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Category Archives: Snippets from books

I miss Molly Ivins (a snippet from one of her books)

How I miss reading Molly Ivin’s column!

Excerpt from Molly Ivin’s book You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You.

Heart attacks, grand juries, DWI’s, divorces–this isn’t a story, it’s a saga.  Of course there is a different between [Bob] Bullock in his drinking days and Bullock today–he’s not quite a different person, but he sure is easier.  He went off to “Whiskey School” in California in 1981.  Six weeks later he returned to Austin in the middle of the night, sober and alone.  Only one person came out to the airport to meet him–Ann Richards.  He has never forgotten that kindness.

Just a couple of stories from the drinking years: One night Bullock and pal Nick Kralj (Bullock used to have any number of reprehensible friends) got bad drunk, went into the basement of Kralj’s nightclub, and proceeded to shoot roaches with pistols.  They claimed it took great skill.

On another occasion, one of Bullock’s early wives kicked him out of the house, presumably for good cause.  So he went to crash with his friend Carlton Carl, who was himself out drinking.  Unable to get into Carl’s apartment, Bullock crawled into the backseat of Carl’s car, which was parked in an alley, got under a blanket, and passed out there.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t Carl’s car, just looked like it.  When Bullock came to the next morning, he was being driven along I-35 by a total stranger who had no idea anyone was in the backseat.  After pondering his options, Bullock sat up and said to the unsuspecting citizen, “Hi there, I’m Bob Bullock, your secretary of state.”  Poor guy almost drove off the road.

snippets from books

Marina Endicotts novel, Good to a Fault, was shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize.

Margaret Atwood, who was on the Giller Prize jury, remarked that “There’s heartbreak, there’s joy, there are parts where you cry–and it’s very high-quality writing.”

From the book:

To give herself a clear mind, or else to delay, Clara went to church before going to the hospital.  She slipped in late to the early service and did not genuflect, but crossed herself quickly.  She always felt slightly snooty crossing herself, but her mother had ingrained it in her.  All this ritual was so complicated: whether to sand for communion or kneel, stand or kneel for prayer, fold hands or adopt the charismatic pose, swaying and open-palmed.  Many of the older women, surprisingly, swayed.

It was all superstition, anyway.  Just sitting there, being there, was the essential thing, she had come to believe.  But of course she could be wrong.

The Gospel was Mary choosing the better part, to let the dishes go and listen to Jesus talking in the living room–a reading that always annoyed Clara, although she’d never considered herself a Martha.  What would happen if she let go of the dishes now?  It would be all right, because Mrs. Zenko would do them for her, popping in and out of the kitchen with her bright glance catching everything, tidy little ears priced for the conversation while she got supper cleared up without a wasted movement or a sigh or a fuss.  Occupied with Mrs. Zenko’s holiness, Clara had trouble keeping her mind on the sermon.  Paul Tippett was telling an anecdote.  She wondered if he made them up, since so many were apropos, but that was ungenerous.  Anyone life is full of meaning.  She should have phoned to thank him for visiting Lorraine.

He was contrasting Mary and Martha with last week’s Gospel on the Good Samaritan–she hadn’t consciously heard a word of it, as she sat fretting and deciding.

“A man no one would think of as saintly, a dirty Samaritan, took practical action to save the life of someone left to die by the side of the road.  Today, Jesus scolds Martha for her brand of practicality, and insists that spiritual discussion is more important than putting the supper on.  Why is practicality praised in one case, and in the other, reviled?  I don’t think that’s too strong a word, reviled, for the way we call women Marthas with an edge of contempt, because they are busy in the kitchen feeding the masses.  Jesus himself was good at feeding the masses.  And staying under budget.”

Paul seemed so pleased with this loaves-and-fishes nudge that Clara couldn’t help laughing.  She hoped she hadn’t been too loud.

“The Samaritan acts in a moment of genuine crisis, when no one can see his goodness.  But the flavour of self-importance in Martha’s actions, and her peevishness toward her sister, may be uncomfortably familiar to us when we think of our own acts of goodness and how we look for recognition of our work.”

snippets from books

From his perch on Skull Rock, they looked like pale eggs sunny-side up moving just beneath the water’s surface.  Some kind of jellyfish.  Half a dozen, pulsating vigorously through the black surf like muscular parachutes.

Odd.  Jack Koryan had spent several summers of his childhood out here and could remember only a few occasions seeing jellyfish in the cove, mot of them washed ashore by the night tide–dinner-plate-sized slime bombs with frilly aprons and long fat tentacles.  But these creatures were small round globs, translucent jelly bells with noting visible in trail.

Maybe some tropical species that the warm water brought in, he thought.

