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Analyses Of First Lines #3

I’ve had some pretty great books come into my life lately, whether through acquisition – physical or digital – or just because I’m particularly aware of them at the moment, for whatever reason. Books I want to talk about; I’m realising more and more the value of less rigid thinking when it comes to talking about literature here. Another first analysis post seemed the best approach.

I haven’t included every book that I’m working with because there are first lines that just don’t inspire. Copying out all the possible first lines I could have used for this post has demonstrated to me that as important as the first line is known to be, many times this is forgotten. Sometimes the value inherent in a first line is passed to the second. Other times the writing style the author has employed means the concept of the first line is altered (one book had single words as the first few sentences). Yet more times, however, it just seems an opportunity missed.

A realisation upon a realisation, if you will – a magnificent first line can and often does equate to a magnificent book, be the book great for its writing or story or characters. And it can really heighten your desire to read the book. When I received Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck, it wasn’t via the postbox – the postman had to ring the bell. The book is a tome and upon seeing it I felt somewhere in between very interested due to its fairly classic status and relief that I had decided to schedule it – then sight unseen – during a time that was otherwise free. But reading the first line, that worry has gone. One line and I know I’m going to enjoy it, likely a great deal.

Something that has occurred to me while writing these posts: does my knowledge of a book, or lack thereof, change or aid the way I analyse the first line? (By knowledge I mean having read the book previously.) I think it likely does on an unconscious level because I know the answers, but what I am finding, for certain, is that my continuing to analyse first lines makes my analyses more thorough, enough to balance out any bias.

Alexander Weinstein’s Children Of The New World

We’re sitting around the table eating Cheerios – my wife sipping tea, Mika playing with her spoon, me suggesting apple picking over the weekend – when Yang slams his head into his cereal bowl.

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This book is a short story collection, so this line is the first line of the first story, which is called Saying Goodbye To Yang. If the sentence didn’t suggest a death, that title surely does, but then where these two pieces of information are concerned, it’s not a foregone conclusion. If the narrator is the husband of the family and we’ve a wife and child, Mika, do we first assume – title aside – that Yang is a child, too, and thus in all likelihood would be swiftly saved from any drowning by his parents?

Taking the title into it, and the word ‘slams’, we suddenly have a potentially older person, potentially having a stroke. (We could also still have a child having an episode or sudden issue, too.) Taken out of context, ‘slams’ is a pretty extreme word if we were to consider a child playing with his food, and pretty extreme if the cereal bowl is your average cereal bowl and thus difficult to ‘slam’ into if it’s on the table.

In context, it’s a particularly good choice of word. The best short stories tend to get straight to the point and/or leave you shocked by the end and so Weinstein’s first line places you not only in the situation but at the exact catalytic moment. Little time for character description, he gives you the basics – child, wife, husband, leaving you to assume stereotypical ages if you wish – and gets straight to the action. The characters as people may not be important, we don’t know yet, but if their personalities aren’t a focus, you still have enough to go on.

And if you wanted to know location and time period, you’ve Cheerios and apple picking for help – Cheerios suggests present day (no further than 1945 according to Wikipedia), apple picking presumably means near the countryside. Whilst Weinstein could have left out the extra content, could have left out the wife and Mika from the sentence, it rounds off the introduction well.

And whilst it does sound short-story like, if would fit a novel. I love it.

Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck

One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarrelled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad.

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Here we have the line I spoke of in my introduction. There is so much information in this sentence; it may be very long but when you consider the book was written in the 1940s (1946 to be exact) that’s suddenly neither here nor there.

In this one line we get a fully-fledged description of the person who is presumably to be our narrator. She had been in a relationship, possibly an extramarital affair, and whilst the fact the two have quarrelled isn’t too much a sign of anything – other than, perhaps, a signal of why they’re no longer together – her ‘black mood’ is. This isn’t one black mood – it’s written possessively and in the plural. She gets these moods fairly often. They are part of her personality; like the way the rest of the sentence refers to the effects of this mood, the author hints that this may be a difficult character to read about at times. That ‘fruitlessly’ suggests she expected a call – why? Do they often make up? Is she needy? Does she expect an apology? Not everything is apparent yet but you’re given some big clues as to what you’re getting in to from the start.

