Brand building through storytelling

Books for the plane: my on-board survival kit

Remember the good old days of air travel? You got a free pillow in a cardboard-y cover, you could take your biggest tube of hand cream on board and you didn’t get dinged for an extra bag. You could stash your coat in the overhead bin without sending your seatmate’s knapsack flying into the aisle. Ah, luxury!

I’ve got a 12-hour flight to Buenos Aires coming up, and the prospect is making me cranky. But Air Canada has left me one tiny indulgence: I still get to carry all the books I can stow beneath my seat. And I can lose myself in the story without dashing off to buy groceries or answer calls from telemarketers. That’s the plus side of onboard reading. The downside is all the distractions—the clatter of the beverage cart, the roar of the engine, the whining of kids who, quite understandably, wish they could be somewhere else. So do I, of course. That’s where reading comes in: it creates that other place, provided you pick the right book. This is partly a question of mood, but a few general principles apply. To hold my attention on a flight, a book needs one of two things: a narrative that blocks out the numbing weariness of air travel, or bursts of mind-cleansing emotion that fill the dead spaces between announcements from the crew.

For bursts of emotion, I count on poetry (nothing too cerebral). A lyric poem delivers a complete experience in no more time than it takes to flip through the in-flight magazine.This time my poet on board will be Pablo Neruda, the tender and sensual Chilean mensch whose famously eccentric homes we’re going to visit on our South American trip.

KertesMy novel will be Gratitude, the new historical saga (set during the Holocaust) by Torontonian Joseph Kertes. Joe and I have a mutual friend, who has been followingGratitude‘s progress (and reading the manuscript) since well before publication.”It has everything you want in a book,” she told me one night over penne and red wine. “Plot, character, suspense, heartbreak, redemption…” That sold me (every author needs such a friend, and this particular friend has also sung the praises of my own book to all and sundry).

I have a longstanding rule against schlepping hardcover books onto planes, but I made an exception for Gratitude, all 498 pages of it. Here’s the first sentence: “Lili crouched behind a wardrobe, dressed in a wedding gown.” Why a wedding gown? What’s going on? I’ll keep reading.

SullivanSince there are real lives so brimful of drama that they rival fictional characters, I always travel with a biography. I’ve just found the perfect choice on my own shelf, unread since I bought it over a decade ago—Rosemary Sullivan’s award-winning Shadow Maker: the Life of Gwendolyn MacEwan. The Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwan, who died mysteriously at 46 (a suspected suicide) was captivating, tortured, elusive and prodigiously gifted. Like Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose readings dazzled crowds in an earlier era (and who inspired the splendidly gripping biography Savage Beauty), MacEwan was also a welf-destructive alcoholic. I don’t know her work, but what better way to discover it?

Last night I dipped into the preface (a guaranteed yawn in most books) and connected right away with these words: “Biography is a form of revenge against life, a rebellion against the impossible fact that a life can disappear so easily—all that energy, passion, humour that constitutes an individual can one day simply stop…” Yes, exactly. Sullivan goes on: “…a single life, certainly one lived as intensely and eloquently as Gwendolyn’s, is emblematic. In that life we see the threads of our own human lives crossing, and struggle to make intelligible meaning, since only insight gets us through. A life is a puzzle to be decoded, but it is not a solution to the puzzle that one is after; it is an unlayering of the depths of the puzzle so that memory can be revealed. I think of the Spanish verb recordar: to remember, to pass back through the heart.”

A Spanish verb. How beautifully appropriate.


Posted by Rona

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