50. Read 50 Books

50 books

When I first arrived in Cape Town last October, before me lay 9 months of free time.  Endless.  Inviting.  Luxurious. To get me to Cape Town with the 24 hours of travel, I knew all I needed was a book – but a good one.  It was A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell.  Arriving on a Tuesday afternoon, I hadn’t quite finished it, but quickly forgot about the story within as I had my own story to live – indulging completely in every sense of my two boys whom I had missed so desperately over the past months spent apart.

However, the next morning we took Niles to school and Chuck went to work. And before me lay 9 months of free time.  So I found my book, made a cup of tea, went in the backyard and sat in a Cape Town winter sun shine and read. And read.  And read … for most the rest of the day.  Interspersed with making a couple more cups of tea and a batch of cookies and soaking up the sounds and warmth of the garden, was the realization that I could spend every day like this through June.  Endless.

When that good book was done, I went inside and soaked up the benefit of living in the house of people who love books.  With shelves of paperbacks throughout the rooms and titles – both recognizable and new – calling my attention, I feasted with my fingers on the smooth covers of 100 and 100s of books throughout the house, noting which I had to consume immediately, which I ‘should’ read and which told a story just in their organization on the bookshelf.

I caught myself making mental notes on the process through which I would ‘attack them’-  and then lovingly made a mental correction, allowing myself to enjoy the spaciousness they invited. No need to plan. No need to justify. No need to organize.  Plenty of time to peruse and choose and go with what comes next. Inviting.

As months passed and I allowed life to take over (as I always do even when living in a time and place where I have no life to take me over), the long days of endless reading opportunity transitioned to settling into routine while navigating a new place and accomplishing daily to-do’s as well as adventure to-do’s.  Suddenly, I was looking forward to reading in the car while waiting for Niles at school or during the precious hour of his saxophone lesson.  Occasionally I steal away to a café with just a book. And sometimes I even go out into the back garden and sit for … just a bit. It is in these moments that I interrupt the day, anchor my restlessness, and simply read.

It’s not surprising the first thing on my list was to read books – and 50 was an easy goal.  I probably reached that half way through 47.  But it is in recent months that I have moved beyond the lust of reading out of the hunger to know, to be transformed, entertained, or to escape… to find the luxury of reading to create spaciousness in life.  Reading all afternoon in the backyard in the warmth of the sunshine with a freshly made cup of tea while anticipating loved ones coming home – that’s what reading will be for me now, wherever and whenever it occurs. Being lost in a book as part of everyday of life. Luxury.

 Lesson One: Reading makes every day a vacation

It is true, however, that it’s best to pack well for a vacation. Can we collectively pack a bag of 50 fabulous reads?  Here are my 5 for the day:

1. Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller.  Memoir of a crazy English alcoholic mother with tremendous charisma and related life growing up during the last vestiges of colonial Africa.

2. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.  Wonderfully recommended to me by Ann Ostwald as Jesuits in space.  Fabulous. It gets rough, but lots to think about.

3. The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson.  Easy reading on still relevant stuff and I could even now tell you about derivative trading …. maybe. I can definitely explain the housing- mortgage crisis.

4. Let My People Go: The Autobiography of Albert Luthuli, Nobel Peach Prize Winner, is the story of South Africa’s recent past through the eyes of a humble teacher turned leader who died in 1967 long before the change he envisioned came to pass.

5. An Instant in the Wind by Andre Brink, South African writer who was banned in the 70’s for using the government language of Afrikaans to write against apartheid.  Based on a collection of journals, chronicles the story of a runaway slave and white woman lost in the hinterland of 1750 South Africa, who rely on one another to make it back to the “civilization” of the Cape – but why?

And yours?

Here is our collective list made over the course of a month with contributions from women all around the world:

Making Every Day a Vacation – 50 Great Books



Filed under 50 before 50, Goals for life, Life reflections, The gift of time

22 responses to “50. Read 50 Books

  1. Happy Almost 50! I love your line about reading making every day a vacation. My son and I thought Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to The Dogs Tonight was one of the best books we’d read, but her follow up (Cocktail Hour) was disappointing. It read like an apology to her mother for spilling the dirt in her first memoir. It wasn’t a bad book, but I’d recommend her first memoir over that one.

