Sunday, April 17, 2011

First Lines - There's Probably an App for This

So does a great novel need a killer opening line? Are some great openings wasted on terrible novels? I collected the four opening sentences below at random over the past few months, just to see how they stack up - to each other, to the books they begin, and on their own. Of the four, the one that struck me the most forcefully was The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the title short story in a collection by the 20th-century English writer Alan Sillitoe. In one smooth, uncluttered sentence, Sillitoe sets the scene and at the same instant gets the story off and running - a model of grace and economy. Hemingway nearly does the same thing, but he's really jamming stuff into the sentence. Orwell's can't help but grab the reader. I considered including Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, but its first sentence is a fragment. No dice. Good book, though.

  • "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." The Old Man and the Sea

  • 'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984

  • “As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner.” The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

  • “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.” Don Quixote
So send me your favorite first lines - best and worst. But no Dickens ("It was the best of times...") or Edward Bulwer-Lytton ("It was a dark and stormy night.")

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

This Week's Trivia

I've been collecting interesting trivia (is that an oxymoron?). Once I reach ten items, I'll post them. Here's the first installment. Read on and learn...if you dare.

  1. Ho Chi Minh, the father of modern Viet Nam, left what was then French Indochina on a steamship in 1911, at the age of 21. He did not set foot in his native country for another 30 years.

  2. Most people recognize the name of the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima—the Enola Gay—but not that of the B-52 that dropped the bomb called “Fat Man” on Nagasaki a few days later: Bocks Car.

  3. Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town is staged, on average, somewhere in the world every night.

  4. The longest English word that you can type on a QWERTY keyboard using only the left hand is “stewardesses.”

  5. Massachusetts voters have not elected a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives for 17 years.

  6. Some of the names that the Beatles considered (and rejected) for their seventh studio album were: Beatles on Safari, Pendulum, Four Sides of the Eternal Triangle, Magical Circles, Abracadabra, and After Geography. The band eventually agreed on Revolver.

  7. In Elizabethan England, about a quarter of the male population was named John. The pool of common first names numbered fewer than 40 for each gender. 70% of men were named John, Thomas, William, Richard, or Robert.

  8. In German, the equivalent of the phrase “It’s all Greek to me” (meaning “I don’t understand the subject”) is “It’s all Bohemian villages to me.”

  9. No. 10 Downing Street, the residence of British Prime Ministers since the 1700s, contains about 100 rooms.

  10. Rock n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry now holds the copyright to the Beach Boys’ first #1 single, “Surfin’ USA,” because the band stole the entire song from the Berry composition “Sweet Little Sixteen.”


Monday, October 19, 2009

Another Viet Nam? You bet.

CNN is reporting the results of a new poll that 6 in 10 of Americans questioned feel like the American commitment in Afghanistan could turn into another Viet Nam. That has already happened.

A few weeks ago my toddler knocked a bunch of books off a low shelf, one of them being Stanley Karnow's excellent Viet Nam: A History. So I re-read parts of that.

(I am in the camp contending that the central folly of our Viet Nam War was the belief that Ho Chi Minh was essentially a Communist, when he was in fact a nationalist. If the Best and the Brightest had viewed the Viet Cong--and Viet Minh before them--through that prism, they would have rightly judged the war unwinnable. )

The US support of Diem in the late '50s and early '60s is what really caught my eye. He was corrupt in the way that such a leader in such a circumstance needs to be corrupt to survive. He also stuffed ballot boxes, all with the acquiescence of the US government, including the Democratic Administration of JFK. He was our puppet.

You may not remember a certain news story back in the heady days after the fall of the Taliban in 2002. The grandees of tribal Afghanistan gathered for their tribal loya jirga (a political convention, for these purposes), to form the Afghanistan Transitonal Administration. Hamid Karzai was trotted out on stage at one point to accept the jirga's election of himself as President. Except that the participants had not yet cast their votes. Whoops. Strike one for his handlers.

I guess that was my first clue that we were setting him up as our puppet. And now look. Opium trade accounts for, by one estimate, HALF of the country's GDP. Wow. The country is falling apart so completely that some Afghans would rather have the hated Taliban running the show than the corrupt officialdom now bleeding them dry. And Karzai can't buy himself an election.

Diem was assassinated by coup plotters in November 1963, also with the acquiescence of JFK, coincidentally only a few weeks before he met a similar fate in Dealy Plaza. What followed were increasingly corrupt and weak presidents (I'm talking about Viet Nam here.) We need to change policy but fast in Afghanistan.

The US at first raised only minimal "concerns" about what was obviously overwhelming fraud--because he is our guy. But now he may be going the way of Diem.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Have a Super Sunday

Today is Super Bowl Sunday, commemorating the playing of Super Bowl XXXLCMIV. I am observing this holiday by inviting 374 of my drunkenest college-educated friends over. To avoid the usual frenzy at the supermarket, I did all my shopping yesterday, but even so I had to knock over two elderly men to grab the last 13 cases of Budweiser off the shelf. I bought a 25-pound bag of potato chips, and the batch of guacamole I made is so big that FDA agents have already visited my house 3 times for health violations and made me issue a recall.

