Saturday, June 23, 2007

Travelling Companions

It's Northern hemisphere summer, and folks there are revving their internal engines for long trips to exotic climes. Books are part of the holiday experience for most, and the newspapers traditionally have their lists of holiday reads.

Sam Leith in the Telegraph reckons that reading on holiday is a material pleasure as well as an intellectual one, he reckons:
A good book returns from a good holiday battered and discoloured, with sand in odd crevices, with mysterious stains and pages missing, with mild spinal injuries and a new lover or two. Just like its owner. ... One hardback will have a semi-translucent, coconut-smelling thumb-print on a right-hand page. A paperback will be a fat, crinkly, chlorine-damaged wad after it joined you in the pool when the kids upset your lilo. Another paperback, left splayed for an hour in full sun so that the heat melted the glue in its spine, is shedding pages into your bag. The book becomes a souvenir of the pleasure you took in it and the place where you read it.
But what should a holiday read be like? Something light and frothy? The things we've always meant to get round to reading? A big classic novel (which is what Leith himself favours).

The Guardian asked authors (here and here) which books they have taken with them on journeys. JG Ballard writes nostalgically about a a copy of the Los Angeles Yellow Pages which he took from his suite at the Beverly Hills Hilton, and which he says transformed his holiday. And Paul Theroux recounts his experiences reading Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas on board a ship between Singapore and Borneo in 1970, in the company of what seemed "like a cast from a Maugham novel".

My happiest reading memory was reading Theroux's O-Zone in a hammock on Tioman. I'd travelled there alone, and was staying at the wonderful but basic Nazri's Place with nothing to do all day but read and snorkel. (Leave food out of the equation: there was basically only a choice between freshly caught mackerel and tuna each meal time!)

Absorbing fiction about a future America, rigidly divided by social class, seemed to go very well with stunning island scenery. Don't ask me why!

Mind you, I think you can go too far with dystopian fiction on a beach ... one of the suggestions for beach reading for the summer of 2007 at the end of Leith's article is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The most bleakly desolate novel ... perhaps of all time ... has no place in anyone's beach bag, I'd say.

It's fun trying to choose book to fit holiday location and Sam Jordison on the Guardian blog writes about trying to find the perfect match.

I read Colin McPhee's A House in Bali, the first time I stayed in Ubud and it was a magical match. McPhee's book was written in the 1930's. The musicologist/composer heard some recordings of Balinese gamelan and travelled to the island to learn study it. The book gives an insight not only into the music but also a fascinating glimpse into into Balinese society. My biggest thrill though was in meeting one of the people McPhee had written about all those years before - a dance teacher who was still training performers. (And it was very special to me years later to hear the piece based on gamelan that McPhee composed, played by the Malaysian Philharmonic.)

What was your best holiday reading experience?


marisa said...

sharon,i love holiday beach reading too! once a year, i go to bali and i take with me 6-8 books, leaving them there when i've finished. i'd wake up, read during breakfast, continue reading by the beach, read during lunch, read by the pool until the sun goes down, have dinner (this is the most human interaction i'd get) and then read in bed until i knock off. of course, i'd take a break from to have the odd massage or spa (it is BALI!). i did try to repeat the experience in perhentian once but i got funny looks and comments - not from the other tourists, but from the locals, who found it funny that a local malay girl would go to perhentian and do nothing but read. should have just said i was from thailand. :P

Argus Lou said...

Charming, fun post, Bib.
I once brought along fluffy light 'West End Girls' by Jenny Colgan (to review) on Gemia Island and it got hijacked by my husband who'd forgotten to bring a book.
Then next time we went to an island I brought two books (just to be safe):
one of Chuck Palahniuk's terribly pleasurable reads and Paul Theroux's 'The Stranger at Palazzo D'Oro'.
I'd say John Irving's sizeable hilarious yet moving tomes are good for the beach. 'Mosquito Coast' and 'Lord of the Flies' not so good. ;-)

Chet said...

