Back in January 2007 my fondness for lists drove me to start a list of the books I was reading. I kept it up for nearly two years, then abandoned it. I'm picking it up again now for the first time since January 2009, rather unsure as to what purpose I thought a reading list would serve, other than to see how many books I was reading a month. No other insight is possible, I'm thinking, given that I recorded only the title of the book and the author. Thus, all I know about what I read in January 2007, for example, is this:
1. "Where the Heart Is," Billie Letts
2. "The Namesake," Jhumpa Lahiri
3. "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," Lisa See
4. "Mrs. DeWinter," Susan Hill
5. "Guns, Germs and Steel," Jared Diamond
6. "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," J.K. Rowling
7. "The Perfect Storm," Sebastian Junger
8. "One True Thing," Anna Quindlen
9. "Encounters With the Archdruid," John McPhee
I take that back about the lack of insights. Merely typing this list has stirred up all sorts of memories and non-memories.
Take No. 1. My main recollection of this book is that I enjoyed it. But, with all due respect to Ms. Letts, and an apology, I don't recall any specifics of plot or character. I don't even remember the circumstances under which I read it.
Contrast that with No. 2. I have a vivid memory of reading that in Connecticut, on my mother-in-law's living room couch, where she'd banished me after I'd admitted -- in the seventh month of my second pregnancy -- that I'd experienced a wee bit of spotting. My mother-in-law had her own vivid memory, of the near-miscarriage of her first grandson. She wasn't about to risk similar emotional trauma with her second. So, off to the couch I went, to enter Ms. Lahiri's tale of the boy whose father's near-fatal train wreck in India set the course for his son's entire life. The book, as you probably know, was made into a movie starring Kal Penn, whose face I can never see without thinking of "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle." I think that's the main reason I didn't see "The Namesake" -- the image of him as a total pothead would have been too high a mental billboard to leap. Sorry, Mr. Penn.
I read No. 3 while still under couch arrest in Connecticut. My mother-in-law, who is the source of quite a few of the books I read, and not just when I'm in the final trimester of pregnancy, had handed it to me with the warning that she hadn't quite been able to stomach the section on foot-binding. I received this caveat with an air of superiority -- poor thin-skinned woman. But I found I didn't care for the description, either. My mother had once told me that her grandmother had had bound feet, and now that I knew what she'd had to undergo to achieve this questionably exalted state, I had trouble reading about it, too.
No. 4 I can justify only with my adolescent fondness for the novel "Rebecca," which I read probably three or four times; I similarly gorged on Alfred Hitchcock's screen treatment, one of the few cinematic adaptations that I think is as good as or even better than the novel.
No. 5 was sort of homework for me; I found I preferred Mr. Diamond's followup, "Collapse." Odd, since I'm normally a glass-half-full type, and the latter book focused on failure, while the first dissected success. Maybe that was the pragmatist in me winning out -- looking for morals and examples of what not to do.
I don't think I need explain No. 6. It's Harry Potter, for Hogwarts' sake.
No. 7 is another book for which I very clearly remember the circumstances in which I read part of it: in a Chinese restaurant near my home, while eating spicy seafood soup (which occasionally would spatter on a page despite my best efforts to be tidy). At the time I did not consider the irony of my choice of entree. It just sounded really good, and I was there partly to review the fare. Anyway, my thorough enjoyment of that soup probably flavored the positive feelings I have about that book to this day.
The thing about No. 8 is that I admire everything Anna Quindlen writes, so I was a little saddened to realize that I wasn't really sure which of her books this one was. I had to Google it to confirm that it was the one about the mother dying of cancer. I have have been reading her work since I was a teen, when she was writing her weekly "Life in the 30's" column for The New York Times. I no longer remember which day of the week it ran, but I sure knew then -- on those days, I'd eagerly snatch up the Times and rifle the pages until I found it. Later, I subscribed to Newsweek partly because she'd started writing a column there. Now it has been ages since I've read Newsweek, which means I haven't kept up with Ms. Quindlen's column, but she is one true writer. I've never read a piece by her that didn't leave me marveling at how adeptly she teased out all the nuances of a complex issue, to then present them with fairness and clarity. (In that way she is much like Leonard Pitts, another of my all-time favorite columnists.) Of Ms. Quindlen's novels, the one I love best is "Rise and Shine." Partly that's because one of the main characters is a journalist, but mostly it's because of how lovingly and truly drawn they are. Meghan Fitzmaurice instantly became one of my favorite female characters in contemporary American fiction. I have to think that's because there's a little of her creator in her.
The ninth book on this list is one that elicits more of an mood than a memory, for the book is about (to oversimplify radically) the outdoors, and I've spent my share of time sleeping on mountainsides and hiking through woods and contemplating on beaches. Therefore I find it impossible to read such a book without returning to those experiences and the feelings they evoke.
So much for lack of insight. I take it all back, list. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Maybe next time we'll look at February 2007 and see which synapses that one sparks.