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Good Books to Read While Cruising

By The Ithaka - Published November 03, 2006 - Viewed 11814 times

Good Books to Read While Cruising

Many readers have written asking us to name more of our favorite books, as we did in a log about a year ago. Good books are a hot topic among cruisers, and we're happy to share with you what we've liked.

From Bernadette: Because we've chosen not to have a television or VCR aboard, reading has been especially important, as entertainment and private time, as well as a way to gain some perspective on the countries we're traveling through. The Long Night of White Chickens, by Francisco Goldman, for example, is a compelling love story that did more to explain the human side of recent Guatemalan history-during and after the war-than anything we've read. It gave us another view of the tensions in the country, and the forces that lead to accusations of baby stealing (los robos niños). Two other good books on Guatemala are Forbidden Fruit, describing the behind-the-scenes role of the American-owned United Fruit Company and the US government in the Guatemalan civil war, and Searching For Everardo by American attorney Jennifer Harbury, about her struggle to find her Guatemalan guerilla husband after he was taken prisoner and murdered.

In Colombia, it was eye-opening to read Killing Pablo, by Mark Bowden, a real-life thriller chronicling the joint manhunt, by the Colombian government and American Special Forces, for drug czar and mass murderer Pablo Escobar, at one time the most wanted man on earth. This book taught us a lot about the Colombian drug cartels, the American demand for drugs, and how Colombia got into the mess it's in.

Friends have recommended some of our favorite books. Peter and Robin encouraged us to read Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, because they know we share their love of music. It's the beautifully written story of disparate lives thrown together in a botched hostage-taking fiasco involving one of the finest opera singers in the world.

Erwin on Dutchess gave us Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, everything we never wanted to know about the American food, farming, and slaughtering industries, and how their standards and practices are essentially steered by the big fast-food chains. (After this, as a palate restorative, do yourself a favor and read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, a top chef's hilarious behind-the-scenes look at a rock-star life spent working in New York's best restaurants. (Fellow "foodies" will like this.)

Our friend Paul came to visit Ithaka in Belize last year, bringing with him Genome, by Matt Ridley, and I liked it so much I gave it to Erwin. He loved it and passed it along to David on Zia Lucia, and it became a hot topic in the anchorage. It's the page-turning story of cracking the human chromosome chain, and what science can now tell us about why we are the way we are, why we get the diseases we do, and what can and can't be done about it. I know, it doesn't sound like a page-turner, but it's terrific.

Barry came to visit in the San Blas, bringing with him Empire Falls, by Richard Russo, the story of small-town life set around a diner and the man who runs it. The book forces you to consider the choices you make in life, the people in whom you place your trust and love, and paths not taken.

Stu gave us A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Halperin. Both Douglas and I had loved Halperin's Memoirs from Antproof Case, and we couldn't wait for the other to finish this one, so we could talk about it together. Alessandro Giuliani, an old soldier, unfolds his life story to a young man on their walk across Italy. It's a sometimes horrifying and always fascinating tale about the horrors of World War I, the agonies of grief in an absurd world, and the madness of a dwarf scribe whose capricious and vindictive rewriting of orders lets him control the Italian army.

Tommy and Barbara on Reverie gave us Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Charbon, one of the best books we've read in years. It's a sophisticated romp into the great history of comic books in the United States, in which two young Jewish cousins, one American, one Hungarian (the latter escaping from the Nazis), join forces in America to fight their various personal evils by creating the sensational comic book "The Escapist."

Tim gave us The Tidewater Tales, by John Barth, a story about a late-in-the-season cruise through the Chesapeake, taken by a long-married couple as they await the imminent birth of their first child. It's fun to be a voyeur, watching the complexities of someone else's marriage and extended family, and best of all the book plays off Homer's Odyssey, which Douglas was reading as I read this one. We loved reading bits aloud to each other from each book.

Harold and Diane on Sea Camp introduced us to Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, the story of two couples, from vastly different social strata, who begin their careers together in the world of academia, and the complexities of how they grow and intertwine over several decades.

When we were home last, we spent happy hours in a few bookstores, and bought back to Ithaka books that have been wonderful surprises. Frida, by Barbara Mujaca, is the fictionalized biography of Frida Kahlo, the outrageous Mexican artist and wife of infamous muralist Diego Rivera. It was better than any soap opera, and offered wonderful insight into Mexico in the first quarter of the 20th century.

A Fine Balance, by Robinson Mistry, is set in India, and tells the pitiful story of two young tailors who lose their jobs and are forced to become beggars during Indira Gandhi's torturous reign. Both of us wept with them.

The Fig Eater, by Jody Shields, is an elegant mystery based on a husband and wife's separate but parallel investigations of the murder of a young Viennese woman at the end of the 19th century. Sumptuous in its details and descriptions, it returned to me sweet memories I had of a trip to Vienna with my friend Margo, many years ago.

Jane Hamilton's The Map of the World was a book neither Douglas nor I could put down. A woman is accused of child sexual abuse, and ends up being jailed while awaiting trial. Hamilton offers the most graceful depiction of the enduring power of friendship and the horrors of guilt in the face of fatal negligence. She also provides a trenchant insight into witch-hunting, an unattractive thread in the American fabric.

Lindberg, by A. Scott Berg, is biography at its most brilliant. He serves up an even-handed discussion of this controversial figure who thrilled the world with his solo flight across the Atlantic, who captured the heart of the world when his baby son was kidnapped and murdered, and infuriated many Americans, both by accepting a medal from the Nazis and by leading the opposition to America's entry into WWII. Drawing on Lindberg's private papers and also those of his wife, Anne Morrow, Berg presents an inside view of the aviator, the father, the husband, the politico, and incidentally, the man who developed the first artificial heart.

Ithaka's bookshelves are brimming again with the promise of great stories to be read this next season. I see all the new titles shining out at me, replacing the old familiar favorites above, which are now packed onto the bookshelves of other boats here in the exit lounge - Asylum, Lisa, Salt Whistle, Lulu, Feisty, Walkabout, Rotuma, and others. It's time for us to move on from Cartagena, despite how much we've enjoyed it here, and head into the new year.

NOTE: For a list of some of Douglas's favorite books this year, also see Log Of Ithaka number 84 on the www.BoatUS.com website.

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