Friday, October 21, 2011

Reading while traveling is a necessity.

I've been in New York this past week, and when I got home yesterday, I realized something very important: I need a book while I travel.

For some people it is music and headphones, others a movie they can watch on the plane; for me it's a paperback.  I feel rudderless without one.

This particular trip was work-related, and because of that, I sort of forgot to pack some pleasure reading along with me.  In the hotel room by myself at night, during the time I would normally have been curled up in bed with a book, I:
  • Watched The Biggest Loser
  • With a Diet Coke
  • Read my horoscope on my iPhone
  • Took an hour-long bath (that one I don't feel guilty about)
  • While listening to  Lifetime Television in the background (that one I do)
In short, I was a little bored.

Books organize my nighttime activity and give my pre-bed ritual structure; they also give my behavior structure in general.  Joan Didion says that she doesn't know what she's thinking until she writes it down, and I can relate to this.  When my thoughts are scattered then everything else is too, and as a result I was a SLOB in my hotel room.  Outfit options spilled out of my bag and flew across the room, shirts resting on lampshades.  A slice of pizza I picked up outside got itself eaten at a proper table, then -- getting munched while I simultaneously took a bath -- the side of the tub.  The tub, people.

Something needed to be done.  

On my way home, I picked up a book in the La Guardia airport bookstore, and as soon as I did, I felt that ahhhhh feeling.  With the same level of relief and anxiety dissipation, I imagine, that smokers feel.

If you are a travel-reader like I am, or just looking for a new nightstand addition, I've got three good book options for you.  And if you live in Austin, you can pick all three of them up at BookPeople (or call Half-Price Books).  

About a year ago, we had an awesome discussion on Austin Eavesdropper about book recommendations, so if you have any suggestions you'd like to add to the list then by all means leave a comment!  I referred to that post for a whole year afterward to get book ideas, and I selected these three titles below based on the amount of times I feverishly corner a friend or family member and force them to listen to me talk about them.  Here we go:


The Art of Fielding came out last month, and the reviews it's been getting are downright bananas.  (Check out this insane list of endorsements you have to scroll through on its Amazon page).  I snagged an advanced reader's copy last summer, after listening to its editor breathlessly describe its charms at BEA (Book Expo America).

This is the first book by author Chad Harbach, and it took him nine years to write.  It's the story of a skinny, corn-fed ball player from the Midwest, who possesses the most beautiful, graceful shortstop game you've ever seen.  Well, at least Mike Schwartz has ever seen: That's the baseball team captain at Westish College, a fictional school in Michigan, and when he sees Henry -- the shortstop phenom -- he takes it upon himself to recruit him.

Henry's arrival at Westish introduces us to a small orbit of characters, Henry's gay roommate, the Westish College president, and the president's daughter.  Mike takes Henry under his wing, grooming him, training him, and everything is going great.  That is, until Henry makes a routine throw during an important game, one that pro scouts have come to watch, and the throw goes wildly off-course.  It ends up shattering somebody's face.

The lives of the five characters also spin out of control after that throw, revealing to us secrets, a couple of love stories, and addictions that had been underpinning Henry's journey all along.  

This is such a fantastic book.  And yet, I have a hard time describing it to people.  The moment I say "baseball book," girls think it's a dude read.  But in actuality, it's one of the most emotionally nuanced novels I've read in a long time, and the character I thought I'd relate to the least -- the brutish, hulky Mike Schwartz -- ended up being my favorite.  I adored him.  I wanted him to be my friend.  If this book ever gets optioned for a movie (likely), I'm incredibly curious as to who will be Mike Schwartz, because despite the fact that everything seems to rest on Henry in this story, it's Mike who is the heart of the novel.

Ross is reading my copy right now, but if you live here in town, I would be more than happy to lend it to you when he's through.


I also heard about The Night Circus on the BEA panel last summer, and like The Art of Fielding, it was also penned by a first-time author.  Erin Morgenstern is on Twitter, and she's just the coolest.

