100 at 65

Vicki Anne Bozzola with her mother, Jane; February 1953

Arbitrarily, we deem specific anniversaries more significant than others. The numbers that would seem the most noteworthy are the primes, but we have opted to recognize the boring and uncreative numbers instead. We celebrate multiples of 5 and 10 for birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and other milestones. And of course, we offer special recognition to milestones that confer new privileges–16 for driving, 18 for voting, and 21 for buying alcohol and handguns.

Today, I observe two of these arbitrary anniversaries. Most significantly, I turn 65–a multiple of 5 that previously also conferred eligibility for Social Security retirement benefits; I’m a little too young for that entitlement, but a shiny new Medicare card is already in my wallet (actually, it’s paper and not shiny at all). Coincidentally (well, with a bit of foresight), this post also represents my 100th since Just(e) Words made its debut in May 2016. 

Because turning 65, despite its arbitrariness, ought to imply at least a degree of earned wisdom, I decided to offer some recommendations in the form of ten “ten best” lists–hence, my title, 100 at 65. Of course, the choice of which ten lists to share was completely arbitrary; they lean heavily towards fiction and cinema, two of my enduring passions. One list can’t even be considered recommendations; most of those on my list of ten best teachers/professors are no longer alive, and none of them is teaching–both facts to mourn. The contents of each list are likewise at least somewhat arbitrary; I don’t claim that my lists won’t change tomorrow nor that something stellar isn’t missing. Most items qualified because of the lasting impression they made on me when I first encountered them. Only the order within the lists is not arbitrary; they’re all alphabetical because I couldn’t possibly provide finer rankings.

Indulge me. It’s my birthday. Maybe you’ll even decide to explore some of my recommendations and discover a new passion of your own. And I would love to hear some of your recommendations!

Contemporary novels

  • The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Milan Kundera, 1979) This important book presents the topic of forgetting in history and in personal lives, much like another favorite book that didn’t quite make the final cut, Memories of the Ford Administration (1992) by John Updike.
  • Final Payments (Mary Gordon, 1978) Wracked with guilt, a young woman cares for her father until his death and then has to learn how to live. One of my favorite book-related memories occurred when my college mentor, Dr. Mering, visited me in North Carolina and declared as I gave him a copy when he left, “Ms. Bozzola, only you would have the panache to keep copies of a favorite book lying around to give to departing guests.”
  • Life of Pi (Yann Martel, 2001) I first became attracted to this book because of its main character, who considers himself a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian. But I love it because of its overriding theme: “Which is the better story?”
  • Lying Awake (Mark Salzman, 2000) I return again and again to this brief story of a nun/poet, whose experience tells me all I need to know about how God can work in people’s lives.
  • A Map of the World (Jane Hamilton, 1994) My favorite among Jane Hamilton’s novels, this one is the story of how lives can be shattered forever by one seemingly inconsequential moment.
  • Plainsong (Kent Haruf, 1999) My inscription on a gift copy called this quiet tale of real people “perfect”; that assessment stands. I was fortunate to attend a reading by Haruf, a man as quiet and unassuming—and as important—as this little book.
  • The Neapolitan Quartet (Elena Ferrante, 2012-2015) Anyone who has had a lifelong friendship will immediately recognize herself in these novels, which also offer a crash course on the underside of postwar Italian history.
  • The Remains of the Day (Kazoo Ishiguro, 1989) Loyalty and honor and dignity take center stage in this first-person narrative of a butler’s life—so appealing to me probably because my decisions seem as circumscribed as his.
  • Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates, 1961) Anything by Richard Yates is excruciating to read but full of insight into the human condition. Another favorite is A Good School (1978).
  • The Secret History (Donna Tartt, 1992) This story of a professor/mentor and his young disciples grabbed me from the first paragraph.  I pronounced one page in this novel worth the $25 I paid for the book—and my closest friends figured out which page it was. 

