Opening Lines

"A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father."
- Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing

"Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug."
- James T. Farrell, Young Lonigan

"Dennis awoke to the sound of the old man upstairs beating his wife."
- Tim Hall, Half Empty

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

"We always fall asleep smoking one more cigarette in bed."
- Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece

"Tonight, a steady drizzle, streetlights smoldering in fog like funnels of light collecting rain."
- Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago

"Beware thoughts that come in the night."
- William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America

"'There they are again,' the doctor said suddenly, and he stood up. Unexpectedly, like his words, the noise of the approaching airplane motors slipped into the silence of the death chamber."
- Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key

"Now that I'm dead I know everything."
- Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

"In the end Jack Burdette came back to Holt after all."
- Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged

"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

"I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York - three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man - hadn't helped it any."
- Jim Thompson, Savage Night

"Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis and carriages."
- Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks

"The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry."
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure

"Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have."
- Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses

"Picture the room where you will be held captive."
- Stona Fitch, Senseless

"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
- Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry

"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon...Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come."
- O.E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth

"Click! ... Here it was again. He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again ... Click! ..."
- Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square

"It is 1983. In Dorset the great house at Woodcombe Park bustles with life. In Ireland the more modest Kilneagh is as quiet as a grave."
- William Trevor, Fools of Fortune

"The cell door slammed behind Rubashov."
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

(A compendium of memorable opening lines of novels, updated occasionally as I come across new discoveries.)

September 28, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

Reading the rails

Photo (2)

Another forgotten bookmark: an Amtrak ticket stub for the Washington, D.C.-Philadelphia route, from April 2004. $45 seems like a bargain to me, especially after driving expressways to work for three hours a day during the past month.

Found in The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness, which I bought at Mr. K's Used Books in Asheville, North Carolina ($3! another bargain!) several years ago but didn't finally crack open until today. I always love finding used UK editions here in the states - this one is published by Harvill Press.

September 26, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Stay in your own country whatever you do."

Hamlin Garland, admonishing a young American (the younger sister of Lorado Taft) who was intent on traveling to Europe to study art:

"You can acquire all the technic you require, right here in Chicago. If you are in earnest, and are really in search of instruction you can certainly get it in Boston or New York. Stay in your own country whatever you do. This sending of students at their most impressionable age to the Old World to absorb Old World conventions and prejudices is all wrong. It makes of them something which is neither American nor European. Suppose France did that? No nation has an art worth speaking of unless is has a national spirit."

September 21, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...conflicts that came out of two million dollars a year, not a garret..."

More thoughts from Dorothy Parker, this time on the myth of the starving artist:

Being in a garret doesn’t do you any good unless you’re some sort of a Keats. The people who lived and wrote well in the twenties were comfortable and easy living. They were able to find stories and novels, and good ones, in conflicts that came out of two million dollars a year, not a garret. As for me, I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money. I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be darling at it.

I love her sensibility and, of course, her wit. "Big Blonde" is the only Parker I've read, but now I really want to read much more of her writing.

September 14, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...they virginized the models from tough babes into exquisite little loves..."

In a 1956 interview with The Paris Review, Dorothy Parker describes her early job at Vogue.

I wrote captions. “This little pink dress will win you a beau,” that sort of thing. Funny, they were plain women working at Vogue, not chic. They were decent, nice women — the nicest women I ever met — but they had no business on such a magazine. They wore funny little bonnets and in the pages of their magazine they virginized the models from tough babes into exquisite little loves. Now the editors are what they should be: all chic and worldly; most of the models are out of the mind of a Bram Stoker, and as for the caption writers — my old job — they’re recommending mink covers at seventy-five dollars apiece for the wooden ends of golf clubs “—for the friend who has everything.” Civilization is coming to an end, you understand.

I enjoyed this interview so much that, this morning, I dug up my old Norton Anthology of Short Fiction and read "Big Blonde" for the first time since college. The story was every bit as wonderful, though overwhelmingly sad, as I remembered it.

September 14, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hamlin Garland

I just started reading Hamlin Garland's A Daughter of the Middle Border, the second volume of his memoirs, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1922. Though a bestselling author in his day, it seems that Garland is all but forgotten now; on Goodreads his most-read book (Main-Travelled Roads) had only been rated 129 times. Literary fame is truly fleeting. A sobering realization for us scribblers.

September 12, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Quote

"We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light."
- Richard Wilbur, from "Lying"

(Via Patrick Kurp.)

September 9, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

What else could I be, all apologies...

My apologies for the intermittent posting here. For the rest of this year I'm working in a different office, one with little privacy and no opportunity to blog. Even worse, I now have to drive to work instead of taking the train, which has eliminated my prime reading time. (So much so that I now eat my brown-bag lunch in my car in a forest preserve parking lot, while reading. Not as ideal as the train, but I'm getting by so far.) Not being able to blog at work, and having less time to read the literature which has been my primary subject matter, will mean much less posting here for the next few months. I'll blog on weekends now and then when something comes to mind that I want to share with my small readership, and with any luck things will get closer to normal early next year when I should be working downtown again.

September 7, 2014 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (4)

Summer of Classics 2014

I set a fairly unambitious goal for Summer of Classics this year - nothing but James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy (Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day), which totals just under a thousand pages. Though I liked Lonigan, it fell just short of classic. The first book was promising, the second book weak (it seemed like a third-rate, city-instead-of-small-town, Irish-instead-of-Anglo version of Winesburg, Ohio), and the third book the strongest. Further thoughts of mine on the books are here at Goodreads.

Given my slow reading pace, I figured Studs Lonigan would take me the entire summer to read. But to my surprise, I finished the trilogy in early August, and turned to another Chicago novel to finish up the summer.

Windy McPherson's Son is Sherwood Anderson's first novel, and is very much an apprentice work for the author. The first section, when the teenaged Sam McPherson shows the ambition and drive that will power his later business career, is very well done, with wonderful depictions of small-town Iowa life and Sam's quest to endure and overcome his feckless father. (More than a few echoes of Huckleberry Finn there.) The writing is fresh, the characters and place well-drawn. But when Sam moves on to the big city of Chicago, the narrative becomes more predictable, even approaching soap-operatic melodrama at times. Then, in the third section, Sam abandons his career at its lofty peak and departs for the road, on a vaguely-conceived quest for Truth, and the episodic narrative strains credulity, with Anderson even throwing in an unlikely happy ending to close things out. With this book, Anderson was clearly working toward greater things. Some of the strongest elements of Winesburg are already on display in this debut novel, but unfortunately those elements are only intermittent flashes, especially after Sam leaves Iowa.

So the verdict is: one near-classic, and one non-classic from an author who would later write an undeniable classic. 

September 7, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...a lot more danger in not leaving it..."

Nice short passage here from Sherwood Anderson’s Windy McPherson’s Son. Sam McPherson, still young but rising rapidly in industry, is the wilds of Michigan, on his honeymoon.

One with whom he talked was a grocer from a town in Ohio, and when Sam asked him if coming to the woods with his family for an eight-weeks stay did not endanger the success of his business he agreed with Sam that it did, nodding his head and laughing.

”But there would be a lot more danger in not leaving it,” he said, “the danger of having my boys grow up to be men without my having any real fun with them.”

I have always agreed with the grocer’s sentiment, especially since becoming a father. The book has lost some momentum since Sam left Caxton, Iowa for big-city Chicago, and particularly since he fell in love, somewhat predictably, with Sue, the daughter of his boss. Since that point, the narrative has read like a 19th century soap opera, with frequent chauvinistic tones. Anderson was clearly still trying to find his way when he wrote this, his first novel.

August 24, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)