Jack watched them pump by in formation, driven by primitive urgings and warm eddies.  Somewhere he had read that jellyfish were ninety-five percent water–creatures with no brains, bones, or blood.  What enabled them to react to the world around them was a network of nerves.  What a lousy fate, Jack thought–to relate to the world only through nerve endings: a life devoid of thought, passion, or memory.

Writer Joseph Finder (New York Times bestselling author of Paranoia) writes that “Gary Braver’s Flashback combines an irresistible premise with the medical intrigue of Robin Cook and the scientific plausibility of Michael Crichton–a powerful, gripping, and moving tale with a beating heart.”



What do jellyfish and your brain have in common? Scientists at the 2010 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Honolulu report that the jellyfish protein apoaequorin may improve cognitive function in people who have memory problems.

snippets from books

The Good Children by Kate Wilhelm

Two years earlier a counselor had told Amy that we were not unlike army children, who had to make friends quickly and adjust to new surroundings all the time.  We knew the difference even then.  Army brats were with other army brats.  A best friend on Friday might be half a world away by Monday, but they might meet again later, and they were all in the same situation.  We were always going into a community of children who had known one another for years, who had slumber parties, whose parents knew the other parents and shared car pools, were room mothers, went running together.  If the schools we had come from had not yet touched on subjects, we were the new dummies.  Amy and Kevin had taught me fractions.  Dad had taught Amy how to diagram sentences.  If our previous schools had been more advanced, we were stuck-up, snobs.  We always knew more about geography than anyone, often more than our teachers.  We all learned not to volunteer answers.  Our accents were always wrong — too southern, too northern, too midwestern. . . . We never knew the new recess rules, the pecking order.  If we carried lunches in boxes, the other kids used brown paper bags.  If we took drinks in thermoses, they bought milk at school.  We were used to being out of step for weeks or even months.

snippets from books

Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.

It proceeds as do all things moving down the Mississippi in the late summer of the year, at a stately pace, as if its blind eyes were busy taking in the blue sky piled dreamily deep with cloud.  Thee will be thunder by suppertime and rain to last the whole night long but just now the early day is brilliant and entirely without flaw.  How long the body has been floating would be a mystery if any individual had yet taken note of its passage and mused so upon it, but thus far, under that sky of blue and white and upon this gentle muddy bed as warm with a school of sunfish and one or two small mouth bass darting warily as thieves, it has passed only empty fields and stands of willow and thick brushy embankments uninhabited.

A crow screams and flaps off, bearing an eye as brown and deep as the Mississippi herself.

Sunday morning, early, and the river is without traffic.

An alligator gar, eight feet if it’s an inch, rises deathlike from the bottom and fastens its long jaw upon a hipbone, which snaps like rotten wood and comes away.  The body entire goes under a time or two, bobbing and turning, the eggs of blowflies scattering into the water like thrown rice.  The urgent sunfish eddy.  The bluebottles hover, endlessly patient, and when the body has recovered its equilibrium and resumed its downward course they settle once more.

Boys note its passage first, boys from the village taking the long way to Sunday school, and their witness is as much nature’s way as is the flow dissolution of the floating body into the stratified media of air and water.  The corpse is not too very far from shore and clearly neither dog nor deer nor anything but man.

“I’ll bet its old Finn,” says one of them, Jo or Tom or Bill or perhaps some other.  On this Sunday morning down by the riverbank they are alike as polished stones.  “My pap says they’ll fish him from the river one day for sure.”

“Go on,” says another.”

“Yes sir.  A worthless old drunk like that.”

“Go on,” says the other again.  He picks up a flat stone and tests it in his hand, eyeing the crow, which has returned and sunken its beak into a pocket of flesh.  “Shows how much you know. That ain’t even a man.”

“I reckon you think it’s a mule.”

“It’s a woman, no question.”

The lot of them go jostling together and squinting into the sunrise and blinking against the glare on the water as if the only thing superior to the floating corpse of a man would be the floating corpse of a woman, as if seeking in unison for a lesson in anatomy and never mind the cost.

Finally, from one of them or another but in the end from the childish heart in each save the learned one, this confession:  “How can you tell?”

“Men float facedown.  Anybody knows that.”  Skipping the stone across the water to flush the crow, ruining his good trousers with the offhand brush of muddy fingers.

