Help me choose a book to travel with.
August 21, 2008 9:38 PM   Subscribe

I need a longish, interesting, well-written book (fiction) to read on an upcoming trip. Any suggestions?

I'm going on a trip where I'll have plenty of time to read and not much space to pack books. I need to find a good novel-type book that could last me at least a couple of weeks. My trip is for a couple of months in non-English speaking countries, and I want something captivating to fall into as a respite from journeying.

I have read both Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder in this same situation, and those worked perfectly for my purposes. I wish I could just bring one of these again, because they were so perfect - dense, interesting, thought-provoking, lend themselves to rereading passages - but I'd really like to find something new.

My general tastes run towards late 18th Century (Burney Lennox, Austen, etc) and turn of the twentieth century (James, Wharton, Wilde, etc). I generally steer away from serializations that have been turned into novels (Dickens, Forster, etc) and overly romanticized, gothic, heroic, dramatic love type stories (Les Miserables, Goethe, etc). But of course I am completely open to trying new genres and authors that I might not yet know I love.

What book was in your backpack that kept you going through the lonely times? What's the best longish novel you've read that you wish you had had the time to just sit and read? To slightly complicate this, I'm leaving in 36 hours and will have to find this on the shelf at one of my (luckily many) local book stores.
posted by mosessis to Grab Bag (57 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell? I'm in love with that book. You could bring a compilation of Jane Austen's novels and re-read.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:49 PM on August 21, 2008 [4 favorites]

Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding

The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann

Either will keep you well-occupied, though for entirely different reasons.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:57 PM on August 21, 2008

Crime and Punishment.
posted by prefpara at 9:57 PM on August 21, 2008

Ever had a hankering to read Ulysses? Try the new annotated edition for your first venture in. I long to have the kind of life where I could re-read it on a regular basis. It's a breathtaking, profound, scatological, hilarious, heartbreaking journey of a book -- my most favorite novel on the planet.
posted by scody at 9:58 PM on August 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

Well, this is nowhere near any of your preferred categories, but Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson is certainly long, dense, fascinating, and entertaining. You'll learn things!
posted by turgid dahlia at 10:01 PM on August 21, 2008

Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Stern. One of my favorite books, and best read in long sittings (because otherwise you lose the thread of what's going on). I see it for sale at my local used bookstore fairly often; have never looked for it in a regular bookstore though.
posted by frobozz at 10:04 PM on August 21, 2008

Seconding Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke. My husband and I listened to it on a long road trip. It was wonderful.
posted by shesbookish at 10:09 PM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
posted by cinemafiend at 10:11 PM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Time Travelers Wife?

Long, but honestly I found it engrossing enough that I kind of plowed through it. But it's long. I wouldn't want to carry it on trip.
posted by GuyZero at 10:11 PM on August 21, 2008

Best answer: I was also going to suggest Crime and Punishment, but I'll take this opportunity to recommend East of Eden by John Steinbeck. It's a great story with an almost 'epic' feel, and I just love the writing and characters. My edition is around 600 pages, and the chapters are divided into smaller 'scenes' which really adds to the pacing. It's not exactly late 18th century British fiction, but the narrative is really timeless.
posted by sociology at 10:14 PM on August 21, 2008

U.S.A. by John Dos Passos; a trilogy, Nineteen Nineteen, The Big Money, and something I can't remember. Get the Modern Library thing. He and Thomas Wolfe are among the most overlooked writers of the depression years, for good reason. They weren't exactly uplifting, unless what you're looking for is some some modicum of truth.

And if you're a, well, tech nerdy computer programmer sort, or sci-fi person. "He, She and It," by Marge Piercy. Believe it or not an apprentice midwife recommended it to me 23 years ago and I scoffed. It presages just about everything about the way we live now, except for Google.

The author was part of some odd study group in Cambridge with a bunch of MIT people. They saw the future, and not for the money. They just saw where it was all headed. I was too busy having babies to pay attention. But the book is actually a kind of good beach read.
posted by emhutchinson at 10:41 PM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Shantaram gets rave reviews whenever I recommend it to friends.

Also seconding Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
posted by djgh at 10:44 PM on August 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Thirding Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

"The Crimson Petal and the White" is certainly long enough and easy to keep reading and it is set in Victorian England, but it might fall into the "overly romanticized, dramatic love type stories" category. Also, I found it a bit disappointing in the end.

