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July 30, 2007 11:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a good book to take on a vacation: nothing too heavy, but nothing too brain-dead. (Too heavy=Shake hands with the devil, Guns Germs and Steel, etc. Too brain dead = Shopaholic-type books, drugstore mysteries, etc). I want good writing without having to think too much. Something along the lines of The Corrections or The Time Traveller's Wife would be great.

I'm looking for something that will hold my interest but not be so complex or heavy that I can't pick it up/put it down.

Since I'll be backpacking, I also need it to be a book available in paperback (so it won't be too heavy/big to carry around.)
posted by Kololo to Media & Arts (52 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Heat is fun if you're into food / chefs.
posted by smackfu at 11:37 AM on July 30, 2007

Paul Auster - The Music of Chance
David Mitchell - Number 9 Dream
A good Sherlock Holmes anthology
posted by jbickers at 11:37 AM on July 30, 2007

I always recommend Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth.
It is my most favorite book ever, with everything a good story should have: intrigue, war, murder, rape, pillaging, true love, etc. It's set in cathedral-building Europe and follows the life of a mason (and his family) whose dream is to build a masterpiece.

All those who've read it on my suggestion have been pleased with the story.

I'm not sure it meets the non-heavy portion of your request. The first time I read it, I couldn't stop reading it but that was because I was enjoying it so much. I'm sure I could've put it down for a while if I wanted to... *twitches*
posted by odi.et.amo at 11:44 AM on July 30, 2007 [5 favorites]

Been thinking of rereading Pest Control by Bill Fitzhugh. It's a fun little mystery.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 11:46 AM on July 30, 2007

If you haven't read Philip Roth yet, how about starting with Portnoy's Complaint? It's an intelligent, humorous, and insightful book.

Some of my favourite books are Chaim Potok's, things like The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev. But these books are a bit heavier and deal with difficult parent-child relationships.
posted by alona at 11:46 AM on July 30, 2007

Greg Iles' Spandau Phoenix is just about the ideal of a summer page-turner.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:48 AM on July 30, 2007

I read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (here's a good review) on my last vacation and really enjoyed it.
posted by Staggering Jack at 11:49 AM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I just finished reading Burning Marguerite and really enjoyed it. I was intrigued by how the story was written - switching from present day to the past of the lives of the characters.
posted by Sassyfras at 11:50 AM on July 30, 2007

What about Three Junes?
posted by chickaboo at 11:53 AM on July 30, 2007

How about "The Business" By Iain Banks? It's not too big, but I think it fits your requirements. As a nice bonus for the traveler it is set in several beautifully-described locations.
posted by true at 11:53 AM on July 30, 2007

Three books I've wnjoyed while snoozing in the back garden over the last few weekends:

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan is lighter and shorter than some of his other stuff, still pretty well written though.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst is a recent Booker winner that is set in 1980s London, and seen from the viewpoint of a gay man on the fringes of the political elite. It's a page-turner but long though, maybe 450 or so pages?

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson; I loved this book probably more than anything else I've read this year.
posted by jamesonandwater at 12:00 PM on July 30, 2007

Respectfully disagreeing with jbickers, choose Mitchell's Black Swan Green or Ghostwritten over Number 9 Dream, I think they both fit the bill pretty well. His Cloud Atlas (recommended by Staggering Jack) is one of my favorites, but people either love it or hate it, kind of risky for a trip.

Also two recent ones from Kate Atkinson, Case Histories and One Good Turn, are super-smart twists on detective fiction (especially the latter) that'll keep you turning pages.

I also liked the Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem quite a bit.

... off to buy The Business for my upcoming flight, thanks to true (above)!
posted by nkknkk at 12:01 PM on July 30, 2007

A lot of Margaret Atwood's stuff fits this bill, as long as it's not set in some dystopian future (The Handmaid's Tale is an excellent book, but perhaps too bleak for vacation reading.) I particularly like The Blind Assassin and Cat's Eye.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:05 PM on July 30, 2007

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
Seven Types of Ambiguity - Eliott Perlman
The Portrait of a Lady - Henry James
The Little Friend (if you're going someplace warm) or The Secret History (if it'll be winter where you're traveling) - Donna Tartt
posted by occhiblu at 12:08 PM on July 30, 2007

Robertson Davies' Deptford trilogy.
posted by vacapinta at 12:11 PM on July 30, 2007

Ooh, two more that I picked up randomly in airports and were much better than I was expecting:
Our Kind - Kate Walbert
The Wonder Spot - Melissa Bank
posted by occhiblu at 12:12 PM on July 30, 2007

I'll put my vote in for Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle - which is actually a trilogy.

