First Sentences

“In a first-class stateroom on a cruise ship bound for New York from Alexandria, Egypt, a frail, middle-aged writer and educator named Sayyid Qutb experienced a crisis of faith.” Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

“Miss Minerva Winterslip was a Bostonian in good standing, and long past the romantic stage.” Earl Derr Biggers, The House Without a Key.

“Moscow. Autumn. Cold.” Teffi, Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea.

“Gwenda was eight years old, but she was not afraid of the dark.” Ken Follett, World Without End.

“At the start of the twentieth century, language in America—it had not yet become the ‘American language’—still showed the influence of its largely prescriptive Victorian past.” William and Mary Morris, Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage.

“The decision to bomb the office of the radical Jew lawyer was reached with relative ease.” John Grisham, The Chamber.

“In the late spring of 1875, the ancient seaport town of St. Augustine, Florida, witnessed the beginnings of an educational campaign that would have an impact on every Indian nation in the United States.” Jacqueline Fear-Segal, White Man’s Club: Schools, Race, and the Struggle of Indian Acculturation.

“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.” John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps

“The game, like the country in which it was invented, was a rough, bastardized thing that jumped out of the mud.”Sally Jenkins, The Real All Americans: The Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation.

“In a dream at daybreak, on 18 April 1948, Calogero Schiro saw Stalin.” Leonardo Sciascia, The Death of Stalin.

“Faced with working-class life in towns such as Winchester, I see only one solution: beer.” Joe Baegeant, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War.

“—Something a little strange, that’s what you notice, that she’s not a woman like all the others.” Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman.

“Vic Smith, a hunter, lifted his head above a rise on the plains floor, peering down at seven hundred buffalo in the valley of the Redwater River.” Michael Punke, Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West.

“I’m a priest, for Christ’s sake—how can this be happening to me?” John Banville, Snow.

First Sentences

“In a broad valley, at the foot of a sloping hillside, beside a clear bubbling stream, Tom was building a house.” Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth.

“Sir or Lady (as I shall call him) sits on the promontory in our village, deep in movie love.” Hilton Als, White Girls.

“It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more years as the dean of the faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.” Philip Roth, The Human Stain.

“The crowd began to cluster at the corner of Hoffman and Bolton, near the entrance to the Armory, in the late afternoon—a quiet, orderly crowd, more women than men.” Jeff Shesol, Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court.

“The open door was only yards away, and beyond it lay the outside world, eerily unaffected by anything happening inside the abandoned snooker hall.” Ian Rankin, Doors Open.

“The scientists of the Simulmatics Corporation spent the summer of 1961 on a beach on Long Island beneath a geodesic dome that looked as if it had landed there, amid the dunes, a spaceship gone to ground.” Jill Lepore, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.

“He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor that swung from the rafters.” Virginia Woolf, Orlando.

“The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree.” Robert Macfarlane, Underworld: A Deep Time Journey

You now have one choice.” Scarlett Thomas, The End of Mr. Y.

“Subrata Roy was reclining on a sofa in a pink shirt, orange pocket square, and plaid blazer, his outfit contrasting sharply with the spare, all-white living room.” Julie Satow, The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel.

“The discourse which follows may appear to the reader as mere fancy or as a dream, penned on waking, in those fevered moments when one is still mesmerized by those conjuring tricks that are produced in the mind once the eyes are closed.” Thomas E. Lumas, The End of Mr. Y.

“Laura Glass was thirteen years old and entering the eighth grade at Jefferson Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when she looked over her father’s shoulder to see what he was working on.” Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.

First Sentences

“Pa used to say that any piece of history might be made into a tale: it was only a question of deciding where the tale began, and where it ended.” Sarah Waters, Affinity.

“If you visit the lovely Alpine town of Bolsano you will often see long queues outside the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.” Margaret MacMillan, War: How Conflict Shaped Us.

“The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort.” Britt Bennett, The Vanishing Half.

“On the morning of Good Friday, April 15, 1927, Seguine Allen, the chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board in Greenville, Mississippi woke up to the sound of running water.” John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America.

“Behold the man.” Ian McGuire, The North Sea.

“Once you start to see them, you’ll never understand how you hadn’t noticed them before.” Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt, The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design.

“The small boys came early to the hanging.” Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth.

“Once on a Wednesday excursion when I was a little girl, my father bought me a beaded wire ball that I loved.” Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.

“Virginia court records for September 18, 1800, mention a certain Mr. Moseley Sheppard who came quietly to the witness stand in Richmond and produced testimony that caused half the States to shudder.” Arna Bontemps, Black Thunder.

“No one had any doubt that the bombers would come.” Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.

