Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Celebrating Edith Wharton

Wharton posing for a formal portrait.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth. If you’re a Wharton fan in New York City, you may went to head to the Center for Fiction on Thursday, January 26th for a marathon reading of the The House of Mirth. Readers will include Jennifer Egan, Roxana Robinson, Hilma Wolitzer, Sigrid Nunez, Lily Tuck, Jayne Anne Phillips, Jane Ciabattari, Robb Forman Dew, Rachel Hadas, Mary Morris, Anne Landsman, Elissa Schappell, Helen Schulman, Leora Skolkin-Smith, Dinitia Smith, Terese Svoboda, Rachel Cline, Kathryn Harrison, Alice Mattison, Lynne Tillman, and Mary Morris. Proceeds from the event will benefit The Mount, Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts.   You can find out more about the event here. If you’d like to read the novel yourself, you can download it at no cost at Project Gutenberg.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Don’t Stop the Carnival

Recently I blogged about Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival and commented that some of the language in the book would now be considered offensive.  But after finishing the novel I thought it important to say that Don’t Stop the Carnival, published in 1965, was actually ahead of its time. Wouk not only included an inter-racial love story between the African-Caribbean governor of his fictional West Indian island and a Caucasian-American actress, but found fault with white characters who could not accept their romance (This was also a case of adultery—the governor was married—but this seems to be of little consequence by those who are shocked by the relationship.) Moreover, it turns out to be the white woman who is a liability to the career of her lover, rather than what one might have anticipated, given the times.

Wouk was also prescient. One character, commenting about the lovers’ predicament says “I mean, really, it’s almost a tragedy, don’t you agree? I mean fifty years from now nobody will think anything about these things.” While we are still far from being a global society that universally disregards race in matters of the heart, I think we can be encouraged that many have come a long way. Wouk also anticipated a modern tragedy. Speaking of the then current threat the Russians and the Chinese were thought to pose to the United States, a character speaks of America’s blindness to its vulnerability: “Instead of bomb shelters we construct gigantic frail glass buildings all over Manhattan at Ground Zero, a thousand feet high, open to the sky…”

Finally, Wouk offer us a glimpse of what race relations might be like at their best. Norman Paperman visits some of the old African-Caribbean families of Amerigo and feels accepted in a way he has not yet felt by any other population on the island, white or black. There was: “a friendliness tinged with reserve, but free of subservience, or arrogance, or hostility. They made him feel, most of them, that great warmth was there, waiting and wanting to break through, but held back for age-old reasons…They were not supercilious, and they were all sober—though they were drinking—and they gave him no unease at being either Jewish or white.”

For those interested in a novel that combines farce with sometimes-poignant observations about race, age, class and culture, Don’t Stop the Carnival is an engaging read.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Winging It - Part 2

Because basing a piece on airport bookstores on my personal experience has its limitations, I've started researching the traveler's options in places I haven't visited. Portland's International Airport, for example, boasts three branches of Powell's Books which sell new and used books.  (The history of Powell's Books, started by a University of Chicago student, who was encouraged by a group of friends and professors--including Saul Bellow--also makes for happy reading.) Per an article that originally appeared in USA Today*:

According to store manager Martin Barrett, travelers can stop by the main (pre-security) store anytime to sell or trade up to three books at a time, but anyone with more than three books to sell or swap must drop them off and return a day or two later for a tally. "A lot of airport employees and airline crewmembers take advantage of this," says Barrett, but if a passenger shows up with a suitcase full of books to swap, that's fine too. 

Inside the Portland International Airport-Concourse D.
Architecture and airport aficionados looking for a more
exciting view of the building may want to visit the
American Institute of Steel Construction site, which
features photos of the massive steel-and-glass canopy
that covers the passenger drop-off area

Harriet Baskas who wrote the USA Today piece--and who blogs at Stuck at the Airport--also introduced me to 2nd Edition Booksellers which gets high marks on Yelp. Located in the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the store exclusively sells "previously owned" books.  Other airport bookstores to check out include: HMS Host's Simply Books, with outlets in 110 airports worldwide. I have no first-hand knowledge of the stores, but one nice feature, per their website, at least some of the HMS stores have seating available for customers. 