Finn by Jon Clinch

snippets from books

I was beginning to understand the sudden interest of Master General Torriani in the matter.  Years ago, our beloved superior had condemned the work of the artist Sandro Botticelli because of a similar suspicion.  Torriana accused him of using images inspired by pagan cults to illustrate works destined for the Church.  But his denunciation also contained more serious matter.  Thanks to Bethany’s informers, Torriana had learned that Botticelli had, in the Medici’s Villa di Castello, depicted the arrival of spring using a “magic” technique.  The dancing nymphs had been placed in the painting like the sections of a gigantic talisman.  later, Torriana discovered that Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, Botticelli’s patron, had requested an amulet against aging, and the resulting painting was the magical remedy.  In fact, Botticelli’s picture concealed an entire treatise against the onslaught of time which included half the divinities of Olympus dancing against the advance of Chronos.  And they had pretended to pass off a work like this as something devout, proposing it as a decoration for a Florentine chapel!

snippets from books

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It is always exciting to discover a new author.  The Swimming Pool had a lot of twists and turns and Holly LeCraw kept me guessing; this was a Fast Read and I enjoyed it.

In the crumbling palazzo in Florence where she had grown up, the revered ghosts had been the only men in the house, and her mother and grandmother had been conspicuously incomplete.  They were together only for her, for Marcella.  If only, if only, they frequently said, their bodies said, their very gestures–futile grasping hands, sighs, all speaking of unending lack.  If only the men hadn’t left them–one in war, the other in a car accident, two commonplace stories that struck them as spectacularly tragic.  All the hope in the house had landed on her, on Marcella.  Someday, she would find a man to complete her, and them; it had been her birthright, her only task.  But sometimes Marcella imagined they looked at her with narrowed eyes, as if they doubted her capacity to succeed.

When she had met Anthony, then, right after her mamma died, she had felt weak with relief.  He was so clearly the goal for which her mother and grandmother had prepared her–so handsome, so sure, so fearsomely complete him himself!  Men, the di Pavarese men she had never known, had been wondrous creatures, and it had seemed that Anthony Atkinson could stand with them.  Love had seemed not a matter of comfort, but something much more august.

“No one can garden alone.”

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On chance-mild days when an incandescent light falls on thin twigs, throwing their fine shadows across gravel walks, my garden seems more beautiful than ever.

Elizabeth Lawrence, Gardens in Winter

Readers of Lawrence’s books and garden columns came to know her gardening friends as if they were characters in a long-running radio drama.  Lawrence herself often said that she knew many gardens as well as she did her own.  Some from the past, she explained to readers of  The Little Bulbs, “still bloom in my mind.”  “Gardening, reading about gardening, and writing about gardening are all one,” she explained.  “No one can garden alone.”

Bury Us Upside Down

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from the Introduction:

This experimental unit became the most innovative air operation of the war.  “Misty,” as it became known, on account of the call sign chosen by the first commander, borrowed many of its tactics from the slow FACs.  But other techniques had to be developed on the fly.  To see targets as small as a single truck camouflaged beneath trees, the Mistys flew low–often below the minimum allowed altitude of 4,500 feet.  Anytime they buzzed over something valuable to the North Vietnamese, they attracted walls of antiaircraft fire.  Every day was an asymmetric duel between men in the air and men on the ground.  They had different guns and different advantages, yet the fight was as personal as if they were facing each other with bayonets.

It was a hush-hush mission.  The mere formation of the fast FAC unit indicated how successful the North Vietnamese had been at defeating the slow FACs that were getting blown out of the sky.  All the air defenses were being sent down the Trail–including surface-to-air missiles–were working.  If the slow FACs couldn’t find the air defenses and help clear them out, that jeopardized all the other aerial missions near the Trail–including the B-52 bombing runs that were a key U.S. advantage.  The Air Force wasn’t about to telegraph that vulnerability to Hanoi.

. . . There are still more than eighteen hundred Americans [in 2006] who presumably died during the Vietnam War and remain unaccounted for. . . . In little-noticed press releases, the Department of Defense announces the return of remains from Vietnam every week or two, on average.  The announcements get little attention.  yet across America, families that have been lacerated with anguish live through an experience they came to believe would never happen: the return of their loved ones.  This is the tale of one missing man, the family who went on without him, and the extraordinary unit he served with when he disappeared.  There are many, many other stories like this one.

what imagery

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The next day was one of beaten silver, like the plate you could buy in the shops near the Rialto bridge — the shimmering silver of the water turning this way and that to catch the light and fracture it in a thousand different directions.  Above that the sleek zinc of a high layer of cloud and between the two, like a layer of decorative enamel, the buildings of the city — pink and gold and ochre and orange.

Snippets from books

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Real mothers wonder why experts who write for Parents and Good Housekeeping–and, dare I say it, the Burlington Free Press— seem to have their acts together all the time when they themselves can barely keep their heads above the stormy seas of parenthood.

