Books to pack

24th July 1998 at 01:00
After landing in New York, the city that never sleeps, plane-fatigued but with a curiosity that wouldn't let me rest, I was thankful that I had packed Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha (Vintage Pounds 6.99).

At 428 pages, it seemed like a good bet to keep me company for most of my five-day trip. After channel-hopping on my first sleepless night, sated with CNN and the 74 other channels, I began to read hoping it would send me to sleep. I didn't put it down till long after morning had broken.

It has a great first line: "Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, 'That afternoon when I met so-and-so ... was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon'." From then on it has you hooked and never lets you go.

Chiyo, a fisherman's daughter, suffers positively Dickensian trials throughout her childhood in a small Japanese town (the leap from 1930s Japan to Victorian London is not as big as you might think) before her conversion into the polished entertainer of men, Sayuri, a famous geisha.

Memoirs of a Geisha captivates through its quirky imagery - Chiyo's description of her higgledy-piggledy childhood home as the "tipsy house" - and its attention to the details of her daily life. It's an ideal book for the low-battery holiday brain.

For my next trip I'm packing Stella Gibbons's literary joke, Cold Comfort Farm. The history of heroine Flora's application of her Higher Common Sense method to counteract the lunacies of her relatives is always diverting, and I'm particularly keen to re-read it now after finishing the biography of its creator by her nephew, Reggie Oliver.

Out of the Woodshed: a Portrait of Stella Gibbons (Bloomsbury Pounds 25) held few surprises for me. The woman who emerges is a hybrid of the female protagonists of Cold Comfort Farm, particularly the ultra-sensible Flora and the ethereal poetess, Elfine Starkadder. And I suspect that she could have her Aunt Ada Doom-laden moments too.

The first half of the biography charting her early life and her journalistic career is far more interesting than the later chapters detailing obscure Gibbons novels. I have always wanted to read her other books, but after this biography I'm not so keen.

Nevertheless, the portrait has some great moments, such as the account of Stella's mother's funeral during which her father complained about what an awful wife she had been - an incident which seems too Starkadder to be true.

Anne Horner is a sub-editor on 'The TES'

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