Umberto Eco books are also very good, as most of them are pretty long and very dense, good books to take one's time on. The Name of the Rose is my favorite.

If you're willing to try a big thick fantasy novel, Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind is the best example of the big thick fantasy brick genre I've ever read.

You might also check out this thread.
posted by pwicks at 10:46 PM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Brothers Karmazov. I had it on a 6 week Greyhound trip and it was perfect. It was, technically, serialized, but it doesn't feel like it. It's a complete work.
posted by one_bean at 10:49 PM on August 21, 2008

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra.

It's difficult to find words to describe the awesomeness of this novel. Oft overused terms such as "epic", "sweeping", "masterpiece" are all appropriate in this case.

This book is, in one sense, a crime novel. It includes international organised crime, the Indian Pakistani war(s), Indian partition, nuclear terrorism, Hindu-Muslim religious extremism, Bollywood, sex, humour, pathos and so much, so very much more.

At the most basic level, it's the story of the rise (and fall?) of a Hindu petty criminal, from his early days in Mumbai to his position as a global crime boss and the relationship he has with a down-to-Earth, sympathetically characterised, overworked police detective.

I loved this book. It's great.

Oh, and perfect holiday reading.
posted by Mephisto at 11:15 PM on August 21, 2008

Perhaps this is the perfect time to work your way through War & Peace?
posted by Effigy2000 at 12:04 AM on August 22, 2008

I was once stuck in the Alaska Bush for a week due to inclement weather with a copy of East Of Eden by John Steinbeck. It was a perfect fit for passing vast expanses of time and remains in my all-time top novels. (On preview, I guess I'm seconding Sociology's suggestion here)

Salman Rushdie also has some good long books. Try Satanic Verses or The Ground Beneath Her Feet.
posted by fantastic at 12:46 AM on August 22, 2008

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton creates its own atmosphere. I really enjoyed it.
posted by h00py at 12:51 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. Fascinating.
posted by zardoz at 1:54 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mark Helprin's magnificent Winter's Tale.

A. S. Byatt's intricate Possession.

John Crowley's sprawling Little, Big.
posted by cgc373 at 2:10 AM on August 22, 2008

Don't know where you're going but I read The Magus by John Fowles while in the tropics. It's a mindfuck (I'm sorry, there's no other word for it) set on a Greek isle and while I don't know if I'd call it one of the very best long books I've read, it definitely is worth a slow, savory read.
posted by JaredSeth at 3:31 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

er, it it's definitely

too early, no coffee, you know the drill
posted by JaredSeth at 3:35 AM on August 22, 2008

Maybe Attwood's Alias Grace would suit. It's a brillaint book.
posted by mattoxic at 4:52 AM on August 22, 2008

I read Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy on my last dig (three weeks, middle of nowhere.) Atmospheric, definitely; romancy, no.
posted by cobaltnine at 5:33 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Count of Monte Cristo
Anna Karenina
Seconding East of Eden. My all-time favorite book.
I also loved the House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende.

Or try something modern....Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides.
posted by emd3737 at 5:43 AM on August 22, 2008

I'd like to second the recommendations for Cryptonomicon and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Kafka on the Shore by Murakami is also quite good and certainly long enough to keep you busy.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:43 AM on August 22, 2008

I was also going to suggest the Count of Monte Cristo.

But I also just finished The Book Thief by Marcus Zuszak, and I loved it. I picked it as my book club choice for this month, and three people have emailed me to tell me that they're loving it, too. Takes place in Nazi Germany, and has some sad parts, but, wow, good book.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:19 AM on August 22, 2008

I took a heavy collection of Shakespeare plays with me around Europe once, and avoiding it really spurred me into doing more things than sit around reading. :7) Or pick up a copy (lift with the legs!) of "Clarissa" and your idle hours will be filled.

Slightly more seriously, I've only just started reading Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," and while it's poetry and not prose, there's a lot of it, and you can go back and re-read parts of it over and over. I somehow managed to dodge this during my English lit B.A., but I'm enjoying it now. The language is so complex and the themes (of America) so broad that it's as meaty as a novel.

