LaurieHZeller April 8th, 2008

Thank you to everyone who designed and participated and attended the memorial service on the 29th. I think it was healing for everyone. One theme that came up again and again about Sandy was her love of reading. I wanted to explore that a little more through the recollections of members of her book club. We will shortly also post our book group “list” at As I have said before on this site, Sandy was an informed and passionate reader. Her tastes were eclectic and reflected her varied interests – she loved 19th century British fiction about the landed gentry (Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice), and she loved cyberpunk. She was insatiably curious about other cultures – favorites included Rohynton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera, and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. And she loved to promote the books of her youth – Ayn Rand, Confederacy of Dunces. Much more entertaining were Sandy’s dislikes; where she disliked, she loathed. She was resentful about being manipulated by a good review – the New Yorker liked Sort of Rich, so we read it – what’s the point, said Sandy. NPR loved By Night in Chile, and Sandy called me, irritated, halfway through it to point out that it was 77 pages, one paragraph, and that it had cost her 14.99 plus shipping on Amazon. But the full force of Sandy Widener’s wrath was reserved for Ahab’s Wife, by Sarah Jeter Naslund. I think Sandy despised it in part because she had such respect for good editing, and felt that any editor worth her salt would have hacked those thousand pages of overwritten faux feminism into three hundred pages of a decent story. She is probably still mad that it made the best seller list. Sandy loved to read about some issue or question that was pertinent to the moment. She would have loved reading March’s book group choice, TH White’s great Making of the President 1960, since the irony of the comparison with today’s politics is so apparent. But she loved to “read against the tide” too, taking pride that our choices were not dictated by the best-seller list or Oprah’s book club. Her last choice was Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe. We read it after the accident with love and regret, missing her as we turned every page. Our book group loved to talk about the books we were sharing with our children when they were young. Chase and Katy loved Charlotte’s Web, and once before a long car trip Sandy lent me a tape of E.B. White, in his wonderful old Maine voice, reading that classic story. My boys were rapt, listening, between Denver and Yellowstone, a ten-hour drive. I came across the book recently and broke down when I read the last page, because it brought Sandy Widener back to me again: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." We miss Sandy, and her taste and wit continues to guide us as we read. - Laurie Hirschfeld Zeller Sandy wasn’t afraid to “dis” books that the literati are supposed to revere. Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse comes to mind. But when I try to recall Sandy’s impressions of certain books, I can never really recall the words she used to describe them – only an emotion expressed as sounds like “yahh,” “uhhh,” or in the case of Voyage, by the alcoholic actor/tough guy Sterling Hayden – a book I practically begged her to read – her brief review was an imitation of a truly drunken sailor that went something like “yer da hey da rah gah uhh.” I’m so sorry that I can’t remember enough of what Sandy said, even if the glad-to-see-you smile, the guffaws, the badly masked disappointment that I hadn’t bought beer for book group, and the bright sense of well being that came from Sandy in the room is still there – even if it contributes so much to the feeling of loss. Still, I often feel a sense of embarrassment, that I don’t have the right to feel such deep sorrow when I can’t claim the depth or longevity of friendship that so many others had with Sandy. But I know for certain that one of the best people I will ever know is no longer at the other end of the phone line, a day away from book group, or a voice in the doorway coming to make reading a wonderful thing to share. - Tom Krol I was welcomed into the group several years ago, but was for a long time, probably the only member of the group who had not worked together and been friends for many years. I have always felt extremely lucky that I stumbled into such a warm, bright, witty group, and that they welcomed me so warmly and immediately, in spite of my lack of history with them. Sandy was always finding books for us to read that I (or many members of the general public) never would have unearthed on my own, and often they were not only literary masterpieces, but also stories of great and obscure adventures or cultures. She relished tales that provided the details of historic adventure and physical work, like the whale hunt as recounted Moby Dick (the exploration of which I think ultimately led us to the ill-fated Ahab's Wife), or terrible expeditions detailed in Endurance. I think there were others along these lines, but