Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Dispatch from NBCC Reads Conversation in Corte Madera, California

By Jane Ciabattari

A passionate group of readers showed up at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California in early August to talk about the most memorable books about conjugal love, the latest in the NBCC Reads series. Kicking off the discussion were (from left)  panelists Jane Ciabattari, Greg Sarris, Meredith Maran and Molly Giles.Adding to the conversation (and the discoveries that make these events so much fun) were NBCC finalist Jason Roberts, author Susanne Pari, noted art writer Beth Coffelt and her daughter Anne Coffelt of the Kenwood Press, and Fictionaut's Meg Pokrass, among others.

Molly Giles, an NBCC Balakian award winner, author (Rough Translations, Creek Walk, Iron Shoes) and professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, opened with an admiring look at Annie Dillard’s 2007 novel The Maytrees, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award.  (It's about a long and relatively happy marriage.)

Author/reviewer Meredith Maran, whose memoir, My Lie: A True Story of False Memory, is just out, selected Peggy Orenstein's memoir Waiting For Daisy. “It's about infertility, not marriage, but the marital issues that underlie the narrative are moving and modern and profound,” she noted. And, with a tip of the hat to the court decision legalizing gay marriage in California that day, she solicited thoughts on books about gay conjugal love, which led to a long list, including The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stacey D'Erasmo's A Seahorse Year, Mark Doty's essay in the Sex issue of Granta, Sappho, Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On.

Greg Sarris, author (Grand Avenue, Watermelon Nights), screenwriter, Sonoma State University professor and chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, offered a Pomo/Miwok perspective on the idea of conjugal love, mentioning the importance of community over pairing off, and telling a couple of stories to make his point.

I added a couple of long-time favorites by Northern California resident Evan Connell, Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, two short novels about a Kansas City couple that pioneered the vignette approach to fiction. There isn't really a plot in these books, published in 1959 and 1969, but you gather what you need to know, and the emotional impact is huge. (Turns out the Bridge novels also were favorites of Jason Roberts, who had some further thoughts to add.) I also mentioned Jane Smiley's new novel, Private Life, which deals with traditional marriage and spans six decades, from 1883 to 1942, with scenes set in nearby Mare Island and Vallejo and a vivid real-time account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

When we turned to the audience, the book suggestions came fast and furious. Susanne Pari recommended Zadie Smith’s On Beauty as a “wonderfully rendered novel about interracial marriage.”Mark Ciabattari touted Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. And there were more suggestions.   Madame Bovary. Anna Karenina. Elegy for Iris, John Bayley's moving memoir of his wife, the novelist Iris Murdoch, who suffered from Alzheimer's. Little Women. Old Flith by Jane Gardam, and The Man in the Wooden Hat, the same story from the wife's point of view. The list was long. Closing time loomed.

Greg Sarris had the final word. “Wait, wait, what about Molly Bloom?”

“Yes, yes, yes” came the chorus of answers from all corners of Book Passage. Folks lingered for further discussion until the ever patient and generous Dana Kelly had to shut down, and ushered us out into the foggy summer night.