There's definitely enough length to make sure it lasts for the whole vacation.

Not too serious or too light either.
posted by Icky at 12:17 PM on July 30, 2007

I loved The Wild Trees by Richard Preston -- and it would be great to read while backpacking.

Before that, Water For Elephants - which was pure enjoyment. A well written tale that will take you away.
posted by nnk at 12:18 PM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

On Beauty is brilliant, funny, and a non-stop read. (I had other plans for this past weekend, but On Beauty intervened).
posted by ourobouros at 12:23 PM on July 30, 2007

The Line of Beauty was good but I found it occasionally hard to follow.

Anyway, just finished The Catastrophist by Lawrence Douglas and I think it'd fit your description as not too heavy but not brain dead. It was good and I enjoyed it.

Also, I'm worked my way through The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. It's good so far and would be neither heavy nor brain-dead. The writing is a bit formal at times, but elegant.
posted by midatlanticwanderer at 12:30 PM on July 30, 2007

Soon I will be invincible
posted by atchafalaya at 12:44 PM on July 30, 2007

2nd both David Mitchell books.
I'm halfway through Middlesex after it was mentioned previously and 2nd that as well.
posted by MtDewd at 12:51 PM on July 30, 2007

Blink and Tipping Point are both light and interesting.
posted by chunking express at 12:54 PM on July 30, 2007

If you liked The Corrections, Franzen's earlier novel Strong Motion is also very good, and very readable. I second the people who mentioned David Mitchell's Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas, and add his Ghostwritten to that list.
posted by aught at 1:00 PM on July 30, 2007

so, no "infinite jest" or "harry potter and the deathly hallows", eh? :-)

tony bourdain's "kitchen confidential" is a fun read and not too thick.

it's a bit thick to carry on vacation, but i *adored* "harpo speaks", harpo marx's autobiography.

"bridge of birds" by barry hughart is a lovely bit of fantasy.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:05 PM on July 30, 2007

Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian - Smart and entertaining as all hell

Susanna Clarke - Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Just wonderous.
posted by Lord_Pall at 1:11 PM on July 30, 2007

Try "Set This House in Order" by Matt Ruff.
posted by you're a kitty! at 1:20 PM on July 30, 2007

I really like Coldest Winter Ever, by Sistah Souljah. It follows the life of a spoiled daughter of a ghetto pusher. It is the best of the Urban Fiction I have read, with great characters. Plus, it is written by the Sister.
What about non-fiction? African Queen, the real life of the Hottentot Venus by Rachel Holmes is very well written and touches on gender, class and colonial attitudes in the early 1800's in London and South Africa. (New, so only in hardcover but a pretty small book of about 150 pages). Michael Ondaatje has has a new one out too but again it is hardcover, have you read his other books in paperback at all? Or Yann Martel's Life of Pi is a fun read abut a boy immigrating to Canada (from India I think), trapped alone in a boat with a tiger. Fall On Your Knees by Anne-Marie MacDonald is biiiig but follows family dramas with the life of an East Coast family, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is set in India and combines interpersonal drama with politics during the Indian Emergency. Jane Urquhart's novels remind me of the Time Traveller's Wife too. Kinda dreamy, kinda romantic, a good writer.and The shot stories of Alistair MacLeod are phenomenal, he is considered one of the best writers Canada has produced. His stories resonate with me years after I have read them. No Great Mischief is his only novel.
posted by saucysault at 1:24 PM on July 30, 2007

Couple more:
The Namesake - Jhumpa Lahiri
Almost anything by Valerie Martin. I especially like The Great Divorce and A Recent Martyr.
posted by occhiblu at 1:29 PM on July 30, 2007

