America Reading & Book Haul, Etc.

The wedding of a college friend – who I calculated I’ve known at least half my life – was the excuse we needed to book a trip back to the States for the last two weeks of May. Along with the classy nuptials in the Fell’s Point area of Baltimore, we enjoyed a day’s sightseeing in Philadelphia, a couple of outings to watch birds and other wildlife on Cape May (a migration hotspot in New Jersey), two meet-ups with other friends, and plenty of relaxation time with my mom and sister, including a Memorial Day picnic at my mom’s retirement community and a tour of Antietam Battlefield. It was much hotter than anticipated, including some days in the high 80s or even 90s, and the hayfever, ticks and mosquitoes were bad, too, but we survived.

While back in Maryland I continued the intermittent downsizing process I’ve been going through for a while now. After being on the market for nearly a year, my family home finally sold and went to closing while we were over there. So that provided a scrap of closure, but my current estrangement from my father (we don’t even know where he’s living) means there’s a lot of continuing uncertainty.

In any case, I managed to reduce the number of boxes I’m storing with my sister from 29 to 20 by recycling lots of my old schoolwork, consolidating my mementos, reselling one box of books and donating another, donating a box of figurines and decorative bottles to a thrift store, displaying some at my mom’s place, giving away a few trinkets to a friend’s kids, and packing a bunch of stuff – photo albums and decorations as well as 64 books – in our various suitcases and hand luggage to take back to the UK.

And I also acquired more books, of course! A whopping 46 of these were free: eight review copies were waiting for me at my mom’s place; three were from the outdoor free bin at 2nd & Charles, a secondhand bookstore; one was found in a Little Free Library near our friends’ place in New Jersey (Emerald City by Jennifer Egan, not pictured); and the rest were from The Book Thing of Baltimore, a legendary volunteer-run free bookshop. I mostly raided the biography section for an excellent selection of women’s life writing; the fiction is unalphabetized so harder to find anything in, but I picked up a few novels, too. My only purchases were new (remainder) copies of one novel and one memoir from Dollar Tree. Total book spending on the trip: just $2.12.


What I Read:


Two that I’d already started but finished on the plane ride over:

  • The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl: (As featured in my spring reading list.) “Love and flowers, death and flowers.” Poetic writing about small-town Minnesota life, a tense relationship with her late mother, and her late father’s flower shop.
  • The Girls by Lori Lansens: I love reading about sister relationships, and the Darlen girls’ situation is an extreme case of love and jealousy given that they literally can’t get away from each other. Not as good as the two other conjoined-twin novels I’ve read, Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, but I would read more from Lansens, a solid Oprah Book Club sort of author.


Three review books that will be featuring here in the near future:

  • Goulash by Brian Kimberling
  • Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come: An Introvert’s Year of Living Dangerously by Jessica Pan
  • Mother Ship by Francesca Segal

A few quick reads:

  • A Certain Loneliness: A Memoir by Sandra Gail Lambert: (A proof copy passed on by an online book reviewing friend.) A memoir in 29 essays about living with the effects of severe polio. Most of the pieces were previously published in literary magazines. While not all are specifically about the author’s disability, the challenges of life in a wheelchair seep in whether she’s writing about managing a feminist bookstore or going on camping and kayaking adventures in Florida’s swamps. I was reminded at times of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.
  • No Happy Endings: A Memoir by Nora McInerny: (Borrowed from my sister.) I didn’t appreciate this as much as the author’s first memoir, It’s Okay to Laugh, though it’s in the same style: lots of short, witty but bittersweet essays reflecting on life’s losses. Within a year of being widowed by cancer, she met a new partner and soon was – surprise! – pregnant with his baby. Together they formed a blended family of four children ranging from 0 to 15 and two wounded adults. McInerny also writes about her newfound spirituality and feminism. The problem with the essay format is that she cycles through aspects of the same stories multiple times.
  • Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey: (Free from 2nd & Charles.) Trethewey writes beautifully disciplined verse about her mixed-race upbringing in Mississippi, her mother’s death and the South’s legacy of racial injustice. She occasionally rhymes, but more often employs forms that involve repeated lines or words. The title sequence concerns a black Civil War regiment in Louisiana. Two favorites from this Pulitzer-winning collection by a former U.S. poet laureate were “Letter” and “Miscegenation”; stand-out passages include “In my dream, / the ghost of history lies down beside me, // rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm” (from “Pilgrimage”) and “I return / to Mississippi, state that made a crime // of me — mulatto, half-breed” (from “South”).


