Friday First Lines (volume 1)

One thing we like to do in my book club is to take an annual quiz at our year-end party.  I list the first and last sentence of each book we’ve read over the year, mix them up and see who is able to match them with the correct books.  (Oh, I know what you’re thinking – “Whoa! They are so crazy!”  I know, I know, we really know how to party!)  ANYway, for some this challenge is simple, but for others, not so much.  Either way, it’s fun looking back over the list and sharing our thoughts on why authors chose to open (and conclude) their books the way they did.

I asked a few authors to comment on the first sentence of their book, and I got such a great response.   So good, in fact, that I’m turning this into a little series here at Books on the Brain called Friday First Lines.  Each Friday I’ll share First Line thoughts by two or three authors.

Will these first sentences be enough to entice you to add them to your TBR list? They were for me!

DownloadedFileAuthor Kevin Lynn Helmick writes:

And then there was the heat.  Driving Alone, Kevin Lynn Helmick, 2012

It’s been over a year now since I wrote that line so I’ll do my best to remember how it got there. I’m pretty sure I added it sooner rather than later, but once I did I really didn’t have any doubts about it. It just worked, for me anyway. It could have even worked as a title or last line. It’s simple, yet suggestive enough to be complex, and I’m a big fan of sentences like that. I don’t think I changed it at all once it was down. I think it just came up without too much thought,  but looking at it now, And there was, is probably from the Bible, not that I’m all into the Bible, but It looks Biblical to me now, in foreboding sort of way.

First lines, are they important? I suppose if you come to the page with any kind of idea that what you’re doing is important, then that’s a good place to start, followed by the second line, and third, and so on.  I can only speak for myself, and I see the first line as an invitation, a promise, it’s me saying, ‘come with me, I wanna tell ya something. It’s fun in here, interesting at least, and worth your time. I Promise.”

I think your first line should raise an eyebrow. It should be memorable, but not flashy or show-offy. I usually spend quite a bit of time writing and re-writing that opening, first act, scene one, and I probably did on this book too, but not the first line. That was set in stone, and everything else kind of hung from it. I’ve written worse sentences, I’m sure, and I don’t have any writer’s remorse over that one.

DownloadedFileAuthor Erika Marks writes:

The first sentence of my novel, THE MERMAID COLLECTOR (NAL/Penguin), is as follows:

The little girl was breathless with excitement as she pushed through the fence of hedges toward the water’s edge, skinny freckled legs and lopsided red pigtails spinning in opposition as they disappeared into the fog
.

First sentences are such tricky things! I know as a reader, I always “taste” a novel by reading that first sentence or that first paragraph, so there’s no question to me that it has to draw a reader in. That said, I will often change my first sentence all the way up until the final draft (or maybe even later), simply because it may take me writing (and rewriting) the whole novel to really know what I want that first “taste” to be, what flavor I want that first sentence to have. In the case of THE MERMAID COLLECTOR, which centers around a town celebrating its annual Mermaid Festival and the relationships that blossom because of it, I wanted to establish the setting right away, to let the reader know that they too were about to be swept up in the excitement and magic and romance of the impending festival, just like the little red-haired girl.

Next week we’ll hear from authors Jennie Shortridge (Love Water Memory) and Cari Kamm (For Internal Use Only).

#bookclubproblems

1.  Not enough wine.  #wine #nowine #fail #pleasebringmorewine

2. When the conversation gets hijacked by the “smart one.” #boring #knowitall #shutup #idgafaboutyourmastersdegree

3. When there are too many side conversations going on.  #rude #annoying #RUDE #putasockinit

4.  When someone treats book club like a therapy session.  #whiner #personalproblems #stopit #canwepleasetalkaboutthebook  #passthetissues

5.  When someone RSVPs to bring a dessert then doesn’t show up for the meeting.  #flake #wheresmychocolate

6.  When someone doesn’t want you to ruin the ending for them because they haven’t finished the book.  #ohwell #sucksforyou #nexttimereadit

7.  When someone stays later than everyone else every month.  #goodnite #imtired #gohome

Please feel free to add your own hashtags in the comments!

