The Reason I’m Staying Home

It can be argued that the purpose of entertainment, any entertainment, is escapism. Immersion in a preferred diversion allows us to indulge ourselves in ways that aren’t doable in everyday life. The flavors to choose from are almost limitless: the arts, sports, gaming, movies, YouTube…and of course, books. I read to challenge myself, I read to learn something new, I read to figure shit out —but I also read to slide into a little old-fashioned popcorn escapism. And when it comes to escapism, nothing beats a deep delve into places I don’t want to go. The best way for me to get out of town is curling up with a book and getting down with some armchair travel.

I LOVE armchair travel. I don’t have to pack anything, I can have snacks anytime I want, and most importantly, I don’t have to pack anything. It’s not that I don’t love going places. I really do. I just hate packing. When choosing an armchair travel book, I’m not fooling around. I don’t want some gentle, humorous vacation anecdote. Think thickly forested tropical jungles, rivers that traverse entire continents, or monsoon-drenched mountain topography. Throw in a full narrative involves a journey from one end of a country to another and I’m helpless to resist. As long as I’m not going somewhere, I want to not go to as much of it as possible.

Armchair travel also gets me off the hook for pretending to embrace new, unnerving experiences. Bluntly put, I am a big fat coward. In real life, I do not enjoy situations that intimidate and/or terrify me, but I bulldoze my way through my discomfort when I have to. But in my entertainment? Why I gotta suck it up? There are some non-negotiable scary things that I’m just not invested enough fake my way through. Take horror movies, for instance. My system can’t take looking at all that spurting blood and what’s the payoff? If I make it through Saw, I can do the whole awful experience again with Saw II? SRSLY. Hard pass. Accordingly, my armchair travel often centers on locations where I’m never going to go in person because it’s TOO SCARY. Specifically, I am always going to avoid any place on the globe where one can find the Giant Restless Spider Populations. If a given locale has spiders the size of frisbees, I can’t. I. CAN. NOT. (This is not meant to disparage spiders or the spider-loving humans among us. You’re all lovely and amazing and can you just stay on that other side of the room please? Or maybe outside? Yes. Outside is better.) But I definitely have enough gumption to read about spider-infested places, because I am a profile in courage.

Whether you prefer your arachnid-infested vacations fictional or non-fictional, I’ve got you covered. These books also have jungles, treasure, world history, and tigers. Grab your can of Raid and let’s jump in.

The Strangler Vineby M.J. Carter, is an Edgar-nominated novel set in 1837 India, at the height of British colonialism and the dawn of the Victorian era. When it came to establishing British rule in invaded nations the British government was dependent on the influential and powerful British East India Company.  Chartered in 1600 to pursue and protect trade routes for Britain, the British East India Company was a strange hybrid of army, for-profit corporation, and unchecked police force that leveraged the veneer of the British government without any accountability to any checks or balances. The odd structure of the company – private ownership that rested in Britain’s ruling peer class acting to create wealth for the nation – was a conflict of interest nightmare that spawned opportunities for abuse and corruption, with the populations of the countries that East India looked to dominate paying the price.  Where was the morality in disregarding the culture and existing governments of invaded countries? What dictates how we choose our loyalties? The Strangler Vine lays out these questions as a brilliant structure for a good old-fashioned road adventure and mystery thriller. Newly arrived in India, rookie East India officer William Avery is reluctantly paired with disgraced Company veteran Jeremiah Blake and tasked with finding the missing Xavier Mountstuart, a lauded poet whose latest work has caused a scandal within the British community in Calcutta. The East India Company wants Mountstuart found so they can safely send him back to Scotland and settle the scandal…or do they? The motives and means surrounding Mountstuart’s recovery provide the thriller backbone to this story, and you will root for Avery and Blake’s unlikely friendship. I love a plot that is predicated on ‘capture the threatening poet’. It’s a fast-paced, quixotic book, and it contains the best chase scene I’ve ever read. It also has a man-eating tiger. It probably had a bunch of India Jungle Spiders too but I closed my eyes during all those parts.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann, is a non-fiction account of Victorian-era British explorer Percy Fawcett’s obsessive search for the legendary, lost city of El Dorado in Brazil’s Amazon. The same British Empire colonialist philosophy that created the East India Company also fostered a generation of British explorers, men who crisscrossed the world and brought proof of their travels back home to Mother England. Some explorers were motivated by science, to find and classify new species of flora, fauna, and animal. Some were motivated by competition, to be the first to climb mountains or cross the Arctic Circle. And some were motivated by acquisition, seeking caches of gold and treasure. It was this last category that Percy Fawcett falls. After years of expeditions in Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru, Fawcett was convinced that the Amazon hid the ruins of El Dorado, an ancient city thought to be only a myth. Sure that he had determined its location, Fawcett led a search party that included his son into the jungle in 1925. The group disappeared. David Grann’s description of turn-of-the-century South American travel and his own foray into the Amazon are almost suffocatingly accurate. Well, I assume the description is accurate. It sure felt accurate, as I checked every room I entered for giant Brazilian monkey spiders for days after I finished the book. For all its classic adventure narrative, The Lost City Of Z’s examination of Fawcett’s single-mindedness and the larger implications of the relationship between the Old World and the New World is incredibly compelling.


All packed!

Have a lovely time, keep your windows rolled up, and call me when you get there! In the meantime, I am going to go not unpack. I’m exhausted.