If you're wedded to a novel, how about something from the country(ies) you'll be visiting?
posted by wenestvedt at 6:35 AM on August 22, 2008

OK, this is not exactly a match for your previous books, but it is dense, thought-provoking (IMO) and in a period setting. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson is based on a fictional character surrounded by very much nonfictional characters (Pepys, Newton, Hooke, etc), and I thought it was wonderfully interesting. But, I really hate the classics that I was forced to read in high school and college, so YMMV.

I have yet to read Cryptonomicon though, so I cannot vouch for that.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 6:47 AM on August 22, 2008

In the Name of the Rose. Dense enough that you can only really do it in small chunks, fascinating enough that you have lots of food for thought, mysterious enough that you wonder what happens next.

I just started Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet. So far, so good. It's a good 1,000 pages, but you can get the little paperback that doesn't weigh to much.

And I second the Murakami suggestions, but I tend to fly through them way too fast. They're hard to put down.
posted by cachondeo45 at 6:49 AM on August 22, 2008

Best answer: Seconding The Wind-Up Bird's perfect for travel since it's very absorbing but you can put it down and pick it up and not get lost much.

In you can find a paperback of Infinite Jest, go for it. It's a doozy but is relatively (physically) light for a thousand-page novel. And it's awesome.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:15 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I read over 30 books on a recent (and long) trip, and "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry was far and away the best. May even be my favourite book ever.
posted by backwards guitar at 7:29 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mark Halpern -- Memoir From Antproof Case

Funny as hell, brilliant writing -- if you can get past Halperns politics (which do NOT show up in his books, best I can see) and read the writing for what it is, and not who wrote it, he is a master.
posted by dancestoblue at 7:31 AM on August 22, 2008

Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai. A riveting read that makes you stop and think on every page, and when you get to the end you'll want to start all over again.
posted by languagehat at 7:40 AM on August 22, 2008

Perhaps your trip is also an opportunity to finally read Remembrance of Things Past.

RE: The Magus, a stranger gave me that book to read during a long trip on the condition that I pass it along to another traveller when finished-- it was perfect!
posted by carmicha at 7:57 AM on August 22, 2008

Thackeray's Vanity Fair? Written in the nineteenth century, but very eighteenth-century in spirit.

Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (do yourself a favor and get the unabridged edition) might also fit the bill-- massive novel, but addictively insightful and well-written. The great-grandaddy of all those other late-18c sentimental novels.
posted by Bardolph at 8:03 AM on August 22, 2008

I second Sacred Games and will add the best fiction of the decade: The Savage Detectives. You should think about the new translation of War and Peace: its a page turner, really.

But maybe its time to buckle down and tackle Proust!
posted by shothotbot at 8:07 AM on August 22, 2008

Best answer: Have you read Middlemarch? I finally got around to it, and it kept me awake through two red-eye flights this summer.
posted by Beardman at 8:16 AM on August 22, 2008

I can in here just to suggest Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and saw it's already been done. I'm re-reading it for the third time, right now, just so I can re-read it in French right after. That's how much I love this book.

It's contemporary, but tries to mimic the style of novelists working in the 1800s. Think of it as Austen plus His Dark Materials.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:29 AM on August 22, 2008

Seconding both Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (and there is now a sequel out which I haven't read yet) and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Or a classic sci-fi book called Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney. Dense but good.
posted by camworld at 8:40 AM on August 22, 2008

You might try your hand at the Illuminatus! Trilogy. It's quite long, and while it's certainly not Austen, I guarantee you haven't read anything else quite like it. Really, anyone who likes books ought to give it a go at some point in their lives. Why not now?
posted by adamdschneider at 9:04 AM on August 22, 2008

Oh, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was wicked awesome. There is also always the Book of the New Sun by Wolfe if you want to try something heavy, but I would definitely go with JS&MN.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:06 AM on August 22, 2008

Seconding 'The Magic Mountain' by Thomas Mann. Eminently thought-provoking.
posted by Darth Fedor at 9:31 AM on August 22, 2008

i would also recommend Count of Monte Cristo, or any of the Three Musketeers novels by Alexandre Dumas. They are very long, but contain just enough swashbuckling action to keep you going.

If you are willing to try something different, try Dune by Frank Herbert. It's not as long as Count of Monte Cristo, but it lends itself greatly to rereading. It also requires you to put the book down and think about what's happening if you haven't read it before.
posted by Axle at 9:34 AM on August 22, 2008

I'd recommend George Eliot (I've read Mill on the Floss, but Middlemarch would be another option) based on your description.

