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!

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!

In reply to Becky’s Would You Rather Book Tag (A Couple of Bees) https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/180580439

Q. Would you rather read classics for the rest of your life or Y/A novels?

A. Classics please, I’m way too old for the latter.

Q. Would you rather have a kid like Holden Caulfield or Huckleberry Finn?

A. Huckleberry Finn, I wouldn’t be able for the other fellow!

Q. Which Hogwart’s House would you rather be placed in?

A. Ravenclaw – they have the nicest colours – blue and bronze.

Q. Would you rather live in the world of 1984 or Fahrenheit 451?

A. Fahrenheit 451. I couldn’t bear to live in the world of 1984.

Q. Would you rather live in the world of Narnia or a kingdom in Game of Thrones?

A. I’d prefer Narnia. The world of Game of Thrones would be too dangerous!

Q. Would you like to have unlimited money for e-books or a $5,000 Barnes a Noble gift card?

A. The gift card. I got a book token for quite a lot of money many years ago. I had a ball!

Q. Would you rather live in your favourite fictional world for a day or be able to visit said world whenever you want but only as an invisible observer?

A. The latter, I think. I always fancied a cloak of invisibility – and I’d like to visit Winterfell.

This was a lot of fun, and thanks to Becky of A Couple of Bees for thinking it up. Anyone else like to answer these questions?

The Top Three!

Last week was a strange one for me with various family situations, now resolved. Today I resume my routine. This morning I was out for my walk along the river and I thought very hard about which three books I loved the most; I came up with these three. David Copperfield, Catch 22 and Redhead by the Side of the Road. Which surprised me a little as my favourite writer for some years now is Patrick de Witt.

I first read David Copperfield when I was at school and I’ve read it at least twice since; so many wonderful characters, so many quotes still in my head. There was Peggotty, who worked as cook and maid in his mother’s house until she agreed to marry Mr Barkis, who signalled his intentions with the phrase,”Barkis is willin’.” And the wonderful Mr Micawber who was always sure that “something will turn up” and his wife declaring that she “would never desert” Mr Micawber. I’m going to stop with quotes here or I’ll be writing all day! I will just mention David’s cousins who lived in an upturned boat on the beach in Yarmouth; the boy he met in school called Steerforth who was a bad ‘un and became involved with Rosa Dartle. I can’t leave out his Aunt Betsey who took him in and cared for him and called him “Trotwood”. David’s first wife, Dora, made very little impression on me but apparently she was based on Dicken’s real-life first love. There are many more I could include and many, many quotes but – enough!

Catch 22 I first read in my twenties and again, I’ve read it many times since. It makes me laugh so much. Sometimes I stand at the book case and open it at random . . . I could be standing there for a long time! And sometimes I remember various passages when I’m on a bus or a train and I have to keep myself from laughing out loud. The first chapter sets the tone; the chaplain appears at Yossarian’s hospital bedside and begins a conversation. Yossarian doesn’t realise he is the chaplain and thinks he’s another mad soldier but he is happy to continue the conversation:

“Oh, pretty good,” he answered. “I’ve got a slight pain in my liver and I haven’t been the most regular of fellows, I guess, but all in all, I must admit that I feel pretty good.”

“That’s good,” said the chaplain.

“Yes,” Yossarian said. “Yes, that is good.”

The conversation continues in this vein with many – that’s good, yes that is good, and that’s bad, yes that is bad – until Yossarian realises he’s talking to the chaplain and is disappointed that there is a sane reason for the visit.

And what about Major Major Major Major whose father marches along the hospital corridor and register’s his son’s birth in the name of Major Major, unbeknownst to his resting wife. And the episode where the soldiers are listening to a speech by one of the Generals and they begin to moan at the sight of the General’s bosomy nurse, started by Yossarian of course. Ah yes . . .

Finally, Redhead by the Side of the Road. I won’t say much about this book as I recently posted a review on it. Suffice to say, when I was reading it, I carried it about with me and had many conversations with the main character, Micah Mortimer. Happy days!

An excerpt from “Undermajordomo Minor” by Patrick de Witt

This is Patrick de Witt’s third novel, completely different from the previous two. It isn’t quite a fairy story; some of it is surreal, nightmarish, incredible, but all totally delicious. I was in awe of the author’s creativity and the wonderful dialogue and prose.

Mr Olderglough opened his eyes. “There were once were twenty souls in our employ here, boy. Can you imagine it? Coachmen, waiting maids, porters, a cook, a nurse. All gone now, alas.”

“I thought you’d said Agnes was the cook, sir?”

“Originally she was the chambermaid. When the cook left us, then did Agnes step forward, claiming a deft hand.”

“But it seems you take issue with her cooking, is that correct?”

“Not so far as she knows. But in my private mind, yes, I am unenthusiastic.”

“And why do you not speak with her about it, may I ask?”

