in the past six months i’ve struggled to finish a book. i’ve started a handful, only to put them down later that day. they sit on the shelf under the coffee table or in the little crook of my bedside stand or atop my bookshelf waiting to be returned to their permanent place. i put this off—the returning—on the theory that the longer they sit out the more reminders i’d have to see them through to the end.

that didn’t work.


a month ago i tilted “housekeeping” by marilynne robinson from out its spot on my bookshelf (i had picked it up used from an annual book sale two seasons ago). i started reading it and knew it was meant to be read slowly, not gobbled in a sitting. good. it’s not like i’d done much gobbling lately anyhow. it was a slow read. halfway through, i put it down for two weeks, thinking it was simply the next in a growing list of books i’d come to abandon. then i picked it up again and carried on, slowly but surely, oftentimes rereading sentences and pages just because. last week, i finished it. i finished a book again.

this is one to be relished. read it slowly. each sentence is a treasure.

a favorite excerpt:

“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

fleeting flowers

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there was a time that a gifted bouquet of flowers felt like a burden. i’d have to stop what i was doing to tend to them right away. snip their ends in a diagonal cut, just like my mother taught me. find the right jar or vase to hold them. fill it with water—not too hot, not too cold—lukewarm. don’t scare the precious fleurs.

it’s the next part that burdened me.

their beauty. the way they brightened a room, or my periphery in passing. it was almost too much. to know they would soon be gone. that they would wilt and brown and sit sadly in their jar or vase until i couldn’t bear it anymore and threw them out. i’d be sad that they ever were because eventually they weren’t.

these feelings were not isolated to flowers alone. for a period, i felt this about dirty dishes in the sink. why wash them? they’ll be dirty again tomorrow. i felt this about errands. why run them? you’ll have more tomorrow, and the next day. about haircuts. chop it today, you’ll be chopping in another few months, and another few after that.

these were symptoms of something else, something that’s not really me.

these days, i love a bouquet. i love the way it lights up a room. the way it lights up my periphery. the way it looks as it soaks up the afternoon sun and radiates the deepest, purest shade of ruby i ever did see. that it’s fleeting—well that makes it ever the more special doesn’t it?

courage, first

the only thing i love more than reading her words is hearing her speak them aloud.

A visit to Edinburg

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There’s something about rainy fall days, no? One of my favorites started with a rainy drive through Vermont one October weekend two years ago, the mountains ahead shrouded in fog; a stop for cheese and trinkets on the way, like a miniature maple syrup gift box for boyfriend’s mom; the sleeping cat curled up on a sweater in a corner of the general store; the alpacas behind our Bed & Breakfast; the dusty old mystery books in the bookcase downstairs.

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A few weekends ago I was struck with deja vu on a drive up to Edinburg, a small town on the shores of the Great Sacandaga Lake, less than an hour from Saratoga Springs at the base of the Adirondack Park. Early October, winding roads flanked in ambers and yellows, russets and lingering greens; tires spitting water; the steady beat of windshield wipers; soup at a diner on the way.

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We stayed a night at a friend’s log cabin. It was cold. An electric heater worked sporadically. But there was hot cocoa and a shot of tequila and a DVD and a book and plenty o’ blankets.

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In the morning I walked around outside where the only sound was the lapping of the lake, the skittering of leaves, a dashing squirrel, a chirping bird. I get a little romantic about this time of year. But what child of the Northeast doesn’t?


Country noir


Daniel Woodrell seems to have an effortless knack for turning bleak scenes into beautiful poetry. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a depressed, poverty-stricken, rural town, but I could see and feel things in Winter’s Bone that I sometimes wish I had no reference point for. It is always a nice surprise, at least to me, to read someone else’s words and find an intimate scene from your own life staring back at you from the pages.

Here’s one scene, from the hillbilly landscape of the Ozarks, that reminds me of wintry mornings in a man’s barn, the smell of sawdust from the floor mixing with the sweet, alarming smell of raw meat:

“Ree Dolly stood at the break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. Carcasses hung pale of flesh with fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.”

