What would you read or watch on a long haul flight?


Thank you to all the people who responded to my original email wanting help with long-haul reads and films. You will find their suggestions (and my own strategy) below.

Some friends had only good wishes but no inspiration, while others could barely contain their excitement:

JW: Have you seen Boyhood? It’s terrific and would work well on a plane – it’s quite long but a pretty easy watch.

In general, I tend to prefer fairly stuff that’s not too demanding on planes. I think David Lodge might be my ideal long-haul read. For something a bit darker but still very engrossing, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (or The Goldfinch) might be worth a shot. Some other things I think would be good are John Williams’ Stoner, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, or Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

But now I’m mainly just listing some of my favourite things I’ve read the last few years. Of course, you could also work your way through the Star Wars films…


LM : Delighted to hear you enjoyed Star Wars – I’ve seen it twice now (once in a tiny cinema in where we spent a wet but very jolly new year!) and, as a Star Wars fan (to the extent of walking down the wedding aisle to the opening music…) I thought it was fantastic. You should definitely watch the first made three films (I can’t think of anything better to watch on the way to the the antipodes, but X recommends The Lone Ranger, the recent one with Johnny Depp and Arnie Hammer – which I also loved!).

Book wise, how about A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving) if you haven’t read it? Gripping, brilliant and very thought-provoking


JF: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Just reviewed on radio 4. I’m part way through. Very moving. You would both enjoy it. Just right for long journey.


JB: On the book front I have two recommendations…. Life after life by Kate Atkinson – brilliant and I’ve just begun A God in Ruins which is fantastic so far..if you haven’t read these they are ‘must reads’.
I’m not so good on podcasts although I’ve been told that the New Yorker podcasts are very good.


RS: Sapiens by Noah Yuval Harari. An interesting sweep through world history. There’s the Karl Ove Knausgaard: eg A Death in the Family. Not to everyone’s taste, but rather addictive once you get into it. And finally Darkling by Laura Beatty – beautifully written and a little bit gruelling.


DB: The book I’d recommend is H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald; it isn’t a conventional memoir but is full of interest and personal insights.


JL: The Aviary Gate by Kate Hickman, a novel set in Tokapi Palace, Istanbul in the 1500’s, a brilliant book. We visited Istanbul last September and Tokapi was one of the places visited. We have been staying in a lovely house down at Bantham for the new year (near Kingsbridge), filthy weather but we did manage some walking and a dip in the sea to celebrate my 60th!


AO: Have you read Barbara Bolsover’s The Poisonwood Bible’? It’s fantastic. Or, if you have, you could try ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison which I think is the coming week’s R4 book.

Films – I love ‘Shadowlands’ about C S Lewis but it’s so sad that it might not be the best option. If the Globe’s most recent production of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is out on film yet that would be worth seeing as it was so well done.


SB: How about ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ and its sequels? I would never have admitted to having enjoyed this while in conversation at work of course but my daughters and I loved them.

Or if you want to focus on location, Rose Tremain “The Colour’ which is about the gold rush in New Zealand or “The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton, which is also about that topic but considerably more impenetrable and about a million pages long.

I also enjoyed Donna Tartt ‘The Goldfinch’ – also a million pages long and not exactly light.

We enjoyed watching ‘Saving Mr Banks’ over the holiday. Not exactly documentary but comes in the category known to our family as ‘heartwarming’. We actively seek them out – the girls look at us with pity in their eyes and wait until we have gone to bed before watching ‘Saw’ or Zombie Vampire Apocalypse!

Also what about podcasts. I am really into them. You could download all the episodes of ‘Serial’ which gripped everybody last year or its parent “This American Life’. I like Freakonomics as well though the quality is variable.

[PS You sound like a prime candidate for Radio 4’s ‘I’ve never seen Star Wars.’ I saw the first one in the Odeon, Leicester Square in 1977 or 78 (my first time in a London cinema which made a much greater impression). I fell asleep in the second one so my husband wouldn’t let me go with him to the third but I have suffered through the DVDS for years. I find them excruciatingly boring!