Experience by Martin Amis, maybe? Very funny writer in general if you're looking for lighter reading; this is his memoir-ish one though it's more like The Corrections in that not-just-a-straight-memoir sort of way...
Or The Secret History by Donna Tartt is a fun mystery that is also sharp & well written.
Ever try John Irving? A Prayer for Owen Meany is fun...
Or Tom Robbins? eg, Jitterbug Perfume
Oliver Sacks is often a lot of fun to read if you're looking for interesting but still pretty conversational non-fiction.
posted by mdn at 1:33 PM on July 30, 2007

Alice Hoffman's older stuff is just great--I love Practical Magic. Hoffman's prose is lovely and her stories are engrossing.

Elinor Lipman is also very good. The Ladies' Man is a good place to start. She writes comedies of manners, like a modern-day Jane Austen.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:38 PM on July 30, 2007

Hard to say if I don't know what you have read but lets try sticking to books about travelers...

On the Road (Jack Kerouac)
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Persig)

I can't believe I couldn't do any better than that. How about these?:

Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut)
Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
1984 (George Orwell)
Post Office (Charles Bukowski)
Lamb (Christopher Moore)
posted by Gregamell at 1:46 PM on July 30, 2007

Seconding Follett's Pillars of the Earth and adding Night Over Water.

Midwives is another one of my favorites, and if you can stomach the subject matter, Lolita is a beautifully written story.
posted by zach braff's mixtape at 1:51 PM on July 30, 2007

I've recently rediscovered Sherman Alexie. His books are bittersweet and magical. Try Reservation Blues (About bluesman Robert Johnson giving his devil-guitar to a trio of Spokane Indians) or The Toughest Indian in the World (which is a collection of short stories...maybe good for hiking?)
posted by Wink Ricketts at 1:54 PM on July 30, 2007

I like reading books by Haruki Murakami on vacation, they're not too heavy or too long, but I find myself getting pretty absorbed in them anyway.
posted by waterlily at 1:57 PM on July 30, 2007

Seconding Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy.

For non-fiction, consider Devil In the White City by Erik Larson.

If you haven't explored Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, they are great for travel- each paperback is pretty compact, but the series stretches out over 20 books, so you won't run out for a long time. The writing is great, and you can delve into the minutiae of square-rigged ships in the Georgian Navy or skip it, without impacting the plot either way.
posted by ambrosia at 2:02 PM on July 30, 2007

I find that really good kids/YA books are perfect for this kind of holiday consumption. Easy to take in small chunks and very entertaining. Stuff I've read and enjoyed:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
His Dark Materials
The Dark is Rising
The Princess Bride

For slightly more adult fare, I would recommend Christopher Brookmyre. A little like a Scottish Carl Hiaason, but (imho) better. Dave Barry's novels Big Trouble and Tricky Business are also in this vein, and eminently readable in holiday mode.

Enjoy your holiday.
posted by Jakey at 2:32 PM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, has some of the sci-fi elements of The Time Traveler's Wife, but really is much more about the plot and character development.
posted by j at 2:52 PM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Anything by Tibor Fischer is a good bet, particularly The Collector Collector, a novel told from the point of view of an ancient pot.
posted by carrienation at 3:39 PM on July 30, 2007

I second many of these - David Mitchell, Ken Follett, Donna Tartt et al - plot driven is best for traveling.
My last best travel books - Pattern Recognition by William Gibson and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.
posted by readery at 4:06 PM on July 30, 2007

All Terry Pratchett books.
I would second the first book of the Baroque cycle. After that, not so much.
Blink is always on my list.
posted by misha at 4:31 PM on July 30, 2007

Still Life With Woodpecker - Tom Robbins
This Book Will Save Your Life - A.M. Homes

Murakami's Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart are vacation-friendly (length wise)

also, seconding Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
posted by clumbsy at 5:13 PM on July 30, 2007

The River Why by David James Duncan is a fun read with an outdoorsy/love-of-nature theme, which I always like when I'm backpacking. Its central characters are into fly fishing, but I loved it despite having only one (failed) experience with the sport.

