The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

(Book 156) Sharon hosted six of us this evening; Chris was still out, this time with COVID, and our three truants have yet to return. We aren’t worried about our snowbird, Rosalie; Geri is predicting she may rejoin us in May and Karen is busy trying to find another placement for her husband to continue his rehab. We are all thinking positive thoughts for Karen because that process has to be so difficult.

Sharon had asked us all to come with a favorite quote from the book to share and we did that sharing over delicious appetizers. There was a spread made of goat cheese, cream cheese and olive oil, topped with quartered grape tomatoes and served with three kinds of crackers — that was REALLY good. The spread was accompanied by prosciutto crudo and other Italian meats, olives, nuts and those yummy Terra vegetable chips.

I told the girls that after finishing the book, I was reminded of Carrie Fisher’s quote: “If you can get Paul Simon to write a song about you, do it. Because he is so brilliant at it.” By that same token, I doubted a man could do any better than to have Elizabeth Alexander eulogize him in book form. We were all a little jealous of the life that the two of them shared — except Mary who already had that with Ron. She just didn’t write about it.

Sharon shared that Chris had sent an email with a list of all her quotes. Sharon forwarded it to me and I’m going to put most of that email here:

“Death sits in the comfortable chair in the corner of my new bedroom, smoking a cigarette. It is a he, sinuous and sleek, wearing a felt brimmed hat. He is there when I wake in the middle of the night, sitting quietly, his smoke a visible curl in the New York lights that come in between the venetian blind slats.”

(Kind of a well-worn image, but I still liked the passage.)

“But the friendship part of marriage, that is the part that is enacted, that is the part for which you need the person present, and that is what I miss….friendship in marriage is its own thing: friendship in a cup of tea, or a glass of wine, or a cappuccino every Sunday morning. Friendship in buying undershirts and underpants. Friendship in picking up a prescription or rescuing the towed car. Friendship in waiting for the phone call after the mammogram. Friendship in toast buttered just so. Friendship in shoveling the snow. I am the one you want to tell. You are the one I want to tell.”

(How true with the death of anyone important to you. You miss telling them about your day or asking them about a memory.)

“I am grateful for the tug of the day that gets us out of bed and propels us into our lives and responsibilities; memory can be a weight on that. And yet, in it floods, brought willfully, or brought on by a glimpse, a glance, a scent, a sound. One note: the timbre of his voice.”

(I think the tug of the day is the only thing that keeps us going during grief.)

Can’t wait to hear what everyone thought of this book. Of course I got teary-eyed while reading it, but I also felt myself wanting to look away. It felt like too much sometimes. I looked up photos of Fike and could see what she meant about his eyes. I wondered if I started feeling kind of irritated every once in a while because their relationship seemed too perfect. Was I envious? I think the thing that I envied was her ability to form and keep the “chosen family” that she kept talking about and describing to us. Wow. To have truly close friends all over the world.

One other thing I kept thinking was how this book compared to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which I loved. It’s much more, I don’t know, maybe cerebral. Although you can feel her pain, it’s not slopped all over every page, and she’s looking at herself from a distance later and showing us what that magical thinking is like. It’s really well written, like Alexander’s, and quite different. Might have been interesting to read them together—although there’s only so much death and grief a person can take!

Marcia said that because she listened to the book, it was harder for her to capture quotes. Linda tried to tell us that she couldn’t really tell what made a good writer and that she usually reads for the story, but that while reading this book, she was unusually aware of how lovely Alexander’s writing is. Unfortunately, she had already finished the book by the time Sharon had asked us to bring a quote and Linda hadn’t made notations. Susan appreciated the reiteration of “The days are long but the years are short.” and Melissa liked the way in which Alexander had to insert “I’m alive.” between her sentences: “I wake up grateful, for life is a gift.” I think it was also Melissa who mentioned how dear it was when Alexander’s son, Simon, took her to visit Ficre in heaven at bedtime.

This was the first of several quotes that I chose: “Because going out into the world can make you tired, I couldn’t always share every little thing and now I wish I’d poured a glass of wine and sat with him for hours on the red sofa and told stories like he did, all generosity, Frederick the mouse of Leo Lionni’s classic children’s book offering his mouse community the sunlight of stories to get them through the long dark winter.” I have to include a picture for reference for those who don’t read children’s books.

I also mentioned that I loved the quote from Ficre’s mother about him: “He had drunk his water.” Sharon wondered how exactly his mother was privy to that information in all that it might imply, but we all appreciated the sense of it. Sharon offered that she enjoyed Alexander’s use of the song lyric: “I been in sorrow’s kitchen and done licked out all the pots.”

