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Reading at high altitude shouldn't be a downer

If you want to get a sense of what America is reading these days, spend a couple of hours in an airport.

It can be a depressing experience. The number of travelers clutching copies of bodice-ripping romance novels or shoot- 'em-up thrillers far outweighs the number of people enthralled by the latest Pulitzer Prize offerings.

Tack on the sight of kids glued to hand-held video games and a passionate reader begins to despair.

Exasperated friends tell me that when they travel they want to be entertained, enthralled or comforted. The last thing they seek is a dense, thought-provoking tome that requires a pocket dictionary and razor-edged attention.

With that in mind, and remembering that spring break is just around the corner, I offer up the anti-airport reading list. The books will entertain, yes, but also stimulate the mind and encourage readers to branch out from the normal vacation pablum.

Historical romance seems to be a popular choice for female wayfarers. 'In Lucia's Eyes,' by Arthur Japin (Vintage Paperbacks), is an intelligent, compelling look at the one who got away.

Subtitled 'A Novel of Casanova,' it is the story of Giacomo Casanova's first love, a young peasant girl who supposedly broke his heart by running off with another man.

What really happened is far more intriguing - Lucia contracted smallpox while Casanova was away and, horribly scarred, chose to save her true love from having to live with her disfigurement.

Instead she fled her country home and became a notorious veil-wearing prostitute in Amsterdam. Years later Lucia runs into Casanova and, still in disguise, is tempted to reveal all.

Debut novels issued as paperback originals often receive little to no attention. Thanks to a front page review in The New York Times Book Review, 'Man Gone Down,' by Michael Thomas (Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic), has garnered the notice it deserves.

Part angry-black-man treatise combined with a glimpse of wealth and privilege in New York City, the book will make many white readers squirm in their seat. But Thomas has the writing chops to lift this story into universal territory.

In the end it is the story of one man's desperate search for himself at the risk of losing the family he often feels would do better without him.

Most travelers hate lugging a hardback around. Take a chance on 'Dancing to 'Almendra,' ' by Mayra Montero (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which comes in at just under 265 pages.

You will be rewarded with a tale of action, mystery and love set in the Havana of 1957. A wet-behind-the-ears Cuban journalist, Joaquin Porrata, ponders the links between a New York Mafia capo's death and the demise of a hippopotamus that escapes from a zoo. And we haven't even touched on the beautiful Yolanda, Joaquin's lover and a woman with a Technicolor past.

If you are like my husband, who prefers books that he can dip in and out of, check out Pete Dexter's new book of essays. 'Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, A Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage' (HarperCollins) is a compilation of the author's newspaper columns from the '70s and '80s. Often laugh-out-loud hilarious, this book will take your mind off the kid kicking the back of your seat.

One last gem - a must-read for the entire family.

It's the latest by Portland author Cynthia Rylant, 'Ludie's Life' (Harcourt Books). The book itself is slightly larger than a BlackBerry and packed with tragedy, compassion and lovely writing. It is the story of one woman's life told in simple, soothing verse. The perfect antidote for long security lines and delayed departures.

Reading this week:

One of the authors mentioned in this week's column will be reading in Portland this week. Pete Dexter, author of 'Paper Trails' will appear at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503- 228-4651).

Ellen Klages is the author of a debut novel for young readers, 'The Green Glass Sea.' It is the story of 11-year-old Dewey Kerrigan, who arrives in Los Alamos, N.M., in 1943 - just in time to witness history in the making. Klages will read at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 10, at Powell's City of Books.

Local author Thomas Day's science fiction book, 'A Grey Moon Over China,' garnered a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. The plot focuses on an energy war between the United States on one side and Japan and California on the other. Day will read at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 8, at Twenty-third Avenue Books (1015 N.W. 23rd Ave., 503-224-5097).

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'In Lucia's Eyes'

By Arthur Japin

Vintage Paperbacks

'Man Gone Down'

By Michael Thomas

Black Cat/ Grove/ Atlantic

'Dancing to 'Almendra'

By Mayra Montero

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

'Ludie's Life'

By Cynthia Rylant

Harcourt Books