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Summer reading: Maria Semple on Tolstoy

June 30, 2010 | 10:45 am


For summer, we've created the L.A. Times list of 60 books for 92 days. All of these are new titles being released during the next three months -- it's a plethora of great summer reads.

At Jacket Copy, we're asking bookish types about their favorite summer reads of the past. Maria Semple's first novel, "This One Is Mine," is satiric look at a Hollywood wife and her heedless affair. Semple knows the town, at least -- although she now lives with her family on an island off the coast of Seattle, she was a television writer on "Arrested Development," "Mad About You" and "Ellen." She writes of her summer reading experiences:

I never understood the concept of a fluffy summer read.  For me, summer reading means beaches, long train rides and layovers in foreign airports.  All of which call for escaping into really long books.  When else, other than summer, do you get huge chunks of time to bore into a thick, great novel?

When I graduated high school, I was one of many English-majors-to-be traveling through Europe with a copy of "Let's Go Europe" in one hand, "Anna Karenina" in the other, a Eurail pass for a bookmark.  I survived many a youth hostel bunk room reading Tolstoy by flashlight.

I reread "Anna Karenina" 10 years later in Thailand. I lugged it to Bangkok, Sukhothai, Chiang Mai and then trekking in the hills near Myanmar. I vividly remember a night in a freezing, smoky mountain hut, reading the account of Vronksy racing the feisty mare Frou-Frou in the steeplechase.  I sipped green tea full of Cremora by the morning fire and lost myself in Kitty's quasi-religious conversion at the spa -- a hilarious section I can't help but flip to, still, anytime the book is at hand.  I turned the final page in a dirt-floored tea garden back in Chiang Mai, then found myself in conversation with an Australian backpacker.  He had learned of the spot in his Lonely Planet Guide.  We discussed cheap food -- always a safe go-to among backpackers -- and he recommended a noodle place not far away.  He stared hungrily at my big book written in English, precious currency indeed.

“Here,” I handed it to him.  “You can have it.  I'm done.”

The next day, I went to the noodle place. The Australian was there, slurping noodles and reading my copy of Anna Karenina.  But…  as he finished reading each page… he tore it out and crumpled it up.  On the table beside him were a dozen wadded-up pages of my Tolstoy.  He looked up, saw the alarm on my face.

“It's what I do,” he said proudly. “Tear out the pages as I read them so I don’t have to carry the whole thing around in my backpack!”

My summer reading suggestion: Pick a really famous, really long novel.  (Next up for me are "Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann and Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables.")  Bring it and only it with you on vacation.  No cheating -- don't stock up on US magazines in the airport.  The important thing is that you have no backup.  After the first 50 pages, the story will take flight, and then your real escape begins.  Oh, and when you're finished, don't give it to a backpacker.  

Photo: courtesy Maria Semple

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