My Five Favourite Opening Lines

It was very hard to choose these five opening lines – I could have chosen another five altogether! Would anyone like to add some more?

  1. “Ennis Del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminium door and window frames.” Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx.
  2. “All night long he would walk the ship, from bow to stern, from dusk until quarterlight, that sticklike limping man from Connemara with the drooping shoulders and ash-coloured clothes.” Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor.
  3. “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.” The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
  4. “‘All good things must end,’ said Frances Price.” French Exit by Patrick de Witt.
  5. “It was love at first sight”. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.

Quotes from “Coming Up for Air” by George Orwell

“I was trying to shave with a bluntish razor-blade while the water ran into the bath. My face looked back at me out of the mirror, and underneath, in a tumbler of water on the little shelf over the washbasin, the teeth that belonged in the face. It was the temporary set that Warner, my dentist, had given me to wear while the new ones were being made. I haven’t such a bad face, really. It’s one of those bricky-red faces that go with butter-coloured hair and pale-blue eyes. I’ve never gone grey or bald, thank God, and when I’ve got my teeth in I probably don’t look my age, which is forty-five.”

There is so much more to Orwell than Animal Farm and 1984 and I love this book – Coming Up for Air. It’s the story of a man on a day out, searching for scenes of his childhood. It’s so very readable and engrossing. I read several passages over and over again. But I’ll just add one more here.

“I bent down to pick up a primrose. Couldn’t reach it – too much belly. I squatted down on my haunches and picked a little bunch of them. Lucky there was no one to see me. The leaves were kind of crinkly and shaped like rabbits’ ears. I stood up and put my bunch of primroses on the gatepost. Then on an impulse I slid my false teeth out of my mouth and had a look at them. If I’d had a mirror I’d have looked at the whole of myself, though, as a matter fact, I knew what I looked like already. A fat man of forty-five, in a grey herringbone suit a bit the worse for wear and a bowler hat. Wife, two kids and a house in the suburbs written all over me. Red face and boiled blue eyes. I know, you don’t have to tell me. But the thing that struck me, as I gave my dental plate the once-over before slipping it back into my mouth, was that it doesn’t matter. Even false teeth don’t matter. I’m fat – yes. I look like a bookie’s unsuccessful brother – yes. No woman will ever go to bed with me again unless she’s paid to. I know all that. But I tell you I don’t care. I don’t want the women, I don’t even want to be young again. I only want to be alive. And I was alive that moment when I stood looking at the primroses and the red embers under the hedge. It’s a feeling inside you, a kind of peaceful feeling, and yet it’s like a flame.”

There, that’s enough. Has anyone else read this? Or other Orwells?

Six Favourite First Lines

‘Ennis Del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminium door and window frames.’ Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx.

‘All night long he would walk the ship, from bow to stern, from dusk until quarterlight, that sticklike limping man from Connemara with the drooping shoulders and ash-coloured clothes.’ Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor.

‘While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.’ The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

‘”All good things must end,” said Frances Price.’ French Exit by Patrick de Witt.

‘It was love at first sight.’ Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.

‘The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.’ Coming Up for Air by George Orwell.

I think that last one is my favourite but then, I’m a big Orwell fan!

What are your favourites? Tell me in the comments – I may discover more great books to read!

A Review of “Life for Sale” by Yukio Mishima

I was interested to read “Life for Sale” as I am not familiar with Japanese writers – except for Kazuo Ishiguro who grew up, and lives, in Britain.

The protagonist, Hanio Yamada, fails to commit suicide and decides to put his life up for sale, hoping that someone else will do the job for him. There follows a series of adventures as different buyers turn up with a proposition but no situation works out as planned and he remains alive, becoming wealthy as each sale brings in a lot of money – and a few dead bodies.