Friday, January 23, 2009

I Thought No One Was Looking

There's a rash of embarrassing behavior going around. It's called I Thought No One Was Looking. It happens when you engage in moderately sinful behavior that you think is OK because it's very unlikely you'll get caught--but when you do, you look like a grade-A ass because you have no excuse.

Exhibit A is Timothy Geithner. Cheated on his taxes. Case closed. "Careless." "Innocent." "Mistake." Whatever. He cheated on his taxes. Even President Smooth couldn't gloss this over. "It's an embarrassment," he said a couple of weeks ago. Truer words never were spoken.

(Note to Tim Geithner: From now on, just assume the IRS is looking.)

I'm not talking about Bill Richardson and his steering of state contracts to campaign donors, or Rod Blagojevich (the Liberace of corruption), or Ted Stevens and his souped-up ski chalet full of "gifts" he alleged he didn't want, or...well, the list just goes on. That stuff is all felony worthy.

Then we have Caroline Kennedy. I'm not talking here about the ridiculous and shifting list of reasons she and her anonymous flacks gave for her "dropping out" of the New York senate sweepstakes. ("My uncle is sick." No, there are tax and "nanny" problems. No, there is an as-yet undisclosed personal reason. Meanwhile, the Governor says, I was never going to pick her anyway.)

I'm talking about the revelations a few weeks ago that she has almost never voted. That is an abdication of civic duty for any American, but just shameful for someone of her pedigree: Father was president. Uncles were US Senators. Two cousins (at least) have served in Congress. When did she not get the memo about how important it is to vote? What possible excuse could she have for not voting? I vote in every single election in my town, every city council race, every Congressional primary, every special referendum election. Her reasoning, I imagine, was: I never thought anyone would notice.

This is about white lies--and maybe a little worse--and it's about context. Cheating on your taxes is not drunk-driving wrong, or adultery wrong, or smoking-near-my-child wrong. But it looks awful dumb when you're suddenly put in charge of the IRS. And you have nothing to say except, "It was an innocent mistake."

Not voting is not the biggest sin in the world either. But for someone who wants to serve in the most select legislative body in the world, it's positively disqualifying. You simply cannot explain that away.

Tim Geithner will, I hope, still have enough credibility to serve as an effective Treasury Secretary and help lead us out of our current mess. Caroline Kennedy, though, is done in politics forever, unless she wants to put in a decade or two on her local school board to regain a shred of believability as someone who cares about public service.

That's my view from up in the frozen north of Hollywood, at least. What say my Tri State readers?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Move Over, Millard Fillmore

That's my message to George W. Bush. Inauguration Day was a wonderful day for America, rare, fine, cloudless and cold. For a single day at least we could look to the future--and its enormous, planetary challenges--with hope and pride even amid our trepidation.

I was very skeptical of Barack Obama until well into the primary season because of his inexperience, but his every move over the summer and fall won me over: the discipline, the intelligence, the seriousness and lack of drama, the move towards solving our problems and away from partisan (and intra-mural) squabbling. His acceptance speech in Grant Park and the transition to the White House were further evidence of, at the very least, a basic competence that was like a tonic, throwing the cronyism and secrecy surrounding 43 into sharp relief.

His inaugural address spoke beautifully to this moment. It did everything it should have done: soothed our fears, excited our hopes, and perhaps will eventually inspire the best of us. That is no small job for a speech that must be everything to everybody. You can view it again and read the text on the BBC.

President Obama was right to challenge us--all of us--in the speech because one thing is clear now: Those of us on the left will have to accept compromise and disappointment as he and his team forge solutions. And we must work with him to do it. We all have to partake of the tough choices ahead: on health care, military spending, climate change, financial restoration and a host of other serious problems. Tuesday we woke from a long sleepwalk. America has to start living within its means.

Tom Paine started off his pamphlet The Crisis with these words:

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value."

And W.? One last thing: You would not even have made a good vice president.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Some Poet

Tough times in the publishing industry, according to this New York Times article, Puttin’ Off the Ritz: The New Austerity in Publishing. Long lunches and annual retreats to Bermuda are out, replaced by web-cam meetings and (shudder) teleconferences.

Amanda Urban, an agent for Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy, makes a valid point about the price point of books in general. “It’s not like you have books that can be Manolo Blahniks and books that can be Cole Haan. Books are books. A book by James Patterson costs the same as a book by some poet.”

The end of this statement is simply hilarious, though, and defies further comment from me.

And this quote from the same story:

“Everybody is trying to look at acquisitions in the prism of a reduced and a hurting retail market,” said David Rosenthal, publisher of Simon & Schuster. “You used to buy some books and you paid X because you figured it would sell 100,000 copies. Now you have to do the math saying this book may sell only 50,000 copies.”

Talk about lazy talking and lazy thinking. These people come off as doofuses. Did publishing companies not "do the math" before September of this year? I seriously doubt that. I'm sure their corporate parents and bean-counters never let them fling around huge contracts willy-nilly.