First Sentences

“For Thomas Williams, it was better to be no one than someone in Asbury Park.” Alex Tresniowski, The Rope: A True Story of Murder, Heroism, and the Dawn of the NAACP.

“Because he had enjoyed almost every advantage since birth, one of the few privileges denied to Benjamin Rask was that of a heroic rise: his was not a story of resilience and perseverance or the tale of an unbreakable will forging a golden destiny or itself out of little more than dross.” Harold Varner, Bonds: A Novel in Hernan Diaz, Trust.

“Every night at 10:01 P.M., the next day’s New York Times crossword puzzle appears online.” A.J. Jacobs, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life.

“My name is known to many, my deeds to some, my life to few.” Andrew Bevel, My Life in Hernan Diaz, Trust.

“The world Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen was born into on June 7, 1789, was the vast, sparsely populated coast of central western Greenland.” Stephen R. Brown, White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen’s Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic.

“Nurse’s thick accent somehow makes me feel my English is improper.” Mildred Bevel, Futures in Hernan Diaz, Trust

“Around 1860, a French singer named Mademoiselle Zelie went on a world tour with her brother and two other singers.” Jacob Goldstein, Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing

“The paneled doors, shut to most of the world for decades, are now open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.” Ida Partenza, A Memoir, Remembered in Hernan Diaz, Trust.

“In October 1968—a year in which, as we all know, assassins made martyrs out of two good men, young soldiers with no other option waged a war while their privileged peers fought to end the same conflict, and a newly militant citizenry laid waste to their own cities and homes—Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain opened the door of his bright new white Cadillac for Bob Gibson.” Sridhar Pappu, The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age.

“A woman sat in a hotel bar, watching the door.” Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You.

“It’s almost impossible to imagine now, but in the middle of the 1800s, school was not the central experience of children’s lives.” Danielle Dreilinger, The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live.


          The headline said: “Scientists Don’t Know if Hydroxychloroquine is Useful—Or Even Safe—for Coronavirus Patients.” While accurate, it is incomplete. No one knows if that drug works on Covid-19 and if it is safe for that purpose. It says something not good about us, however, that a potential medical treatment is now a partisan touchstone. When a right-wing couple was told that a mutual acquaintance had been placed on a ventilator, she immediately asked if Charlie had been given hydroxychloroquine. I am sure that she hoped he would get better, but she was also hoping for vindication for Trump, Laura Ingraham, and other Fox News touters of the drug. Charlie had been given hydroxychloroquine, and she looked a bit devastated that it had not helped. But it is worse that liberal acquaintances seem to hope that the drug is not effective for coronavirus because that would make Trump look (even more) foolish.

          The debate over hydroxychloroquine again illustrates how poorly humans generally reason about cause and effect. I look out the window every night before going to bed, stand on one foot, and tap my nose three times. There are no polar bears in my bedroom. Should I conclude that my ritual keeps the beasts at bay? That some doctors have given hydroxychloroquine to coronavirus patients who have then improved is a reason to explore in a rigorous way whether the drug is effective (and safe.) It does not prove it when most patients get better with or without the drug.

          I am yet again reminded of the words of Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary: “EFFECT, n. The second of two phenomena which always occur together in the same order. The first, called a Cause, is said to generate the other—which is no more sensible than it would be for one who has never seen a dog except in pursuit of a rabbit to declare the rabbit the cause of the dog.”

          We all, however, should fervently hope that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment.

Wondering about how the present crisis will conclude, I think of the words of Marina Lewycka in Two Caravans: “When you write a story, you can decide how it ends.”

          “Life always comes to a bad end.” Marcel Aymé.

The Covid-19 epidemic has made people think about the many recent popular dystopian novels, movies, and TV shows. That gun sales have increased during the outbreak makes me think of them.

“You know, there’s a distinct lack of female arms dealers, I’ve always thought.” Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends.

In the midst of our present troubles, we should not forget that nature goes on and that it is spring:

 “The grass bends

          then learns again to stand.”

                              Tracy K. Smith, “Us and Co.”

“But when I take the blue-stemmed grass in hand,

And pull the grass apart, and speak the word

For every part, I do not understand

More than I understood of grass before.”

                                        Thomas Hornsby Ferril, “Blue-Stemmed Grass”

          “And I learn again, in my nerve endings, that information is never the same as knowledge.” Richard Powers, The Gold Bug Variations.

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant. If we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.” Anne Bradstreet.


I just read Sally Rooney’s first book, Conversations with Friends, and those who told me that it was well written and memorable were right. I thought about self-indulgent whining for days.

Most of my life I have read a lot, but I retain less of those books than I would like. I thought making a list might help me, and I now record every book I finish. I am reading Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie. When I read about the twenty-four-course-minimum banquets it seemed vaguely familiar, but all the rest of the novel seemed fresh. I was glancing over my completed book list yesterday, and I saw that I had read Shalimar the Clown four years ago. Is there a point to my reading so much if I retain so little?

          “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” Dorothy Parker.

          Americans who are following politics should admire how resilient we New Yorkers are. We have survived in succession the mayoralties of Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill De Blasio.

          “But politics never ends, because ambition never rests.” Richard Brookhiser, John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court.

President Trump had objections to the South Korean movie Parasite. I assume that with the subtitles his lips got too tired.

I wondered about the line in the program that said the singer was “voted a Downbeat Critics’ Poll Rising Star Vocalist for four consecutive years.” Is there a limit on how long a person is a rising star? Apparently four years of rising is not enough. But Thana Alexa who is that singer was marvelous in the performance I saw at the Birdland Jazz Club the other night as were Caroline Davis, Carolina Calvache, Endea Owens, and Alison Miller on sax, piano, bass, and drums. (But since this performance, I attended a legal conference concerning neuroscience, and I learned that one of the panelists was “recognized as a ‘Rising Star’ Super Lawyer in New York in 2011, 2012, and 2013 and as a Super Lawyer in New York since 2015.” Maybe that is how it should be: three years of Rising, a year off, and then full Super status.)

          I tell myself that I miss running, but I concede that the compulsive running that I did in my thirties and forties gave me aches and pains. I was constantly sore. Unsolicited advice told me to stretch—some said before I set out, others after the run’s completion–but I never did. I thought that an easy pace at the beginning of the run was the best way to loosen up. Over time the soreness, especially in my knees, was constant, and towards the end of my running phase, I realized that I was hanging on tightly to bannisters to descend stairs because of knee problems. I knew that it was time to think about quitting.  When I saw a doctor for a routine physical, he told me that I was running too much. He said, “It just depends at what age you want a knee replacement.” I gave up running a bit later. I had a knee replacement when I was seventy.

          “In a dream you are never eighty.” Anne Sexton.