Real mothers don’t just listen with humble embarrassment to the elderly lady who offers unsolicited advice in the checkout line when a child is throwing a tantrum.  We take the child, dump him in the lady’s cart, and say, “Great.  Maybe you can do a better job.”

Real mothers know that it’s okay to eat cold pizza for breakfast.

Real mothers admit it is easier to fail at this job than to succeed.

If parenting is the box of raisin bran, then real mothers know the ratio of flakes to fun is severely imbalanced.  For every moment that your child confides in you, or tells you he loves you, or does something unprompted to protect his brother that you happen to witness, there are many more moments of chaos, error, and self-doubt.

Real mothers may not speak the heresy, but they sometimes secretly wish they’d chosen something for breakfast other than this endless cereal.

Real mothers worry that other mothers will find that magic ring, whereas they’ll be looking and looking for ages.

Rest easy, real mothers.  The very fact that you worry about being a good mom means that you already are one.

snippets from books

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Something I like about old age is that you can so easily let your mind drift.  The present no longer contains much that demands concentrated thought: no more love affairs, no more work excitements or problems, no more (or very little) planning of entertainment or travel.  Day-to-day life is so much simpler and more repetitive than it used to be that you can allow your mind to wander.  The best times for it are in the morning, snug in bed putting off getting up, and in the event, idling one’s way towards sleep.  Sometimes I find myself telling a story which has grown out of some small incident–perhaps a man in the park that morning was humiliated by his lack of control over his dog, and a mini-drama weaves itself round him.  Or I have heard that a friend is ill, and spend a long time recalling her and her ways, imagining her feelings, foreseeing her future.  Often I choose a time or place and let myself loose in it: Venice on a September morning, perhaps, or Santa Fe full of flowering lilacs as it was when I once spent a week there.  One scene will lead to another, one event connect mysteriously with another of a different kind, and people I haven’t thought about for years will materialize.  And since the place where I spent my childhood has been restored to me . . . well, everyone knows that what comes back to the old most often is their distant past, and that is confirmed again and again in my own experience.  In the last two or three years I have learnt what a vast amount of my childhood is stuffed away below the level of consciousness, much of it probably never to emerge but a surprising amount of it ready to become available, and all of it there.  it has become obvious that what an old person is–provided he or she has not gone gaga–is not just the deteriorating body going through its necessarily simplified and sometimes boring occupations, but a mobile reservoir of experience.

The knowledge that this is so much, I suppose, be one of the chief triggers of autobiography.  ‘But if I turn it into a book,’ one feels, ‘there it will still be.’ Whether anyone will want to read it is up to them: at least it will be there for whoever does.  I have acted on this impulse twice before, once in relation to my experience of love (Instead of a Letter), and once in relation to my life in publishing (Stet), and both times there was a fair number of people who wanted to read the resulting book; so now, when what has bubbled up asking for the same kind of expression is the material at the bottom of the reservoir — the stuff which, on the whole, causes a person to be what he or she is — I dare to do it again.

Snippets from books

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It has been several years since I’ve read any of Lee Smith’s books; I have missed out – it has been my loss.  Her latest book of short stories, Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger is delightful.

The following is from the short story “The Happy Memories Club.”

I may be old, but I’m not dead.

Perhaps you are surprised to hear this.  You may be surprised to learn that people such as myself are still capable of original ideas, intelligent insights, and intense feelings.  Passionate love affairs, for example, are not uncommon here.  Pacemakers cannot regulate the strange unbridled yearnings of the heart.  You do not wish to know this, I imagine.  This knowledge is probably upsetting to you, as it is upsetting to my sons, who do not want to hear, for instance, about my relationship with Dr. Solomon Marx, the historian.  “Please, Mom,” my son Alex said, rolling his eyes.  “Come on, Mama,” my son Robert said.  “Can’t you maintain a little dignity here?  Dignity, said Robert, who runs a chain of miniature golf courses!  “I have had enough dignity to last me for the rest of my life, thank you,” I told Robert.

I’ve always done exactly what I was supposed to do–now I intend to do what I want.

“Besides, Dr.Solomon Marx is the joy of my life,” I told them all.  This remained true even when my second surgery was less than successful, obliging me to take to this chair.  It remained true until Solomon’s most recent stroke five weeks ago, which has paralyzed him below the waist and caused his thoughts to become disordered, so that he cannot always remember things, and he cannot always remember the words for things.  A survivor himself, Solomon is an expert on the Holocaust.  He has numbers tattooed on his arm.  He used to travel the world, speaking about the Holocaust.  Now he can’t remember the name of it.

“Well, I think it’s a blessing,” said one of the nurses — that young Miss Rogers.  “The Holocaust was just awful.”