    As for my suggestions, I’d recommend 2 published last year since you are less likely to have read them already and you’d appreciate the strong female protagonists. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (won a Printz Honor award) is about a captured UK spy in occupied France and her friendship with her pilot, another 18-year-old girl forced to grow up fast in WWII. Despite the grim setting, it is very much a book about living life to its fullest. Another favorite from last year was The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is about a 50-something couple who long for a child. It’s about aging without giving up your dreams and finding magic in nature. The lyrical descriptions of Frontier Alaska in winter remind me of Maine. In case you’re missing the snow…we got another foot yesterday!

    My reviews of those 2 books:

    Off to ski with the dog. Looking forward to other suggestions!

  2. Karyn

    Two recent favorites from me, Susie. Both fall into the easy and inspiring reading category —
    1) Running for My Life by Lopez Lomong. Lovely two or three-day read that combines several of your interests. Two sentence summary from back of book cover: “Running for My Life is not a story about Africa or track and field athletics. [My comment: though it is, in part.] It is about outrunning the devil and achieving the impossible through faith, diligence and the desire to give back.”
    2) The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Fiction about young adults with cancer that captures your heart (or mind or both) and won’t let you put it down. Hesitate to say much more than that, so the story can unfold for you as you read it. I really think you’ll enjoy it.

    I’ll be grateful to see what others post too! Currently skipping through The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in the evenings. Have to admit, reads totally different now than when I last tried, having the somewhat manic (and of course handsome) images of Robert Downey Jr. in mind as I go along. =^)

    Enjoy your time with books. xoxo

    • Karyn – I’m picking up Running for My Life tomorrow – it’s calling my name very loudly. I can’t tell you how much that description relates to my internal angst related to living daily in South Africa – even when I am choosing joy.

    • Karyn and Susie, I agree about The Fault is in Our Stars. Along with Code Name Verity, it made my top 5 young adult novels of 2012 and would cross over well to an adult audience. Author John Green is both hilarious and thoughtful.

  3. Other suggestions that have come in today:

    10. Moby Dick with the comment, “I read it for the third time and again got so much out of it including, this time, Melville’s humor.

    11. The Stone Diaries by Canadian author Carol Shields – one I read in Morocco several years ago and loved, but have forgotten the story! Reason to go back and take a second look.

    What others should we include?

  4. Cindy Stocks

    I love this idea, Susie! Just last night, when accepted the fact that my new book just wasn’t going to do it for me, I thought “I should ask my friends for some book suggestions.” I kid you not! You are read my mind!!!

    My pick is “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. I read this book last fall and I still think of it almost every day. It’s a memoir about a women who, devastated by her mother’s death, makes all kinds of bad choices that leave her life is ruin. She finds peace and strength by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, despite having never backpacked before. It leaves one believing that anyone can do the impossible, simply by putting one foot in front of the other … even if you are lost.

  5. Three more that came in:

    13. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

    14. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

    15. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

    and then arrived this:

    16. “I don’t know if I would add this to the list but I just finished How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (British). A feminist book – speedy read. You might enjoy it in the garden with a cup of tea and a fresh cookie!”

    Sounds intriguing!

  6. Mary Rose Reade

    Yes, a great idea to share reading ideas via your blog! Being in somewhat the same situation as Susie, with a temporary life overseas, I have taken to (the luxury of) reading over the past year too! Here are some of my favorites:

    ‘Truth and Beauty’ by Ann Patchett, who also wrote ‘Bel Canto’ and ‘State of Wonder’. ‘Truth and Beauty’ is a memoir about her friendship with another woman writer. It’s a quick read and I’d recommend it for any writers out there. ‘State of Wonder’ was good too… a little weird, but compelling.

    I also enjoyed ‘Cutting for Stone’ …. probably on everyone’s bookclub list… but after seeing the author, Abraham Verghese at a conference at Stanford, it brought it more to life for me.

    Also, at the suggestion of Chris, (my 25 year old son) I just finished Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden’…. wonderful. His work still lives on and makes me homesick for California.

    Looking forward to exploring all of the other recommendations. Thank you!
    Mary Rose

  7. And some Cape Town oriented titles suggested from a friend who was here for a year and now back in the States – even though with her young son she doesn’t have any time to read right now…. we get that!

    “Two books that I read in Cape Town that helped me think about the country:
    20. Playing in the Light by Zoe Wicomb
    21. Knowledge in Blook by Jonathan Jenson (non-fiction… really interesting.. he’s now the provost at University of Free State)

    And did you read?
    22. Transforming Cape Town by Catherine Bestamen (Colby College Professor?)