6 Years of Book Club

Six years.  11 regular members (although we’ve had as many as 13).  70 different books (we skipped two months).  Math is not my strong suit but even I can see that 11 x 70=770 individual books.  Some were borrowed from the library, but the vast majority were purchased in paperback, on Kindles, on Nooks, and on iPads.   That’s a whole lot of purchasing!

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We talk and talk and talk about the books we read.  We dissect them.  We dog-ear them and mark them up.  Some of us go crazy with highlighters, others prefer post-it notes.

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We share recommendations with each other.  We pass books around from member to member and have side conversations about those books.  Gone Girl is currently making the rounds, and before that it was The Help and before that, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Most of us have read those books now even though they were never actually selected for book club discussion.

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When one of us falls in love with an author, we fall hard.  We’ll read their next book and we’ll read all their previous books.  We’ve discussed Lisa See’s books 3 times.

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We tell our friends about the books we’ve discussed.  We blab about them at hair salons, grocery stores, offices, our kids’ schools.  We talk books at parties and backyard BBQs and family dinners.  We encourage people to read the books we love when we’re in a bookstore or staring at the stacks of books in Costco.  We gush about them on Facebook.

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browniesI understand now why publishers court book clubs.  Book club members love books, book clubs buy books and book clubs sell books.  If any publishers would like to court us and donate a set of 11 books to help us celebrate our 6th anniversary in March, we would gladly accept, wink wink 😉  You would not have to twist our arms.

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Six years.  770 books for our little club, plus countless more that were purchased by others on the pure enthusiasm of our 11 members.  Book clubs really are a powerful force!  And we also like to eat.  Pass the brownies.

CLICK HERE to see which 70 titles we’ve read in our first 6 years!

Sunday Salon, November 6, 2010

What?  Activity on my blog??  Shocking, I know.

Also shocking- my oldest became a teenager this week.  I am the mother of a teenager. This is.. unsettling.  Moreso because she was doing teenager-ish things all weekend.  On Friday night her junior high band played with the high school band at the high school’s football game.  She tried to leave the house wearing eyeliner- I made her take some of it off (the black line under her eyes) because I just can’t stand her looking older than she is.  Naturally she got mad, talked back, stomped around and ranted about how “everyone wears it,” but then finally took it off.  Her “friend who is a boy” (NOT a boyfriend!!) wanted to go to the game, too, but didn’t have a ride, so she begged me to pick him up and I finally agreed.  (My husband said, ‘What the heck is this, a date?”)  On Saturday night she went out to a movie (PG-13, of course!) with a group of kids (all teenagers) and stayed out past 11 pm.  Today she’ll be competing in a swim meet.  Right now she is sleeping until the last possible minute- typical teenage behavior and NOT typical of her as she has been an early riser since birth.

My head is swimming with the fact of my kids growing up so quickly.  I swear they were just babies, recently, but by December 2011 I will be the mother of TWO teenagers, yikes.  It feels like they got old overnight.  I know there are many parenting joys still ahead, but I am mourning the end of their childhoods.  I’m sure there is a silver lining someplace (more reading time for me as my kids need me less??) but it is certainly bittersweet.

Speaking of reading.. I’ve been doing some here and there in between running the newly minted teenager and her ‘tween sister to all their various social engagements and activities.  I finished ROOM by Emma Donoghue this week; I loved it and immediately passed it on to my mother.  It would make such a great book for discussion with my book club but alas, we only read paperbacks, cheapskates that we are, so that will have to wait a year or so.  But at least if my mother reads it we can talk about it right away.  It’s one of those books that begs to be discussed.  I also finished Dear Mrs. Kennedy for my TLC Book Tour stop tomorrow and  Dracula, My Love by Syrie James for our book club discussion next week, and started reading our December selection, People of the Book by Geraldine March.  The teenager is reading The Miles Between by Mary Pearson and my ‘tween is reading Eragon by Christopher Paolini.