Whether part of the black mood or just a quirk of sorts, this narrator is likely superstitious, naming the ninth floor unlucky for its number. Either that or something in the novel will render her hotel room or floor unlucky and if the latter then again, she’s telling us up front. And a last hint of personality – she’s feeling bad. This is likely to do with the quarrel, however we don’t yet know if her feeling bad is due to remorse or that quarrels and black moods themselves make her angry.

Does a hotel room on Fifth Avenue speak of wealth? Of hers or of her lover’s? And if the room is lonely had she been staying in it herself or is ‘lonely’ a hint to it having been a room she shared with her lover prior to the quarrel? These are things to find out.

We’ve something of a possibility of an anti-heroine to contemplate…

Helen Irene Young’s The May Queen

It was the first thing to come between May and the carnival.

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May likes the carnival and a few things, at least, are going to come between her and its parade. Whether we’re going to read about the carnival itself is not known at this point – first, we have to see how much time the ‘things’ are going to take up. May might not get to go to the carnival at all.

With this sentence, Young shows that her book, or at least the beginnings of it, are going to be about some sort of conflict. This book is going to have issues in it of some sort, unless ‘come between’ is taken literally and there are obstacles on the road between May and the parade. To an extent, we can guess May’s age – she’s likely a child, looking forward to the carnival.

Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep

Mrs Creasy disappeared on a Monday.

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A disappearance and a name. We’re either going to go back in time for a bit, or we’re going to see the after-effects of the disappearance. Monday – does this suggest 7 days’ worth of reports as to what happened/happens next? And the person is married or widowed – will we hear from her spouse or hear the story of her spouse, whose presence or death or so forth, may have caused the disappearance?

This is a short sentence and there’s not much to go on, at least if we compare it to others, but it does tell us what we’re about to read. It doesn’t tell us if the story of Mrs Creasy will make up the entire book or not, but we can assume that if it doesn’t, the rest of the book will be relative – there will be other disappearances or such goings on.

Joanna Hickson’s First Of The Tudors

Flashes of iridescence gleamed like fireflies in the gloom of the small tower chamber.

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This sentence is full of highly descriptive words that draw attention to colour, beauty. Light, which we can expect is needed given the ‘gloom’ of a ‘small’ room. The stereotype of a tower is here in its element and whilst this is historical fiction rather than fantasy, the semblance to the idea of the high unreachable tower works in the context of the sentence, works as a way to set up your image of the scene even if it’s not going to be carried on past the full stop. Besides this, we can assume the scene is a bedroom, possibly an anti-room of some sort. If the former, we are perhaps reading about a squire or other servant, someone who is in a position to be staying in a castle (tower) but not high enough in society to be in a big room.

Given the historical nature, what are the flashes of iridescence? Is a lamp being lit or is a candle burning? Is the person going to bed or are they awake and reading, or talking to someone?

To me this sentence is very much about readying you for an evening of historical fiction, drawing you to the (potential – we don’t yet know!) comfort of what you’re about to read. It sets the historical scene, beckoning you with an image that draws wonder.

Kit De Waal’s My Name Is Leon

No one has to tell Leon that this is a special moment.

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Something positive will likely follow this sentence. A celebration of sorts; no matter whether it’s a special moment in the sense of a surprise party or the start of a friendship, or whether it’s that something positive is to come from something not so good, we’re starting on a high. We also get a name, which is obviously one of our main characters – even if the title did not name him, that his name is given in the first sentence says it all.

We’re going to be privy to this special moment, in a moment, and signs suggest this is going to be a good read.

Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent

A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon.

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Is this to be our main character, or does the night and body of water suggest this young man won’t be here long? Is this a report and the man is dead? We haven’t been given his name – will this be a mystery?

It is easy to jump to conclusions with this sentence, to realise the possibility of a mystery or thriller – so often such books employ darkness and water and this sentence has a lot of blues and blacks in it. The bank, the ‘Blackwater’ (although this is the name of the water), cold, moon. But it could be many things – it could be a way of introducing us to a historical setting, to a dock or gloomy alleyway, some place that has Victorian and Dickens all over it.