“Because I dislike unpleasantness. Also there is the fact of my being somewhat afraid of her. And then, too, I’m not much interested in eating.” He looked at Lucy. “Are you?”

“I like to eat,” Lucy said.

“Is that right?” Mr Olderglough shook his head, as if to accommodate an eccentricity. “Personally, it never held much sway for me.”

Lucy said, “May I ask what became of the others?”

“Well, they’ve gone away, haven’t they?”

“But why have they, sit?”

“I suppose they thought it the wisest course of action, is all.”

Mr Olderglough looked wistfully about the room. “Twenty souls,” he said, “and here, what’s become of us? Well, we’ve got you in our company now, boy, and this heartens me, I can tell you that much.”

Lucy was not so heartened. He followed Mr Olderglough to the larder; the shelves were all but bare. There came from the corner the scratching of rodents, and now began a thumping, squabbling battle, a lengthy affair concluding with the agonized squeal of the defeated: high and sharp at its commencement, distantly windy at its resolution. Mr Olderglough wore a satisfied expression, as though the outcome were favourable to him. Drawing back his cascading forelock, he said. “I find the constant upkeep of the body woefully fatiguing, don’t you?”

A Review: Peaches by Dylan Thomas

I first read this story many years ago and never forgot about it so recently I read it again, and again it seemed terrific. It is written from the point of view of a very young Dylan, perhaps ten years old. He is spending time with his aunt and uncle in rural Wales, and his best friend from school, Jack, is coming to visit. Jack’s people are well off and he is expected to arrive, accompanied by his mother, in a Daimler. Dylan’s aunt has been holding on to a tin of peaches for a special occasion and is now looking forward to serving them, with a dollop of cream, to Jack’s mother.

And all around this situation is built a whole world of characters:

” . . .  a thin, bald, pale old man, with his cheeks in his mouth . . . “

” . . . a sour woman with a flowered blouse and a man’s cap.”

There is not a wasted word in the story of this small boy with his fears and fancies; it draws you in, subsuming you almost, until you are living on that farm,  playing in that farmyard:

“On my haunches, eager and alone, casting an ebony shadow, with the Gorsehill jungle swarming, the violent, impossible birds and fishes leaping, hidden under four-stemmed flowers the height of horses . . . my friend Jack Williams invisibly near me, I felt all my young body like an excited animal surrounding me, the torn knees bent, the bumping heart . . . the sweat prickling in the hands, the tunnels down to the eardrums, the little balls of dirt between my toes . . . “

The young Dylan imagines his uncle:

“I could see uncle, tall and sly and red, holding the writhing pig in his two hairy hands, sinking his teeth into its thigh . . .  leaning over the wall of the sty with the pig’s legs sticking out of his mouth.”

And about his his aunt he writes:

“She went upstairs to dress like Sunday.”

In this tale the writing is the thing. It is hardly like reading at all; it’s like someone sitting beside you telling the story, the language rich and sumptuous and deep and luscious, full of adverbs and adjectives:

” . . . for his uncle to light his pipe and set the darkness on fire and show his long, red, drunken fox’s face to me, with its bristling side-brushes and wet, sensitive nose.”

It makes today’s pared-down prose appear without smell or taste or colour, and it reminds me of “A Christmas Carol”, especially the middle part, about Christmas Present. I found it very difficult to choose which quotes to include in this short commentary – every line is memorable.

A Review of “A Friendship” by William Trevor from the “After Rain” collection

William Trevor often makes me laugh. There are situations in his novel, “The Old Boys” that I remember at odd times and that make me laugh out loud no matter where I am. And this story does the same, but only at the beginning. It’s a thing that William Trevor does – you think the story is about one thing but it turns into something else entirely. The friendship in question is between Francesca, married to pompous Philip and with two sons, and Margy who livens up Francesca’s life with tales of her various love affairs. The two have been friends since childhood but have very little in common. As Trevor says:

“Their common ground was the friendship itself.”

Francesca seems an ethereal creature, tall and blonde, hardly aware of her surroundings, or of what her boys are up to. Margy, however, sees everything, She is small, dark, quick, with a touch of spite, especially where Francesca’s husband is concerned. And this spite is what eventually wrecks the friendship. Philip doesn’t help  himself however; he is known as “bad news” in their dinner circle:

” . . . he displayed little interest in the small-talk that was, increasingly desperately, levelled at him . . . he was not ill at ease; others laboured, never he.”

Margy, on the pretense that it was time she thought about settling down, proposes that they contact their old college friend, Sebastian. But Sebastian had always fancied Francesca, and shortly after they all meet up for lunch, he and Francesca begin an affair. Margy facilitates this by lending them her apartment from time to time.  Philip finds out by accident, a slip in conversation:

“Oh heavens, I’ve said the wrong thing!”