More research into the subject of airport bookstores led me to Gate Guru, an app designed to help those navigating airports find a variety of shops and services; users can also post reviews.  Users can locate bookstores in more than 120 airports.*

* Total number cited in a 2011 LA Times article, but I believe more are now available.

*   *   *   *

Recommended Reading: A Week in the Airport by Alain de Botton: While it might be hard to imagine that a book with this title would be hugely entertaining and occasionally moving, this slim volume manages to be both. While spending a week as writer-in-residence in  Terminal 5 of London’s Heathrow Airport at the request of the company that owns the facility, de Botton described his impressions of the bookstore:
Across the way from the exchange desk was the terminal's largest bookshop. Seemingly, in spite of the author's defensive predictions about the commercial future of books (perhaps linked to the unavailability of any of his titles at an airport outlet), sales here were soaring. One could buy two volumes and get a third for free, or pick up four and be eligible for a fizzy drink. The death of literature has been exaggerated...If there was a conclusion to be drawn from the number of bloodstained covers, however, it was that there was a powerful desire, in a wide cross-section of airline passengers, to be terrified. High above the earth, they were looking to panic about being murdered, and therefore to forget their more mundane fears about the success of a conference in Salzburg or the challenges of having sex for the first time with a new partner in Antigua. 
I had a chat with a manager [and told him]...I was looking for the sort of books in which a genial voice expresses emotions that the reader has long felt but never before really understood; those that convey the secret, everyday things that society at large prefers to leave unsaid; those that make on feel somehow less alone and strange. [He] wondered if I might like a magazine instead.
Many more such meditations can be found here.

Update 2-1-12: Patrick Smith, an airline pilot who writes the Ask the Pilot feature on Salon.com, posted an article on airport bookstores yesterday. His piece, Where are the books? is a plea for better bookstores at airports—and more of them. A number of commenters second the recommendation for Powell’s at the Portland International Airport and one suggests a visit to Jetway Express Booksellers at LAX.  

Monday, January 9, 2012

Winging It

“Life is a journey, not a destination” Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said--an observation often quoted and misquoted along the lines of, “It’s the journey, not the destination [that counts].” As a worldview, I think the idea has merit, but when it comes to literal journeys, I often find that I prefer the destination. Particularly if the journey involves flying.

It’s not simply the idea that one is hurtling through space in an aluminum tube at altitudes Icarus once attempted with disastrous results that bothers me,* but the airport experience that I find daunting. There is a soullessness to airports--that I am certainly not the first to comment on—that does not characterize train stations, for example, which I find subtly romantic.

In my younger days, when I traveled solo, I was often one of those people who struck up a conversation with a seatmate in the hope of making myself feel more connected. That idea of connection or grounding that’s so important to my psyche during flight (lest I float away entirely from my usual life?) can also come from a good book, of course.

And if one were to arrive at the airport without a literary lifeline? I decided to check out the options during our recent travels. At Kennedy airport, the embarkation point for international flights leaving New York City, the passenger’s best bet is a visit to one of the ubiquitous Hudson News stands--according to the Port Authority there are five.  (A Borders bookstore once occupied a space in Terminal 5, but it has gone the way of the rest of the chain.)

Choosing some light reading at the Hudson News in Terminal 8. 
The Hudson outlets are clean, well-lit places that feature shelf after shelf of glossy magazines, in addition to a decent range of novels and non-fiction. They also sell overpriced beverages, toiletries, and souvenirs. Everything feels new and temporary to me. With some few exceptions, I suspect there are no “regular” customers. It also seems highly unlikely that anyone would ask one of the polite, but brisk sales people for a book recommendation. Yet the Hudson outlet I visited at the end of December did feature a table with recommended volumes including the summer 2011 volume of Granta, which “…conjure[s] the complexity and sorrow of life since 11 September 2001” and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, a National Book Award finalist, about a physician spending time in a Balkan country caring for children and unraveling a family mystery.  For teenagers Newbery Honor awardee Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now is featured. Without reading beyond the blurbs, I feel inclined to like this book as the protagonist, an alienated 8th grader in a new town, finds meaning in his search to replace some missing material from the town library.