One thing we do know for certain is what writing style we’ll be dealing with or, at least, if we consider the high usage of prologues recently, the style of the first few pages. In fact the writing very much fits the current prologue style – it would be fair to assume that’s what we have here and if it is indeed a prologue then the idea of mystery may well be true.

In Conclusion

I think it’s interesting to compare sentences from older books, newer books, and different genres – particularly old and new. There is such a difference between now and before, and we’ve this whole new genre of ‘literary fiction’ that a lot of classics may well fit… but not completely because we are applying new concepts to old works. I knew that you could tell a literary fiction book from its writing style, its tone – at least usually – but hadn’t really paid attention to just how soon this becomes apparent. ‘Genre fiction’, I think, is less apparent, perhaps partly because some books cross over but also because the defining lines just aren’t as defining as they are ‘supposed’ to be – something I rather like.

Which recent reads drew you in from the start? And did the books continue to be good?

Project Charlotte

Charlotte Turner Smith

For many reasons, I’ve never liked my full name. But recently I’ve been looking to feel a bit more comfortable with it and that has been bolstered by historical figures I’ve discovered. Brontë, of course, but also Perkins Gilman and, literature aside, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. I’m never going to revert to the name myself but I can at least feel better about it, align it with some great writers.

To this end I’ve decided to focus on well-known writers, in the hope of developing an appreciation and positive relation. I’m choosing writers whose work is in the public domain for ease, the limited numbers, and because of my interest in history… and because it costs a lot less to read free books.

So I took myself to Project Gutenberg and searched to catalogue. There are a number of Charlottes listed so I’m going to focus on those for which there’s some information. My list is short – I think that’s best, and is as follows: Brontë, Perkins Gilman, Turner Smith, Lennox, Mary Yonge. It doesn’t go as far back in history as I’d like – Turner Smith and Lennox were born in the early decades of 1700s – but then I’m dealing with historical texts written by women. I’m also perhaps sort of cheating as I’m half-way through my second Gilman and have read two Brontës. But I couldn’t really leave them out.

I’m particularly looking forward to reading Turner Smith, Lennox, and Yonge because I’d forgotten about them. Turner Smith I first discovered some years ago but her book, Emmeline (a Cinderella-type story) was only available online in scanned fragments of old editions and about as much in print. In the years since, Project Gutenberg have produced a text – finding that made my day. There aren’t aren’t notes in regards to sourcing but it’s the best yet.

Lennox I only knew from seeing The Female Quixote listed on Girl Ebooks. Having read that it’s a parody of Cervantes I’m very much looking forward to it. Granted, my knowledge of the story is limited to Nik Kershaw’s song and the bookmark in my father’s copy that never moved from 1/4 of the way through, but it’s enough. It also appears to be shorter and there’s no need to worry about finding the right translation.

Yonge I heard of through well, you guys, and it will be The Heir of Redclyffe that I’ll be reading. In researching her I discovered she lived and died in Hampshire so I may make a trip to see her house and grave. The novel is mentioned in Little Women.

Charlotte Niese, a German writer, was looking like a possibility, but there’s only one story available in English and I’m not so sure there’s any fiction to be had. She campaigned for women’s rights but Wikipedia states she wrote only within socially acceptable boundaries. If, once I’ve read the above five authors, I want to continue, I’ll consider Niese; I’ve got to remember that as much as my first thought was to compile a list of every literary Charlotte, non-fiction texts don’t quite match the concept I had in mind.

Still to decide: do I extend my reading to other countries’ versions of the name? I considered ‘Carlotta’ but I actually rather like the one so it wouldn’t really fit what I’m trying to do and as previously alluded to, it’s difficult to work with translations.

I’ve no dates, no schedule in mind, it’s more a general reading goal. I may or may not post updates – most likely I’ll just review the books.

Any famous literary Charlottes I’ve missed?

