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Opening Passages to Greatness

Posted on 4 min read 115 views

The other day I stumbled upon The Heart, a wonderful series in the online version of The Atlantic in which authors discuss their favorite passages in literature. Browsing through the collection, I came upon John Rechy’s discussion of his favorite, which is the opening sentence of William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” which also happens to be on my list of greatest short stories, although I confess I had never before focused on that opening sentence, which is as follow:

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant—a combination gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.

William Faulkner

Read it again, and you will start to see how much is going in that sentence, from the formal reference to “Miss Emily Grierson” (thus an unmarried woman) to the fact that no one but an elderly man-servant had seen the inside of her house for at least a decade (thus she died a recluse). As Rechy states:

Everyone goes to Miss Emily’s funeral, a ritual not to be missed. Clearly, this lady who died unmarried was of importance to everyone. And yet the town itself is eventually divided, and we see that division here in the first line. The men attend her funeral “through a sort of respectful attention for a fallen monument,” but that “sort of” tells us it’s qualified admiration. And there’s the subtle, metaphoric symbolism of “a fallen monument,” which is thematic—the fall of the South after the Civil War— which Faulkner often lamented, at times too much.

By contrast, the women go there to see what is inside that mysterious house.

And all gleaned from that first sentence, which ends with a hint of suspense. What might be hidden in that house? As with any great opener, I was intrigued–so intrigued, in fact, that I had to re-read that short story, which was even better than I remembered.

Which got me thinking about the opening passages in other great short stories. So I browsed through some of my favorite stories and found several intriguing and well-crafted openers–sometimes just a sentence, other times more than one. I will confess that I also discovered that some of my favorite short stories–including ones by Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anton Chekhov, and James Joyce–do not start with a bang, although most do end with one.

Set forth below are examples of great opening passages from some of my favorite short stories. Enjoy!

  1. “The Swimmer” by John Cheever. “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’ You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover.
  2. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry: “One dollar and eighty–seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty–seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.”
  3. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe: “TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
  4. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce: “A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees.”
    Ernest Hemingway
  5. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway: “‘The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,’ he said. ‘That’s how you know when it starts.’”
  6. “Barnaby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville: “I am a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written:—I mean the law-copyists or scriveners. I have known very many of them, professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate divers histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep. But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of.”

Make America Naughty Again

Posted on 1 min read 127 views

As many of my readers know, I haven’t been able to quit my day job. Fortunately, the focus of my day job is intellectual property law–a legal realm sprinkled with just enough quirky issues to keep my day job fun.

One such example is the subject of my latest post on my law firm’s blog, entitled “Make America Naughty Again: The Risk of Risque Trademarks.” Back when I took a class in trademark law at Harvard, I never dreamed that the question of whether you could register an X-rated trademark would be the subject of important federal court cases. But now it has–and resulted in important rulings by the United States Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. Or, as we might now say, Shit Happens®.

Here is a link to that post. Hope you enjoy it.

FYI: The image at the top of this post is just one of more than 100 pending “shit” trademark registration applications. A similar number of applications have been filed to register trademarks containing a word that rhymes with “truck.”

Cain is able, better than most, and far darker: An Appreciation

Posted on 3 min read 87 views

At least thirty years had passed since I first read The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain. I confess that during those intervening decades my memory of the short novel had faded into a vague recollection of a dark somewhat sexy crime story involving low-life hustlers that took place somewhere in California.

Oh, occasionally I would come across the title in articles and blog posts on great opening lines in American literature, where Cain’s opener–“They threw me off the hay truck around noon”–often made the list. But that was about it for me.

Until last week. While listening to an interview of mystery novelist Laura Lippman discussing her new novel, Sunburn, a book she acknowledged was inspired in part by Cain’s Postman, she spoke of her strong admiration for Cain and mentioned that she teaches his novel to her students in a writing course.