Mary read us this: “We used to walk together in Grove Street Cemetery –where he is now buried where I will one day join him — and sometimes sit beneath trees and speak quietly and carefully about important things just between us. ‘Winter in his heart’ seems the truest and most literal description of how my chest feels from weeping for him.”

Then it was time for the main course. Earlier, when I was walking off the elevator, down the hall, I was half-chanting “let it be Shrimp Barka, let it be Shrimp Barka” and didn’t I get my wish?! Sharon used the recipe included in the book for Ficre’s Shrimp Barka and served it with carrots and dressed butter lettuce. The shrimp dish was so AMAZING and now you can try it too (but it probably won’t be as good as Sharon’s):

Shrimp Barka

Time 30 minutes

Serves 4


4 Tablespoon of olive oil

3 medium red onions, thinly sliced

4-6 cloves garlic, minced

5 very ripe and juicy tomatoes, chopped coarsely

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

½ Cup finely chopped fresh basil (1 bunch)

15 pitted dates (1/2 Cup), cut crosswise in thirds

3 Tablespoon unsweetened shredded coconut

½ Cup of half-and-half

1 pound medium shrimp (16-20), shelled and deveined

2/3 Cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 ½ Cup cooked basmati rice


1. In a large, heavy pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, and sauté until wilted, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, and continuing sautéing, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, for 2 minutes longer, Stir in the tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Cover, and cook for about 5 minutes.

2. Add basil, dates and coconut, and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 5 more minutes. Add the half-and-half, cover and cook for 3 minutes

3. Add shrimp to sauce. Cook, covered, until shrimp turns pink, about 5 minutes. Stir in the cheese, and then the rice, and serve immediately.

Recipes from THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD by Elizabeth Alexander. Copyright © 2015 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used with permission by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

Other quotes that came up while we were eating:

“When you become a family, you make common culture. Ficre and I shared cultures, folded into each other, and quickly made an indelible family culture. That we grew up around the world from each other seemed totally irrelevant. When he sleep-talked in Tigrinya, i remembered. I remembered sometimes that our entire relationship, and most of his days, took place in his fourth language.” (We talked about how woefully poor Americans are at languages.)

“My life will be a trail of breadcrumbs wherever it takes me until I die.” (I adored this sense of her leaving a path for him to find her in case he comes back.)

And the house’s history! The previous owner had hosted Archbishop Desmond Tutu and prior to that Thornton Wilder had conducted playwriting workshops there! Marcia wondered how she could leave such a wondrous history-filled home and garden, but we agreed that it would always feel as though something, rather someone, was missing.

Paying homage to Ficre’s Italian influences, Sharon served Berry Tiramisu for dessert. All the girls commented on the gigantic serving size (I was undaunted) and yet the plates were clean. Sharon was kind to pack up some left overs for all the Ficres waiting at home. My husband, Tom will testify to just how delicious it was, though he is only an expert witness in radiology.

Our next meeting will take place at Marcia’s home on Tuesday, May 16 to discuss Half a World Away by Mike Gayle. Marcia will get to drag bingo one of these Tuesdays, but not May 16th.

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Book Club 101 Has a Little Free Library!

My daughter, Frances, made this happen for me. After the weight gain of the early pandemic, Frances and I took walks around our extended neighborhood and I was charmed to find two Little Free Libraries in our area. I began exchanging books with both, while Frances secretly worked on getting me one of my own. She painted it to match our home, the lighter cream color represents the bricks. Frances is not as interested in reading as I am; she’s more into movies, British TV and radio shows; but she is ever so gracious about allowing me to read favorite passages to her. She once had me watch just a portion of the movie About Time because a father (one of my favorite actors, Bill Nighy) and son shared the same reading relationship. I’m a lucky mom.

This picture was taken on its very first day just after a friend, Chris, dug the post hole, leveled it, and secured the library to the post. He wasn’t interested in any of the books I had available at this time, but I’ll find one he’ll enjoy the next time he comes over to fix something for me. I am lucky to have gotten to know Chris and his wife Kathy at St. Josaphat Summerfest back in the day.

On Day 2 of its existence outside my home, my grandson and I checked on it before walking to school and found that six books were already off to new homes. Today, Day 3, three more books are gone and TWELVE new donations have joined them. As you may be able to guess, I feel lucky to be SO fascinated by this new addition to my life!