I also read the first half or more of: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce, my June book club book; Hungry by Jeff Gordinier, a journalist’s travelogue of his foodie journeys with René Redzepi of Noma fame, coming out in July; and the brand-new novel In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow – these last two are for upcoming BookBrowse reviews.


But the book I was most smug to have on my reading list for the trip was the recent novel Cape May by Chip Cheek. What could be more perfect for reading on location? I asked myself. Unfortunately, it stood out for the wrong reasons. In October 1957 a young pair of virgins, Effie and Henry, travel from Georgia to New Jersey for an off-season honeymoon in her uncle’s vacation home. They’re happy enough with each other but underwhelmed with the place (strangely, this matched my experience of Cape May), and even consider going home early until they fall in with Clara, a friend of Effie’s cousin; Clara’s lover, Max; and Max’s younger sister, Alma. Effie and Henry join the others for nightly drunken revelry.

[SPOILERS!] As the weeks pass Effie, ill and dejected, almost seems to disappear as Cheek delves into Henry’s besotted shenanigans, described in unnecessarily explicit sexual detail. When Effie makes a bid or two for her own sexual freedom late on, it only emphasizes the injustice of spending so much time foregrounding Henry’s perspective. Despite the strength of the period atmosphere and seaside location, this ends up being dull and dated. If you’re after a typically ‘trashy’ beach read and don’t mind lots of sex scenes, you may get on with it better than I did.

Reading a few pages of Cape May over an ice-cold G&T at the wedding reception.


Bonus bookishness:

Vineland, New Jersey was on the way from our friends’ house to Cape May, so we stopped to take my proof copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered to its spiritual home. Alas, Vineland is an utterly boring small American town. However, Mary Treat at least appears on a painted mural on a building on the main street. The Historical Society, where Kingsolver did her research, was closed, but we photographed the outside.


What’s the last book you read ‘on location’? Did it work out well for you?

27 responses

  1. How on earth did you manage to bring all those books back? I am very impressed!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We paid £60 to take back an extra suitcase, so between us we had 3 standard suitcases, 1 carry-on size suitcase and a backpack. After all these years of transatlantic flights I’ve become something of a master packer 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So really the books cost you £62…

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I suppose one could think of it that way. But I also brought back clothing and toiletries I purchased, mementos such as photo albums and decorations, gifts for people back here, and much more. The extra suitcase charge is modest compared to the price of the whole trip. So I’ll continue to speak of the books as ‘free’ 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Bloody hell, forty-six free books! Out of interest, how are you dealing with international book shipping? (My parents are turning my bedroom into a walk-in closet – don’t ask – and promising to ship the volumes that I want to save from my adolescent shelves over to me here in the UK. I can’t work out how they’re going to do this in a way that isn’t monumentally expensive and fiddly; any tips?!)


    1. Last year I looked into renting part of a shipping container for bringing over lots of my belongings, but the cost was prohibitive. The estimates ranged in the thousands of pounds, and I learned that I was liable to pay import duties plus 30%+ VAT on the things I owned because I’ve lived over here so long (you only avoid that if it’s the initial move to a new country, I think, and you register a change of household). And as far as I know, the U.S. postal service no longer offers a cut-rate service for packages that travel slowly by boat — which is what we did to send some of my stuff over in advance when I first studied abroad in 2003. So instead I have resorted to storing my stuff with family and bringing it over in drips and drabs in suitcases. An extra suitcase costs around £60/$100, depending on what airline you fly with, and if you’re canny you can pack a ton in. But in eavesdropping on a Canadian friend’s Facebook post recently I have also heard that Parcel Monkey and are worth looking into. I hope your parents can figure out something affordable.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooh I’m going to look into those two companies, they sound handy. Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I love that you brought Unsheltered to Vineland! Not quite the same, but I was very pleased with myself for taking Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers to the Callanish Stones on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides – it’s a fantasy novel but the group of islands it’s set on bear obvious similarities to the Outer Hebrides, and one of the main characters is called Callanish 🙂

    I’m sorry to hear about your father and how that adds to the uncertainty over the loss of your family home.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s awesome! I’ve read The Gracekeepers (and looked back through it when it was our book club pick last year) but didn’t pick up on its similarities to that Scottish setting. I’ve been to some of the Inner Hebrides but would love to get out to Lewis and Harris someday.

