Top 10 Books For The Plane and the Beach

Hello, fellow readers! We’re growing fewer in number as the years go by, so I believe that we faithful book-wallowers must stick together fiercely in the age of Candy Crush and pratfall videos. (I personally never need to see another YouTube guy get hit in the jewels when his trampoline trick goes sideways.) To that end, here’s my totally subjective, completely un-researched list of the 10 best books you’d be lucky take with you on the plane for your next vacation(s). They are in no particular order, and from no particular era….each is as good as the next, but as David Letterman taught us, we all love a good Top 10 List, so here we go:

1. “West With the Night” by Beryl Markham.

Maybe my favorite book of all time. It’s a 1942 memoir that chronicles Beryl’s early years growing up in Kenya (then British East Africa), in the early 1900s, leading to her career as a bush pilot there, and later to her being celebrated as an aviation pioneer. In 2004, National Geographic Adventure ranked it number 8 in a list of 100 best adventure books, and it’s considered a true classic of outdoor literature. The prose is as soaring as her tiny plane that carried her (as the first solo woman) to cross the Atlantic east-to-west, and you will breathe in every breath as if it’s your own.

Here’s what Hemingway had to say about Beryl’s “West”:

“She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

Can’t get a more ringing endorsement than that. Give yourself the gift of this marvelous book and savor every paragraph. Then please, do share it.

2. “Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys” by Dave Barry.

This is a different kind of gift. One for every bone in your body that wishes to chuckle, and chuckle some more. I recommend it for every wife and for every guy who has a wife. Or might want to get one some day.

You will bend over forward and bang into your tray table while snickering hard during his chapters about the art of scratching; why the average guy can remember who won the 1960 World Series, but not necessarily the names of all his children; the algorithm for picking the correct bathroom stall; and he’ll reveal to you why The Noogie Gene is so crucial to American guys and why guys just cannot simultaneously think and look at breasts. And much, much more. Wildly entertaining, and the perfect book to put your mind firmly on vacation. It’s sort of like giving your brain a noogie. You’ll like it.

As the San Francisco Examiner puts it:

“Dave Barry is one funny human.” Or in this case, one funny guy.

3. “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson.

My sister recently loaned me this book, and I am forever in her debt. It’s one of those reads where not much happens, but it creeps up on you to the point that you MUST know what will happen next. You will think about the characters in this book during meetings, while on conference calls, while showering, and while you really should be thinking about other things. But you find yourself rooting so hard for Major Ernest Pettigrew and his dear friend, the shopkeeper Mrs. Jasmina Ali, who battle rural English society for acceptance–that you can scarcely keep your hands off this book. A gem of a read, and an astonishing debut.

From the New York Times:

“Funny, barbed, delightfully winsome storytelling…..It’s all about intelligence, heart, dignity and backbone. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand has them all.”

4. “The Inimitable Jeeves” by P.G. Wodehouse.

If I know you, you’ll be missing the characters in “Major Pettigrew” so much after you finish, you’ll immediately need another Brit-fix. The best possible bookend to “Pettigrew” I can possibly think of is “Jeeves.”

I’d be surprised if Helen Simonson didn’t grow up with her nose in a few Wodehouse tomes: the cutting humor and dry-as-salt sarcasm are two of a kind. Again, this is not an action book. There is nary a car chase or a large explosion. But you will have a series of minor repetitive explosions of laughter as you trail along after the butler Jeeves and his hapless gentleman, Bertie Wooster, and you will put down this book with the loveliest smile upon your face.

In the words of author Stephen Fry:

“You don’t analyze such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendor.”

Oh–and you get extra points in book club if you pronounce P.G.’s last name correctly: WOOD-iss. You’re welcome.

5. “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” by Bill Bryson.

U.S.-born Bryson wrote this book after returning to America after spending two decades wandering around England. He decided the best way to re-connect with his homeland would be to hike the Appalachian Trail with one of his oldest (and most out of shape) friends. That’s it, in a nutshell.

Now, my husband is a quiet reader, especially on planes, where he is absolutely stealth-silent. With one singular exception. When he picked up “A Walk in the Woods” and hit page 3. I had no idea that my husband actually knew how to guffaw, yet there he was doing it over and over and over again in business class. I was actually so alarmed at one point when his face got fire-engine red and multiple tracks of tears were cascading down his cheeks that I thought I might have to make a medical intervention involving an oxygen tank and smelling salts.

The first half of this book is seriously as funny as any book ever gets. The second half is more thoughtful and environmentalist. Both halves are well worth your time–just have medical backup at the ready.

“Walk” is a charming, breezy read, with tidbits like this description Bryson writes about his reason to take on the Appalachian Trail:

“It would get me fit after years of waddlesome sloth. It would be an interesting and reflective way to reacquaint myself with the scale and beauty of my native land after nearly twenty years of living abroad. It would be useful (I wasn’t quite sure in what way, but I was sure nonetheless) to learn to fend for myself in the wilderness. When guys in camouflage pants and hunting hats sat around in the Four Aces Diner talking about fearsome things done out-of-doors, I would no longer have to feel like such a cupcake. I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, ‘Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods.”