Great timing, since I happened to be looking for a good audio book for my commute to and from the office. A quick search turned up a version from Audible narrated by Stanley Tucci. James Cain and Stanley Tucci? That sounded like the perfect combo for a terrific listening experience–and its was, clocking in at just under 3 hours from start to finish.

Laura Lippman was right. The Postman Always Rings Twice is a gem of American literature. While we typically associate the American Noir genre with murder mysteries, such as those by Dashiell Hammett, there is no mystery here, although there is plenty of suspense in those 116 pages.  The book tells the story of a Frank, a drifter who takes a job at a diner and falls for the greasy owner’s seductive wife, Cora, who convinces Frank that getting rid of her husband is the only route to freedom and a better life. We readers follow the two protagonists through every stage of what they believe is their plan to commit the perfect murder. It fails the first time, appears to succeed the second time, but appearances can be deceiving.

As with so many great works of literature, the experience is so vivid and captivating that it’s hard to believe that the novel is more than eighty years old. From the crime to the sex, nothing feels outmoded or subdued. Here, for example, is Frank checking out Cora for the first time: “Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.” And he does indeed when she demands that he bite her and rip off her clothing.

So if you’re looking for a terrific short read–or short book on tape–I strongly recommend The Postman Always Rights Twice. And while there has been much rumination over the meaning of that title–especially since no postman makes an appearance in the novel–I’m fairly confident you will grasp its significance by the time you finish the book.

Enjoy!

 

 

The Magical Lure of the Intimate Voice

Posted on 4 min read 98 views

I have written here and elsewhere of the power of a great opening line. If you can imagine a bookstore as a crowded singles bar with each book hoping to get lucky, that first sentence essentially functions as the author’s pick-up line. Sure, a sexy book jacket helps, since it will increase your chances of getting pulled off the shelf. But as the old saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. And thus when that curious reader opens to page 1, your odds greatly improve if you can start with something original and enticing.

Leo Tolstoy did it with Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And Jane Austen most certainly did it with Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” They are hardly alone. The Internet is filled with lists of great opening lines, such as this Top 100 from the American Book Review and this Top 30 from The Telegraph.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about an even more powerful seduction tool: the opening paragraph. Many of the great opening lines, including the two quoted above and, of course, “Call me Ishmael,” stand alone. Literally. They are one-sentence paragraphs. Yes, they catch your attention–much like that snappy pick-up line in the singles bar. But then, well, you need to start all over again.

The real magic takes place in a great opening paragraph. A real paragraph. Not just a one-liner. And what makes an opening paragraph great? The magical lure of the narrator’s voice. Take, for example, the greatest opening paragraph in American literature:

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly—Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

Or this droll opening paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Two very different opening paragraphs, two very different novels, but both sharing something vital: a distinct and intriguing narrator voice. And while Huck Finn and Philip Marlowe share little else in common, those two opening paragraphs have drawn millions of readers into their stories.

In mulling over great opening paragraphs, I came to another realization: almost all are written in the first person. That’s Huck’s voice we hear. And Philip Marlowe’s voice. Those opening paragraphs achieve a special intimacy between the reader and the narrator. The same is true for so many other great opening paragraphs–from Pip (in Great Expectations ) and David Copperfield to Holden Caulfield and Augie March and so on and so on.  Pick your favorite opening paragraph and odds are its narrated in the first person, and often by the protagonist. (We can let the critics debate whether Nick Carraway is the real protagonist in The Great Gatsby.)

I confess that I, too, have succumbed to the lure of the opening paragraph. One example comes from my novel Firm Ambitions:

Despite the allegations in the petition, fellatio is no longer included in Missouri’s list of infamous crimes against nature. It remains, however, “deviate sexual intercourse,” which the criminal code defines as “any sexual act involving the genitals of one person and the mouth or tongue of another.” The code calls it a class A misdemeanor. Vicki McDonald calls it a Big Mac with Special Sauce.

