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Just one good book

The truth about books, beaches, bunnies and bikinis, and what oddities people are reading on sugar-white Maldives beaches.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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IF I WERE TO SUGGEST I ACTUALLY LIKE TO READ when I'm on holiday, people would look at me as if I had lost my mind. And they'd be right. Nobody reads these days, not even in that hallowed sanctum of learning and erudition - the toilet. Most people read, or rather, blandly "eyeball", the Internet, and it is far too much bother carting a PC into the W.C. unless you plan to drop it on your husband's head, thus conclusively ending the toilet-seat-up-or-down debate.

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Actually there's nothing that quite beats a holiday with the beckoning pages of a rumpled paperback. With a good book in my hands, I don't need much else save for a nice white sand beach packed with hundreds of women with bodies like ripening corn threatening to toss off their clothes and do my bidding (like turning the page, get stamps from the post office and so on). And perhaps a fresh coconut, cleanly halved and stabbed with a long, cool straw; a BMW parked in the shade; a simple ten-bedroom Victorian mansion with rolling greens; a racehorse called Lightning; and a shocking-blue sun-dappled pool packed with scores of ecstatic Playboy Bunnies with bodies like ripening corn and... you get the drift. That's a lot of postage stamps and pages turned. Face it, there's nothing quite like a good book.

Read all about two-headed animals and even a railroad run by children - an excellent way to keep costs down

Two travel books I can recommend (I'm not one for pulp fiction) are, A Fortune Teller Told Me by Tiziano Terzani, and In Search of Shangri-La by Michael McRae. The former is not strictly speaking a travel tome but it falls into that category, and very readably so. Terzani, a veteran journalist, encounters a monk in Hongkong who bids him to abstain from flying for one full year or else...

Interest piqued and rosary thumbed, Terzani takes on the challenge to criss-cross Asia by car, train, boat and on foot. The experience opens up an entirely new - hitherto hidden - dimension, as he encounters a fabulous world of real people and real lives, rich in mysticism and moral tales, a world that instant air travel normally bypasses. It is a book of laborious journeys and splendid arrivals.

McRae's book is a gripping account of the historic quest for fabled Shangri-La, once thought to reside in the impenetrable folds of the eastern Himalayas where the Tsang Po makes an impossibly steep descent from the high plains of Tibet to the steaming jungles of Assam, India, emerging as the Brahmaputra. Many a hardy adventurer wandered into the gorge in search of a fabled waterfall, never to return.

Another breezy pick-me-up is Places in the Heart edited by livewire travel journalist and professional peripatetic Susan Kurosawa. Irrepresible columnist and travel editor of The Australian, Kurosawa has put together a collection of thirty feisty Aussies penning their thoughts on "special corners of the world". No, no midget tossing and barf-a-minute bars. Kurosawa's own chapter on India and Bollywood will raise more than a few chuckles. Also chipping in are TV presenter Mike Whitney, actor Graeme Blundell and writer Kate Llewellyn.

If you want something wilder, you might check out Weird Europe by Kristan Lawson and Anneli Rufus. The book delves into the continent's less well known treasures and landmarks like two-headed animals, erotic museums, a railroad operated by children (an excellent way to keep the cost down) and the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum in Graz.

It's nice to know the Austrians fondly remember their favourite son. But just to make sure, Arnie built a sports stadium (named after himself) and a museum to boot, packed with all manner of displays that conclusively prove that he was, indeed, connected to a bicycle pump as a child and inflated irredeemably, to serve a greater calling in America - groping women, before groping his way through politics as governor of California.

Birds do fly south and you never know when one of our exhausted Canuck friends may drop in for a stiff martini and directions

So what are people reading on holiday these days? The idyllic Hilton Maldives Resort & Spa took a recent inventory of books left behind by guests. Some of the finds: Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (a treatise on depression and suicide), a 650-page translation of the Koran, and even a hardback, and rather heavy, copy of The Illustrated Guide to Canadian Birds. The bird book choice is inspirational. After all, birds do fly south, and you never know when one of our exhausted feathered Canuck friends may turn up asking for a stiff martini and recommendations for a good mileage programme.

Other tomes included The Beginner's Guide to Quilt Making and the Readers' Digest Practical Problem Solver, a weighty manual covering all eventualities including, perhaps, what to do when a humungous shark lunges out of the water to test your reading retention skills. There are sharks in the Indian Ocean. They roam free, turning up only at dinner time when they get fed and photographed by visitors. One German tourist I met in the Maldives hadn't read the Readers' Digest manual. "Are there any JAWS here?" he enquired, before gingerly stepping into the turquoise waters.

Well, it's time for me to get back to my latest book. It's one of those huge hardbacks that will need quite a few Playboy Bunnies to manage it all. I may not do a lot of reading but, heck, I do want to see some pages turned. Don't you?

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