Vacation Reading: Go Easy or Difficult?

The beach where I did NOT read Mother Goose last week. (Photo by my wife, Laurel Cummins.)

Vacation reading! If you’re not constantly sightseeing, you might have more time to read than when you’re home. There might be long hours to fill on plane rides, too.

So, what’s the strategy? Tackle a challenging novel or two? Go for the “comfort food” of escapist reading? A combination of the two?

I vividly remember a Cape Cod vacation four years ago sitting on a pond beach wading through Henry James’ The Ambassadors, day after day. Ultimately a subtly interesting novel in many ways, but difficult and at times boring. Some of the convoluted sentences were longer than the vacation. 🙂

The next year, I switched reading approaches by enjoying two escapist Gorky Park sequels on the plane rides to and from France and during non-sightseeing moments amid two weeks in La Rochelle and Paris. “We’ll always have…Martin Cruz Smith.”

I also “did” escapist during a family-vacation return to Cape Cod this past week, July 17-24. I finished Colleen McCullough’s stellar historical novel Morgan’s Run (which I wrote about last week) and then read much of The Mammoth Hunters — the lengthy third installment of Jean M. Auel’s always-compelling “Earth’s Children” series. (I had recently read the first two novels: The Clan of the Cave Bear and The Valley of Horses.) There’s something very soothing about continuing a book series on vacation; one already has a comfort level with a particular author’s storytelling and characters, even as there’s the excitement of new plot developments.

Of course, few escapist novels are totally escapist. Auel’s series and Morgan’s Run and Martin Cruz Smith’s books have quite a few distressing moments. But they’re escapist in the sense of being very readable and very absorbing, with little mental strain involved in following the plot (even as the novels can also have a good amount of literary value). After all, vacations are for relaxing — at least in part.

Then there’s the comfort of rereading. I haven’t done that on vacation for a while, but remember rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix while on a train from Paris to Venice in 2004. That rail ride sure seemed to go fast, but a drawback was concentrating more on J.K. Rowling’s riveting fifth Potter book than on the amazing scenery outside the train window. 🙂 But I did look up from the pages fairly often.

What are your vacation-reading preferences? Challenging, “comfort food,” or both?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about children’s book characters coming to life in the reopened children’s section of my local library 🙂 — is here.

The League of Extraordinary Beleaguerment

Colleen McCullough

When I read another novel, it often sparks an idea for a thematic blog post that includes elements from that book mixed with similar elements from novels I’ve read in the past. It’s not always a “Eureka!” moment, but sometimes it is.

As was the case this past week. I’m currently reading Colleen McCullough for the first time — her riveting novel Morgan’s Run — and, about a quarter of the way through the 600-page book, I came across this line about 18th-century protagonist Richard Morgan: “He is six-and-thirty, and God is trying him as He tried Job.”

Eureka! That gave me the idea for a blog post about beleaguered characters who are hit with one gut-punch after another — whether it be deaths of loved ones, ill health, loss of jobs, unjust imprisonment, etc.

How do these characters deal with all that? Do they cope to some extent, or succumb to despair? Are the gut-punches partly their fault, or mainly instances of bad luck? Do things get better eventually — or never?

Basically, novels with this type of scenario can be heartbreaking or inspiring or some combination of the two. And we of course usually feel a great deal of sympathy for the beleaguered protagonists, unless they’re villainous.

To avoid spoilers, I won’t get specific about the travails of Robert Morgan as his life morphs from England to the early settling of white people in Australia, but that decent/moral/capable man is absolutely pummeled by life in a good chunk of the book by McCullough, who’s best known for The Thorn Birds.

Among the many other compelling novels in which the main characters don’t catch a break — until sometimes they do — are George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Stephen King’s Rose Madder, and Martin Cruz’s Smith’s first Gorky Park sequel Polar Star, to name just a few.

Any novel you’d like to mention with beleaguered protagonists?