The book is well paced and so quotable! (I had to choose among so many.) It is a surreal tale with impossible scenarios, including one with a vampire:

“There was a lustrous quality, for sure, but it was the lustre of a corpse. The faint boniness of her arms betrayed her extreme thinness. And yet her breasts were full and firm, while her stomach was soft and white like a vessel brimming with an abundance of rich milk.”

And I did laugh out loud a few times:

“A dead body reminds me a bit of a bottle of whisky. If you drop the bottle and it cracks, what’s inside pours out. It’s only natural.”

“Tall, and probably rather snooty, the steward had clearly just spent a lot of effort squeezing blackheads. “

Eventually Hanio has to re-think his life and his decisions.

“How fearless, utterly fearless he had felt when he first put his life up for sale! But now, a warm furry fear clung to his chest, digging its claws right in.”

I don’t think I’ll re-read this book but I did really enjoy it. It’s the sort of book where you jump in and see where it takes you. You immerse yourself in the strange world of Hanio and that way you get the best out of it. I will definitely try this author again.

A Review of “French Exit” by Patrick de Witt

This is Patrick de Witt’s latest book, his fourth, published in 2018 and it certainly lives up to the standard of the other ones. Ablutions, the first, The Sisters Brothers next, and Undermajordomo Minor – I love them all. It is impossible to categorize them as they are all completely different.

So, French Exit – as the title implies is mostly set in France although the first quarter of the book is set in New York. It is a wonderful romp of a book – you’d pick it up with a smile of anticipation. The main characters are the wealthy Frances Price and her son, Malcolm. Frances is beautiful and elegant and totally irresponsible. Malcolm is vague and pleasant. He is engaged to Susan, a girl he professes to love but can’t quite commit to.

The story takes off when Frances realises she has spent all her money and is completely broke. The pair decide to go and live in France when a friend offers them an apartment in Paris. They sell everything they have left, jewellry, pictures and furniture and take  all the cash with them. They also bring their cat, Small Frank, so called because Frances believes him to be a reincarnation of her husband, Franklin.

To give a small flavour of the text:

‘Frances sniffed the flowers and asked, “Who has died, and what was their purpose, and did they fulfill their potential?” The doorman didn’t hazard a response. Frances made him uneasy; he believed there was something quite wrong with her.’

‘Frances suddenly became aware of the chair’s dimensions. It was an exciting thing to know and she was happy she’d been told about it. “What did he choke on?” she asked. “Ah, lamb.” “And have you eaten lamb since?” “No. But, you know, I never liked lamb much in the first place.”‘

‘Tom’s foremost characteristic was his handsomeness; his second was his normality; his third was his absolute lack of humour; his fourth, his inability to be embarrassed.’

In France they pick up an entourage of hangers-on, impossible to describe. I have looked for quotes to illustrate them but it’s impossible to take them out of context.

The book is very funny but all along it has a darkness to it. It is perfectly shaped and paced and I can only recommend that you read it.

A review of “Iron Lake” by William Kent Kreuger

So, I was looking forward to reading this book as it had been highly recommended, and I did like it, but not as much as I expected. To begin with the main character Cork O’Connor is interesting and likable. He is part American Indian and there are quite a lot of American Indian characters in the book, known collectively as “the people” which interested me very much as I know nothing of their culture.

The story is gripping from the off – incomprehensible murders, a wealthy politician, a crumbling marriage, a sweet love story – and secrets and silence everywhere. An occasional mention of a supernatural element adds to the whole but doesn’t intrude. There’s an easygoing quality as well, and many back stories, but they are so engaging – and easygoing doesn’t mean slow.

However. nearing the end of the book I found that some situations were very contrived to allow the hero to unravel the mystery. Also, the denouement is very drawn out and quite boring. It was disappointing after so good a story.

There isn’t any quotable dialogue here but the pace and shape of the story is good. This is the first in a series of books featuring Cork O’Connor and I will definitely read another one in the future. If formally reviewing this book, I would give it three and a half stars.

Five Best Endings . . .

