Friday, July 29, 2005

This week's homework: Travel Books

For this week's homework, Scalzi asks:

Weekend Assignment #70: Suggest a book for a long trip. You know, something to keep me from banging my head against the plane wall as I'm bored out of my skull at 36,000 feet above the chilly North Atlantic. I'm open to fiction and non-fiction, and I like to read from all genres. I don't mind something challenging, but this should be a book for enjoyment; I'm not planning to study for a test or anything. Please don't recommend a book that's sold over, say, 5 million copies, because that's waaaay too easy. So no Harry Potters or DaVinci Codes or the Five People You Meet in Heaven or most primary religious texts or stuff like that. You know what I'm talking about, here.

Extra Credit: If you have any special tips or techniques you used for dealing with long trips, I'd love to hear them.

Can do. 

I read a lot of science fiction, but, as far as I'm concerned, planes are made for Dick Francis novels.  There was a while there when, if a new Dick Francis book came out, I'd wait to read it until I had someplace to go.  Because they're almost exactly the length of a transcontinental plane ride and nothing can make time pass quite like them.  They're engrossing, but require little thought.

I'm sure he's sold a gazillion books -- there's about 40 titles -- and they're all, in a few particulars, very much the same.  It's a formula, but it works.  They are all mysteries.  They all have something to do with horseback riding (Francis is a former jockey).  They are all told in the first person, by a male protagonist who is (generally) not a detective but ends up involved in investigating someone's death, or a theft, or race-fixing, or something like that.  They all have one sex scene (rumored that Francis's wife writes those).  There will always, always, be one scene where the protagonist is tortured, or kidnapped, or thrown off a balcony, or otherwise finds himself in an extremely unpleasant situation he has to get himself out of.  It's those scenes that Francis writes particularly well.  He is quite good on the details, and it's real edge-of-your-seat stuff.

The books all have titles that generally have something to do with racing, but you tend to remember them by either the job of the protagonist (the painter, the toymaker, the actor...) or whatever horrible scrape Francis writes him into (handcuffed to the steering wheel of his car, shot with a crossbow, had to pop his dislocated shoulder back in...). 

Although all the books are largely the same, there are two exceptions.  First, the bad news.  Some of his more recent books have kinda, uh, sucked.  You needn't start with his first novel, but, if you want to be safe, go back to something pre-1985; they're a little spotty after that.  The good news, however, is that two of the books are exceptional.  In 1965, Francis bent the mold a bit with a book called Odds Against.  (Don't let the 1965 date throw you -- it reads completely contemporary were it not for a single reference to the Beatles.)  There's a sequel written in 1979 called Whip Hand which is also fabulously good.  He picked up an Edgar for that one, and deservedly so.  Get them both for a really long plane trip. 

Extra Credit:  My prescription for dealing with jet lag, in two parts:

Part the first:  When you get on the plane, set your watch to the time at your destination, and try to act accordingly.  This is almost impossible if you get on the plane, advance your watch, and discover you should be asleep.  But try your best.  The point is, your body will have a hard time telling the difference between 4 hours sitting in your seat and 6 hours sitting in your seat.  Look at your watch frequently to see what time your body is supposed to think it is, and eventually, it'll start to sound right.

Part the second:  To complete your transformation to local time, stay awake until a decent hour (no matter how tired you are).  If it's a theatre town, I will buy tickets to the Loudest Most Obnoxious Musical I can find.  (In the past, I have used:  Tommy, Mamma Mia, and We Will Rock You -- the latter, I think, was invented just to help people get over jet lag.)  If there's nothing like that available, try a comedy club.  If you have to, just stay in your hotel room and watch TV.  You can even stretch out on the bed.  But DO NOT go to sleep until a decent hour.  It's hard, but you'll thank me when you sleep through the night.

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