Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Beginnings and Endings

This week The Broke And The Bookish invites us to share our top ten favorite book beginnings or endings.  Since I often decide whether to read a book based on its opening, I'll share some of my favorite beginnings.  Some are obvious, others less so.  How many can you identify?  (Answers at the end).

1.  All this happened, more or less.  The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.  One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his.  Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war.  And so on.  I've changed all the names.  I really did go back to Dresden with Guggenheim money (God love it) in 1967.  It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has.  There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground.

2.  Call me Ishmael.  Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.  It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.  Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth;  whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;  whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet;  and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hat off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

3.  August, 1931--The port town of Veracruz is a little purgatory between land and sea for the traveler, but the people who live there are very fond of themselves and the town they have helped to make.  They live as initiates in local custom reflecting their own history and temperament, and they carry on their lives of alternate violence and lethargy with a pleasurable contempt for outside opinion, founded on the charmed notion that their ways and feelings are above and beyond criticism.

4.  I marmeladed a slice of toast with something of a flourish, and I don't suppose I have ever come much closer to saying "Tra-la-la" as I did the lathering, for I was feeling in mid-season form this morning.  God, as I once heard Jeeves put it, was in His heaven and all was right with the world.  (He added, I remember, some guff about larks and snails, but that is a side issue and need not detain us.)

5.  Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block?  Of course I can explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block.  I'm not a bloody idiot.  I can explain it because it wasn't inexplicable.  It was a logical decision, the product of proper thought.  It wasn't even very serious thought, either.  I don't mean it was whimsical--I just mean that it wasn't terribly complicated, or agonized.  

6.  While my memory is fresh I am going to describe exactly what I saw and heard on the occasion, less than a week past, when I encountered a man who was walking about just like you and me--despite the inconvenience of having been brutally done to death.  

7.  "Ah, you ladies!  Always on the spot when there's something happening!"  The voice belonged to Mr. Mallet, one of our churchwardens, and its roguish tone made me start guiltily, almost as if I had no right to be discovered outside my own front door.  

"New people moving in?  The presence of the furniture van would seem to suggest it,"  he went on pompously.  "I expect you know about it."

"Well, yes, one usually does,"  I said, feeling rather annoyed at his presumption.  "It is rather difficult not to know such things."  

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved  or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

8.  It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it.  I won't pretend I saw it straight away as the conventional herald of adventure, the white stag of the fairy tale, which, bounding from the enchanted thicket, entices the prince away from his followers, and loses him in the forest where danger threatens with the dusk.  But, when the big white bird flew suddenly up among the glossy leaves and the lemon flowers, and wheeled into the mountains, I followed it.  What else is there to do, when such a thing happens on a brilliant April noonday at the foot of the white mountains of Crete;  when the road is hot and dusty, but the gorge is green, and full of the sound of water, and the white wings, flying ahead, flicker in and out of deep shadow, and the air is full of the scent of lemon blossom?

9.  My father asked me to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club.  I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mah jong table has been empty since she died two months ago.  My father thinks she was killed by her own thoughts.

"She had a new idea inside her head,"  said my father.  "But before it could come out of her mouth, the thought grew too big and burst.  It must have been a very bad idea."  

The doctor said she died of a cerebral aneurysm.  And her friends at the Joy Luck Club said she died just like a rabbit:  quickly and with unfinished business left behind.

1.  Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.  2.  Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  3.  Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter.  4.  Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse.  5.  It's A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby.  6.  The Unburied by Charles Palliser.  7.  Excellent Women by Barbara Pym.  8.  The Moon-Spinners by Mary Stewart.  9.  The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Well, I'm not as young as I used to be, and a month of traveling, while tremendously fun, really wore me out.  We've been back for two weeks now and I'm pretty much recovered.  My reading has slowed lately, not only because of jet lag, but for a couple of other reasons.  One is that I'm doing a lot more language study these days.  I'm still reading and working on improving my German, but I've also started studying Dutch--while in Amsterdam last month I discovered how similar it is to German and picked up a textbook and a dictionary, and am working through the text.  I'd love to be able to start reading in Dutch, too.  Where I live, there is virtually no chance to attain spoken fluency in either of those languages, but to be able to read them gives me a lot of pleasure.  The other language I'm studying is Arabic (reading and pronouncing only at this point), something I've neglected during the years my children were small.  Which leads to my other reason for less reading time--Ramadan has begun, and during this month we emphasize prayer and fasting over other pursuits.  I've certainly not stopped reading, though, and will be posting as I finish stuff.  It's good to be back!

Here's a poem I like, from a book I picked up while traveling.


by Georg Takl (1887-1914)
Trans. Michael Hofmann

Laden with berries the elderbush;  placid the childhood
lived out in its blue hollow.  The quiet branches are brooding
over the bygone path where lank, brownish grass
whips in the wind;  a rustling of leaves

like blue water tumbling over rocks.
The blackbird's soft plaint.  Speechless,
a shepherd follows the sun as it rolls from the autumnal hill. 

A blue moment is nothing but soul.
A timid deer peeps out from the forest's edge, while ancient bells
and sunless hamlets merge tranquilly with the valley floor.

More pious now, you know the meaning of the dark years,
chill and autumn in lonely rooms;
and in sanctified blue, luminous footfalls echo away.

The soft rattle of an open casement;  the sight of
a neglected graveyard on the hillside brings tears to the eyes.
Memories of once-told legends;  but the soul will sometimes lighten
when it recalls joyful people, burnt golden days of spring.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Girl With the Golden Eyes

(My last post on vacation--home tomorrow!)  This collection of three stories by Honore de Balzac didn't grab me as I expected it would.  Each ends with rather a shocking twist, which I normally like, and each has the sort of gothic mood that I also enjoy.  I think it was the overblown-ness of the characterizations that bored and irritated me:  dozens of pages devoted to why a girl is the most perfect specimen of womanhood ever created, or why an opera singer's skill was the most sublime in human history, or the like.  I'm probably not being objective here, and it surely has more than a little to do with the fact that I'm a bit worn out from traveling and ready to go home.  If anyone wants to tell me what I'm not appreciating, feel free!