I’m continually surprised

by Chris Bohjalian’s writing – and Secrets of Eden “proves once again that he is a master novelist.”

As a minister I rarely found the entirety of a Sunday service depressing. But some mornings disease and despair seemed to permeate the congregation like floodwaters in sandbags, and the only people who stood during the moment when we shared our joys and concerns were those souls who were intimately acquainted with nursing homes, ICUs, and the nearby hospice. Concerns invariably outnumbered joys, but there were some Sundays that were absolute routs, and it would seem that the only people rising up in their pews to speak needed Prozac considerably more than they needed prayer. Or yes, than they needed me.


first sentences

That summer, Daddy went from telephoning and dynamiting fish to poisoning them with green walnuts. The dynamite was messy, and a couple years before he’d somehow got two fingers blown off, and the side of his face had a burn spot that at first glance looked like a lipstick kiss and at second glance looked like some kind of rash.

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

the real school

Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.

Interview with Ray Bradbury in The Paris Review

beautiful prose

Clyde Edgerton writes about Wiley Cash‘s novel, A Land More Kind Than Home “This book will knock your socks off.  It’s so good to read a first novel that sings with talent. Wiley Cash has a beautifully written hit on his hands.”

From the novel:

I climbed into the cruiser and turned on the lights and the siren and drove along the top of the ridge before taking the road down toward Marshall. I knew there were hollers in places below me where it had been dark for almost an hour, but up here on the ridge the sun was struggling to be remembered and I could see red and gold still lighting up the sky in the distance on the Tennessee side of the mountain.

love and struggle – and survival

I don’t think I’ve read many books as unflinching about the hardships of childhood, yet as affirmative of the love that rises and endures despite struggle, poverty, and abuse.  An amazing first novel by Tupelo Hassman.

Author Heather O’Neill writes: “Tupelo Hassman’s ruthless dissection of the laws, traditions, and values of a trailer park will leave you horrified and laughing uproariously.  Girlchild is at once a ragtag anthem to the generations of single mothers raising their children on their own, a brilliant critique of the inadequacies of social services, and a colorful depiction of the extraordinary hurdles that children who break the cycle of poverty have to face.  But mostly it is a description of the seismic transformations that happen within each of us as we fly the coop.  Hassman’s wildly inventive prose explodes off the page.”

From the book, in the chapter anthropologize:

The basic subsistence pattern on the Calle is commonly referred to as living paycheck to paycheck.  Welfare and disability checks, payroll checks, and the ever rare child-support check are all spent long before they arrive.  These checks are supplemented with a collection of surplus or government food, such as peanut butter and certain cheeses.  In instances where fresh food is particularly desirable but unattainable, a family eats its way through frozen potpies bought on sale for nineteen cents apiece and waits for better days.  Gambling is important to Calle residents, both during and after their shifts at the various downtown casinos, and can be accomplished in several ways, including via lottery tickets, blackjack, and drunk driving.  In addition, Calle men hunt and trap everything from birds to stray hubcaps to small girls, using slingshots, shotguns, and the rustle of candy wrappers.

“This is fiction, although it’s a first novel and the first novel trap is to write about your life,” Hassman said. “So Rory and I started out a lot the same, but now we’re not the same anymore. She does things I never did and she’s bolder than I’ve ever been.”


Charlotte Rogan uses a deceptively simple narrative of shipwreck and survival to explore our all-too-human capacity for self-deception.

– J. M. Coetzee, author of Disgrace

The first paragraph of this fascinating novel:


The first day in the lifeboat we were mostly silent, either taking in or refusing to take in the drama playing itself out in the seething waters around us.  John Hardie, an able-bodied seaman and the only crew member on board Lifeboat 14, took immediate charge.  He assigned seats based on weight distribution, and because the lifeboat was riding low in the water, he forbade anyone to stand up or move without permission. Then he wrested a rudder from where it was stored underneath the seats, fixed it into place at the back of the boat, and commanded anyone who knew how to row a boat to take up one of four long oars, which were quickly appropriated by three of the men and a sturdy woman named Mrs. Grant. Hardie gave them orders to gain as much distance from the foundering craft as possible, saying, “Row yer bloody hearts out, unless ye want to be sucked under to yer doom!”


From the book jacket:  “At least one-third of the people we know are introverts.  They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over brainstorming in terms. . . . Passionately argued, impressively researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so.”

Andrew Weil (author of Healthy Aging and Spontaneous Happiness), writes:

“As an introvert often called upon to behave like an introvert, I found the information in this book revealing helpful.  Drawing on neuroscientific research and many case reports, Susan Cain explains the advantages and potentials of introversion and of being quiet in a noisy world.”

Snippets of the book

. . . today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles.  We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable.  We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts–which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are.  Depending on which study you consult, one third to one half of Americans are introverts–in other words, one out of every two or three people you know. (Given that the United States is among the most extroverted of nations, the number must be at least as high in other parts of the world.) If you’re not an introvert yourself, you are surely raising, managing, married to, or coupled with one.

If these statistics surprise you, that’s probably because so many people pretend to be extroverts.  Closet introverts pass undetected on playgrounds, in high school locker rooms, and in the corridors of corporate America.

. . . It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves.  We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal–the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.  The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt.  He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong.  She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual–the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.”

. . . Introversion–along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness–is not a second-class personality, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.

. . . Without introverts, the world would be devoid of:

the theory of gravity
the theory of relativity
W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”
Chopin’s nocturnes
Proust’s In Search of Lost Time
Peter Pan
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm
The Cat in the Hat
Charlie Brown
Schindler’s List, E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Harry Potter

As the science journalist Winifred Gallagher write: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement.”

. . . psychologists tend to agree on several important points: for example, that introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book.  Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slipper slopes, and cranking up the stereo.

. . . our personalities also shape our social styles.  Extroverts are the people who will add life to your dinner party and laugh generously at your jokes.  They tend to be assertive, dominant, and in great need of company.  Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say.  They’re comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude.

Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas.  They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family.  They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.  They tend to dislike conflict.  Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.

A few things introverts are not: The word introvert is not a synonym for hermit or misanthrope.  Introverts can be these things, but most are perfectly friendly.  One of the most humane phrases in the English language–“Only connect!”–was written by the distinctly introverted E. M. Forster in a novel exploring the question of how to achieve “human love at its height.”

Nor are introverts necessarily shy.  Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating.

. . . we are all gloriously complex individuals . . .

“engrossing” “tantalizing” “charming” “terrific”


“She’s afraid of God,” she had told her husband.  “She’s afraid of God because Laurie made her say that awful prayer every night.  You know the one: ‘Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’ ”  Annabelle had thought it was a bad idea to begin with, because good grief, what a thing to put into a child’s head that she might die in her sleep!  But it turned out to be bad for an unforeseen reason–nobody had warned the child that it was her parents who might die while she slept.  Jody didn’t trust God anymore.  She thought he’d been tricky.  He’d distracted her into praying for herself while he sneaked in and stole her parents away.

Tricky ol’ God, Annabelle thought bitterly as she helped Jody out of the backseat.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

“I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness.  This is how it will be when I grow up.  I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her.  I shall live as people in novels live and have lived.  Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance.  However . . . who said that thing about ‘the littleness of life that art exaggerates’?  There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out.  I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about.  Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.”

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

improvise improvise improvise

And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
– Sylvia Plath

so close to the fringe

“What continues to fascinate me is how close to the fringe we all are, as close to the bounds of normalcy as to the fringe of chaos, disruption, aberration, and loss.”
– Mary McGarry Morris

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