“A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.” Margaret O’Farrell, Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague.

“When I think about my time in the Senate, I see a broken man.” Adam Jentleson, Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy.

“My town sat on top of a small hill by the side of a river whose banks held only sand.” Phil Klay, Missionaries.

¬Ruminations of a Somewhat Literate Person

          I read a lot. Always have. This has been largely a solitary activity. Outside of an educational setting, I have seldom discussed books with anyone other than the spouse or a friend who shared similar knowledge and interests. Recently, however, I have participated in several book groups. I don’t always find the discussions thought-provoking. Only occasionally has the discussion given me a new or deeper insight into the book.

          Part of the reason for this is that often one book reminds me of another. My thoughts are diverted by that juxtaposition, and I would like to explore it. But, of course, in a book group neither can I expect that others will have read what I have nor can I assume that they would be interested in the comparisons. (Often the spouse and I have read the same book, and we do discuss how one book affects our appreciation of another.) And consequently, from my standpoint, the book group discussion is often wanting.

          For example, recently as I was reading Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, I had thoughts about Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Margaret O’Farrell, which I had read only a few weeks before. The novels are quite different. Hamnet is about William Shakespeare’s family, and O’Farrell, with her many striking images, creates a believable sixteenth century England. Gyasi’s novel is set in today’s world and gives us the portrait of a sort of woman who would not have existed in Shakespeare’s day. However, a plague—one ancient, one modern and continuing–is at the heart of each book, but neither author dives deeply into the nature of the plague. Instead, what the books share is a profound sense of grief. In each novel, that grief does not bring people together, as it might, but separates one person from another. Is that inevitable when a young person is lost? Transcendent Kingdom and O’Farrell’s novel are greatly different books, but each made me think about the nature of grief, whether it is shared more when the elderly die, and could it ever be transcended. Was that just my own quirkiness, or would I benefit by having the books discussed together?

          Hamnet, by the way, also had me thinking about another book. Shakespeare’s wife, who is not named Anne Hathaway in O’Farrell’s novel, has the touch of the magical or mystical about her and is closely identified with the woods. That character, who exudes a self-assured strength, reminded me of the wife/mother in a much different book, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Follett’s character, too, captures a magical and mystical element grounded in her strength drawn from a forest. The spouse would add Green Mansions to this list, since Rema in that novel has some of the same preternatural qualities bequeathed by living in the wild.

          When I read a novel, I naturally think about other books I have read by the same author. Thus, in reading Phil Klay’s Missionaries, I thought about Redeployment. As with too much of my reading, I did not recall the details about that earlier prize-winner, I remember only that I found it exceptional. So did others, since it won America’s foremost literary award, the National Book Award. Missionaries, while worthy, did not strike me as outstanding as Klay’s debut work. That was because while I was reading about the militias and the cartels of Colombia with their atrocities and bloody revenges, I thought about The Cartel by Don Winslow, a novel about the Mexican drug gangs and their atrocities and revenges, which I read a few years ago. Winslow’s book amazed me. It also revolted me, but it impelled me to keep turning the pages, so I concluded that it had to be good. When I read Missionaries, I felt that I had already read much of it in Winslow’s book. Winslow gets labeled as a mystery and crime writer, a label that generally prevents an author from being thrown in the literary camp, but I wondered, if the two books were read side by side, whether Missionaries would be considered “better,” “more artistic,” “more literary” than The Cartel.

          I just finished reading The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett, which has been on the top of the bestsellers list for quite a while. Even so, I don’t tend to categorize it as a “bestseller.” To my mind that category is given to a “brand name author,” that is, somebody who publishes frequently with the book almost always making the bestseller list. The author’s name is nearly as recognizable as a highly advertised soap or soda. The name-brand-author’s book is usually a mystery, thriller, romance, or more recently something with a fantasy element and is often referred to by the author’s name. For example, I am reading an Agatha Christie, a John Sandford, or a Lee Child. I am not denigrating these books. It takes a rare talent to write them, and I enjoy many of them.

          Bennett’s book, however, does not neatly fall into a genre and is more “literary” than many of these bestsellers. It brought to my mind Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, published a few years ago, another bestseller considered more literary than many and that does not fall into one of the usual genres. I have been trying to figure out why one book triggered thoughts of the other. It is perhaps because in both a community becomes a character in the book; the stories concern generations of a family; and family secrets drive the narrative. In addition, they are good and quick reads. Yet in reading each of them I felt if I was reading something that did more than just pass the time but was somehow worthwhile or deeper or more insightful than others on the Sunday bestseller lists. Would others think the two could be usefully discussed together?

(concluded March 1)