Action Items
The Lost City of Z was developed as a film and is being released this year. Robert Pattinson is in it and I was surprised because I was unaware of recent vampire activity in Brazil. Anyway, watch the trailer here.

The Reason I Carried The Two

As it all turned out, I fell in love because I hate long division and I love books. It all started in fourth grade. My adult self is perfectly aware that my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Stout, was an excellent, forthright teacher of the old school, getting things done without suffering fools. My inner fourth-grader isn’t having it. That’s because in fourth grade, my inner fourth grader had to learn long division, and my inner fourth grader is still pissed about that and holds Mrs. Stout entirely responsible. What I found out in fourth grade was, I hate long division with the fire of a thousand suns. Mrs. Stout was as determined to teach it to me as I was to avoid learning it. Let’s just say there was some tension. But, fourth grade was also when Mrs. Stout – the very same math dragon -introduced me to one of my favorite books, and I love that book as much as I hate long division. Like a half-empty jar of Goober Grape, my emotions are just mixed about the whole thing.

Every day of my fourth grade school year was spent counting the minutes until I didn’t have to be in fourth grade anymore, with one big exception. Every day, right after lunch and right before math, Mrs. Stout would read aloud to the class. The book she read was Robb White’s marvelous nautical adventure story The Lion’s Paw. Set in central Florida and published in 1946, it tells the story of Penny and Nick, orphaned siblings who run away to avoid being separated. They meet Ben, a boy holding onto hope that his soldier father will come home from the war despite being listed as missing in action.  For adventurous reasons, the three intrepid friends decide to sail Ben’s boat across Florida to search for a shell called a Lion’s Paw. It’s a rollicking, riveting book, and Mrs. Stout knew just how to pace the story, creating cliffhangers day after day. (She always saved the most cliff-hangery cliffhangers for Fridays, because evil genius.)


Robb White’s bio is almost too Indiana Jones to be believed. Born to American missionaries in the Philippines in 1909 , he attended the US Naval Academy and flew as a pilot in the Pacific theater during WWII. He was a construction engineer,  prizewinning book author, and screenwriter for movies and television. He sailed all over the Atlantic solo, colonized a tiny island in the Caribbean, and all that world-class swashbuckling badassery is reflected in his writing. His books, targeted at a juvenile audience (he was Young Adulting before Young Adult was invented), were incredibly popular with adolescent baby boomers.

Even now, I can close my eyes and hear Mrs. Stout’s voice, low-pitched, softly accented and melodious. During reading time, I wasn’t sweating long division or times tables or my crappy cursive capital ‘Q’ technique. (Solved: I never start sentences with ‘q’ words and I never write letters in longhand to anyone named Quentin.) During that icky, division-soaked year, listening to Mrs. Stout read The Lion’s Paw, I figured out that reading wasn’t just a subject that I liked, but was something that could make awful days less awful. As time carried me away from my fourth-grade classroom, the details about the book – who wrote it, the title, what the cover looked clike—vacated my brain and I filled in the empty space with useless stuff like Britney Spears lyrics. Robb White’s vivid description of a wild, sparsely populated Florida coast that had long since disappeared became a memory of a time and place I’d never lived, a rural Florida where an unsupervised 9-year-old boy picks a fight with an alligator and wins. A story that would make Spielberg jealous at its perfect, just-in-time arrival of a father thought missing over the Pacific. I thought about it often and I kept up a low-key search for it, describing to librarians and booksellers. Nobody ever recognized it. It was a private little sadness, a tiny melancholy, that I could not own that book.

Fourth grade passed, then fifth grade, then a whole bunch of other grades. After seventeenth grade, I declared myself an official adult and I swore I’d never do long division voluntarily again. I went out into the world and started dating. I don’t want to shock you, but I was as bad at dating as I was at long division. Like, if Mrs. Stout had had the opportunity to grade me on my dating skills, I would have gotten a big F and she probably would have called my parents in for an emergency conference. And I would have been held back a year. I had a three-date shelf life. I had no game at all. I could usually keep a lid on my nerdiness for a couple of dates, but by the third date, all my bottled-up geekiness would spew forth, coating everything in ooze.

Not long after nineteenth grade, I was on another third date. I had known him for a while but we’d only recently been spending time together on official DATE dates. My crush on him was major so I was nervous and a little jumpy, so there was no hope of keeping myself on any kind of a leash. Sure enough, to my horror, I found myself telling the story to this cutecuteCUTE boy about this book I remembered from fourth grade, a book I loved but didn’t know the name of. As my mouth motored on, aiming pure, Grade A booknerd at him, my brain just watched, shaking its head in sympathy. “Bless your heart,” my brain said. “You really can’t help it.”  I finished my story and started mentally prepping for him to look at his watch and tell me he had to get up early in the morning. Instead, he floored me by saying:

The Lion’s Paw! I love that book. I read it in fourth grade too.”



A pile of baby Lion’s Paw shells.


Spoiler alert: there was a fourth date and a fifth, then some more. We got married too, later, but I’m still dating him. I love that he can’t remember any song lyrics except for every single word of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”. I love that his favorite question is “Are you going to finish that?” because he is always hungry, courtesy of his hummingbird-on-crack metabolism. I love his crackling energy and his curious mind. He doesn’t hate long division, but I’m willing to overlook that. In twenty-fifth grade, I tracked down a first edition of The Lion’s Paw and gave it to him. I got an A on my report card that year.


Action Items
Invest in a good calculator app.