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).

Waiting by Ha Jin

200px-Waiting_a_Novel_Book_CoverTitle:  Waiting by Ha Jin

Publisher:  Pantheon, 1999

Pages:  308

Genre:  literary fiction

Setting: Communist China during the Cultural Revolution

Where did you get it? It was a Christmas gift when it first came out in hardcover.  It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1999.

Why did you read it? My book club chose it for our March discussion. I’ve had it on my shelves for years, and this was my second reading.

What’s it about?  Based on a true story the author heard from his wife on a visit to China, Waiting is about a doctor who waited 18 years to divorce his wife so that he could marry a co-worker at the army hospital where they both worked.

Following parental and societal expectations, Lin Kong enters into an arranged and loveless marriage with the traditional Shuyu, an older woman who was willing to care for his ailing mother.  Lin works in an army hospital in the city, where he forms a bond with a nurse named Manna.  They are forbidden to be together and their every move is watched and dictated by the army.

Each year on his annual visit to the countryside to visit his wife and daughter, he asks Shuyu for a divorce so that he might marry Manna, and each year something happens to prevent it.

This is a tragic story, not a love story.  Bound by custom and duty to both the loyal Shuyu and the more modern Manna, Lin feels trapped.  He is indecisive, emotionally immature, repressed and unfulfilled.  His guilty feelings over stringing Manna along and watching her become an “old maid” in the eyes of others had him trying to set her up with his cousin and promoting a relationship with a high ranking military official, both of which failed to materialize.   Manna resigns herself to waiting for Lin.  Finally, after 18 years, the law says he can divorce his wife without her consent, so he does.

Conforming to expectations like good Comrades and following the rules, Lin, Shuyu and Manna are all waiting for a love that never really comes, and while they’re waiting, their lives pass them by.

What did you like?  The story was interesting.  I noted some symbolism, which I generally like, even though some of it was a bit heavy handed.  The writing was spare and straightforward, even blunt.  I learned a lot about Chinese culture and the political climate of the time.

What didn’t work for you?  The author basically tells the entire story in the prologue.  I would have preferred to discover it in the reading of the book, rather than have it handed to me in the first few pages.  Some of the language is clunky in the way it might be if it was a translation, but it’s not.  In fact, the author’s first language is Chinese, not English, and while it is all technically correct, sometimes his word usage is odd.  The writing is quite restrained, which I suppose is reflective of the political climate, so perfectly appropriate.  The plot is somewhat repetitive.  And finally, Lin is such a passive character, I wanted to shake him.  I’m not sure why any one woman would wait for him, let alone two.

Share a quote or two:  

“You strive to have a good heart. But what is a heart? Just a chunk of flesh that a dog can eat.”

“Life is a journey, and you can’t carry everything with you. Only the usable baggage.”

Who would enjoy this book?  Anyone interested in Chinese culture and communism.

Who else has reviewed it?  I couldn’t find too many reviews, but Lu’s is excellent:

Regular Rumination

Anything else to add?  I liked this book a lot better the first time I read it, and I’m not sure why, but it was definitely a good choice for our book club, giving us a lot to talk about.  Click HERE for discussion questions from Book Browse.

My Antonia by Willa Cather

DownloadedFileTitle:  My Antonia by Willa Cather

Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin, 1918

Pages:  249

Genre:  American Classic Fiction

Setting: Early 20th century Nebraska

Where did you get it? Stolen from my 15 year old daughter’s bedroom

Why did you read it? It’s a classic I’d never read, and it was referenced in a book (I can’t remember which one, sorry!)

What’s it about?  It’s a coming of age story set against the backdrop of the brutal and beautiful Nebraska plains. The hardships of immigrant families is a major theme.  Jim Burden’s parents have died and he is being shipped off to his grandparents’ farm in Black Hawk, Nebraska.   He meets Antonia Schimerda on a wagon taking them to the train station.  The Schimerdas, recent immigrants from Bohemia, become their nearest neighbors.  Jim develops strong feelings for Antonia, and the book, narrated by Jim, follows Antonia throughout her life.

What did you like?  Everything.  The descriptions of the landscape and the frontier life were vivid and captivating.  I was swept up into the story from page 1.

What didn’t work for you?  If you need a fast moving plot, this book wouldn’t be for you.  It’s all about setting and characters.  It’s almost dream-like.  Teenagers might have a difficult time with the lack of action.

Share a quote or two: “Do you know, Àntonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of any one else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister- anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and my dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of time when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.” 

