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Air travel is a mess. Settling into a great book can make for a smoother flight

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I'm masked and buckled up, this time around in a middle seat. Surely, the only creature more miserable than me right now is a nearby support dog, a pit bull, who's dutifully wedged himself under his human's seat. At least this flight is taking off, unlike my earlier one that was abruptly canceled.

After two pandemic years of mostly staying in place, I'm flying a lot this summer, sometimes for work, sometimes to visit family and friends. The flights, all full, have been cross-country tests of endurance, bereft of space and food; but being vacuum-packed into an airborne, possible COVID-container doesn't do much for the appetite, anyway.

We all get through the ordeal in our own ways: I've noticed that my fellow passengers are usually glued to dystopian apocalyptic disaster movies where human beings battle against aliens or robots. Who am I to judge? By now, I've faced up to the fact that all I want to read when I'm buckled into a cramped space is a suspense story. What some people dismiss as "airplane books," I think of as oxygen masks for the spirit.

On my first cross-country flight in May, I carried a couple of literary novels. The flight took off, I started reading, and neither book lived up to its promise. Because I just don't like to read on screens, I was trapped and miserable for five plus hours. But something wonderful happened when I reached my destination in California. I walked into the local library to find a restroom and near the checkout desk was a wall of used books for sale.

I scooped up suspense novels by the holy trinity of Lisa Scottoline, Daniel Silva and Michael Connelly. Some I'd read but had semi-forgotten; others were new to me. I was transported, literally and figuratively, on the flight home. Recently, in Oregon I found similar deliverance in a strip-mall used bookstore that was filled with historical and domestic suspense by lesser-known writers like Lauren Belfer, Geoffrey Household and Celia Fremlin.

I lose myself in these kinds of novels for all the obvious reasons; but given the extra-tense, extra-claustrophobic current conditions of flying, maybe there's an added lure to reading suspense stories where the protagonists typically find themselves jammed into tight spots. Take Connelly's 1998 standalone thriller, Blood Work, where a retired FBI agent is marooned in a marina on his late father's broken down fishing boat. Set up by a serial killer, the agent must mostly sit still and brainstorm how to out-maneuver his opponent.

Or, there's Household's 1939 novel, Rogue Male, in which a failed Hitler assassin conceals himself from his pursuers in a burrow, some "two feet in diameter" that he's dug out of a hillside. Maybe, like my fellow passengers with their apocalyptic disaster movies, I find solace in adventure stories that mirror and intensify my own immobile misery in the air.

The view is different, however, from the cockpit — that's what Mark Vanhoenacker tells us in his new book called Imagine A City. Part memoir, part travelogue, part history, Imagine a City is all entrancing. Vanhoenacker is a commercial pilot and writer whose previous book, Skyfaring, was a best seller.

In Imagine A City, Vanhoenacker describes his temporary encounters with many of the world's cities — Brasilia, L.A., Delhi — interspersed with touch-downs in Pittsfield, Mass., where he grew up and came to terms with his identity as a gay man. Vanhoenacker's voice is so contemplative it holds the disparate parts of this odd book together. Here, for instance, he talks about the singular experience that long-haul pilots and crews have of cities:

After we land, we have the opportunity to repeat or deepen a set of urban experiences that are, again, like those of no one else. Our stays in cities — in so many cities! — are typically short but frequent; carefully arranged around our legal responsibility to rest, but also freedom-giving and time bending ...

I couldn't have read Imagine A City on any of my recent flights; I would have been too resentful. But on ground, Vanhoenacker's generous view is a reminder of just how extraordinary the whole mess of air travel still really is.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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