Some Book Recommendations for When You are Stuck in a Car for Way Too Long

The lovely Elisa of Fun & Fabulousness-she of the impeccable eye-asked if I could recommend some books appropriate to read on a looong car ride. Specifically, five. Five books, so she can choose one for her trip.

Painting by Carl von Steuben

(Painting by Carl von Steuben)

I’m honored; naturally, I said yes! I promptly got to work. It was all downhill from there. What happened?

Mae (eagerly scans book shelves): This will be easy! There are so many to choose from. Oh, this one’s great. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books The Life of Emily Dickinson by Alfred Habegger is one of my favourite literary biographies. It’s so on the list that it was on the list before she even asked for my opinion.

Mae (looks to the left of a thick, smudgy-spined green volume): Eh, there’s Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford. You cannot have Emily and ignore Edna St. Vincent Millay. Edna’s wild frankness is in perfect opposition to Emily’s enigmatic wallflower-ness. Okay, that’s not a word. You are making up shit, you are so excited. Plus, she is only going to read one book. She certainly isn’t going to read both and compare and contrast them like a grade 10 English assignment. Contain yourself.

Mae (looks to the far right and squeals): Being Geniuses Together 1920-1930. McAlmon and Boyle. McAlmon and freaking Boyle. Freaking McAlmon and Boyle. Freaking….okay, you are freaking out now. But this is sooo good. So good. It’s life changing. Oh, okay. Maybe a car trip is not the appropriate occasion to have one’s mind blown.

Mae (walks to the tall case in the middle): Well, while I’m on the subject of biographies….I know she likes photography. And she’s a woman. Heigh-ho, Shadows, Fire, Snow The Life of Tina Modotti by Patricia Albers. Bill, you have been fit.

Mae (looks downwards, eye is caught by a wedge of an impressionist painting): Maybe she likes art, too. Who doesn’t, right? Camille Pissarro Letters to His Son Lucien Edited by John Rewald is intimate and revelatory. Plus, I read it on a car trip five years ago. Maybe that’s a sign. Wow, this is fun. I should do this for a living. Wouldn’t that be the best job ever? Recommending books to people? Wait, that’s kind of what a librarian does. Or a book reviewer/essay writer on literature. Oh, wait. Right. That last thing? You already do that. Carry on, then!

Mae (looks quizzical): How many is that? One, two, three, four, five…Shit. Hmmm. How about if I break my recommendations down into categories. Say, five categories with five choices per category. No, that’s crazy. You’re taking this way too seriously. Back away. But I can’t just recommend biographies and books of letters. Maybe just a few more. That’s it. Just a few more. How about if I mix it up a bit? How about The Death of Ivan Illyich by Tolstoy. Best. Novella. Ever. It’s kind of a bummer in spots but it’s life-changing, too, so…Egad, not that again. Just tell her that it is revelatory. Okay, just tell her that it is a nice little book.

Mae (smiles, turns to the case to the right): I know, history! At Home A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson is a quick and riveting read. It airs humanity’s dirty laundry. No, that’s too punny. That’s a turn-off! You don’t even like puns. It’s simultaneously a biography of the rooms of a home and a social history of Victorian England. That’s it, that’s good.

Mae (hums ‘London Calling’ softly to herself): While I’m on the subject, Peter Ackroyd’s London The Biography is top-notch. But what if she isn’t a history nerd or an Anglophile? No, even then, that’s okay. It is a sweeping story. And pretty long. A perfect book for a long car trip, if you ask me. Which she did, so I’ll keep this one on the list.

Mae (whirls around): Well, I’ve only looked at a quarter of my books. How about more fiction? Edward. Rutherford. Genius! London is kind of the fiction equivalent of Ackroyd’s book. She could read one on the way there and one on the way back. Oh, damn, you are doing it again. Unless she is going to Alaska and back she won’t have time or stamina to read both of those books. Okay, take a breath.

Mae (takes a breath): One more. How about something entertainment-related? Oooh, I know, I know! It is another biography but it is so masterful, so absorbing….Orson Welles The Road to Xanadu by Simon Callow rocks. It just does. It’s the first book of an exhaustive multi-volume study (it stops when he is 26!) but it is so wonderful. If she’s not already a Welles fan this will hook her.

Mae (sits down at her computer): That’s plenty! But it’s not a comprehensive list. There are way too many biographies, not enough fiction…and you didn’t even begin to cover enough subjects. No music, for instance! Just Kids by Patti Smith is a ridiculously good read. And that book The Chef bought me for Christmas? The Secret Wife of Louis XIV (Francoise D’Aubigne Madame de Maintenon) by Veronica Buckley? Awesome.

Mae (head hits keyboard, addresses the great void that is the internet): Elisa, if I don’t stop here I never will! I certainly hope that something–anything–on this half-crazy, well-meant list catches your fancy. If it does, I cannot wait to hear what you think of it…whatever it is.

John Everett Millais-Ophelia

Me, after. (John Everett Millais-Ophelia)



10 thoughts on “Some Book Recommendations for When You are Stuck in a Car for Way Too Long

  1. Thank you so much for pulling this list together so quickly. You put a lot of thought and hard work into my request, although I know it was a labor of love. Funny, I am a history buff and I have the giant copy of “London, The Biography,” in my “to read” pile. I’m intrigued by the Patti Smith book, and regardless of which one I get for the trip, I’m picking up the Harberger and Simon Callow book(s) to put in that ever growing “to read” pile. They all sound tantalizingly wonderful! I’m heading to the big box of Barnes and Noble tomorrow morning to make my choices. I will let you know which ones I take on the trip and give you an update!

    Thanks again,


    • My pleasure, it was fun! I don’t do anything half-way, especially writing. I am obsessed with the Habegger book. And Callow has also published volume II of his Welles biography, which only goes up to 1949 or 1950! I cannot wait to hear what you end up reading.


      • There are few things better than starting a great new book! I’m going on a road trip next Thursday (and again on Friday, then 2 days back the next week) and cannot wait to break out some fresh reads.


    • You’re welcome. I’ve read Savage Beauty a few times; the same goes for My Wars Are Laid Away in Books. If you even marginally like Patti Smith, you’ll love Just Kids. And the Tolstoy novella has been a fave of mine since I first read it at eighteen. 🙂


  2. Pingback: rainy road trip « Fun & Fabulousness

  3. Pingback: rainy road trip | Elisa Ruland

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