Recommended reading for the more serious-minded.

If I hadn’t packed my own reading material I might have purchased the 2011 volume of The Best American Short Stories edited by Geraldine Brooks.  (The Granta issue speaks to some self-imposed injunction to read a volume because I ought to want to, but I’ve let myself off the hook on this one, at least as in-flight fare.)

Before returning to NYC I stopped in the bookshop at the Cyril E. King Airport in St. Thomas (named for the second elected governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands), Virgin Islands. Although the shop is not too dissimilar from the Hudson News outlets, as might be expected, the selection includes an array of books about life in the West Indies or Caribbean adventures. I was surprised to see Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk, though I’d taken the book out of the library before our trip. Its presence here makes sense since it tells the story of a New York press agent, Norman Paperman, who, after experiencing a life-threatening heart attack, gives up his business for a new life in the mythical Caribbean island of Amerigo as owner of a resort hotel. (While I saw resemblances between this fictional island and Virgin Gorda, I've also read that Wouk may have based his novel on a hotel on a very small island in a St. Croix harbor.)

Buying books at Cyril E. King Airport

The story of a New Yorker who falls in love with the Caribbean life.

Frequently lively and entertaining, Wouk’s novel contains language we now find  offensive—the names (perhaps not considered pejoratives by white visitors at that time) used to describe West Indians of African descent, for example, as well as simplistic depictions of some, but not all of these characters. Interestingly, the novel (originally published in 1965) was probably progressive or even liberal in its tone. And, Wouk doesn’t spare other racial, ethnic, or professional groups. One of his funniest and least attractive minor characters is a married English instructor named Sheldon Klug, who is courting the Papermans’ defiant and voluptuous daughter.  

Wouk also neatly captures a special kind of cultural pressure that is still relevant to New Yorkers of a certain bent:

Paperman’s friends were writers, actors, newspapermen, television people, and the like…[They] worked hard at dressing correctly and at reading the right books. Paperman and his friends, indeed, made a second career, beyond their professional work, of being up to the moment, and of never wearing, saying, or doing the wrong thing. This was not easy. In New York the right thing to wear or to read, to think or to say, to praise or to blame, can change fast. It can be damaging to miss a single issue of one or another clever magazine.

For readers over a certain age, Wouk is probably better known as the author of The Caine Mutiny—which won Wouk the Pulitzer Prize and was the basis of a movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart--and Marjorie Morningstar. In addition to authoring a number of novels, Wouk has written on science and religion. In 2010, at age 94, he published The Language God Talks.   

Herman Wouk at a Book Festival in 2010.

Also featured at the Cyril E. King airport bookstore were, not surprisingly a number of guidebooks to the nearby islands. For many passengers, the St. Thomas airport serves as a stopping off point on flights from the U.S., as a number of the smaller islands are not accessible by large aircraft.  A first-hand account of a particular kind of life in the Caribbean also caught my eye. In An Embarrassment of Mangoes, Ann Vanderhoof describes her (and her husband’s) two-year voyage around the Caribbean, as they take a mid-life “time out” after putting their professional lives on hold in Toronto.

As once again I was well-stocked with reading matter for the trip home I didn’t buy anything, but Mr. Stacked-NYC picked up this special issue of the Atlantic magazine that contains wonderful essays on the Civil War by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry James, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., among others.  

In the context of this blog, no trip would be complete without a visit to a local library or bookstore. On that subject, quite a bit more to come....

* There are some things I truly love about flying—besides the fact that it can take me in a single night’s time from New York City to Venice, Paris or London—the feeling of limbo as you glide smoothly high above the ocean; the way the light fills the cabin when you rise above the clouds, somehow making the cramped space feel more expansive; gentle landings in a city sparkling with lights or an island surrounded by turquoise water; the sweet moment of wheels making contact with the tarmac.