“The new country lay open before me: there were no fences in those days, and I could choose my own way over the grass uplands, trusting the pony to get me home again. Sometimes I followed the sunflower-bordered roads. Fuchs told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that country by the Mormons; that at the time of the persecution when they left Missouri and struck out into the wilderness to find a place where they could worship God in their own way, the members of the first exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seeds as they went. The next summer, when the long trains of wagons came through with all the women and children, they had a sunflower trail to follow. I believe that botanists do not confirm Jake’s story but, insist that the sunflower was native to those plains. Nevertheless, that legend has stuck in my mind, and sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom.” 

Who would enjoy this book?  Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder would probably love it.  Anyone with an affinity for beautiful prose or an interest in the pioneer days would enjoy My Antonia.

Who else has reviewed it?

Joyfully Retired

The Blue Bookcase

The Blog of Litwits

Anything else to add?  This is a book to treasure.  It’s so beautiful and evocative, and so American, like a grown up version of Little House on the Prairie.  I loved it!  Not to be missed.  But you’ll appreciate it more as an adult than as a teen.  If you have to read it for school and you hate it, hang onto it and read it again in 20 years.  Trust me on this.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

DownloadedFile-1I picked up The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin last month while trolling a bookstore with my 14 year old daughter and her friend.  They had babysitting money to burn and were there looking for a toy (a Dr. Who tardis sold at Barnes and Noble), which gave me 30 minutes or so to browse.  They found their tardis, and let me tell you, it made them EXTREMELY HAPPY to find it.  No happiness project needed for those two.

I don’t read a lot of non fiction and almost zero self help, so I’m not sure what attracted me to this particular book.  Maybe it’s the notion that anybody can be happier if they go about it the right way.  Trying to be happy, though, seems counterproductive.  Should you really have to try?  Is that like trying to be in love?  Shouldn’t it be something that just happens, something that just IS, when things are good and the planets align?

And is it kind of obnoxious and maybe even a little selfish for a person with a comfortable life to wish for more?  I live in the land of plenty, I have clean water, access to excellent health care, resources, education.  I have a nice house, nice husband, great kids.  While I’m truly grateful for all that, I often have the feeling (sometimes fleeting, other times for long periods) that I should be happier than I am.  I should not have this vague sense of discontent.

Can a person really be happier if they work at it?  (work=happy?  see what I mean? does that even make sense?)

So with all those conflicting thoughts, I opened up the book right there in the store and started reading.  Right away Rubin tells the reader that her Happiness Project would look different than theirs.  Happiness is individual, like a fingerprint or a snowflake.  But why would reading about someone else’s happiness help a person to be happier?   Well, I don’t have the answer to that, but it did.  It really did.

Basically, Rubin researched the heck out of her subject.  Her reading included The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama, Walden by Henry David Thoreau and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, among many others.  She looked at works by Plato, Tolstoy, even Oprah.  She read about the history of happiness, the science of happiness, novels about happiness, and memoirs of catastrophe (because it puts everything into perspective).  She spent months preparing for her project.  She asked herself if it was possible to make herself be happier, and decided it was.  She had to define happiness, then figure out how to make herself happier.

She set about identifying areas of her life to work on, then came up with happiness-boosting resolutions in each area.  She divided up the 12 months of the year into categories such as Energy, Parenthood, Work, Friends, Attitude, Play and created resolutions for each, making a chart.  It was all very systematic. She made Twelve Commandments which included “Be Gretchen” and “Do it now” and “Lighten Up.”  She came up with some Secrets of Adulthood to help guide her (my favorite- “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.”)  She hoped that working on her own happiness would boost the happiness of the people around her.

There were many great insights and nuggets of inspiration gained from reading this book, including small things like “Don’t Expect Praise or Appreciation” (I admit I want my family to notice that I cleaned the bathroom, did the laundry, made dinner, etc.  I want my gold stars!),  “Be a Treasure House of Happy Memories” (my takeaway- take more pictures, share them with family members), “Acknowledge the Reality of People’s Feelings” (I have a tendency to want to whisk away the negative, and downplay my daughters’ real emotions), “Cut People Slack” (recognize that the “jerk” who just cut ahead of you might have a very good reason for being in such a hurry), and many more.

More takeaways:

It is easy to be heavy, hard to be light.

The days are long, but the years are short.

Goals and resolutions are not the same thing.  You hit a goal, but you keep a resolution.  You work on them every day.  You strive to live up to resolutions.

This little book has inspired groups all over the world to take up a quest for more happiness.  Countless blogs have been launched as a direct result, with people chronicling their own happiness project.

Gretchen is a big proponent of social media and The Happiness Project blog is fantastic, with all kinds of great ideas and inspiration.  She’s also really active on Twitter and Facebook.

My own return to blogging was a direct result of this book.  While I won’t be blogging about my happiness project, blogging makes me happy and I’ve truly missed it.

