Has “summer vacation”—two of the loveliest words in our language—gone the way of “free time?” Does anyone take a real vacation anymore, and what, I’m wondering, qualifies as a vacation these days?
A trip with young children is not a vacation. A family reunion is not necessarily a vacation. Staying home and “catching up” is not a vacation.
As defined by dictionary.com, vacation is “a period of suspension of work or study,” used for rest or recreation. The Italians call it “il bel far niente,” the beautiful doing nothing.
At a recent dinner with friends, one woman said she had family travel plans this summer but nothing that would give her a breather from stress. So, I asked her and others at the table, “What would allow you to unwind, relax, and recharge?”
Most shook their heads; they hadn’t had that kind of vacation in years, and one man said he’d never taken one. He wouldn’t know how.
For me, vacation has always meant the beach. Perched by the water with a hat or umbrella, feeling the tranquilizing warmth of sun on bare skin, listening to the rising, cresting, foom! of the waves, and—the icing on this cake—reading a book.
A great book, with characters you root for and a story that grips you and doesn’t let go until the final page, and sometimes not even then. Most important, for me to avoid tossing the book after a few chapters, it must be beautifully written, with a musicality of style and rhythm that bring delight to the ear.
I read at home all year, of course, but almost always with a nagging sense of guilt: “Come on, put it down, Sara, you have work to do, calls to make.”
Back in the ‘90s, I received a letter (this was before text or email) from John F. Kennedy Jr. at George, a political magazine he’d co-founded. They were asking selected people to suggest one thing that, if accomplished, would make life in the United States better. I proposed that we create a national daily reading time, a 30-minute dedicated period, like a siesta, in which everyone would stop what they were doing to read—anything they wished. No phones would ring except in case of emergency. I still think it’s a great idea.
I wish I could just do that for myself—take 30 minutes each day to read for pleasure, but I don’t. I read in small bites here and there, or I multi-task, listening to audio books while I’m hiking or driving or standing at the sink taking care of body upkeep—brushing, moisturizing, pill-taking, sun screening—and that has allowed me to enjoy a significant number of books without taking a vacation.
In case you’re one of the enlightened who still do take vacations and read, here are three books I recommend.
1. The Circle, by Dave Eggers. This came out more than a year ago but I just caught up with it, and it’s that rare story that entertains while provoking you to think. It’s about a young woman, Mae Holland, who goes to work for the Circle, a company like Google or Facebook, that’s madly creating new devices and technology to make the world completely transparent. But here’s the thing: this fantasy world that Eggers describes is not that far removed from where we are now. He simply extends the scope and scale of technology that’s already in use.
In the world of the Circle, cameras are placed everywhere so there’s no place on earth you
won’t be seen, except the bathroom. And all data is available to everyone. Nothing can be erased. Politicians are encouraged to “go transparent” by wearing a video camera around their neck so that anyone who tunes in can see what the politician is doing and saying in real time, 24/7. No more meetings behind closed doors, or “off the record” talks.
The Circle’s stated motive is that total transparency will eradicate crime and misbehavior. If people know they’re being watched and will instantly be found and made to answer for what they’ve done, they’re less likely to cheat on a partner or rob a Seven-Eleven.
I experienced something like this at the grocery store. In the section for bulk foods, I had the impulse to pull the lever and let a few macademia nuts drop into my hands for a quick snack, despite the sign that said, “No samples, please.” Then I thought, if you knew you were being watched, (hey, at this market you probably are) what would you do? I put the nuts in a plastic bag and paid for them.
In the Circle, people enjoy the increasing connection and transparency, until they grasp that they no longer have any privacy, nor can they ever enjoy solitude, except in the toilet. Some of them rebel and try, unsuccessfully, to break out of reach of the Circle’s monitoring. Mae Holland, though, embraces the whole enchilada…to the riveting end.
2. Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris, 1932, by Francine Prose. I was enthralled listening to the version of this book on Audible Audio, because it was read by a cast of six superb actors, who brought to life six different characters who narrate the story. And what a story. Before sampling it, I didn’t think I’d want to hear about a lesbian, cross-dressing, race car driver in Paris who ends up spying for the Nazis and torturing members of the French resistance.
But the story is told in lush detail that makes you feel truly in Paris at that moment in history. Francine Prose is a master novelist, and this is my favorite of her works. The last line brought me to a full stop, mouth open in amazement. If you read it, let me know what you think. It was the strongest statement I’ve heard about the mysterious and resilient power of evil in the world.
3. The Painter, by Peter Heller. I met Peter at the Boulder launch of his first novel, The Dog Stars.
It was highly acclaimed, but while I admired the skill and craft of his writing, I didn’t feel much for the main character.
The Painte was different for me. I not only came to love the artist, Jim Stegner, but was awed by Heller’s wizardry in conjuring up a unique group of ballsy, funny, and lusty characters whom you can see, hear, and even smell. Heller’s artist is of the Hemingway mold: he wants to fish every stream, surf the big waves, tempt fate again and again and fuck gorgeous women. He becomes embroiled in a murder that pulls him into a treacherous but creatively inspiring vortex, and I became obsessed to find out how the hell he’d work his way out. Or not. I actually found myself, after finishing a hike, ear buds plugged in, standing outside my front door and not going in, because I couldn’t bear to stop listening. It’s been a while since a book has given me such a walloping good ride.
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT. I’d like to hear your relation to vacation. And if there’s a book you highly recommend, please tell us about it. I’m always looking for the next terrific read.
I take the time and pay the costs to send out these blogs, and hearing your thoughts is what keeps me going. So please respond below. Thanks!
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