      Thanks — it’s been an odd and sad few years. We used to be such an average family! I’ve realized that being boring is better than constant drama.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My aunt lives on Lewis and I also travelled to the Uists, Barra, Harris and Berneray – all worth seeing. I need to go to the Inner Hebrides next!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Wow! We went to Skye and Mull in 2005, and then to Orkney and Shetland in 2006. Both were very memorable trips. I do love Scottish islands.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Orkney and Shetland are definitely bucket list place for me, would love to make it there.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You’ve already answered the question that immediately leapt to mind about shipping costs for 46 books. Here’s hoping they’re all gems. I’ll look out for your review of Jessica Pan’s book which sounds like the story of an introvert’s nightmare but, obviiously, she survived.


    1. I brought 64 books back in the end 😉 Just via some clever packing and paying for an extra suitcase. It was a mixture of the ones I acquired this time, some that were already waiting for me, and my husband’s haul of nature books. I’ve already started four of the new acquisitions and they seem great so far.

      Jessica Pan’s book is a lot of fun. The things she attempted over the year are definitely introvert nightmares, but cathartic to read about.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a wonderful trip–I need you to plan my next road trip! I’m sorry Cape May (the place) underwhelmed. I’ve owned The Florist’s Daughter forever and haven’t read it. Thanks for the honest review of Cape May, I did wonder with the honeymoon story how that would go. Won’t waste my time. In case you’d like to read it (zero pressure to do so) here is my review of the Music Shop, which I enjoyed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m about 50 pages from the end of The Music Shop. I’ve liked it well enough for most of the length but am not sure now how I feel after the ‘big reveal’ about Ilse. I do appreciate the idea of someone prescribing music in the same way bibliotherapy prescribes books. I’ll be interested to see how my book club members respond.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I listened to it so that may have “helped” it. It does sometimes.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. So sorry about your family difficulties – so hard to engage with at a distance – but glad that you managed your usual astonishingly large reading quota. A worthwhile trip!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. buriedinprint | Reply

    It’s interesting that so many people are preoccupied with the logistics of transporting books; it seems like we’ve all had challenges that way which make us wonder if there is some simple, easy, light-weight way to handle this.

    I wonder, how did you feel the s*x scenes were handled in Cape May compared to the way they were used in Whitney Scharer’s The Age of Light? Did you feel there were similarities?

    Yes, I agree: there’s something to be said for a calm, “boring”, family scene. The alternative is either out-and-out exhausting or quietly wearying as time passes without resolution(s).

    Glad you had fun and enjoyed your trip to the Unsheltered territory. I actually quite love that it’s a dull little place but wasn’t like that in her book apparently The miracles of fiction!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess the only surefire way of dealing with the space and weight problem is to only read e-books. But much as I appreciate the compact transportability of my Kindle, it is only ever a tool. I know that, wherever I live, I’ll always have a house filled with print books.

      Cape May was more explicit and gratuitous! The writing was fine, but the characterization was notably lacking in Effie’s case.

      I wonder if Vineland (and specifically the Historical Society) has noticed more visitors since Unsheltered came out? My New Jersey friend could not believe a novel had been written about the town!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Bledwina Blighty Pudfish | Reply

    Welcome back! You have had a very busy time it seems. I am not organised enough ever to match a book with a place I am visiting so I am impressed that you did.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What a trip! I’m impressed with your stack of free books, and your downsizing by 9 boxes, and your wedding reception reading!
    You’re becoming an expert at shipping books – maybe you could turn it into a business! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was only a few pages while my husband was waiting in line for the canapes, but I wanted to take advantage of my Kindle fitting in the dress purse I borrowed from my mother 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi! I so enjoyed your post, I always do, so wanted to say a hello! Pictures of piles of books are SO good………for us book lovers!! If you ever want a change of career you could become a professional packer…..Love the fact that you brought so many books back! Jenny

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Sorry about the difficult family dynamics, I’ve been estranged from my immediate family but more recently close one pair of cousins and an aunt by marriage and it’s trick to navigate. Love all the books and WIN with the Kingsolver! I often take light novels about Cornwall to read there, and I also took books set in Iceland to Iceland the first couple of times. I will probably take some Spanish language children’s books next time we go to Spain, but that’s not quite the same idea.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. […] The Garden of Eden was a previous month’s classic and book club selection, while Chip Cheek’s Cape May was part of my reading in America. The other three I reviewed for Shiny New Books or the Times […]


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