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
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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).

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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.

#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!

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!

Keeping the Feast discussion with author Paula Butturini

Hello, readers!

Tonight we are privileged to welcome Paula Butturini, author of Keeping the Feast, to our Winter Reading Series discussion.  She will be here “live” participating in our discussion and answering questions 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 Paula.

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

My questions:

How does John feel about Keeping the Feast?  How might the book have been different if he’d been the one to write the memoir?

Your beating was so brutal.  At what point did you feel safe and confident enough to work again?

I remember reading that you kept a journal (I can’t find it in the book, but I remember reading that!)  Did you know then that you might write a book like this?  How were you journals used in writing the book- did you re-read them, use whole sections, or just refer back to them as necessary?  Did John also keep a journal?

The bullet that ripped through John changed your lives so dramatically.  Journalists put themselves in harms way in the most dangerous places in the world, getting as close to the action as possible in order to share it with the masses.  Why do they risk their lives that way?  At what point is personal safety more important than the public’s need to know?

From Jill at Fizzy Thoughts:

I was surprised by their decision to buy a house in France…I would’ve expected a return to Italy. I was wondering if she’d be willing to speak a little bit about what factors influenced their decision to buy a house in France, and if Italy was even a consideration.

Also.. has living in France changed the way she cooks?

When I saw Thrity Umrigar at FoB last year she mentioned that journalism gave her good work ethics for writing her novels…that writer’s block wasn’t an issue, as she considered it her job to sit down and write every day (I’m totally paraphrasing here). Did Paula find it difficult to transition from journalism to writing a book? Did she build on her experiences as a journalist, or was it a completely different writing experience?

From Kathy at Bermuda Onion:

I loved all the food descriptions and kept hoping for recipes, so I’m wondering if Paula has considered writing a cookbook.

From Susan at Suko’s Notebook:

The only additional question I might add is if there will be a sequel at some point in time, or even a book exclusively about food–not necessarily a cookbook, but something very food-related?  The author writes so beautifully about food.

From Dar at Peeking Between the Pages:

1.  I was amazed by your perseverance and patience in the face of John’s depression especially having grown up with it.  How difficult was that for you and how were you able to put aside your feelings and anger to be there for him like that? I think it takes a special kind of person to do that.

2.  How is your relationship with your daughter given how yours was with your mom?  It’s great how honest you are with her regarding John’s depression – she will grow up understanding depression hopefully instead of resenting it.

3. I really loved how food was something that always brought comfort whether shopping for it or preparing it.  I think it’s important to find that something that will bring you through the tough times.  I thank you as well for sharing your story with us about depression because too often it’s a hidden disease and it shouldn’t be.

And one from “anonymous” – ok, it’s me..

My husband had a nervous breakdown 4 years ago and suffered a scary bout of depression and anxiety after his business of 11 years failed.  I worry about a relapse whenever anything goes wrong and nervously watch for signs of it.  So, my question is, has John ever had a relapse?  Do you live in fear that he might?

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

Q & A with Peter from Flashlight Worthy

Today I welcome Peter Steinberg, creator of Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations, a site dedicated to giving out great recommendations for book clubs.

BOTB:  Hi Peter!  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Peter:  I’m 39, and live with my wife and our dog Henry in Brooklyn, NY. We actually live in a neighborhood called Brooklyn Heights which has quite a literary past. W. H. Auden lived here. Hart Crane lived here. Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood here. Norman Mailer spent the last 30 or 40 years of his life here. Carson McCullers, Arthur Miller, Walt Whitman… the list goes on and on.

BOTB:  What types of books do you enjoy most?

Peter:  Good ones? 😉 Seriously, I’m a little bit all over the place. Good novels. Memoirs and biography. American history. Books about specific times or places or objects (think “Devil in the White City” or Salt“). If I had to pick a single genre that makes me different, it’s probably food/restaurant/cooking memoirs. I’ve read about 25 of those in the last 5 years and have a stack to dive into.

BOTB:   Have you ever been in a book club?  If so, can you tell us about it?

Peter:  I spent a year+ in a “Brooklyn” book club — Not only located in Brooklyn, but we only read books set in Brooklyn. It was fun while it lasted, but like so many book clubs it seemed destined for a short life.

BOTB:  If you came to my book club, what kind of food/beverage would you bring?

Peter:  I’d bring dessert. Most likely my famous butterscotch pudding. Or maybe just some vanilla ice cream… but with my homemade caramel sauce that’s been known to start wars between small nations.

BOTB:  Ok, you can come!  What made you decide to start Flashlight Worthy?

Peter:  I started Flashlight Worthy because I wanted to combine my professional skills (running websites) and my personal passion (books). While there are a tremendous number of good sources for book recommendations out there, I think Flashlight Worthy’s take on things — only really great books. very short write-ups, gathering the books into themed lists — is a fun and different approach. And it’s been a great experience — people seem to love the content and the book blogging community has been incredibly supportive!

BOTB:  Book bloggers are awesome 🙂   Peter, I think Flashlight Worthy is a great resource for book clubs and I hope you have much success with it.  I understand you have a request for book club recommendations, so I’ll post that here.  Thanks so much for your time.. it was great getting to know you better!

Here is Peter’s Open Call for Lists of Book Club Recommendations!

Hello and Happy New Year from Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations — where you can find books so good, they’ll keep you up past your bedtime. 😉

It seems the book club community has recently discovered my book club recommendations.  From the feedback, not only are the lists very much enjoyed, but people are clamoring for more.

That’s where you come in.  While I’ve read plenty of books, I’m looking to book club members to contribute new lists —  annotated lists of highly discussable books.

Can you name and describe 5+ flashlight worthy, discussable books that follow a theme?  Maybe ‘7 Great Books that Revolve Around Food’?  Or ‘6 Women’s Memoirs That Will Start an Argument’.  How about ‘5 Discussable Novels Set in Africa’?

Take a look at the lists I have and give it some thought  If you’re interested, email me at Info AT flashlightworthy DOT com.  Thanks so much and have a great new year!

Peter

(The guy who runs Flashlight Worthy)