Based on a gut feeling, I'd say Roberston Davies. My favorite was the Deptford Trilogy. He does have an almost magical realism style (religion, theatre influenced him) at times, but the writing is excellent and thought-provoking.

Second the Dostovesky(I'd recommend Brothers Karamozov over Crime & Punishment for density). Don't recommend Murakami based on your preferences against dramatic love-type stories.
posted by ejaned8 at 9:40 AM on August 22, 2008

Also strongly second Umberto Eco (Name of the Rose). Foucault's Pendulum was excellent, as well.
posted by ejaned8 at 9:42 AM on August 22, 2008

While I happily second several of the mentions (e.g. Wind-up Bird, Savage Detectives and Sacred Games which have all got me through variously lonely times) based on your preferences I'd say try bringing Ibsen along, a big book with a bunch of his plays. He'd fall inside several venn diagrams which include the authors you mention.
posted by Kattullus at 10:15 AM on August 22, 2008

Well, this is nowhere near any of your preferred categories, but Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson is certainly long, dense, fascinating, and entertaining. You'll learn things!

Hmm... would The Baroque Cycle not be closer to the brief?
posted by Artw at 11:14 AM on August 22, 2008

Oh yeah, I can't believe I forgot Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. I will issue my standard disclaimer here: the first 100 or so pages are hard-going, but then the story just sort of opens up like a treasure. He did this on purpose, to weed out readers who weren't really interested, and to reward the readers who kept going. It's a wonderful, entrancing novel -- the first time I read it, I was on a train, and was so engrossed that I missed the announcement for my stop and didn't realize it till I was in another state.
posted by scody at 12:58 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I love the Book Thief, but read it quite quickly, myself.
As far as denser goes, I'd say Neil Stephenson's Diamond Age, since that's the book of his that appealed most to me, as a first time reader. I'll confirm the person before who suggested Crowley's Big, Little, though. It was a book that I absolutely had to keep reading, but was episodic in a way that I could leave it and come back, versus a must-keep-going-page-turner.

Honestly? I think Strange & Norrell somehow WISHES it could be Big, Little. I know they're very different books, but I've never read anything with magic in it that manages to be sooo very tedious. The dry wit was there, but it was hard for me, personally, to shovel through to. Your tastes sounds like they may vary.
posted by redsparkler at 2:17 PM on August 22, 2008

Anthony Trollope is perfect for travelling and is from your preferred era.
posted by canoehead at 3:22 PM on August 22, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great suggestions!

I can't believe I've never heard of this Strange & Norrell book - it sounds amazing. I found a book store that carried that in paperback. I also found Infinite Jest, read a couple of pages, decided it would sound great read aloud, so picked that one up as well. Now I'm just deciding between Middlemarch and East of Eden, two books I've always meant to read.

I marked the first mention of each of those books as best - but all of the answers were great. A number of them are books I've already read and enjoyed, so it looks like you've guessed my tastes pretty well.

I'll think of you all now whenever I'm reading on the road...
posted by mosessis at 6:05 PM on August 22, 2008

I came back to suggest The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, and am happily reminded that I have Strange & NOrrell somewhere, and I haven't read it yet. Yay!

(The Book Thief took me a long time, but that's because I was interrupted a lot -- it probably would go fast on vacation.)
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:34 PM on August 22, 2008

I read Middlemarch and The Forsyte Saga in Tunisia and enjoyed having long stretches of time to get in to them properly.

Also maybe look out Official BookCrossing Zones as you travel around as you can always pick up a good and interesting book there - for free!
posted by LyzzyBee at 11:32 PM on August 24, 2008

Seconding Axle's suggestion of "Three Musketeers." I picked that up in the airport book store, and it was a perfect choice, just light enough for prolonged reading, just thick enough to read before bedtime, long enough to work on for two weeks, and paperback size!
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:37 PM on August 27, 2008

Ever had a hankering to read Ulysses? Try the new annotated edition for your first venture in...

Just a heads-up on this, the book referenced in the link contains annotations only! It does not contain the text of the actual book.
posted by storybored at 7:57 PM on December 26, 2008

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