I cannot suspend my disbelief sufficiently. After all what made them decide to put those clothes on this morning, when did they find time to shave and where do they go to the loo? My mother said that when I was reading the adventures of Robin Hood when I was about seven, I looked up, puzzled and said ‘He’s been in that prison cell for two days and he hasn’t been to the toilet once!’ I’ve had the same problem with fantasy every since]


ML: My Brilliant Friend by Ellenore Ferante. It is a well known book and grabs you -best part is this author has remained anonymous and wrote this as a trilogy but there are really 4 books and am told each one is a sequel and gets better…so that will be 4 books to read both ways!

Takes place in Naples..and was translated from Italian..excellent!

Not sure about films: Carol – new one..maybe not in DVD yet and Joy another new one are supposed to be good and up for Oscars. Spy is quite entertaining….for old ones my favourite is Dangerous Beauty; a true story of a courtesan during the Inquisition days in Venice.


SS: On the subject of books – where to begin? It’s so personal..

We have both recently read and loved Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell to get myself a bit more informed about the history of the Middle East.

Have you read Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies? I could not put them down and they are long enough to last through a very long haul flight.

Peter Mandelson’s autobiography was a light, fun read and I like Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo series for a bit of middle-ages derring do and bodice-ripping. Currently I’m reading The Greatest Knight by Thomas Ashbridge, it’s the biography of William Marshall, an insignificant young man who rose to serve four English monarchs, become Earl of Pembroke & Leinster and instrumental in the drawing up of Magna Carta. I have a passion for the Plantagenets so it’s right up my street.

Several friends I trust have recommended Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and its sequels, and I have just downloaded Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín although my sister says it’s a quick read. Another quick read my sister recommended and I enjoyed was The Children Act by Ian McEwan.


JG: The Year of Reading Dangerously which in turn has inspired me to read War and Peace? Currently on pg 130 of 1200 in my edition.


LP: Have you read any of the Shardlake books by C J Samsom? -basically, historical crime fiction, but beautifully written and there are now 6..! Start at No 1..Dissolution.

Or another key favourite of mine- Louise Penny – Canadian writer, writes about Inspector Gamache of the Surete ( yes, crime again) Or Susan Hill’s Simon Serallier series – again- crime
Have I read anything not crime? Yes, – Bill Bryson’s latest ‘The road to Little Dribbling’ is laugh out loud funny in places. It’s a follow-on from Notes on a Small Island which is also v funny – the latter being his impressions of the Uk 20 years ago, and the former how things have changed in the interim.

…I loved Jonathan Sacks ‘Not in God’s Name’, but it’s a bit heavy for travelling, I’d have thought. I’ve got John Julius Norwich’s ‘Sicily’ to go at, and if you like the sweep of history interpreted by modern day – try Stephen Green’s ‘Reluctant Meister’, about where Germany’s going in the future, and why..

Otherwise, I read rubbish – Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series, or Deborah Crombie which I’ve just started – Kincaid and James ( another crime duo..)

And any of Anne Cleeves Vera Stanhope books, which are also well written rubbish.

I’d encourage you to watch ‘the Hunt’ series – the David Attenborough one – if you haven’t already seen it.. I was hooked on the Polar bears, as you’d expect, but the rest of the series is also beautifully done, and he won’t be around forever.

Otherwise, I watch a lot of trash..which I enjoy, but you would probably find v boring. (Like Downton which I watch as much for the costumes and the wonderful Maggie Smith as anything. Did you see Lady in the Van? V good..! )


TD: Suggest Acts and Omissions by Catherine Fox and sequel Unseen Things Above


DL: I have just read “Mornings In Jenin” by Susan Abulhawa. This is a novel set in 1948 in Palestine and takes you through 4 generations of one family throughout the troubles in that land.
It may not be to your taste, but you can read the reviews and see what you think.

One of the most moving films I have seen in the past couple of years is “The Book Thief”


JS: We watched the tv mini series recently: Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet in the title role & thought it very good. My favourite is the original Dr Zhivago with Omar Sharif – set in revolutionary Russia.