I hope you all enjoyed your extra hour of sleep last night.. have a wonderful, relaxing Sunday and a great week!

Review: Clapton, The Autobiography by Eric Clapton

My book club voted in something different this month, an autobiography written by Eric Clapton, the quintessential rockstar and guitar hero.  As I counted up the votes, I inwardly groaned when I saw the results.  Apart from “Cocaine” and “Tears in Heaven,” and the death of his young son, Conor, I knew very little about Eric Clapton, and wasn’t too sure I cared to know any more than I already did.

So even though I didn’t care, I was trying to have an open mind.  But it was with some trepidation that I started this book (purchased on the Nook, Mr. FTC nosey pants).  I purposely did not read any reviews ahead of time so that I could just take it all in.

But, I’m sorry.  Mr. Clapton should stick to music as his writing skills are severely lacking.  This book reads like a diary, i.e. Today we went to the store and bought a guitar.  Today George Harrison and I jammed.  Today I did some heroin.  Today I tried to get Patti to leave George.  Today my kid fell out the window.  Today I got drunk and smashed my Ferrari into a laundry van, but I was ok (no word on the fate of the other guy, however).

Clapton made some amazing music and knew tons of interesting people (hellooooo- Mick Jagger!  Bob Dylan!), yet the telling of it all sounds incredibly boring. Maybe he was just too wasted to remember many details but the stories are all oddly flat and dull. Even the re-telling of young Conor’s tragic death in a fall from the 53rd story of a New York City skyscraper is devoid of emotion.  Maybe because he was barely a parent to the boy he wasn’t sure how to feel or what to say, but he wrote more passionately about a new guitar, an obscure blues musician, or a smokin’ hot groupie than about losing Conor.

Clapton was a spoiled baby and a total narcissist who wanted what he wanted until he got it; then he didn’t want it anymore- success, women, friends, cars, homes, even his high-profile bands.  His lack of emotion and regard for other humans was sickening to read.  He had a hand in destroying numerous lives and relationships, but, ya know, he feels pretty good about it all now that he’s sober and mature.  Ugh.

Maybe for book club I’ll whip up some hashish brownies or some magic mushrooms and put on Slowhand because I have no idea what we’ll talk about.  I can’t relate with any wasted rock and roll stories of my own.

I can’t remember the last time I hated a book this much.  If you’re a diehard Clapton fan, maybe you’ll be into this.  If not, save your money.

DEAD END GENE POOL Discussion with author Wendy Burden!

Hello, readers!

Tonight we are privileged to welcome Wendy Burden, author of DEAD END GENE POOL, to our Spring Reading Series discussion.  She will be here “live” participating in our discussion and answering questions for one hour beginning at 5 pm PST (8 pm EST) in the comments section of this post.

The conversation got going in this post, where I posed some discussion questions for everyone and asked for questions for Wendy.

I’ve been gathering your questions for Wendy and of course would welcome more.  Here’s what we have so far:

Here’s a comment from Lisa at Lit and Life, followed by a question from me:

One thing I found really interesting was how Wendy’s grandmother just threw money away in some ways (like buying prescription eyeglasses and then just tucking them away in a drawer) but was so tight with money in other ways (like stiffing the cabbies).    Any idea why she was that way?

From Nancy at Bookfoolery and Babble:

I’m curious who is on the cover of the book. Wendy’s mother or grandmother?

From Gaby at Starting Fresh:

Wendy comes across as so witty, intelligent, and spirited in the book.  Is she willing to tell us more about her life after the book ended?  We know that she’s owned and been a chef at Chez Wendy, but who did she marry?  Why did she decide to live in Oregon?  How is she raising her children?  How does she fill her days (aside from writing and touring)?

So many of us dream of money to become financially independent, have the mortgages paid off, take any job that we want, etc.  How has she chosen to shape her life and what makes her happy?  What would a perfect day for her be like?

Who does she like to read?  What is she reading now?

From Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza:

Is your irreverant, and often hilarious sense of humour, a way of covering up any pain you experienced in your unconventional upbringing?

From reader Vance Lancaster:

1. How much wealth was left when your grandparents died and how was it distributed? Did the fact that your brother was a co-executor of the estate affect the distribution or cause any problems?

2. What happened to each of the homes owned by your grandparents? Are they still standing? If so, do you know who owns them now and have you ever re-visited them?

3. I assume that most of your grandparent’s art collection went to MOMA. Was any great art left to you or your brothers or to your uncle? If so can you tell us who got what?

4. What is your most cherished item left to you by your grandparents? Is there anything that you coveted that went to someone else?

5. I understand that one of your uncles is alive and living in CT. Are you in contact with him? Can you describe his life today? Do you know if he has read the book and, if so, what was his reaction?

She'll be here for our discussion-ask her anything!

6. At the end of the book, you discover that Charles Thomas, your mom’s lover, contrary to what your mother told you is still alive. Have you made any attempt to contact him or has he reached out to you since the book was published? Have others that knew your mother or grandparents reacted strongly to the book?

7. Are your mother’s ex-husbands alive and are you in contact with them?

8. I understand that you have two daughters. Are their lives, in any way, similar to yours with your siblings. Do you recognize any of the traits of your relatives in them?

Edited to add:

From Ash at English Major Junkfood:

Did you write these as individual essays and then pull them together for a book, or did you know when you were writing that you wanted this to be a cohesive memoir?

Come by tonight at 5 pm PST (8 pm EST) to say hi to Wendy and see how she answers our questions!  Hope to see you then!

Spring Reading Series: DEAD END GENE POOL Discussion Questions

Hello Spring Readers!

This month we’re reading Dead End Gene Pool, a memoir by Wendy Burden, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt which, according to her website, ‘qualifies her to comment freely on the downward spiral of the blue blood families.’ For anyone interested in the super-rich, this is a fascinating and witty account of growing up surrounded by tremendous wealth, but it’s also a tragic tale of family dysfunction and parental neglect.

We are so fortunate to have Wendy joining us in real time, right here at Books on the Brain, on May 18th at 5 pm PST. If you’ve read Dead End Gene Pool or are curious about it, please mark your calendars and join us as we discuss the book with Wendy!

Here is a synopsis of the book, followed by a few discussion questions:

For generations the Burdens were one of the wealthiest families in New York, thanks to the inherited fortune of Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt. By 1955, the year of Wendy’s birth, the Burden’s had become a clan of overfunded, quirky and brainy, steadfastly chauvinistic, and ultimately doomed bluebloods on the verge of financial and moral decline-and were rarely seen not holding a drink. In Dead End Gene Pool, Wendy invites readers to meet her tragically flawed family, including an uncle with a fondness for Hitler, a grandfather who believes you can never have enough household staff, and a remarkably flatulent grandmother.

At the heart of the story is Wendy’s glamorous and aloof mother who, after her husband’s suicide, travels the world in search of the perfect sea and ski tan, leaving her three children in the care of a chain- smoking Scottish nanny, Fifth Avenue grandparents, and an assorted cast of long-suffering household servants (who Wendy and her brothers love to terrorize). Rife with humor, heartbreak, family intrigue, and booze, Dead End Gene Pool offers a glimpse into the fascinating world of old money and gives truth to an old maxim: The rich are different.

SO READERS- let’s get the discussion started! These are just a few questions to get you thinking- you don’t have to answer them all. Please feel free to add your own questions, and respond to each others answers, too.

1. What was your overall view of the book? Was it what you expected?

2. Were there parts of this book that were difficult to read?

3. What aspect of the book did you enjoy most?

4. In the synopsis it says that Dead End Gene Pool gives truth to an old maxim: The rich are different. The rich ARE different, but in what ways are they different? How are they the same?

5. Wendy’s grandparents placed a higher importance on her brother’s education than on hers. Have you experienced that type of inequity in your own family? If so, was the sibling relationship damaged as a result?