Philip pretends that he and Francesca often meet up with Sebastian. He confronts Francesca, who is contrite and says it wasn’t much. They have a row, clear the air, and decide to continue as before, with one difference:

“‘Drop me?’, Margy said, and Francesca nodded . . . ‘It’s how Philip feels.'”

“On the pavement . . . they stood for a moment in a chill November wind, then moved away in their two different directions.”

This is the body of the story, but it begins with Francesca’s two sons, aged six and eight, pouring wet cement into their father’s new golf bag, complete with new clubs. Even thinking about this makes me laugh. Trevor writes it down in such a matter of fact way, without as much as an exclamation mark.

“Sharing the handle of the bucket, they found they could manage to convey their load . . . they had practised; they knew what they were doing.”

“‘We know nothing about it,’ Jason instructed his brother. ‘Nothing about it,’ Ben obediently repeated.”

Francesca is oblivious; Margy sees it straight away but says nothing and the four sit down to lunch. Ben decides to break the monotonous silence and mentions his teacher:

“‘Miss Martindale’s mother died . . . a man interfered with her.'”

His mother is shocked but Margy is amused.

“Ben said all the girls had cried, that Miss Martindale herself had cried, that her face was creased and funny because actually she’d been crying all night. Margy watched Jason worrying in case his brother went too far.”

And that’s all there is about the boys, except for a sentence to say that when tackled by their angry father they said it was just a joke. But for me, they make the story memorable. I loved the pair of them. Very often children are interesting and exciting and you wonder what will become of them. But generally very little does; they grow up and stop pouring cement into new golf bags.

The writing, as always, is delicious.

A Nod to the Master: from Great Expectations.

“Mr Wopsle’s great-aunt, besides keeping this Educational Institution, kept in the same room – a little general shop. She had no idea what stock she had, or what the price of anything in it was; but there was a little greasy memorandum-book kept in a drawer, which served as a Catalogue of Prices, and by this oracle Biddy arranged all the shop transactions. Biddy was Mr Wopsle’s great-aunt’s granddaughter; I confess myself quite unequal to the working out of the problem, what relation she was to Mr Wopsle. She was an orphan like myself; like me, too, had been brought up by hand. She was most noticeable, I thought, in respect of her extremities; for her hair always wanted brushing, her hands always wanted washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling up at heel. This description must be received with a week-day limitation. On Sundays she went to church elaborated.”

Isn’t that mighty? Thank you Mr Dickens!

A review of “Never Let Me Go”

I hardly know how to rate this book. It’s a great book but – I didn’t like it. It cast an atmosphere over me every time I picked it up, and even appeared in a dream or two. And it left me with several questions.

The premise is this: Children/Clones are bred for the sole purpose of donating their organs when they reach thirty or so. They are brought up in special schools with Guardians and Teachers. They have  no contact with the outside world other than seeing delivery men, gardiners, postmen etc. When they are very young they are told of their future – and not told. They know – and they don’t know:

Since I went to a boarding school myself (but no boys) I could identify with the intensity of every little thing; the way every word and rumour is scrutinised for meaning and consequences; the importance given to the unimportant; the groups forming and re-forming, the conspiracies. At lessons the emphasis is on creativity; drawing and writing being particularly encouraged – why? This question, at least, is answered eventually. All the children read literature and philosophy and spend hours discussing these topics.

The main characters are Kathy and Ruth, best friends from their earliest memories which seem to begin when they are five years old. And later on, there’s Tommy, who forms the apex of a triangle which dominates their lives. When the book begins, Kathy is caring for Ruth who has just become a doner. The narrative goes back then to their childhood, and is riveting! This book is a page-turner for sure. Kathy is like Darrell Rivers in “Malory Towers” (if anyone else remembers that far back), a good, caring girl with a big heart. Ruth is devious and controlling, and Tommy needs a good shake, but each in her, or his, own way is loyal to the others.

When they grow into teenagers they are moved to other homes, in smaller groups; they know what is coming but they never speak of it.

“By that time in our lives, we no longer shrank from the subject of donations . . . but neither did we think about it very seriously, or discuss it.”

Apart from the fact that they are sterile, they are the same as other young people, although sex is treated in a very matter of fact way; no coyness, no mystery, no romance, no future either. Relationships form, break-up and begin again.

Right from the beginning there is an undercurrent of uneasiness, an unspoken fear which works its way into the readers minds. It did to mine anyway! And you care about these characters. Is there no way out of their terrible future? Have they no choices? This book is a great read and, of course, the writing is impeccable. I love Kazuo Ishiguro and I am obliged to give it full marks even though I didn’t like it.

“Cloister”

Some days, I wish I’d been a nun

Cloistered, curtained by the hanging

Green of trees. pale apple green,

Serene cloak. Measured days and nights

Paced from hour to praying hour

No pride no lust no greed no lies

No loss no gain no pain no strife

But peace, pale apple green, serene

Soft poultice on the quick of life.

amazon.com/author/elizabethmerry

@elizabethmerry1