A less familiar scene, though its spirit — of small-town fatalism, of stuckness — captures why it felt important for me to get away from home:

“The men came to mind as mostly idle between nights of running wild or time in the pen, cooking moon and gathering around the spout, with ears chewed, fingers chopped, arms shot away, and no apologies grunted ever. The women came to mind bigger, closer, with their lonely eyes and homely yellow teeth, mouths clamped against smiles, working in the hot fields from can to can’t, hands tattered rough as dry cobs, lips cracked all winter, a white dress for marrying, a black dress for burying, and Ree nodded yup. Yup.”

Silly, censorious feet

It took me a long time to read Friend of My Youth, an Alice Munro collection from 1991. I read about half the short stories at summer’s outset, and then left the book lying around, the sight of its plaid jacket sometimes triggering guilt pangs. After a relaxing three-day weekend to the Adirondacks earlier this month, I finally found the motivation to finish it. There were two vivid scene-setting passages from separate short stories toward the end that I particularly enjoyed.

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1. “She ought to have stayed away from this neighborhood. Everywhere she walked here, under the chestnut trees with their flat gold leaves, and the red-limbed arbutus, and the tall Garry oaks, which suggested fairy stories, European forests, woodcutters, witches—everywhere her footsteps reproached her, saying what-for, what-for, what -for. This reproach was just what she had expected—it was what she courted—and there was something cheap about doing such a thing. Something cheap and useless. She knew it. But what-for, what-for, what-for, wrong-and-waste, wrong-and-waste went her silly, censorious feet.” [from the short story titled “Differently”]

2. “Austin hangs on to Karin as they struggle along the boardwalk—or where the boardwalk must be, under the snow. Sheets of ice drop from the burdened branches of the willow trees to the ground, and the sun shines through them from the west; they’re like walls of pearl. Ice is woven through the wire of the high fence to make it like a honeycomb. Waves have frozen as they hit the shore, making mounds and caves, a crazy landscape, out to the rim of the open water. And all the playground equipment, the children’s swings and climbing bars, has been transformed by ice, hung with organ pipes or buried in what looks like half-carved statues, shapes of ice that might be people, animals, angels, monsters, left unfinished.” [from the short story titled “Pictures of the Ice”]

Photo via farmlass

A few passages

A few passages that stayed with me from Chang-rae Lee’s “On Such a Full Sea”

“But let’s suppose another way of considering her, which was that she had a special conviction of imagination. Few of us do, to be honest. We wish and wish and often with fury but never very deeply. For if we did, we’d see how the world can sometimes be split open, in just the way we hope. That it and we are, in fact, unbounded. Free.”

1401_SBR_FULLSEA_COVER.jpg.CROP.original-original“And so Fan, driving, listened to the tale of those first days for Quig and his family. Despite the awful details, his telling must have helped her relax at the wheel, the way music can allow our instincts to take over the countless mechanical operations that you couldn’t possibly orchestrate if you had to think through each one. Perhaps it’s the same for a storyteller, the sound of one’s own voice caretaking this turn and the next, and allowing the full flow.”

“Fan would have expected that one or two of the Girls would have long rebelled at spending a life in a room, would have begged, say, the dentist, to help them steal away, but the funny thing about this existence is that once firmly settled we occupy it with less guard than we know. We watch ourselves routinely brushing our teeth, or coloring the wall, or blowing off the burn from a steaming yarn of soup noodles, and for every moment there is a companion moment that elides onto it, a secret span that depends the original’s stamp. We feel ever obliged by everyday charges and tasks. They conscript us more and more. We find world enough in a frame. Until at last we take our places at the wheel, or wall, or line, having somewhere forgotten that we can look up.”

“Fan saw how much he was resisting, and to bolster him placed her hand beside his on the cafe table, the simple sight of which seemed to calm him down, the two opposing forms differently sized but too similar in the proportions of the fingers to the palm, the chafed, uneven rises of knuckle, the way their thumbs turned a little too far inward, for their being anything else but true kin.”