6. Do you think Wendy’s mother was essentially ‘bought off’ by the grandparents, bullied into making her children available to them for long stretches of time, over holidays, etc? Or was she just a really neglectful parent?

7. Who do you think was the most influential adult in Wendy’s childhood? In what way?

She'll be here for our discussion-ask her anything!

8. Wendy almost seemed to raise herself. How did she cope?

9. Often you hear about people who have come into money either through inheritance or the lottery, and blow through it really quickly. They sometimes find the money doesn’t make them any happier. Why do you think unearned money can be so difficult for people to manage?

10. What adjectives would you use to describe this book?

We can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Dead End Gene Pool. Thanks for reading along with us. And don’t forget to join us on May 18th for our discussion with Wendy!

Do you have questions for Wendy? Leave them here in the comments or email me with them and I will pass them along, for her to consider before our discussion.

Review: Impatient With Desire by Gabrielle Burton

Westward, ho!

Many know the story:  The Donner Party was a group of doomed pioneers who left in a wagon train from Springfield, Illinois in 1846 for the promise of great adventure and a better life in California.  Due to a series of mishaps, poor choices, an ill-advised shortcut, early winter weather, and time-wasting travails, the trip took much longer than planned.  The group became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for several months with few supplies and little food.  They are infamous for the way they attempted to survive, by eating the flesh of those who had died before them.

Impatient with Desire by Gabrielle Burton is told through the imagined letters and fictional journal entries of Tamsen Donner, 45 year old wife of George Donner, the party leader.  The book was a bit tricky to follow at first, because it’s not chronological, so it would shift from the present horror of starvation and death to happier times in their past, including Tamsen and George’s courtship, their decision to go on the journey and how it was made, memories from Tamsen’s childhood and first marriage, etc., then back to the freezing, starving, mind numbing realities of the Sierra Nevadas.  It didn’t take long, though, before I got into the flow of the narrative, and I was riveted.

Tamsen tries to distract her children from their hunger and harsh surroundings by describing the apple trees and cherry orchards from home, the lovely warm breezes of a Springfield summer.  When one of the children asks, “Why did we leave?”  their mother, sadly, has no adequate answer.  It’s something she thinks about constantly.

It is well known that the real Tamsen Donner kept a journal, but it unfortunately was destroyed.  One can only guess at what might have been written there, but certainly she would have recorded births, deaths, and details of the trip.  One might also expect to find dreams of the American West (the last frontier), fear of the unknown, feelings of regret and blame at the horrific turn of events, and hope for the future of their children.  That is all here in this fictional account.

I knew of the Donner Party because of the cannibalism but wondered how things could ever have gotten to that point.  By the time I discovered the answer to that question, it seemed like the only feasible option a mother could make- survival.  Tamsen Donner comes across as courageous, loving, strong, and full of wanderlust.  This book is a fascinating account of how things might have been and truly captures the pioneer spirit.

Highly recommended.

Many thanks to the author for sending Impatient with Desire for me to review.  It was lovely, and I will pass it along to my mother, who also enjoys historical fiction.  I think it would also make a great book club selection.

Dead End Gene Pool-Readers!

Wow!

We had a great response for the Dead End Gene Pool Spring Reading Series!

All 20 copies were claimed quickly, and the following readers will be receiving their copies of the book very soon (maybe you’ve already received them??).

1.  Me!

2.  Kathy from Boarding in My Forties

3.  Nancy from Bookfoolery and Babble

4.  Ash from English Major Junkfood

5.  Susan from Suko’s Notebook

6.  Kristi from Peetswea

7.  A. Rock-Contreras

8.  S. Walling

9.  D. Johnson

10.  Kathy from Bermuda Onion

11.  Heather from Raging Bibliomania

12.  Jennifer from Mrs. Q: Book Addict

13.  R. Newberg

14.  J. Shoppell

15.  Bellezza from Dolce Bellezza

16.  Care from Care’s Online Book Club

17.  Lisa from Lit and Life

18.  P. Berger

19.  R. Berven

20.  V. Lancaster

What a great group!  Can’t wait to discuss it with all of you on May 18th!  I’ll let everyone know the exact details for the discussion with the author as it gets closer.