Books I Read Before I Started Blogging

When I became a book blogger, half-way through the first year I tracked my reading, I made a point of reviewing the previous few months’ books and summing them all up at the end. But besides the odd mention here and there, I never noted the books I’d read before tracking/blogging. This number is obviously a bit too high to make into a blog post and trying to remember everything I’ve read would take a while. In planning this post I’ve realised the truth of my memories of using the library a great deal when younger – I don’t have copies of most of the books I know I read then.

Due to how many books this idea would involve, I’ve limited it to those I own (so regarding the above, not many) and I’m excluding children’s books, including only young adult books and ‘teenager’ books – I think that’s more accurate to what we called them back then. Including only the books I own has the added bonus of me knowing for certain that I read them.

I’ve left out books I’ve re-read since starting my blog. I may end up re-reading some of the books listed – I certainly hope to in some cases – but writing this post ensures I’ve at least commented on them somewhat. Lisa Jewell’s pre-literary/historical work dominates.

I’m not sure the above makes total literal sense – I’m suffering a bit from heatstroke – but hopefully it’s enough for you to get the idea. I thought I’d list them in the order I remembered them in rather than alphabetically – it has the added bonus of creating two equal ‘halves’. Here we go:

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Alma Alexander: The Secrets Of The Jin-Shei – A historical fantasy. This is about a China where women are the dominant gender. It has some magic in it, some battles, and is fairly diverse, but a word of warning must be given regarding the sexual violence which isn’t softened by the magical concepts behind it, no matter how much that may have been the intention. I intend to re-read this one and get an idea of how it reads now I’m old enough not to be so in subjective awe of the genre.

Arthur Golden: Memoirs Of A Geisha – Historical. This is about a young girl who grows up to be a geisha in the years towards the end of the profession. Since made into a film so I doubt I need to note too much. I’m not sure if I’ll re-read it.

Lisa Jewell: Ralph’s Party, Thirty-nothing, One-Hit Wonder, A Friend Of The Family, Vince & Joy, 31 Dream Street – Chick-lit. I’m going to sum these up as it was a phase and say that they were pretty good, escapism. Didn’t like Jewell’s use of ‘spastic’ however and am glad she seems to have now dropped it from her more recent books.

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Maile Meloy: Liars And Saints – Contemporary, mostly and may be classed now as literary fiction. This is about different generations of a family, fairly dysfunctional people. Reading this made me feel very grown up. I want to re-read it in the near future as I’d like to read it in the way I read now and work out just what all the sex was for.

Anchee Min: Empress Orchid – Historical about the last empress of China, Ci Xi. Min is quite forgiving of her character but not completely. Suffice to say this is a difficult read at times but good nonetheless. I intend to re-read it.

Terry Pratchett: The Colour Of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, Mort – The first four Discworld novels. I wasn’t too keen on the first two, but Granny Weatherwax of the third is great and Mort remains my favourite so far.

Celia Rees: Witch Child – Historical fantasy. A girl with witch-like powers travels to the New World. I don’t remember too much of the story but do remember it made me cry. I’ll re-read it at some point.

Celia Rees: Sorceress – Fantasy. Set in the present day this is about a descendent of the heroine of Witch Child and her discoveries. Pretty good but not as good. I’ll probably read it as par for the course.

I used to read a lot more fantasy than I do now, though I still love it. The later teen years were when I discovered historical fantasy; for a while I read nothing else. I still have the sequel to the Alexander on my shelves to read; I bought it because it made sense at the time but upon reading the blurb I discovered it’s quite a bit different. Still, I’m glad I have it because it’s difficult to find nowadays.

There are so many books I want to re-read to see how I find them in, as said above, to ‘read it in the way I read now’. I have that urge to re-read constantly, finding that the more I read the more I feel I should go back and re-read books read previously because I’ve changed, grown as a reader, and so on. I even find myself feeling that way about books I read in more recent years. I think we all feel this way at times.

What books did you read in your younger years that stood out to you? Do you think you’d still like them if you read them now?