Jonathan Raban mentions Middlemarch in Part 2 of the Guardian article, and I am reminded that I really MUST finish reading this book before I die.

Amir said...

When I went to Cannes last month I started reading James Baldwin's "Another Country" on the KLIA Express to the airport and finished it on the KLIA Express getting back from the airport. But when I was in Cannes itself I didn't read a single word! So it's more like a journey book rather than a vacation book. It's so tumultuous and throbbing and urgent that I found it as riveting as any murder mystery. By coincidence, the book actually ends when a flight from France has landed, too.

bibliobibuli said...

marisa - that's my dream holiday too!

argus lou - reminds me of the holiday when the other half forgot to put my bag in the car and i ended up in pangkor without my swimsuit or even a change of clothes and without a book to read. luckily i could buy a new holiday wardrobe at the resort. but unfortunately there were no books of sale. i ended up having to read a vs naipaul "the engima of arrival" which i didn't enjoy at all and which certianly wasn't a beach book

chet - so must i

amir - nice coincidence! of course lah you have to drop into the conversation "when i was in cannes" ...

K.Kim said...

My most memorable holiday read was N.V.M. Gonzalez's The Bamboo Dancers while in Japan. It was in UM's must-read list for the semester and the book mentions Hiroshima. Visiting the WW2 museum in Hiroshima after reading the book certainly made the experience more meaningful.

Chet, Middlemarch was also in the must-read list but for the life of me, I could not finish it and I'm unlikely to attempt it again.

Argus Lou said...

Bib! He forgot your bag?! Did you throw a hissy fit or just shrug and go shopping? :D
Without books, you musta felt like being without fingers and toes.

Another great holiday read is 'A Year in Provence' by Peter Mayle - if you're going to France. If headed for Australia, try the classic 'The Magic Pudding'.

Amir! That was almost eerie.

Azmi said...

My best read was Frances Mayes' "Under The Tuscan Sun" while on a driving holiday in Italy in 2000. A few other holiday reads were in my holdall, but this was most memorable as we covered the places she mentioned and met up with some of the people she mentioned. We were also inpired to drive up to find her house in the medieval town of Cortona, she wasn't in and we left a few stamped self addressed postcards for her to complete and mail back to us! She did, with a very friendly message each! At least she discovered Malysians do read and travel to faraway places as well! Talk about adulation over an author. I felt she really captured the essence of Italy and what living there as a foreigner means. I still reread a few sections of that book and it's sequel Bella Tuscany and feel like I am back in Italy whenever I did that....And, she inspired in me to dream about my own dream home and kept it real for me wat a lot of hardwork it is going to be...and I do hope to realise this dream of mine before I lie down to die.....

Lots of Italy/Tuscany life books were spewed out by the publishing world after that, but nothing compared to Frances Mayes' work....

If anyone wants to see Italy but too lazy or too busy to go, I would recommend her book and have at the same time this movie playing on your tv screen "Shadows of The Sun" or "Only Yo". The movie with the same name as her book did not do it justice and best avoided in case it spoilt the fun of reading her, I really went into raptures writing about her book, didn't I? Sorry, Sharon for taking up so much space!

Chet said...

Hey, I saw the movie and then checked out the book, and you're right, the movie spoiled the book for me. But Diane Lane is pretty! (The truth's finally out - Chet is shallow.)

And yes, Shadows in the Sun is a good movie.

bibliobibuli said... - haven't heard of that and will look out for it

argus lou - yes, it was a very very hissy fit only partly ameliorated by the new wardrobe of clothes!

azmi - that's a wonderful story! our book club members very much enjoyed "under the tuscan sun" too. the night we met to discuss it i had to make a "ligurian tomato salad" to the recipe in the book, with the best tomatoes cold storage had for sale (expensive? never mind!) perhaps reading it and eating the dish was the next best thing to going there. one day i will go to tuscany!