Could you be happier?  What makes you happy?

Here we go…

DownloadedFile-5So I updated my About Page recently and whoosh, three books arrived in my mailbox last week.  I’m excited to start reviewing again and hope to share one review a week.  I’m not the fastest reader ever, and not the fastest reviewer either.  But hey, a goal of once a week is better than going a whole year without a new post, right?

The books that found me this past week include ARCs of Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight (Harper Collins), Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende (Harper Collins), and TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Random House).  All of them look fantastic, however I might pass TransAtlantic to my mom.  I didn’t request it and I have so much reading material that I fear it will languish on my shelves for years.  But I think my mom will love it, and I want it to be loved by someone rather than be neglected and collect dust, so off it will go.  If she loves it, I might give it a try.

I started Reconstructing Amelia last night and quickly breezed through the first 50 pages.  Already, teenage Amelia has jumped off the roof of her private school, or did she?  There’s a mystery and it’s just ramping up.  I’m nervous for the main character, Amelia’s mom, Kate.

Also last week, I purchased The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch on the Nook for my daughter, who needs to read it for her sophomore English class.  I haven’t read it myself but would like to at some point.  My 8th grade daughter borrowed Dead is the New Black by Marlene Perez from the library for her required RC reading.  It’s below her reading level, but her teacher doesn’t care what level they read at so long as they read 20 minutes a day.  She claims not to like reading, but I caught her giggling over this one.

I also used some credits to get a couple more audio books for my husband, the non-reader.  Based on recommendations from both Sandy and Kathy, I got 11/22/63 by Steven King and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.  Thanks for the recommendations, ladies!

What are you reading this week?


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!

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

DownloadedFile-4My husband, the non-reader, was given an iPod Touch for Christmas and has embraced audio books, hooray!  His first book on the iPod was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  I read Unbroken with my book club last fall, so I was excited to be able to discuss it with him and get his impressions of it.

For those who don’t know, Unbroken is an amazing true account of the life of Louis Zamparini, a man in his 90s who was, among other things, a scrappy kid from Torrance, CA,  a student at USC, an Olympic runner, a WWII bombardier, a plane crash survivor who spent more than 40 days floating in the Pacific Ocean on a tiny raft, a POW in Japan, an alcoholic, a born again Christian, and a motivational speaker.  He met Hitler during the 1936 Olympics and met Billy Graham after the war.  I liken him to Forrest Gump.

Let’s just say I enjoyed the book much more than my husband did.  I was so surprised!  I mean, it’s a war book and a survivor book, guys like that stuff, right?!  But he felt it was too long and that there were just way waaaaay too many details about everything.  Details about planes, about weather, about the ocean, about the sky, about maggots in the food, about starvation and bodily functions.  Details about running and training and school.  Most of his annoyance, though, had to do with the abuse Louis Zamparini endured in the Japanese POW camps.  He felt that, if it were accurate, nobody could possibly survive it and live to tell about it.  He wondered if perhaps it was exaggerated, and we talked about memory and how a man in his 90s could recall in such great detail what had happened to him decades before.  I admit I wondered if there was some exaggeration in the book, too, but by all accounts the author did flawless research.  And, the old dude is sharp, even now!!  We watched an interview with him on youtube and he’s got to be the most with-it *nonagenarian ever (*that’s an old dude in his 90s, in case you don’t know that word).

The old dude

The old dude

Anyway, I’m just giddy that I was able to have an actual book discussion with my actual husband.  Friends, this has NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!  Hopefully it’s the start of a trend.

Does anyone have any good recommendations for my husband’s next audio book?  He hates accents of any kind, so the narrator must speak American English.  No Brits.  Leave me a comment if you know of a good one.  I don’t listen to audio books so I’m not sure what’s good to listen to.  He likes history, action, adventure, and anything that would be motivational/positive thinking (you can perhaps see why I thought Unbroken would be perfect for him?!)  Thanks for any suggestions you can offer!

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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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: a handful of mini-reviews

Here’s a peek at what I’ve been reading lately:

We the Animals by Justin Torres – I loved this book up until the last 15-20 pages, and then I did not.  I was so certain I’d be recommending this book to everyone I know.  The first 125 pages or so (it’s only 144 pages total) are written in first person plural (“we”) and are touching and beautiful and heartbreaking.  I wanted it to go on and on.  It’s about 3 young brothers (the animals of the title) with a Puerto Rican father and white mother who scrabble through their childhoods doing the best they can in horribly dysfunctional circumstances in upstate New York.  Their fierce love and simultaneous disgust for their parents and each other is so human and so real.  Then, at the tail end, the youngest boy writes as an adult.  No more “we.”  It seems tacked on and out of place and self indulgent and just wrong.  I hated it.  But the rest of the book is genius.  This is a debut novel and I’ll definitely pick up whatever Justin Torres decides to write next.