Restarting A Book You Were Enjoying

A photograph of a watch resting on an open book

How long a time between starting a book, leaving it, and picking it up again would you/do you need before you choose to restart? This is presuming you were enjoying the book and put it down out of necessity (maybe you just didn’t get back to it). In this, the ‘you’ is you yourself rather than people in general.

From my experience so far, a fair amount of time needs to have passed between putting down the book and restarting it. If attempts are being made to continue it can make it more difficult; just continuing the book, to me, means having only really read the latter part or so on, two distinct reading periods creating the effect of reading two books.

A restart after a long time feels right to me because by then I’ve forgotten enough to feel that it would be an entirely new read. I view the decision in the context of reviewing – I won’t have done the book or author justice, I won’t have had as good an experience, if I just continue. I’ve found restarting too soon adds up to wasted time – it’s the extreme reverse of ‘sunk cost’ and effectively just creates a variation on a theme.

Sunk cost comes into it for me, though, and so whilst I may restart, I have to be far enough away in time for that to really work. I kind of have to get away from my own imposed ideal.

What has been your experience?

A Lot Of Thoughts: Reading And Reviewing Classic Individual Short Stories And Poems

A photograph of Kate Chopin

I can’t remember the last time I read a short story that wasn’t part of a larger collection. And I admit to avoiding them these last few years.

I love short stories but in terms of reading I don’t know what to do with them, whether in terms of record or reading.

Record: a few years ago I read a novella that was to all intents and purposes a short story and whilst it was nice to have another number in my statistics, I felt uncomfortable with it – it was not really a book. I doubt anyone would begrudge me a single digit for the ‘book’ but I felt I was cheating myself.

Reading: a while back I read the Everyman’s Jane Austen collection – Sanditon, various other shorter works, and didn’t review it for a couple of reasons. It was my first collection in a while, my first collection since I’d started reviewing, and the thought of trying to condense it all to a thousand or so words was overwhelming. But reviewing each story separately seemed silly as there wouldn’t have been enough to say to make it worth it.

Yesterday I was researching Kate Chopin. I want to return to The Awakening, delve into the themes in more detail, and so I was researching the book, the author’s life, influences… I ended up reading Désirée’s Baby. I then started down one of those research rabbit holes, wanting to learn about the French Creoles Chopin writes about, and ending up a couple of hours later reading about Native American Territories.

I’ve decided to record short stories read in a different place to my general reading, with the idea that it will be exclusively stories that weren’t collected and in the public domain. Classic work is what I’d like most to focus on and recording will allow me to remember for later. This takes me to a sort of sub-decision: recording the publication details of the story. In part because I’m aware Désirée’s Baby was published in a collection a year after it was printed in Vogue (14th January 1893 – I was pleasantly surprised to find the exact date) and thus is actually out of the bounds of what I’m aiming for, I want to keep a record of all those magazines and pamphlets that stories were published in. My thought is it’ll be interesting to note trends, to see where writers shared space, and to learn more about early literary publications. (I’ve often thought of looking at Dickens’ Household Words away from the context of the fiction itself, and as Vogue is now synonymous with fashion, Chopin’s inclusion is intriguing – what’s the history there?)

As to how to review them, I’m considering the ‘mini-review’ collective format some bloggers use. I’ll likely read stories in author phases, so to speak, and round up that way. As for Chopin, because many (all?) of her stories were collected, that will see a bog-standard review. In these cases I’ll likely defer to the original compilation rather than any from our present day.

I’m going to do the same with any poetry I find myself wanting to discuss. I don’t know nearly enough to consider a poem per post. There are some Tudor poets out there, often included in fiction, that I’d like to study. Shakespeare’s excluded for now because I wouldn’t know where to start, but as I said last week I’m enjoying reading about Aemilia Lanyer. I’ve found her poetry online – an easy read which, although it would be considered too simple nowadays, is quite enjoyable.

I think the ‘too long; didn’t read’ version of this post is that I’m giving myself more literary freedom. I think (hope!) I’m at the point now in my journey where I’m reading in such a way and with enough background context that I can discuss shorter works for more than a couple of sentences.

How do you go about reading (and reviewing, if relevant) short pieces of literature?


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