A couple of books I have just had to get to the end of are: Victoria Hislop’s The Island set in Crete & The Thread set in Thessaloniki. Both are historical novels very well researched.


Some friends didn’t warm to the exercise but out of kindness joined in anyway:


KB: It’s difficult to predict how one’s concentration will be – ie how demanding a read to commit to! I read Middlemarch in Iran one year when I realised I was going to run out of books otherwise! – and enjoyed it!

For a longish, but not too scarily so , book – Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, or Flight Behaviour are great?

And I’m just reading ‘All the light we cannot see’ by Anthony Doerr, which is absorbing and not a quick read -530 pages, quite small print!


And finally, here, with some hilarious asides, are suggestions from a friend (MW)’s sister who I haven’t met since she was a child in 1972!:


Always dangerous to recommend a book even when you think you know someone’s tastes in literature … but in the last few years some of the longish books I’ve read which stand out for me include (in no particular order):

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – amazingly well written, great story, ending not quite satisfactory though (see below).

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates – starts light-hearted, descends into darkness, but ending again unsatisfactorily “happy” (a common American failing – do American audiences demand it?)

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel – hilarious, dark supernatural goings-on; and Wolf Hall; epic historical novel, superb writing, needs slow reading

The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver – the former an absorbing story, a real classic; the latter a great story, well written

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson – dark, weird, Scottish, superb writing; and
Joseph Knight – a “true story” of a black slave in Scotland

anything by Elizabeth Bowen – my favourite female writer, obliquely incisive, acquired taste
The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx – funny, tough, good story; and Accordian Crimes – a collection of associated stories, great reading

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent -relentlessly miserable Icelandic historical novel, will give you nightmares. Not very long.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver – short, great Arctic ghost story, very frightening

Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler – Antarctic, non-fiction; The Magnetic North Arctic, non-fiction

South: The Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton – mind-boggling endurance epic – classic literature for the content rather than the quality of the writing

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard more Antarctic non-fiction heroism

So, no one single book because I couldn’t pick a favourite, and they are all quite meaty novels and not light reading, I’m afraid; also heavily “polarised” (ie Arctic or Antarctic) and for some reason mainly by female authors – don’t know why! I think less well-written stuff wouldn’t last me a long-haul flight as even if it was a long book, it’d start to irritate me before the wheels left the runway.

For audio books I have David Attenborough’s “ Life on Air” on my Kindle which is entertaining and I could listen to David’s dulcet voice for a long time without getting bored.


So how did I get on? Well, I must own up and admit that it wasn’t as unpleasant as I had feared. The premium economy seats were more expensive but delivered much more space and greater recline; the two outward journeys were largely in our ‘night’ and so we slept fitfully for longer than I expected, courtesy of high quality sound cancelling wrap round ear phones and eye masks; the return was much more unpleasant but behind us now. To all those whose patience I had tested before departure by rehearsing my qualms: thank you – and sorry!

We had the rough guide to South Australia , and a hard copy of New Zealand; David took an audible history of NZ (lasts over 20 hours and still isn’t over yet!) and I had Ann Enright’s The Green Road and Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life on my ipad, with corresponding audio. I finished the former on the outward journey – which I think is a terrific study of human relationships and family dynamics conveyed in the most accessible way through the interlocking lives and reflections of four siblings. For the homeward journeys, Life after Life was remarkable; utterly engaging.

I also found the various podcasts (episodes of Private Passions; Desert Island Discs; Front Row, Modern Muses, Essential Classics, Thinking Aloud and so on with a wide range of (largely) women interviewees – Jancis Robinson; Fiona Shaw; Jeanette Winterson; Susan Hill ; Ben Nicholson etc) absolutely perfect ways of passing the time, with my eyes closed, drifting in and out of sleep. 

The only book I carried was TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. It certainly repaid re-reading, and it gets the prize for having the most to say in the very smallest space.

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