And finally, no serious discussion of great opening paragraphs can ignore the Grandmaster of Gonzo Journalism, Hunter Thompson, who opened Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with the greatest first paragraph since Huckleberry Finn and thus provides us with a perfect closing paragraph here. As with Mark Twain’s opener, it’s hard to imagine any reader coming to the end of Thompson’s first paragraph and not continuing on to the second. Enjoy!

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. . . .” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus, what are these goddam animals?”

 

I’m Sorry, Anna.

Posted on 4 min read 127 views
Mark Twain

For more years than I’d care to admit, my take on Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina was perfectly summed up by fellow Missourian Mark Twain, who famously defined a “classic” as  a novel “that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

But then a few months ago, while browsing my bookshelves in search of something to read, I once again paused at the spine of my unopened copy of Anna Karenina, this version the award-winning translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that I had purchased on a whim more than a decade ago. Having recently read two of Tolstoy’s most powerful (and depressing) short stories, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Hadji Murad, I decided it was time to give Anna her due. After all, I told myself, a novel that starts with one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature must be okay.

And so I removed that 817-page small-type tome from the bookshelf, lugged it into the bedroom, and heaved onto the nightstand. There it would remain for just over two months, lifted most nights for about a half-hour-or-so of reading. Like a determined marathoner, I stuck with the novel all the way to that final monologue of Kostya Levin as he walks down the hallway to check on his brother.

The verdict?

I will say this for Tolstoy. The novel lives up to the intriguing promise of its opening line, which reads: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy gives us several unhappy families: the Karenins, the Vronskys, the Levins, and the Oblonskys, and each one is unhappy in its own way. Moreover, Tolstoy brings many of those family members to life in a remarkably vivid manner. You recognize each one from almost their first appearance, and you come to know them as you read on, and even now, months later, I can visualize most of them. And just as remarkable, many of those characters are ones you would not want to spend any time with. Indeed, some are downright creepy. But alive on the page and in your mind.

But . . . I confess I finished the novel somewhat confused by its title. Yes, Anna Karenina is an important character in the novel, and her illicit (but understandable) love affair with Count Alexi Vronsky drives one of the plot lines that eventually leads to her suicide, but her story does not, at least for me, dominate the novel in the way one might expect of a title character. Think of the roles of the title characters in some of our great works of literature:

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Emma
  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • David Copperfield
  • The Adventures of Augie March
  • Macbeth, King Lear, and the other Shakespeare tragedies
  • and so on and so on.

In other words, the names in those titles are the dominant characters in the stories. Yes, Ophelia is an important character in Hamlet, and her death is every bit as disturbing in that play as Anna’s death is in the Tolstoy novel, but Shakespeare name that play after the main character, and not Ophelia.   If we applied that rule to Tolstoy’s novel, the title would be Kostantin Levin, the exasperatingly conflicted but lovable  hero of the novel, and a character that  many critics view as Tolstoy’s autobiographical doppelganger.

Leo Tolstoy

As you have surmised by now, I like Anna Karenina but I didn’t love it. I found the characters far more compelling than the predicaments in which they found themselves. Shame on me.

And, perhaps even more shameful, my favorite character was neither Anna nor Levin, even those two were clearly the most genuine and deeply imagined characters in the novel. No, my favorite character–the one whose appearance always made me smile–was Anna’s brother Stepan Oblonsky, a/k/a Stiva. He is the impish, fun-loving, superficial socialite with a naughty roving eye.

Stiva’s mischief opens the novel. That famous first line sets the stage for the next paragraph, which begins:

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it.

And then we meet Stiva:

Three days after the quarrel, Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky–Stiva, as he was called in the fashionable world– woke up at his usual hour, that is, at eight o’clock in the morning, not in his wife’s bedroom, but on the leather-covered sofa in his study. He turned over his stout, well-cared-for person on the springy sofa, as though he would sink into a long sleep again; he vigorously embraced the pillow on the other side and buried his face in it; but all at once he jumped up, sat up on the sofa, and opened his eyes.