    But in terms of great books, I loved…
    23. The Warmth of Other Suns”

    • Madeleine Msall

      So glad to see Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow on your list. It’s an amazing book that I’ve never recommended to other people because I thought the bizarre combination of Jesuit theology and science fiction was too weird for most. But it is amazingly thought provoking and sometimes beautiful.

      In a similar vein, you could also consider Morris West’s Clowns of God. It’s slower to develop its revelations regarding our reactions to difference and disaster. I remember it as a bit more pensive than the Russell, though in some ways the adventure stakes are higher (it could be the end of the world is approaching). The main plot line is that the pope has a personal revelation and the Curia forces him from office. As the pope is abdicating today, it might seem timely.

      • Madeleine,

        Lovely descriptions of each. I just told Chuck he must download Clown’s of God on the kindle today. And, yes, this book is so timely with what is happening at the Vatican right now. Thanks so much!

  8. A great list coming in from Germany (which includes those books I have wanted to read but have not yet done so) with the question, “Do we get a copy of the final list?” Yes! Will compile and make easily peruse-able.

    25. The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver (Africa related, too)
    26. The Prodigal Summer – Barbara Kingsolver
    27. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot, “untangles the ethical issues in the case of a woman whose cancer cells have been the basis for a vast amount of research.”
    28. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – again, Barbara Kingsolver – local foods
    29. Shakespeare, The World as Stage – Bill Bryson
    30. A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson, walking the Appalachian Trail. Might be fun to read alongside of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

    Can we get 20 more great reads?

  9. Another recommendation just in from a friend in France. Hmmmm….. interesting.

    31. Daring Greatly – Brene Brown, “how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead.”

  10. genie

    Let me add A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It’s an epic novel about life in India. The book follows a number of different characters and their lives intertwine. Extraordinary writing about an extraordinary place.

    Closer to home, I loved Any Bitter Thing by Maine’s own Monica Wood. The year I read that one I ended up giving it to all my loved ones for Christmas. It deals with a priest who is raising a young girl. Can’t tell you more!

  11. Jen Scanlon

    Love and its many forms. Family and its many forms. I recommend The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. It’s short, under 200 pages, and so rich.

  12. And several more to consider that came in as recommendations from friends:
    Love and family – and what else is there, really? Thanks, Jen. Thanks, Genie.

    And a few more coming in:

    From Rochester, New York –

    35. “I don’t see ‘Pillars of the Earth!.’

    From Boston/Florida –

    36. No One is Here Except All of Us, by Ramona Ausubel
    37. Round House, by Louise Erdrich
    38. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Jones with the comment, “The Harold Fry book is a treasure -”

    and then from Cape Town –

    “My all-time favorite book about 4 amazing women…”

    39. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez – “relating the account of the Mirabel sisters during the time of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.”

    (My all time favorite, too. Thanks for the reminder!)

    40. Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver – a “heady exploration of climate change, media exploitation and political opportunism that lie at the root of what may be our most urgent modern dilemma.” Set in Appalachia, the novel turns around the experiences of a young mother who discovers something incredible in the hills.

  13. And a couple more! From a young friend in Brunswick, Maine:

    “Two books that I’ve really enjoyed fairly recently are “Middlesex: A Novel” by Jeffrey Eugenides and Steven King’s “11/22/63″.”

    And from another Mom friend in Brunswick (and the reader of all readers I know – this incredible woman reads one book aloud to her children at the same time she reads another to herself. Talk about multi-enjoying!)

    43. Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore – “MUST be on the list, right now!”

    44. Still Life – by Louise Penny “Literate and thoughtful mystery.”

    45. The Master and Margarita – by Mikhail Bulgakov “Christ, the devil, wild and hilarious adventures in early 20th c. Russia. Mmmm.”

    46. 24 Charing Cross Road – by Helene Hanff. “Episolary but so evocative and illuminating for the post war months and years.”

  14. And, alas – we get to 50 with most recent additions from all around:

    47. The Inhabited Woman – by Gioconda Belli “The other book I love by her is The Country Under My Skin: a Memoir of Love and War, which is Belli’s autobiography about growing up in Nicaragua and how she became a revolutionary in the Sandinista revolution.”

    48. Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do – by Claude M. Steele

    49. The Elegance of a Hedgehog – by Muriel Barbery. “I wish I’d remembered to suggest this book for that list of 50 books….” Just in time!

    50. And one last one from a South African writer: Beauty’s Gift – by Sindiwe Magona, – a “moving tale of how four women lose their best friend and how they decide to change the fate of their own lives as well as the lives of those closest to them.”

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