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira – This was a book club selection and probably not something I’d ever pick up on my own.  Set during the Civil War, it’s about a midwife who really wants to be a surgeon in a time when that was unthinkable for a woman.  In a time when the best medicine could offer soldiers was some whiskey and an amputation.  When medics didn’t realize that washing your hands or cleaning your instruments between patients could stop the spread of disease, during a war being fought by untrained, patriotic young men with very little guidance.  This book was interesting but also cringe worthy.  There was a masturbation scene that I could have done without that seemed completely out of place- it nearly ruined the book for me.  And I didn’t love the main character.  I love me a strong heroine but she was really unlikeable and I never fully got a sense of what motivated her and made her who she was.  There was a love triangle that went nowhere and was much less interesting than the medical and historical details.  I was unable to attend my book club discussion for Mary Sutter so I’m not sure how others felt on this one.  For me it was historically interesting, but ultimately just ok.

Digging to America by Anne Tyler – Another book club pick.  Two couples meet in an airport where they are both waiting for their adopted infant daughters to arrive from Korea.  The couples (and their girls) could not be more different.  One couple, the Donaldson’s, are super white-bread American with hippie-ish tendencies.  They raise their Korean-born daughter with a Korean name and a strong sense of her cultural identity, and they celebrate their daughter’s arrival day year after year (even when the daughter herself is tired of it).  The other couple, the Yazdans, are themselves Iranian Americans.  They raise their Korean-born daughter to fit in, as American as apple pie.  The couples become friends and their differences highlight what each thinks it means to be American.  Great story by a great storyteller and much fodder for discussion!  I’d highly recommend this one for a book club.

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua – Want to watch as the members of your book club get defensive about their parenting styles and angry at the choices other people make for their children?  If so, make this book your next selection, but be warned- emotions will run high.  Without going into it here, I just want to say that I think Amy Chua is more right than wrong.  Left to their own devices, my kids would never do their homework or eat a vegetable, they’d never practice their french horn or write a thank you note and would quite possible forgo all dental hygiene.  And really, is it a bad thing to want your children to strive to be the best?  When did mediocre become acceptable?  Chua’s methods are questionable, absolutely, but I found so much humor and truth in this book.  It’s satire, people!!  She’s poking fun at herself!  She’s not the devil, I swear!!  Loved it- but I was definitely in the minority at book club.  Most of the members wanted to bash and demonize her.  I wanted to be just a little more like her.

Sunday Salon: my brief, intense relationship with My Name is Memory by Anna Brashares

It’s been a while since I completely gave myself and my entire day over to a book, but that’s what happened yesterday. My Name is Memory by Anna Brashares (of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” fame) winked at me in the bookstore so I picked her up and took her home.

We became fast friends in the early chapters, when Lucy, just a regular high school girl, notices Daniel, a mysterious newcomer. Daniel is not like the others, and before Lucy even has a conversation with him, she’s obsessed.  Chapters alternate between Lucy in the current day to Daniel, in the current day too but also going all the way back to his first life in 520 A.D.

Midway through the book we were BFFs, Memory and me, attached at the hip. Daniel, it turns out, is an old soul, centuries old, who remembers all his past lives. Lucy is an old soul too but doesn’t have the memory. Daniel has been chasing Lucy, who he calls Sophia, throughout time, and wants to find a way to convince her of the truth of that. She thinks he’s crazy at first but later she has a psychic reading that changes her mind. She also sees a hypnotist and then finds some physical evidence that makes it all seem possible.

I took a break for lunch and texted someone in my book club, telling them they had to check out my new favorite book, My Name is Memory. It had a Time Traveler’s Wife quality to it that I really liked; a little romance, a little adventure, with a splash of history.

Around page 300 we were in bed together, deeply and intimately involved and tuning out the rest of the world. Daniel and Lucy’s timelines were catching up to each other and beginning to merge and things were going along like a house on fire. I was beginning to get anxious because there wasn’t much book left. How in the heck was Brashares going to wrap this thing up? My reading deliberately slowed down as I desperately tried to savor it, make it last, but I could feel the whole relationship with Memory slipping away.

And finally, in the end.. WE BROKE UP and I threw that bitch across the room in disgust.

I have not been SO MAD at a book in a long, long time. How could Brashares build things up and then just STOP WRITING in a crucial part of the story? I felt so used, so mistreated, so unsatisfied. I don’t know if I can trust her ever again.

However, we may get back together at some point because I just learned My Name is Memory is the first in a planned trilogy.  Oh.  Maybe I overreacted, just a little.