Classic novels

  • Absalom, Absalom (William Faulkner, 1936) The history of the South writ large in one complex multigenerational saga.
  • All the King’s Men (Robert Penn Warren, 1946) If favorite books are determined by he number of times one has read them, this must be my favorite! I have been back to this fictionalized biography of Huey Long many, many times, mostly because it is a meditation on the nature of history.
  • The Awakening (Kate Chopin, 1899) I loved this novel before it became a feminist polemic. It’s the heartbreaking story of a woman torn between two cultures.
  • East of Eden (John Steinbeck, 1952) As if the rich story line weren’t enough, this novel contains one of my favorite descriptive passages in all of literature—the one about the California poppies.
  • The Go-Between (L. P. Hartley, 1953) “The past is a foreign country” as this aging narrator remembers the devastating summer when he was 13.
  • The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925) I know it’s on everybody’s list, but its popularity doesn’t detract from its power as a depiction of the underside of the American dream.
  • Look Homeward, Angel (Thomas Wolfe, 1929) The book that changed my life.
  • Parade’s End (Ford Madox Ford, 1924-1928) I’m still about midway through these four novels of World War I, but I know that the life of Christopher Tietjens, the last Tory, will always be on my ten-best list.
  • The Portrait of a Lady (Henry James, 1881) Any of James’s novels could be on the list, but Isabel Archer is probably my favorite Jamesian representation of the innocent American abroad.
  • Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847) Heathcliff + Catherine + 16-year-old reader—enough said?

Short stories

  • “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” (Herman Melville, 1853) I first read this story as an undergraduate and then wrote three papers about it in graduate school before including it in my master’s thesis. It’s the profound story of a failure to communicate.
  • “The Dead” (James Joyce, 1914) “Snow was general all over Ireland” at the end of this poignant tale of returning to one’s roots.
  • “Editha” (William Dean Howells, 1905) A powerful anti-war story by the father of American realism
  • “A Father’s Story” (Andre Dubus, 1989) This story actually presents the interactions among three fathers (the narrator, his priest, and God).
  • “For Esmé, with Love and Squalor” (J. D. Salinger, 1950) I first read this story on the recommendation of Margaret Waag, who could have been my mentor in all things Salinger.
  • “The Gift of the Magi” (O. Henry, 1905) Corny? Yes. Moving? God, yes!
  • “The Open Boat” (Stephen Crane, 1897) A startling proto-existentialist meditation inspired by an event in Stepehn Crane’s life as a newspaper correspondent.
  • “Sarah Cole, A Type of Love Story” (Russell Banks, 1984) I heard Russell Banks read this story on NPR and immediately bought an anthology that contains it. It is devastating, but I do believe it turns out to be a love story.
  • “The Walk with Elizanne” (John Updike, 2003) Any of the stories in Updike’s beautiful last collection, My Father’s Tears, would honor my list, but this is my favorite. A man and a woman take a walk together at their 50th high school reunion.

American movies after 1950

  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) Brick, Gooper, Maggie the Cat, and the no-neck monsters gather for Big Daddy’s birthday party—and family revelations ensue.
  • Chinatown (1974) I love this gritty tale of greed and water rights and Greek tragedy in the California desert.
  • The Deer Hunter (1978) It’s almost impossible for me to watch some of the scenes in this epic tale of three men who leave their small hometown in Pennsylvania to fight in the Vietnam War. “God Bless America” will never be quite the same upbeat song of patriotic Americana
  • The Last Picture Show (1971) This movie always feels like the story of my childhood in a dusty small in he West.
  • A Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962) I can imagine no more profound exploration of family and guilt.
  • My Fair Lady (1964) Absolute perfection in a Broadway musical.
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Every time I see this movie is as powerful as the first. The final scene when Chief Bromden escapes is one of the most emotional I have ever witnessed.
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Vivien Leigh doesn’t quite satisfy as a down-on-her-luck Southern belle, but Marlon Brando more than makes up for the deficit as the socially clumsy but sexually irresistible Stanley Kowalski.
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) Movies about the movies are a weakness of mine, and this is a classic among them.
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) I believe the heart of this movie is not the backbiting and cruelty George and Martha display toward one another, but the solutions they have found for staying together–and perhaps even loving each other. 

American movies before 1950

  • All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) This anti-war classic stands the test of time—according to my college freshmen, surely the toughest of critics.
  • Captain January (1936) I still remember the childhood delight and tears inspired by this tale of the crotchety lighthouse keeper and the orphan girl.
  • Casablanca (1942) Melodrama, glamor, and “La Marseillaise” in Vichy French Morocco
  • Citizen Kane (1941) Yes.
  • It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) I cry every time old mossback George calls out, “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old building and loan!”
  • Miracle on 34th Street (1947) I almost bought a house because the previous owner had left a cane propped against the fireplace.
  • Now, Voyager (1942) The sexiest scene in all of filmdom: Paul Henreid lighting two cigarettes and giving one of them to Bette Davis.
  • Petrified Forest (1936) A murderous gangster and an itinerant poet, each the last of a dying breed, face off at a remote gas station in the Arizona desert.
  • The Third Man (1949) The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, the zither music, and the sewers of Vienna—and of course, the cuckoo clocks.
  • The Wizard of Oz (1939) How could a movie I have watched probably 50 times not be on the list?