“Yes, yes, how was it now?” he thought, going over his dream.

And from that point forward, it will be Stiva who will brighten the scenery and rescue the reader at some of the darkest moments in the novel.

Finally, I should note that my lukewarm endorsement of Anna Karenina is not the unanimous view of the Kahn family. My wife Margi LOVED the novel and places it near the top of her list of great books. So don’t automatically follow Mark Twain’s advice. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. And let me know what you think.

What’s Your Dream Reading Spot?

Posted on 3 min read 85 views

On a lounge chair near a waterfall? How about a desert isle beneath the shade of a palm tree? Or maybe on a raft floating down a lazy river? Is there a margarita on a little side table? Or perhaps a Corona with a lime wedge?

I received delightful email from a self-described book lover who prefers to remain anonymous. She described her dream reading spot: “A window ledge with over-sized pillows and cozy blankets, complete with storage underneath to hold all of my favorite novels.” And then she asked me to share my dream reading spot in this post. That got me thinking.

My two current reading spots are satisfactory but hardly dreamy: one is a red leather chair in our den facing overstuffed library shelves and the other is the bed next to a nightstand with a precarious stack of books.

Functional? Check.

Convenient? Check.

Dreamy? Nope.

And thus when my reader posed her question, I set down my copy of Anna Karenina–with, I confess, a sigh of relief, recalling Mark Twain’s definition of a “classic” as “a book people praise but don’t read”–and tried to a imagine a reading spot so perfect that even the entire oeuvre of Leo Tolstoy would be welcome. I quickly came up with the three basic requirements. My dream spot would need to be:

  1. Outside my house;
  2. In a natural surrounding (e.g., trees, flowers, birds);
  3. Near water.

Now I confess that “outside my house” may require me to move, since there is no water besides our plumbing, and my current natural surroundings are limited to our backyard. But the question asked for my dream reading spot, right? As such, the sky is, quite literally, the limit–although neither a blimp nor a drone made my short list.

The easy pick, with minimal decorating demands, would be a hammock between two palm trees on a beach near an ocean. But I confess that a hammock on a Mediterranean beach is a LONG WAY to travel to spend a few hours reading a book. So, at least until we put our house on the market, I decided trade my hammock on the beach in Mallorca for a gazebo near a bubbling brook in Missouri.

But unlike that hammock, which merely requires two existing palm trees, a gazebo requires not just a gazebo but the furnishings inside that structure. Although I will never be a featured designer on Bravo TV’s Million Dollar Decorators, I do have access to Google.

First step: pick out my gazebo. I did some searching and found this one offered by Amish Country Gazebos.

 

Not bad, eh? I’ll order one with screens, since this is, after all, Missouri, and during the summer months our fine state feels like Mosquito Central.

Okay, got the gazebo. But then I had to furnish it. I did some more searching–Macy’s, Amazon, REI–although I soon landed on the Arhaus website, where I discovered that Arhaus features full sets of outdoor furniture (as opposed to me having to methodically select each chair, table, lamp, etc.)

So I studied each of the many Arhaus outdoor furniture collections and narrowed the choices down to the two below:

Emory Collection (Arhaus)
Emory Collection (Arhaus)

 

(If, instead, you prefer your dream reading spot to be indoors , that same Arhaus website is not a bad place to start. Check out these collections.)

Unable to pick one over the other, I am fortunate that the other major reader in our house–and the one with far better taste than me–is my wife Margi. I called her over, explained (or tried to justify) my selection of a gazebo in Missouri over a hammock between two palm trees and asked her advice on the furniture. Without hesitation, she opted for the Emory Collection.

So there you have it: my dream reading spot. Oh, yes, and I’ll have a chilled Corona with a wedge of lime.

And, when you have your dream reading spot ready to go and need a book to read, may I suggest this one.

So what’s your dream reading spot?