Tag Archive | the joy of reading

Eggnog

Tonight I’m grateful for the annual Bibliofillies’ Christmas party, and a feature we all look forward to, Bob’s famous eggnog. Some of us are getting out more than others, but we all agreed to meet on Zoom for our festivities this year instead of in person. Our usual December hostess drove around the neighborhood through snow and sleet delivering her husband’s homemade eggnog, and carrying out our holiday book exchange, picking up and dropping off one wrapped book at each Filly’s house. A non-traditional tradition that I hope maybe next year we can dispense with; but we have adapted well to the ongoing pandemic, and it was delightful to gather the herd virtually and celebrate our dedication to each other and to the art of reading.

I’m grateful for these eight other women, and for those who were once fillies and moved away or chose to put their energy elsewhere. I’m grateful for the nearly two hundred books we’ve read together in almost seventeen years, and for the great recommendations we shared with each other tonight. Instead of a common book this month, we each brought our thoughts on titles we’ve read recently, which ranged from memoirs and historical fiction, to the non-fiction history of immunotherapy in The Breakthrough; from lexicographical adventures like Dictionary of Lost Words to the latest from Richard Powers, Amor Towles, and Anthony Doerr; and many more. I’m grateful for books, friends, and eggnog, and finally, for a small wet snow that has stuck to the ground.

I’m grateful for two new books to enjoy! I’m grateful I learned to read, grateful I love to read.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

I mentioned my gratitude for the Bibliofillies a couple of weeks ago. Today, I’m grateful for our February book selection, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Several of us had read it before, but I chose it anyway, after our grueling January read put me off of my original selection, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, another “gripping” dystopian novel about a woman fleeing Los Angeles as America spirals into chaos” (The New York Times Book Review).

Well, 100 Years also involves some spirals into chaos, but isn’t that what life is ultimately all about? Everything changes all the time, and the inevitable result of something being born, created or arising is that it will die, dissolve, or fall apart. This is the ultimate truth. So while the trajectories of those two novels might be similar, I chose the one I’ve already read at least twice, maybe three times, and which a hundred years ago in my own life I chose as my ‘desert island book.’ There is simply no better paradigm of magical realism ever written. I’m almost done with this read-through, and there’s at least one sentence on almost every single page that I read twice, for the sheer beauty and brilliance of it.

Starting with the first line and unfurling with relentless imagination, here are some examples:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice…. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”

“Science has eliminated distance,’ Melquiades proclaimed. ‘In a short time, man will be able to see what is happening in any place in the world without leaving his own house.”

“Her heart of compressed ash, which had resisted the most telling blows of daily reality without strain, fell apart with the first waves of nostalgia.”

“It was an intricate stew of truths and mirages that convulsed the ghost of José Arcadio Buendia under the chestnut tree with impatience and made him wander all through the house even in broad daylight.”

“Ursula, almost blind at the time, was the only person who was sufficiently calm to identify the nature of that determined wind and she left the sheets to the mercy of the light as she watched Remedios the Beauty waving good-bye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her, abandoning with her the environment of beetles and dahlias and passing through the air with her as four o’clock in the afternoon came to an end, and they were lost forever with her in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.”

“He saw the clowns doing cartwheels at the end of the parade and once more he saw the face of his miserable solitude when everything had passed by and there was nothing but the bright expanse of the street and the air full of flying ants with a few onlookers peering into the precipice of uncertainty.”

“The indolence of the people was in contrast to the voracity of oblivion, which little by little was undermining memories in a pitiless way…”

“…and then they understood that José Arcadio Buendia was not as crazy as the family said, but that he was the only one who had enough lucidity to sense the truth of the fact that time also stumbled and had accidents and could therefore splinter and leave an eternalized fragment in a room.”

These examples are essentially random and can’t come close to capturing the rollicking wonder of getting swept away page by page in this marvelous family’s tragic saga from nothing to everything to nothing again. Nothing I write can do it justice. After forty years, it’s still my ‘desert island book.’ I am grateful for this extraordinary novel, and for others in the magical realism genre by authors like José Saramago and Salmon Rushdie; grateful for the fictional escape from actual spirals into chaos, and also for the fundamental human truths illuminated in all the best novels. I’m grateful for the precision and beauty of words, and grateful that I have time in my busy days to explore worlds real and imagined through the simple act of reading.

Bibliofillies

Books I unearthed while sorting through boxes in the attic…

I’m grateful for books. I’m grateful that my big brother taught me to read when I was just three years old. I remember sitting on the floor in the doorway between the well-lit kitchen and the dim living room where our parents sat, with a book between us, and him teaching me to make sense of the letters. I’m grateful that I love to read, that I have always loved to read, that my parents gave me lots of books, and that I have always had access to anything I could wish to read. I’m grateful that Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, and grateful that someone (though it’s not clear exactly who) invented the novel. I’m grateful for bookbindings, libraries, magazines, and Kindle, and for paper and ink, typewriters, and Pages.

Today I’m grateful for the Bibliofillies, a bookclub Ellie started in April 2005, which has always had a cap of ten people, and still retains five founding members. There are currently nine of us, and we all live in the outskirts of our little town. For all those years we’ve met on the first Wednesday evening of each month, rotating among our homes, and our format has evolved through the years but a few things have remained constant.

We start each meeting with an author report by the hostess. OK, one thing has remained constant! There was a time when the hostess often chose to make a full meal for the group, but it’s always been ok to serve chips and dip instead. In summer we’ve met on patios, in winter we’ve carpooled through deep snow. Since Covid, we’ve met monthly on Zoom, and here’s the second thing that’s constant: the camaraderie that has developed among us through the years.