Note: I’ll be slower with my replies at times this week, but will reply eventually! 🙂

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about everything from a proposed nature trail to an overpriced new apartment building — is here.

A Passage to Interestingness

From the 1984 film version of A Passage to India.

Have you ever read a novel you contemplated not finishing but then things picked up? Such was the case last week with me and A Passage to India.

The first part of E.M. Forster’s 1924 novel was actually pretty good: beautifully/subtly written — with mostly non-stereotypical depictions of India’s citizens and interesting cross-cultural interactions between those citizens and characters from Great Britain, the colonial ruler over India back then. But there was endless talking and little happening in the way of plot, and I found my attention straying. Then — pow! — an unfair arrest happened and things got really compelling.

Of course, a plot development that dramatic is not always needed to make a book more interesting.

It also took me a while to warm to A Game of Thrones, the first installment of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. It wasn’t that the writing wasn’t good — it was — but I was rather bewildered by the array of characters being introduced, the connections between those characters, and the fictional world being depicted. Then it came together, and I was hooked.

In short, the buffet had to be laid out and studied before the eating was enjoyed.

With Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the structure of the novel made me consider throwing in the towel. Early on, the book was in the form of a long, at-times tedious poem. Then, Nabokov started using prose to offer clues about what was going on as he unraveled some of the puzzle he had set up. A novel almost totally devoid of warmth, but immensely clever.

Sometimes novels start with pages and pages of over-long descriptions of landscapes and buildings before characters are introduced and the plot begins to unfold. This is especially the case in older novels written during a pre-air-travel/pre-Internet time when most readers hadn’t actually or virtually seen most places, so authors had to fill in the blanks.

I’ll conclude by saying I HAVE abandoned some novels before finishing them — with few regrets. So many other fictional works to read instead. 🙂

Any novels you’d like to mention that started slow but picked up?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about some interesting early-summer events — is here.

Why Men Should Read Women-Centered Novels

The Secret Life of Bees movies main cast.

I have two daughters and my wife has four sisters, so I’ve heard plenty of conversations among women. But I’ve obviously never heard them speak when a male isn’t around, which is one of many reasons why women-centered novels written by female authors appeal to me. A person can learn a lot while “eavesdropping” on female characters interacting with each other, whether those fictional women are mostly feeling camaraderie or things are more fraught. 

Female-only interactions can of course be between friends, sisters, mothers and daughters, grandmothers and grandchildren, cousins, couples in same-gender relationships, co-workers, sports teammates, etc.

Not surprisingly, this post was partly inspired by novels I’ve recently read. One was Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and the other was Joy Fielding’s Grand Avenue. Both very compelling books that are well worth the time.

Bees is narrated by 14-year-old Lily — a white girl who, with her household’s Black maid Rosaleen, leaves home in 1960s South Carolina to escape her abusive father and search for information about her late mother. They end up in the household of three Black sisters: wise/friendly beekeeper August, not-so-friendly teacher June, and emotionally sensitive May. The conversations of these five characters are something to behold — reflecting the bonds between females, racial dynamics, and more. Meanwhile, there’s the threat of Lily’s (bigoted) father looking for her…

It almost goes without saying that most women-centered novels feature men in some scenes, but they are scarce in many other scenes.

The Ohio-set Grand Avenue, which spans the late 1970s through the early 2000s, starts with an irresistible premise: four mothers who live on the street of the book’s title hit it off immediately while watching their young daughters play in a local park. The mutual loyalty of high-powered attorney Vicki, magazine editor Susan, former beauty queen Barbara, and homemaker Chris is a delight until the quartet’s many differences — as well as the vicissitudes of life (an abusive husband, a shocking murder, etc.) — put major stress on their four-way friendship.

Other women-written, women-centered novels that offer memorable, believable characters and meaningful female conversations and relationships include Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, and Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, to name just a few of many.

Any women-centered novels you’d like to discuss?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — in which both George Washington and Yogi Berra get comedic mentions — is here.