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The beauty is in the telling
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Still in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, people are crowding the lanes at the Aquatic Center, circling Daffin Park. But in the past two weeks I’ve also heard of two book clubs starting up.

Reading, it appears, at least in January, ranks a close second to exercise.

Everyone’s looking to improve. I mean, let’s face it, how many people have you heard say: “My New Year’s resolution is to watch more television”?

Not that I don’t watch the boob tube. Even with rabbit ears, I can still pull in “King of the Hill” when I have to, “Sisters,” to fill that occasional 7 p.m. dead hour, and, of course, our beloved “West Wing.”

Everything else is dreck, that wonderful Yiddish word Leo Rosten translates as, “excrement, trash, junk, garbage.”

But for good old-fashioned distraction, diversion, amusement and the occasional edification, books are better. They feel good to the touch, especially hardcovers. They travel well. And on a wall, folded into a bookshelf, their bindings make up a beautiful mosaic.

A few years ago, I started writing down the name of each book I read for the year, partly as reward (“Good girl! Look what a smart girl you are!”), partly so I could keep track.

As I look back on last year’s list, I noticed five out of the14 books I read were repeats, books I deliberately chose to revisit. Each read as though it were our first time together.

Most of the time I didn’t even remember the ending -- not because of my memory, which is no great shakes, anyway -- but because the beauty of these books was and is in the telling.

Still, how could I have forgotten the evil and nasty ways of Paris Trout in Pete Dexter’s book of the same name? Dexter doesn’t pull any punches with this one, already 16 years old (and a movie, too). It’s a thriller from the beginning to the end, a novel of murder in the small Georgia town of Cotton Point just after World War II.

There’s no big thrills, no big plot, in Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis, another reread this year, another Southern setting. Just some major machinations and manipulations from two middle-aged and unmarried sisters toward their widowed father who wants to remarry and their brother who moved to Manhattan. Written in 1987, it’s a juicy book of interior intrigue family dysfunction.

Then there’s Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, which I drew from my bookshelf and read all the way through one rainy Saturday. On the first page, an earlier owner’s name is written in beautiful penmanship, “John E. Dewey, May, 1927,” the year the book was published.

Above that, in pencil, was the price I paid: $1.

The syntax is slightly wooden but the feelings are modern. “Had there been an ax handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breast by his mere presence...”

I don’t understand all that Woolf writes, but her fragile grip on reality and her conflicted, interior voice speak to me.

So does Carson McCullers in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and William Maxwell in They Came Like Swallows, another gem of yet more family dysfunction, circa 1937.

For new books, I went to my first John Grisham, The Last Juror. Talk about a great fantasy. A 23-year-old kid, straight out of journalism school, buys a small town newspaper in the South, gets involved in a story of rape and murder committed by the son of the town’s outlaw family and sees it through to the end.

Equally creepy and possibly prescient was Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a futuristic tale told by a man living in a tree who because of some major miscalculations by a few large biotech corporations -- whose employees live in gated communities -- thinks he may be the last man left on earth.

It’s a story of how the world fell apart. It’s bleak. It’s a page-turner.

I guess I like bleak, because Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides came next. I loved his Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer Prize, but this is different -- macabre, quirky, readable, also a movie, I am told. I’m ready for his next book.

For a dinner club I belong to, where we cook and talk about a different country each month, I came across Corruption, by Tahar Ben Jelloun.

The country was Morocco. Imagine my surprise when I called the research desk of the public library to ask for names of Moroccan novelists. Without missing a beat, the woman on the other line gave me a list of six.

Never underestimate talking to another human being instead of Googling everything.

It’s the story of what happens when a city engineer in Casablanca -- who up until then had been Mr. Perfect, Mr. Morality -- finally succumbs to the bribes he’s watched everyone take. Since all I knew about Morocco was the movie Casablanca -- and the fact that Morocco was the first country to recognize the fledgling United States of America - it was good to read of a real human from such a faraway place plagued with guilt and temptation.

A more modern version of this temptation and a book I never would have picked up if I hadn’t have been in Detroit the week it came out -- and never would have read if I hadn’t have gone to elementary school with the author, Suzy Farbman -- was Back From Betrayal: Saving a Marriage, a Family, a Life. Though not my style of book, it reads fast and fairly honest.

The only other two nonfiction books I read were The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson, a great read in the heat of Savannah’s summer, and Rigel Crockett’s Fair Wind and Plenty of It, a modern-day tall ship adventure.

The lobster book, curious and strange and maybe a little more than I wanted to know about their eating habits and sex life, sure puts another spin on Johnny Harris’ weekly Wednesday “lobster night.”

Crockett’s book was delightful, even for a non-boating person such as myself. He writes about a round-the-world voyage on a tall ship out of Nova Scotia.

Crockett, who lives in Savannah, tells a good tale of what it means to be a sailor and how tough it is to share quarters with others for nearly two years.

My first book for 2005 is The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Playful, preposterous and bizarre, it’s so good I don’t want it to end. Know what I mean?

So many books, so little time.


Jane Fishman writes a weekly column for ConnectSavannah. She can be

reached at To comment in a letter to the editor, e-mail us at