This book I have no problem selling to people: It takes place largely in 19th century Europe, and is about a mysterious traveling circus.  No one knows what town it will show up in next, or how long it will stay, but this much they do know: The circus opens at midnight, and closes at dawn.  Instead of one red-and-yellow big top tent, there are a series of different sized black-and-white tents.  When you enter them, there are no clowns, or bears on unicycles; rather, this is a different kind of circus. A magic circus.

You walk into one tent and are faced with a series of bottles; each time you uncork one, it unleashes memories.  You walk into another tent and see mist before you; it's a vertical cloud maze that you can ascend high into the sky.  

At the center of this circus are two magicians who have been entered into a duel practically since birth, and the duel only ends when one of them dies.  There's just one problem: The two magicians are in love with each other.

If you haven't heard about The Night Circus yet, you will.  The Twilight movie people optioned it before it even went to press. Foreign rights have already been sold to 23 different countries.  I even saw some kind of promotion for it in a Starbucks last week.  It's the kind of book people are DYING to franchise because the story is so downright imaginative, like a mix between Big Fish and Sleepy Hollow.  In fact, is Tim Burton going to direct this thing or what?  He's kind of the obvious choice.

But I'm not sure the author wants that -- the hyper-franchising of a vehicle like Twilight.  Without giving anything away, this book has a definite end-ing.  Not a cliffhangery to-be-continued ending.  The story is squarely resolved, and I love it for that.  Conclusions are the hardest thing in every writing enterprise, be it a book, a short story, even a blog post. And yet, Erin neatly pulls it off.

If you're here in Austin, you can even see Erin this weekend at the Texas Book Festival.  She'll be speaking at 12:30 on Sunday, and PS, have you OPENED the Texas Book Festival schedule this year?!  It's ridiculous!


The last book I want to recommend is the one I picked up in the airport yesterday, and it came out in 2009: The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin.  It was a #1 New York Times Bestseller.

This is a one-year memoir of Gretchen, drive-testing various psychological theories of happiness, and taking up a new point of focus each month: Get healthier, improve your marriage, spend time with your kids.  I've been curious about this book for a while, because I am intensely fascinated by life-satisfaction and more importantly, how to achieve it.  Something tells me I'm not alone here.

Gretchen is endearingly systematic in her approach, creating "action items" for each month's theme.  In January for example, the "get healthier" chapter, she resolves to: Get more sleep, get a trainer, clean her closet.  She even makes a chart for the whole year, and places a check mark or an X mark on each day, to indicate whether or not she successfully executed her goal.  It's shockingly effective.  Even things like "don't nag my husband" become a goal, and you know what?  She stops nagging her husband.  Novel!

I was reading this book on the plane ride home, and already began feeling more emotionally resilient, buoyed by Gretchen's can-do attitude toward creating happiness in your life.  Proof: Work booked me on a window seat during the flight, and when I had to get up to go to the bathroom, I looked down sheepishly at my seat mates to deliver the news.  The baseball-capped gentleman from Iowa to my immediate left had no problem with it, but the woman to his left with the aisle seat (lucky!) looked at me and said: "Well, you made your bed, Window Seat."  

She got up anyway, all in a huff, and let me go.  

Normally I would have slouched to the airplane bathroom, all hurt and wounded over this tiny, disparaging remark, but instead I found it so giggle-worthy.  Window Seat!!  Such a funny insult.  As if to imply that the Window Seaters of the world are the irresponsible ones, who don't think ahead to things like bathroom breaks, and the wiser Aisle Seaters must always be accommodating our loose behavior!  Our depraved, reckless natures.  

Fortunately, I had just read one of Gretchen's passages on "lightening up," and it was the opportune moment.  I predict that when you read this book, you'll find a rule or experiment of Gretchen's that will be opportune for you, too.

So now, here are my questions to you:

what books are you reading right now?  


what was the last book you traveled with?  


     has someone ever called you "window seat?"      

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