And I’m so sorry if you were interested in reading with us and missed out this time.  The book was published on April 1st, so it can be found in stores and requested from libraries.   If you can get your hands on a copy, please join us!

Spring Reading Series Announcement! Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

Today I’m announcing our May Reading Series selection… drumroll please…

DEAD END GENE POOL by Wendy Burden!

It’s dark.  It’s funny.  And it’s all true!  Here’s a synopsis:

In the tradition of Sean Wilsey’s Oh The Glory of It All and Augusten Burrough’s Running With Scissors, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt gives readers a grand tour of the world of wealth and WASPish peculiarity, in her irreverent and darkly humorous memoir.

For generations the Burdens were one of the wealthiest families in New York, thanks to the inherited fortune of Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt. By 1955, the year of Wendy’s birth, the Burden’s had become a clan of overfunded, quirky and brainy, steadfastly chauvinistic, and ultimately doomed bluebloods on the verge of financial and moral decline-and were rarely seen not holding a drink. In Dead End Gene Pool, Wendy invites readers to meet her tragically flawed family, including an uncle with a fondness for Hitler, a grandfather who believes you can never have enough household staff, and a remarkably flatulent grandmother.

At the heart of the story is Wendy’s glamorous and aloof mother who, after her husband’s suicide, travels the world in search of the perfect sea and ski tan, leaving her three children in the care of a chain- smoking Scottish nanny, Fifth Avenue grandparents, and an assorted cast of long-suffering household servants (who Wendy and her brothers love to terrorize). Rife with humor, heartbreak, family intrigue, and booze, Dead End Gene Pool offers a glimpse into the fascinating world of old money and gives truth to an old maxim: The rich are different.

And you thought YOUR family was weird!!

She'll be here for our discussion-ask her anything!

Ok, so here’s the deal.  I have 20 COPIES  of DEAD END GENE POOL available for our reading series, compliments of  Gotham Books, a division of Penguin Group!  We’ll get the books out to everyone who’s interested in participating. Then we’ll discuss it here, and Wendy will join in!  Think of it as a book club of sorts, except without the wine.  Well, you can have wine in front of your computer if you like.  Who’s gonna stop you?

E-mail me with your address (even if you think I have it!) to request a free copy of the book- first come, first served.  Put “DEAD END GENE POOL” in the subject line, but please only request the book if you are interested in coming back for the  discussion.  Be sure it sounds like a book you’d enjoy.  And I’m really sorry to our friends in other countries, but this is open to residents of US/Canada only.

Click here to read a full description of the book. Dead End Gene Pool will be in stores on April 1st, 2010, and the discussion will take place here on May 18th – with the author participating ‘live’ for an hour!  I will post details for the discussion about a week before along with an email reminder to those who’ve won the book.

I hope you’ll join us!


A little Reading Series history:

Why do we blog?  Why do we read blogs?  For me it’s because I love to read, and I love discussing the books I read with others.

So out of that “desire to discuss” was born the Reading Series idea.  Another blogger and I really liked the idea of a virtual book club.  20 of us would read the same book and come back to talk about it, with the author in attendance!  This was such a huge hit with the Summer Reading Series (Beach Trip, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and Two Years, No Rain) that we did a  Winter Reading Series (for the book Keeping the Feast).  Now it’s a ‘thing that we do’ with TLC Book Tours.

My TLC partner Trish from Hey, Lady! is having a Spring Reading Series discussion for The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott coming up in April.  Those books have already been claimed (and apparently, really quickly.  She claims she almost had her fingers bitten off by rabid book fans!)  SO, please be fast if you want to participate in this one.. and please don’t bare your teeth.. I like my fingers right where they are..

UPDATE: 3/23 at 2:30 pm PST-  I still have 7 books left, and all my fingers 🙂