiety. When a vaccinated friend dropped in the other day, the tension vanished.

We chatted about our year of fear and then turned to the future and read each other’s tea leaves. She foretells a long journey (I wish!). I foretell that she will come into money and take me on a journey.

“It’s the travel I miss,” she said.

Me. too. We can guard our health with the vacccine, masks, etc., but we cannot travel away from the pandemic. And the most important way to stay calm, I have discovered, is not only avoiding the crowd but avoiding the news.

There has been much drama lately about whether or not rare blood clots in women are caused by one of the vaccines. I am very sorry for those women, but the scientific data isn’t in yet, so I am not jumping to conclusions. My advice? Get vaccinated. You will feel safer. Make an appointment for another vaccine if you’re afraid of the brand on pause. I don’t know anyone who has had any problems, except for a few normal side effects. And how I wish I hadn’t read the news!

Speaking of shots, our vacation is shot because of the pandemic. I read an article in The Washington Post about the possibility of international travel this summer. The writer interviewed people in their sixties and seventies who had postponed international trips last year and hoped to travel this summer. They have canceled their trips again. It is common sense, but I do feel sorry for them. Time is ticking by…

I have not given up entirely on travel. Every day I receive emails about cheap flights and cheap stays in luxury hotels. I fantasize about going, but what I would do when I got there? Stay in the hotel?

I am trying to change my way of thinking about the slow pace of life in 2021. I think of my mother and grandmother, who lived in the same place all their lives and seldom traveled. Their lives were in the moment, defined by routine and small pleasures. I moved away and occasionally traveled, but as Horace says, When you travel you only change your sky.

This is how I imagine the 1950’s, only with internet.

Breaking My Camera at the British Museum & Other Musings

A blue plaque in London

Once a year I take a selfie to chronicle my aging self. I do it because ten years from now I’ll look at it and think, I look so young!

We have drawers full of snapshots we have not put in albums. Travel has fueled the quantity of pictures. In London a few years ago, I took a lot of random pictures of blue plaques commemorating writers’ houses, bike lanes (my husband’s request), and a sculpture of a blue cockerel temporarily installed at Trafalgar Square.

In fact, I got a little camera-happy. Truth to tell, I broke my camera at the British Museum. I dropped it while snapping pix of ancient artifacts. I should have bought the postcards. Well… I did.

Tourism is so much fun. One lovely morning I found myself contentedly standing in front of Buckingham Palace, too late for the changing of guard, but perhaps better without. Then a group of people asked me to take their picture on an iPhone.

“I don’t know how to use this.”

Really, I didn’t. This would not end well.

I pushed a button. The wrong one, actually. “Sorry, you’ll have to get somebody else!”

Who took this pic of Mom and me?

After that I refused to take ANYONE’S picture. And, indeed, I come from a family of camera-shy women. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother declined to have their pictures taken, and, indeed, rarely deigned to use the camera. Someone else always took the pictures. Odd how these things get passed on, isn’t it?

But what a different era now! We document our lives in pictures on phones and the mysterious Cloud. We have selfies, selfie-sticks, blogs, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Tumblr, Youtube, Booktube, and so much more.

I try to imagine my grandmother taking a selfie. Preposterous!

But there is a historical relationship between the present OCD phone addicts and the videoheads of yore. A few days ago, when Oprah announced that her new Oprah Book Club pick is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead quartet, I realized Oprah may have been the first Booktuber! (Only it was TV.) Many a Booktuber could learn from her concise, enthusiastic style. Certainly achieving that is much, much more difficult than it looks.

Ah, if only we could travel again, without an iPhone preferably. I was thinking of India–under the influence of reading Rumer Godden.

Happy Weekend Reading!

The Travel-Pajamas Backlash and Other Travel Tips

Are you fretting over the difficulties of international travel? Longing for advice from a cosmopolitan traveler?  Take it from a tourist:  it’s absurdly easy.   Half of it is showing up; the rest is a willingness to look ridiculous.

HOW TO BE SUPER-COOL IN AUTOMATED AIRPORTS.  Where have all the people gone? In the last few years, everything has become automated. Now you check your own luggage and scan your own passport. But don’t panic.  If you have difficulty with tech, they wave you through a special line where you interact with humans.  (That, in my opinion, is super-cool.)  You soon learn by osmosis to do the tech stuff.  You’re proud of your unpaid airport-processing skills, but wonder what happened to the workers.

TOO MUCH CANNOT BE SAID ABOUT WHAT TO WEAR ON PLANES.  That’s because you love travel fashion “do’s” and “don’t’s.” You pore over the charming articles in magazines, but  you probably won’t wear the darling $500 pajama-style outfits recommended (possibly facetiously) by Vogue  or the $450 leggings in Travel and Leisure which look exactly like all other leggings—one only hopes they have superpowers.   

FASHION “DON’T’S” CAUSE PANIC ATTACKS.   How do the fashion experts know  the “don’ts” in your wardrobe?  Actually, you just learned they are “don’t’s.”   But do not heed the columnist who insists that jeans are worn only by the ugly American. Relax. People of all different nationalities wear jeans on planes.  All casual clothes are appropriate for airports, in case you find yourself jogging across a terminal late for a flight because you were frisked during a random security check.   Note:  it will be the last gate.

HOW TO PLAN YOUR ITINERARY.  What you do depends on who you are.  You do not have to follow an itinerary in a guidebook.  My advice: Make a list of 20 things you want see.  If you check off all the items (which is unlikely), make another list.  There are so many must-sees I hope never to see.  I will never ride the Eye in London, a giant ferris wheel from which you can see the whole city (or something). It would make me sick.  Nor do I feel the urge to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  If you love dizzying heights, you’ll want to do all these things and possibly some rappelling.  

And that’s why our itineraries are so different.

Reading on the Plane: Where to Park Your Books

The demise of the Elizabeth Bowen during travel.

On a recent plane trip, I could not keep track of my books. I had stuffed two paperbacks into a carry-on bag:  Elizabeth Bowen’s Friends and Relations and a mystery.  One of the other would keep me occupied on the trip, I thought.

The bag was a tight fit under the seat.  I had to crouch in the aisle to drag it out.  With much flexing of knees, I managed this triumphantly.  The Elizabeth Bowen, however, was not in a zippered compartment marked BOOKS. It was with meds, toiletries, and a cardigan sweater.  

Once the book was out of the bag, it was out for the rest of the trip. Usually there is an empty seat next to me, and I fling the book down when I don’t want to read.  This time the plane was full.  And during the multiple meals and snacks that keep us from going crazy on planes, the old paperback became more and more brittle. I tried holding it on my knees under the tray. It emerged bent.  During a later snack, I stuffed it into the pocket on the back of the chair.  A corner of the cover tore off.

Turned out this book was no longer meant for reading.  The type was dim against the tan, crackling pages. I alternately had to hold it close to my face or at arm’s length. That’s the beauty of bifocals:  you are both near-sighted and short-sighted at the same time. 

I finally read my mystery, which was perfect for the plane.  I can’t recommend Patricia Moyes’s The Curious Affair of the Third Dog too strongly.  I  am so thankful I didn’t bring Proust, which I had originally considered the ultimate vacation reading.  (Not on this plane.)

The Bowen fell apart completely the next day in a cafe.

Anyone have good travel tips for plane reading (and for keeping books in one piece)?    I’m thinking about buying a tablet case, which would give the books some extra protection.  And it would fit in my bag.

I returned home with some new sturdy paperbacks.  They were unharmed by travel.

Would a tablet case do the trick?