I'm very much enjoying Complications by Atul Gawande. It's about how surgeons are humans who make mistakes, and how society does and doesn't deal with that fact. It's fascinating, and a quick read despite covering some very thought-provoking topics.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is another great nonfiction read. She writes hilariously about a year spent traveling - 4 months in Italy, 4 months in India, and 4 months in Bali. I've laughed out loud more times reading this book than any other in several years.

All three of these are available in rather slim paperbacks, and the second two are recent and popular enough that you might be able to get a deal on them - I bought them together with one other on the "3 for the price of 2" table at Borders a couple weeks ago.
posted by vytae at 5:29 PM on July 30, 2007

Japan At War: An Oral History by Haruko and Theodore Cook. Many, many short chapters (vacation-friendly, so you can pick it up and put it down) that are illuminating and thought-provoking (so you don't feel like you're just killing time).
posted by SPrintF at 5:29 PM on July 30, 2007

Anything by Christopher Moore if you like the funny and a very good story, too. I see Lamb recommended above--but, that is probably one of the last ones I would recommend....my first choice would be Fluke.
posted by fieldtrip at 5:53 PM on July 30, 2007

Seriously, have to second "Murakami on vacations" and Coldest Winter Ever. Sister Souljah is a little self-referential and full of herself at times, but it really is a pretty good book (and if you like that--go get ye some of Kenji Jasper's Dark and Nichelle Tramble's A Dying Ground).

I couldn't put down John DuFresne's Louisiana Power & Light, which I picked up solely based on its title. Smart, well-written, just a smidge fantastic, but not enough to seem overly implausible. And man, I could smell the dirt and the air of the places he described. Cannot recommend enough. Kind of Pete Dexter-like--recommend him, too; especially "The Paperboy" for vacation. Also pretty much anything by Auster (well, except for In the Country of Last Things, which may well be amazing, but I haven't been able to focus enough to get past page 2) and Julian Barnes' recent Arthur & George.

If you don't get grossed out too easily, Chuck Palahniuk and Irvine Welsh are also really great vacation reads. I can never put 'em down, though I guess it's not everyone's cuppa.

Or, honestly, seriously, I know it sounds perverse, but the best summer reading for me is dense yet engrossing; classic stuff--Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, anything by Dostoyevsky, DeLillo's Underworld, Ellison's Invisible Man...these also have the benefit of being a single book, long enough to last a string of steady-reading days and pretty darned satisfying.
posted by jenh at 6:30 PM on July 30, 2007

If you like some smart but not taxingly smart non-fic essays check out Franzen's How to be Alone or DFW's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.
posted by moift at 6:30 PM on July 30, 2007

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger is wonderful.

A couple other favorites: Under the Tuscan Sun, The Agony & the Ecstacy
posted by belladonna at 6:43 PM on July 30, 2007

Wow, so many fantastic suggestions! Several of you suggested books I've already read & liked, which leads me to beleive that the other suggestions will be on the right track. I'm going to print this out, take it to the bookstore, read the backs of a lot of books, and somehow make a choice! Thanks!
posted by Kololo at 7:25 PM on July 30, 2007

Ooh ooh, you may have already gone to the bookstore but I just can't help myself, I have to give my suggestions!!

Love in the Time of Cholera fits the bill perfectly - smart and beautiful and thought-provoking but not difficult at all.

I think short-short fiction is excellent vacation reading - doesn't require extended periods of attention and gives you lots of bang for your buck, so to speak. I recently read New Sudden Fiction, a short-short anthology, when I was on vacation in Puerto Rico. It was perfect.

Seconding Heat if you're into food.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 8:35 PM on July 30, 2007

I would second Chuck Palahniuk (I just read Rant and loved it).

Another good book that is short but intriguing is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It's a short read but very reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye.
posted by carpyful at 10:26 PM on July 30, 2007

You should read Raise High the Roof beam Carpenters by JD Salinger. It's the best book ever written. Its short, poignant, and will make you feel good about the world. Actually all of Salingers books are pretty good, and I don't think they are so dense as to be annoying to read while on vacation.
posted by chunking express at 6:28 AM on July 31, 2007

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