Foreign movies

  • The Bicycle Thief (Italian, 1949) A simple and poignant story of a poor man in post-war Italy searching for his stolen bicycle.
  • Camille Claudel (French, 1988) This film chronicles the life of French sculptor Camille Claudel, her tumultuous relationship with Auguste Renoir, and her onset of mental illness. Another excellent film, Camille Claudel 1915, depicts her efforts to be released from the asylum where she lived for 30 years until her death in 1943.
  • Cinema Paradiso (1988) This one edges out Sunset Boulevard as my favorite movie about the movies.
  • The Decalogue (Polish, 1989) This depiction of the Ten Commandments by Polish cineaste Krzysztof Kieślowski is always challenging, and every viewing provides some new insight.
  • Divided We Fall (Czech, 2000) Tis movie is just one of many Czech films at could be on my list for their depiction of ambiguity and shades of gray often missing from the American silver screen.
  • Grand Illusion (French, 1937) This Jean Renoir classic presents a French impression of WWI, especially in terms of class relationships.
  • The Story of Adele H (French, 1975) This movie tells the story of Victor Hugo’s daughter and her descent into madness.
  • Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Blanc, Rouge (French, 1993-1994) This trilogy (also by Kieślowski) presents the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, always in ironic ways.
  • 12 (Russian, 2007) The Russian version of Twelve Angry Men is every bit as Russian as the original is American.
  • War and Peace (Russian, 1966) I finally watched this 7-plus-hour tour de force last week. It is notable for the amazing cinematography for its time as well as its powerful depiction of the Russian character through the story, but also through dance and music and art.

Except as noted, the plays listed below were all seen at Playmakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. We have been tremendously fortunate to be so close to this hidden treasure, a small professional theater company at the University of North Carolina, whose acting, set design, an costumes are nonpareil. Unfortunately, I must acknowledge that a recent change in artistic director has turned the Playmakers’ seasons into mostly political polemic instead of a venue where people in the hinterlands of the South could witness the production of classics of the theater.

  • Antigone (2015): This new translation of Sophokles featured Juliette Binoche in a riveting performance as part of the Carolina Performing Arts season.
  • Cabaret (2013): We couldn’t move or even speak when this production ended on its devastating note, with the Jews being shipped off to their deaths. Taylor Mac will forever be my vision of the Emcee.
  • Henry IV/V (2012): Presented in rotating repertory, these two plays made even my husband a fan of Shakespeare.
  • An Iliad (2012): Ray Dooley’s one-man performance as the storyteller begins when he wanders onto the stage and says, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.” This production reveals the universality of Homer’s classic, telling the story of every war.
  • Inherit the Wind (1975): I saw this performance in Tucson during my senior year in college. I was in the second or third row, close enough to see the tears running down Henry Drummond’s face as he spoke of the rocking horse Golden Dancer.
  • Man of La Mancha: I saw two versions of this musical—one a gritty university production when I was at music camp in perhaps 1969 and he other a polished Broadway touring company in Raleigh at least a decade later. Each was spectacular in its own way. I wonder how young people today retain any idealism at all when they have nothing like “The Impossible Dream” to inspire them.
  • My Fair Lady (2017): Mia Pinero’s crystal-clear voice as Eliza Doolittle was the crowning glory of this production, which returned to Shaw’s original Pygmalion ending with the wedding of Eliza and Freddy.
  • Not about Heroes (2004): This play about Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and their time together at Craiglockhart War Hospital proved so memorable to me that the students in my current WWI-themed class are presenting it as readers’ theater.
  • 1776: I can’t remember where or when I saw this musical. What I do remember is the chills that ran through my body when the transparent curtain was lowered and each man took his place in the John Trumbull painting after signing the Declaration of Independence.
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (2011) My husband professed a dislike for the theater and a hatred for this play in particular until we saw Ray Dooley and Julie Fishell as George and Martha—and thereafter, we bought season tickets.