If this is not the stuff of greatness, then I know not what is.

6. “More Sand in my Bra” edited by Julia Weiler and Jennifer Leo

Sometimes on a long flight ya need to crack up. Just out and out chortle and cackle and forget that you’re wedged into a seat fitted out for a teenage Chihuahua and your shoes are suspiciously sticky from the bathroom floor. Maybe even slap your knee a few times, if your tray table is in its upright position and you can get to it. This book made me do just that, hundreds of times over. The follow up to the hugely entertaining “Sand in my Bra”, more truly funny women check in from various road trips and make you wish, wish, wish you had been there with them.

Well, this is the closest you’ll get to sitting next to Ellen Degeneres on her cross-country comedy tour, learning how to de-brain your dinner in Mexico with Suzanne LaFetra, boarding Vietnam’s craziest booze cruise with Tamara Sheward or baring more than just your soul in “The Spa Who Loved Me” with Suz Redfearn. It’s basically travel gals gone wild. And why not? Indeed

7.  “The Best American Travel Writing” edited by Anthony Bourdain

Bourdain is a travel god. We know this from his wanderings to “Parts Unknown” on CNN, and we’ve collectively fallen in love with chef-traveler’s take on cuisine, culture and conviviality. Inside these covers you’ll find Bourdain’s showcase of 20 or so of the country’s finest short fiction and nonfiction authors. As guest editor, here’s how he made his selection from hundreds of peridocials:

“The stories that spoke loudest and most powerfully to me were usually evocative of the darker side, those moments fearful, sublime, and absurd: the small epiphanies familiar to the full-time traveler, interspersed by a sense of dislocation–and the strange, unholy need to record the experience.”

If Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” is “When Harry Met Sally”, then “The Best American Travel Writing” is “Pulp Fiction.” ‘Nuff said.

8. “Bossypants” by Tina Fey.

Oh, yeah, I needed this one. Overworked and thoroughly stressed, I picked this up while struggling through LAX carrying way too much behind me and on my back, and it was the Motherlode.

Delivering an abundance of laughs per page, I got my money’s worth in the first 7 1/2 pages. What a treasure is our own Ms. Fey. Refreshing, honest, quirky, resilient, self-deprecating and oddly empowering–hers is a voice we’ve needed for a very long time in the literary world.

Set upon the premise that “You’re nobody until somebody calls you Bossy,” this is part autobiography, part guide to being a boss, and all parts wonderful. You will want it to be 10 times longer, you will want to buy it for everyone you know, you will want to put it on the easy-to-get-to part of the bookshelf so you can read it again next year. And the year after. And wish there were so many more Tina Fey tomes to choose from. But hey–with her Liz Lemon schedule, we were lucky enough that she shoehorned this one into existence.

Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly comments:

“Tina Fey is an uncommonly sensible, reflexively funny comedy goddess in eyeglasses…It’s Fey’s custom-quality, handcrafted BS detector that makes Bossypantsso irresistible. Fey puts on the literary equivalent of a satisfying night of sketch comedy. Excellent.”

9. “Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris

I know I’ll get my knuckles rapped for the comparison, but David Sedaris is the male Tina Fey. Ow! OK, ok! I understand they are two completely unique authors, and yet….I can’t help but link them in my mind as the Two Sardonic Sophisticates who are the salt to each other’s pepper.

“Me Talk Pretty” is nothing short of a humor manifesto. I wonder if some of Sedaris’ writing is even legal. Like “Bossypants”, it’s a series of loosely connected stories steeped generously in his own life experience; the most consistently hilarious are the ones dealing with the odd idiosyncrasies of the author’s father, the snort-inducing story “You Can’t Kill the Rooster”, about Sedaris’ foul-mouthed, white trash younger brother, and the richly scandalous tales of living in France. Deee-lish. Dig in and thank me later. Best served up with a stiff drink.

10. “The Light Between Oceans” by M. L. Stedman

The holy grail of page-turners. I’m talking total immersion. You may not even want to get off the plane until you finish. You’ll just sit there on the tarmac with your eyeballs stuck to the pages like they’re Gorilla Glued, and you’ll forget to text whoever you promised to text upon landing. That’s because you’ve been swept onto a remote island where a lighthouse keeper and his wife make a decision that will shatter their own lives and many others.

After four debilitating years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia to become the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, almost a half-day’s journey to the coast. To this isolated island, Tom brings his bold young wife, Isabel, where they try to begin a family. After years of trying; two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the despondent Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind, and discovers that a boat has washed ashore carrying a dead man–and a living infant.

I know–you’re already hooked. And I cannot blame you.

Read on, dear friends! And may your bookmarks come back with suntan lotion on them, smelling of mangoes, margaritas and memories.

More from Deborah Howell
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