Her name always popped up on the back of books where authors were quoted as being delighted about this latest novel from so-and-so and this one is really her greatest work yet and just wait until you read his second one if you thought his first was an opus, well this, this is something.


Alice Munro! I have just recently in life happened upon Alice Munro and her short stories and I can’t stop reading. Most of her stories are set in Canada, which is new territory for me as a reader aside from some readings of Robertson Davies. These writings are like whispers. Each one is so rich with subtleties. They don’t scream or shout. The best part of them is finishing one and grasping for more but feeling like, OK, it’s over and it’s alright and I could easily read that again and absorb a whole new meaning. I finish one and I can’t possibly sum it up, for each page is laden with so much feeling it’s like you just soaked yourself in all the little daily undercurrents that humans can’t seem to put into words, the subconscious put down on the page, the sweet realizations we take to the grave.

From Too Much Happiness:

“She was learning, quite late, what many people around her appeared to have known since childhood that life can be perfectly satisfying without major achievements.”

“You think that would have changed things? The answer is of course, and for a while, and never.”

“Something happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, were something happened, and then there are all the other places”

From Open Secrets:

“When Bea spoke of having had a checkered career, she was taking a sarcastic or disparaging tone that did not reflect what she really felt about her life of love affairs….love affairs were the main content of her life, and she knew that she was not being honest when she belittled them. They were sweet, they were sour; she was happy in them, she was miserable. She knew what it was to wait in a bar for a man who never showed up. To wait for letters, to cry in public, and on the other hand to be pestered by a man she no longer wanted. (She had been obliged to resign from the Light Opera Society because of a fool who directed baritone solos at her). But still she felt the first signal of a love affair like the warmth of the sun on her skin, like music through a doorway, or the moment, as she had often said, when the black-and-white television commercial bursts into color. She did not think that her time had been wasted. She did not think it had been wasted.”

Why you should read Elizabeth Strout

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Around Christmas I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and was changed forever. When I was younger I would read books and declare “I am changed forever” after every third book or so and it was true every time and I love that I continue to feel this way.

Strout is truly a beautiful writer and I wonder what kind of a storyteller and observer I would be if I had never read her. After Olive Kitteridge, a collection of short stories that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a few years ago, I devoured her other books in a few days time. Amy and Isabelle still haunts me. Abide With Me to a lesser extent.

Her next novel, The Burgess Boys, comes out this month. It’s as though, upon finishing the last of her books and crying out for more of her written word, she felt my desperation and expedited the publication process along.

If I could just describe the way her writing makes me feel I could describe everything it is I love about the craft of writing, and probably more specifically, what it is I love about the small details that make up a life or even a humdrum afternoon. But I can’t describe it. So, I’ll just leave with a quote.

“What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly . . . No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered. . . . But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union–what pieces life took out of you.” —Olive Kitteridge

Routines and writer’s block

One day a few years ago, during my most transformative year to date, I sat down at the kitchen table to write an important story. I had checked all my emails, arranged the papers to my left and right, cleared my mind and opened a new Word document. I drummed a pen against my temple. Nothing. I took a sip of coffee, set my mug off to the side. I had done my research and made all the relevant phone calls. All of my notes were open. Ready? OK. Go.


At some point during this dance, I began Googling “writer’s block.” And then I saw it. Among all the advice and lists, there was Ernest Hemingway, brilliant and simple — “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

When it’s time to write and I get distracted with emails, with conversations, with getting comfortable in my seat or tilting my laptop screen at just the right angle I go right back to Hemingway and I’m cured. I start to write and it is simple and it is good.

I’m reminded of my Hemingway trick to cure writer’s block by this interesting look at the daily routines of famous writers. A blogger and aspiring novelist linked to it the other day, and I found myself particularly struck by the habits of E.B. White and Joan Didion.


Here is White:

“I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all. On the other hand, I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me. A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. My wife, thank God, has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.



And here is beautiful Joan, in a 1968 interview:

“I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That’s one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.”