Television shows

  • Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014) I had to force myself include something recent. I’m not certain this series I recently binge-watched will stay on the list, but I certainly did become enraptured with the story of New Jersey corruption during Prohibition.
  • China Beach (1988-1991) This drama about a hospital and R&R center during the Vietnam War featured a memorable ensemble cast.
  • Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) This series is the father of all current police procedurals. “Let’s be careful out there!”
  • I Love Lucy (1951-1957) The antics of Lucy and Ethel, played off straight men Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz, can still make me laugh uncontrollably.
  • Jeopardy (1964-present) I spent many years eating my supper in front of the television and hollering out the questions to Art Fleming and Alex Trebek on this classic trivia show. Frank Spangenberg was my favorite champion.
  • Law and Order (1990-2010) The original series is my favorite—especially with Lenny Briscoe and Jack McCoy—but Criminal Intent is a close second.
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) This joyful series decorated what now seem to be the most beautiful years of my life.
  • M*A*S*H (1972-1983) I have just ordered a small birthday present from Amazon—the last season of this classic show on DVD.
  • Star Trek (1966-1969) Only the original, which my best friend’s mother called “a bunch of liberal crap.”
  • Twilight Zone (1959-1964) What great memories, with a stellar cast including Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Ronny Howard, Carol Burnett . . .

Teachers and professors

  • Bain, Harold (American literature, UNC-CH) I took his class on the American novel in summer school for fear he would lose his battle with lung cancer before I had another chance–20 novels in five weeks and still one of my most memorable classes.
  • Coleman, Emma (piano, Globe, Arizona) She was a kind and gentle woman. All her 11 children, even the mentally challenged Wesley, were musical prodigies.
  • Forster, Leslie S. (physical chemistry, UofA) This professor knew that his class was the most difficult on the entire campus and provided unique ways of making thermodynamics and quantum mechanics accessible.
  • Gundersen, Dean (chemistry, Globe High School) He was the inspiration for my epiphany of the periodic table and my decision to major in chemistry.
  • McVaugh, Michael (history of science, UNC-CH) Dr. McVaugh provided me with my first introduction to a field of intellectual history that I find more compelling than any other.
  • Mering, John V. (American history, UofA) I have told this story before, here, here, and here.
  • Nunamaker, Milton B. (band and life, Globe High School) And I have told this story here.
  • Robinson, Cecil (American literature, UofA) I took his course purely by serendipity and discovered perhaps my most memorable professor of literature. He brought tears to all our eyes when he read aloud to the class, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
  • Thornton, Weldon (British literature, UNC-CH) This renowned scholar of Lawrence and Joyce made Ulysses accessible as a novel and became my mentor and thesis advisor in graduate school.
  • Williamson, Nina (3rd grade, Noftsger Hill School) She read aloud to us after lunch every day (Thornton W. Burgess, The Jungle Book), let me “refurbish” (her word) her ditto masters, and made sure I became a spelling champion.

Places I have visited

  • Bryce Canyon, Utah: I visited this amazing natural wonder in 1969, when my high school band went on a six-state tour of the American West. We also saw Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon, and Yellowstone, but Bruce was my favorite.
  • Lake Mattamuskeet, North Carolina: This shallow natural lake in eastern North Carolina was probably formed by burning peat; its cypress-lined shores are the winter home of thousands and thousands of migratory birds.
  • Lake Powell, Arizona/Utah: This manmade lake on the Colorado River is cradled in the red rocks of the high desert, with some of the most enchanting scenery I can imagine. Mentioning the red rocks makes me realize I forgot about the gorgeous town of Sedona—but it’s too late now.
  • Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah: My sister and I were fortunate enough to join a Navajo tour guide and watch the sun rise amidst the scenes made famous in in the John Ford westerns.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana: I visited this iconic city first in 1977 for the King Tut exhibit and have been there a few times since. The architecture, the river, the cemeteries, the food, the mix of cultures—all combine to make New Orleans probably the favorite among cities I have been privileged to visit.
  • Outer Banks, North Carolina: This area I still home to some undeveloped beaches—and of course several functioning lighthouses.
  • Richmond, Virginia: Hollywood Cemetery, the Main Street Station, and Monument Avenue are highlights in this small historic city. I have also attended St. John’s Episcopal Church there a couple of times—the site of Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” speech.
  • Savannah, Georgia: The entire city is a monument to low-country Southern charm; Bonaventure Cemetery in the springtime is a riot of pink azaleas and Spanish moss amidst the beautiful statuary of this 19th-century garden cemetery.
  • The South Carolina Low Country: Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Edisto, Beaufort, St. Helena Island. Architecture, churches, Gullah culure, Frogmore stew—and she-crab soup.
  • Tucson, Arizona: I must include this southern Arizona desert city where I attended the University of Arizona—still the home of my very soul.


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