I can't remember them specifically. I have always been delighted when the group, and Sandy in particular, enjoyed something I suggested, as I consider all of them my intellectual and literary superiors, so those books stick out in my mind. I can clearly remember Sandy's reactions to two of my recent contributions. To Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracey Kidder's book about Dr. Paul Farmer who has devoted his life to finding sustainable ways to providing basic health care in the poorest parts of the world, Sandy remarked, "Well, this was a great book - but doesn't it make you feel like shit?" (I would remark that hearing what warm and generous friends Sandy and John were to so many over the last few weeks has had a similar effect on my own examination of my life.) To Zaidy Smith's On Beauty, she simply said, with her classic sparking smile, "Was this a great book or what?" I feel so lucky that an accident of relationship brought me into this circle of smart, warm, generous people, and only regret that I did not have more time to know Sandy and John, and to have Sandy help me expand my reading and intellectual horizons - Becket Stokes I am the newest member of the book club and had heard a great deal from mutually linked friends (that 1-2 degrees of separation so characteristic of Sandy, John, and Chase) about its intellectual rigor and the tough books that they tackled. So I entered my first meeting with a great deal of trepidation, worried that I might not pass muster. Sandy immediately eyed me with a direct stare and a “So what makes you think you can join this book club?” challenge. Then I saw the twinkle in the corner of her eye, she gave one of her quick laughs, and I knew that I could relax and enjoy lively discussions and direct challenges about life, love, politics, and above all, books. Whenever we reviewed the list of books that we had read, “A Confederacy of Dunces” always elicited groans from everyone but Sandy (the club read this before I joined but I, too, had disliked it). Sandy would defend her choice amid protests from the group. - Jean Scandlyn Sandy had a special ability to share the love of reading with others. She seemed to know just what others would enjoy and would visit for a long time about their favorites. She worked hard, too, to help them find just the right book, managing the weeklong PTA book fair, for instance, almost single-handedly. One of my favorite memories is of how she responded to my daughter, Monterey, at age 12. Monterey was quite frustrated that she had not been invited to be a member of the book group and would hang around the edges when I hosted, hoping to find a way in. Eventually, Sandy and Monterey would come together and the two would become engrossed in a lively discussion about middle school classics. For Monterey, it was if she had become a bona fide member. I will ever be grateful to Sandy for that and for her abiding generosity to everyone she met. Sandy, we so miss you, dear. - Lynn Holland I think you all have covered everything I could have said. The only other thing that no one brought up is how, despite the artistic merit of a writer, if Sandy did not respect the writer as a person she would also hate his/her books. Truman Capote and Elvis Presley come to mind as "artists" we discussed and no matter what, Sandy would not concede that either one had any talent because they were addicts of one sort or another. This always surprised me because my experience of Sandy is that she was not all that judgmental of people in general, and especially her friends. I really can't improve or add anything else. I'm still so overwhelmed by all the feelings brought up. I do remember sitting at the cabin in Baltimore with Sandy and David Chrislip and talking about forming a book group and what the first book to read would be. I told Tom Krol what it was and now can't bring it up, but Tom knows the title and author. Then, after I had Brit and was working full-time for Gail Klapper, I felt my mind was melting, so called Sandy and begged her to let me into the group so I wouldn't totally lose it! And the rest is history. The first book we discussed was I think Othello and it was at your house. I was so happy and knew I had found my group. - Cristi Engblom I can’t remember when Sandy invited me to join the “Book Group” but it was about 12 years ago. I am not a prolific reader and thought that I might not fit in but the book group was very inviting and I soon felt that I would be a member. Of course, I never was able to keep up with Sandy who must have read books in her sleep. One of my favorite annual events was the annual holiday dinner party and book exchange at Sandy’s. Sandy would make something delectable and we would all add something wonderful as side dishes. As the book group would handle book trading in the living room our spouses and significant others would laugh it up in the dining room. They never wanted to go home. Do you remember the one character that wore the cowboy hat, was a realtor and a singer? This event was remarkable and a reminder of how we will love Sandy forever. - Kathleen Butler