I got the idea for this post from Stephen Writes at Top Five Memorable Endings I Read In 2020 – Stephen Writes (wordpress.com) and he kindly allowed me to use his idea. For me the ending of a book, the last sentence, indeed the last paragraph, is very important. Often, especially in thrillers, the last few pages are long-drawn out and boring. So when you love a book, and are approaching the end, it’s great when the last words are just as good – and just as important – as the beginning.

No. 1. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt

The story is about two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are sent by their boss to kill someone. They have various adventures on their journey. The younger of the two is tired of the harsh life they lead and wants to go home. Here’s the wonderful last paragraph:

“I dropped into sleep but awoke with a start some minutes later. I could hear Charlie in the next room, washing himself in the bath tub. He was saying nothing and would say nothing, I knew, but the sound the water made was like a voice, the way it hurried and splashed, chattering, then falling quiet but for the rare drip, as if in humble contemplation. It seemed to me I could gauge from these sounds the sorrow or gladness of their creator; I listened intently and decided that my brother and I were, for the present at least, removed from all earthly dangers and horrors.

And might I say what a pleasing conclusion this was for me.”

No. 2. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

When Quoyle, discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, he heads for his ancestral home on the wild coast of Newfoundland with his two small daughters. He secures a job on the local paper, reporting on the shipping news. This book is the story of his life there, and the characters he meets. It finishes thus:

“Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of the Burkes’ house. A wedding present from the bride’s father.

For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat;s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

No. 3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I’m sure everyone knows this story of the Joad family, and their trek through the Oklahoma dust bowl during the great depression of the 1930s in America. At the end of the book they take shelter in a barn where they find a man dying of hunger, and his small son. The daughter of the family, Rose of Sharon, (Rosasharn) has just given birth to a still-born child, and sharing a deep look with her mother, agrees to breast-feed the dying man:

“For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comforter about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. ‘You got to,’ she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head closed. ‘There,’ she said. ‘There.’ Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

No. 4. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

From the blurb on the back of this book – It is a murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic version of eternity, and a tender, brief, erotic story about the unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle.

“We saw, standing with his back to us, an enormous policeman. His back appearance was unusual. He was standing behind a little counter in a neat whitewashed dayroom; his mouth was open and he was looking into a mirror which hung upon the wall.

‘It’s my teeth,’ we heard him say abstractedly and half-aloud. ‘Nearly every sickness is from the teeth.’

His face, when he turned, surprised us. It was enormously fat, red and widespread, sitting squarely on the neck of his tunic with a clumsy weightiness that reminded me of a sack of flour. The lower half of it was hidden by a violent red moustache which shot out from his skin far into the air like the antennae of some unusual animal . . . He came over ponderously to the inside of the counter and Divney and I advanced meekly from the door until we were face to face.”

‘Is it about a bicycle?’ he asked.

No. 5. Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

I’ve always been a fan of The Boss and I know he writes his own songs, but still, I was a bit surprised by how good his writing is in this autobiography. The book flowed along and I thought the prose was delicious. This is how he finishes the book – he is riding his motorbike south to Manasquan Inlet:

“My “ape hanger” high-rise handlebars thrust my arms out and skyward to shoulder height, opening me up to the winds full force – a rough embrace – as my gloved hands tighten their grip on that new evening sky. The cosmos begins to flicker to life in the twilight above me. With no fairing, a sixty-mile-per-hour gale steadily pounds into my chest, nudging me to the back of my seat, subtly threatening to blow me off six hundred pounds of speeding steel, reminding me of how the next moment holds no guarantees . . . and of how good things are, this day, this life, how lucky I’ve been, how lucky I am. I turn the corner off the highway onto a dark country road. I hit my high beams, scan the flat farm fields looking for deer. All clear, I twist the throttle as rushing into my arms comes home.”

That will do for now. Reading all these wonderful writers makes me question my ability to write, or even to put a sentence together. I’m very happy that the world is full of so many wonderful books – I’ll probably do another five endings in the future!