The first book we read was Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, a novel published in 1881. I remember meeting in Connie’s cozy adobe living room, and there was much dissent about the book. It was a good realization that we can sometimes have even more engaging conversations if we don’t all feel the same about a book. Since then, we’ve had an ongoing discussion on “What is Literature?” One husband calls us “The Smarty Pants Bookclub,” because there’s another book club in town, which many call “The Fun Bookclub.”

I can’t remember half of these, but here’s a (nearly complete) list of the books we read in our first ten years together:

  1. Portrait of a Lady Henry James
  2. Heat and Dust, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
  3.  O Pioneers! Willa Cather 
  4.   A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul
  5. Dreaming in Cuban, Cristina Garcia 
  6. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
  7. The Haunted Monastery, Robert Van Gulik 
  8. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe 
  9. The Cave, Jose Saramago 
  10. Lady Chatterly’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence 
  11. A Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata 
  12. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
  13. Passionate Nomad, Jane Geniesse 
  14. Saving Fish from Drowning, Amy Tan 
  15. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
  16. East Wind: West Wind, Pearl S. Buck
  17. The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham
  18. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
  19. Dearest Friend:  A Life of Abigail Adams, Lynne Withey
  20. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe 
  21. Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami 
  22. The Blind Assasin, Margaret Atwood 
  23. Dakota:  A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris 
  24. Arthur and George, Julian Barnes 
  25. Burger’s Daughter, Nadine Gordimer 
  26. The Thief and the Dogs, Naguib Mahfouz  
  27. Stories of Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov 
  28. Herzog, Saul Bellow 
  29. Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie
  30. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk
  31. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner 
  32. In the Company of the Courtesan, Sarah Dunant 
  33. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan
  34. To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee 
  35. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller 
  36. Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett 
  37. The Greenlanders, Jane Smiley 
  38. The Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love, Oscar Hijuelos 
  39. White Ghost Girls, Alice Greenway
  40. The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty
  41. Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson
  42. Mara and Dann, Doris Lessing 
  43. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde 
  44. The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers
  45. Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis 
  46. The Ginseng Hunter, Jeff Talarigo 
  47. The Leopard, Guiseppe de Lampedusa 
  48. The Tenderness of Wolves, Stef Penney 
  49. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery 
  50. The Quiet Girl, Peter Hoeg 
  51. Rabbit is Rich, John Updike
  52. A Mercy, Toni Morrison
  53. Desert, LeClezio
  54. The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
  55. The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa
  56. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
  57. The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett
  58. The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
  59. Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner
  60. Little Bee, Chris Cleave
  61. That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo
  62. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
  63. Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
  64. The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Olga Grushin
  65. The Appointment, Herta Muller
  66. Vanity Fair, William Thackeray
  67. The Help, Kathyrn Stockett
  68. Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese
  69. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson
  70. Even Silence Has an End:  My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle, Ingrid Betancourt
  71. Tinkers, Paul Harding
  72. Dog of the South, Charles Portis
  73. Trading Dreams of Midnight, Diane McKinney-Whetstone  
  74. Undaunted:  The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, Dorothy Wickenden
  75. The Elephant’s Journey, Jose Saramago
  76. People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
  77. Reader’s choice: Mario Vargas Llosa
  78. Killing Mother, Rita Clagett
  79. Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, Christie Watson
  80. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  81. The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness, Clay Jenkinson
  82. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford
  83. The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt
  84. The Glass Palace, Amitav Ghosh
  85. The Invisible Ones, Stef Penney
  86. Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith & Love, Dava Sobel
  87. State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
  88. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bolgakov
  89. Room: A Novel, Emma Donoghue
  90. The Dog Stars, Peter Heller
  91. The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
  92. The Stone Raft, Jose Saramago
  93. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt
  94. Strength in What Remains, Tracy Kidder
  95. Mary Coin, Marisa Silver
  96. The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain
  97. Proust at the Majestic, Richard Davenport-Hines
  98. Remembering Babylon, David Malouf
  99. What Maisie Knew, Henry James
  100. Reader’s choice: Books by Mo Yan
  101. The Sumbally Fallacy, Karen Weinant Gallob
  102. The Emerald Mile, Kevin Fedarko
  103. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Kay Joy Fowler
  104. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  105. Americanah, Chimananda Adichie
  106. Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, Poe Ballantine
  107. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
  108. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
  109. The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
  110. The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey
  111. The Emperor of Paris, C.S. Richardson
  112. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast
  113. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, Jan-Philipp Sendker
  114. Submergence, J.M. Ledgard
  115. The Antagonist, Lynn Coady
  116. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, Caitlin Doughty 

Who can say we’re not fun? Now, I don’t have permission, so I can’t share the screenshot I took of us toward the end of our meeting tonight. It’s not Wednesday, you might be thinking if you’re on your toes: No, but last Wednesday we were derailed by circumstances beyond our control, which several wanted to keep watching on their screens, so this was our makeup meeting. If I could, I’d share the screenshot, and prove to everyone that we are too fun! Last month we read Louise Erdrich’s dystopian novel “Future Home of the Living God,” which started out a page turner, and ended up a colossally distressing parallel, in some ways, to our own current precarious political and societal cusp between democracy and fascism.

None of us gave the book a full Thumbs Up, and several gave it a solid Thumbs Down, and after a record-short discussion there was a pause that cried for some levity. I put on a pig nose and ears, and gave a tutorial on Zoom video filters, and soon we were all laughing. Rosie sat by the seaside with a pirate patch and hat, Candy wore a mustache with the cosmos behind her. Many combinations of backgrounds, frames, antlers, hats, noses, spectacles and hirsute adornments later, we called it a night. Smarty pants indeed! I am indeed grateful for my smarty-pants, big-hearted, open-minded, thoughtful and funny Bibliofillies.