First lines Friday – with a nod to A Couple of B’s!

FIRST LINES:

“To the red country and part of the grey country of Oklahoma the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The ploughs crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the grey country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.”

Can you guess that novel?

A hint: It’s a famous novel and a famous movie by a famous American writer.

You will all have guessed I’m sure!

The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck.

Link to A Couple of B’s – A Couple of B’s ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

A Review of Ablutions by Patrick de Witt

“Discuss the regulars.”

So begins “Ablutions”, the first novel by Patrick de Witt. Reviewers have said that it is not as good as the two subsequent books – but it is.

It is written in the second person which isn’t always appealing but in this case it suits perfectly. The blurb on the back cover describes the book as “Hilariously gloomy”; neither word is correct. Certainly there is plenty of black humour in the book but it is not hilarious, and gloomy is too slight a word to describe the terrible sadness which runs throughout.

The prose is wonderful:

   ” . . . before settling into a life of wealth and flashbulbs.

   ” . . . the desire to celebrate the rhythm of your own beating heart.”

The premise is this: a barman, in a bar off Hollywood, is making notes for a novel so there is no narrative as such – each episode takes place in the present – but now and then the reader becomes aware of time passing with the detieration of the barman’s health. He studies the failed actors and writers who people the bar every day and the characters are wonderful, (if people so bereft of hope and joy could be described as wonderful), the ageing child actor, the crack addict, the unhappy doorman, among them. A temporary bar manager is the only one to escape into glamourous Hollywood, a flash of light in the dim room.

The amount of alcohol and drugs consumed is staggering – causing terrible hangovers and punishing the poor, malnourished bodies. And sex: there’s plenty of sex in the backroom, and there’s a scene where a sort of orgy takes place, not like a penthouse orgy with champagne and nibbles and beautiful bodies; no, it’s a sad, woeful, cold occasion, not even lively enough to be called sordid.

Throughout the book there are snatches of empathy and snatches of vicious, casual violence, but loneliness pervades all. The barman, afraid to give in to tears in case he could never stop, hurts himself to deflect the feeling:

   “Once this starts you believe you will not be able to stop, or will soon reach a point from which you will not return without damaging your mind . . . you draw back your hand and punch the brick wall as hard as you can.”

There is very little direct dialogue but this is not noticeable as the barman is always addressing himself so it reads like conversation. The pace and shape of the book is perfect in the way that “Of Mice and Men” is perfect, no part too long, none too short, the last line as important as the first.

A short review of “A Keeper” by Graham Norton.

I didn’t originally intend to write a review of this book but having finished it I am compelled to make a few comments. To begin with, I enjoyed it very much. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I couldn’t leave it out of my hand. I just had to find out what happened next.

It is told from two separate points of view in different times; a mother (Patricia) and a daughter (Elizabeth) which I really liked. The prose is grand – no repetition or padding that I could see. But the plot is the thing. It is so creative, so ingenious, so shocking. The two main characters were very similar, I thought, but that ‘s my only criticism; the others were more distinctive – the farmer, Edward/Teddy and his mother, Mrs Foley. Oh, she was a quare one – I wish I had written her myself!

” . . . when the old lady slapped the dead bird on the rough bench in front of her and with one swipe took its head off with a large knife. The violence of it made Patricia gasp. Mrs Foley turned and held the headless corpse upside down. The red juice steamed as it trickled noisily into a waiting bucket.

“As if to reassure her Mrs Foley raised her free hand and absent-mindedly licked the blood that was dripping from it. Something shifted in Patricia’s stomach.”

“‘That’s Sunday lunch sorted.'”

I enjoyed that character so much. And indeed the whole book. I raced through it to find out the whole story and the secrets of long ago. Definitely recommend it to anyone. And I’m looking forward to reading some more of Graham Norton’s books.