Friday, July 30, 2010

famous first words

Skimming through the internet the other day I came across a reference to a line of startling familiarity, a line that made me realise some first lines stick in your head forever:

"Sing Goddess, the rage of Peleus' son Achilles" (funnily enough,  I can never remember the first line proper until I see it, as my friend and I spent much of year 12 Ancient History misquoting it as "rage Achilles, rage on Agamemnon". We were also amused by the fact that 'Xerxes' backwards spelt 'Sexrex'. Yeah, mature I know.) From Homer, The Illiad Ironically, a first line that I find impossible to remember is one of the most recognisable for me. I'm not usually very good at first lines, but there are a few I'd know anywhere...


"Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote" My English classes at university drummed this one into me- the first line of Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales'. I think Chaucer is a genius, but this first line is not quite as engaging as some.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Famous from the BBC adaptation (oh yeah, and the original book) of Pride and Prejudice.

And I almost forgot (unbelievable!) one of the most famous first lines in history- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" from 'A Tale of Two Cities'. It goes on of course... "it ws the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way."

These are some famous (and familiar) first lines from books I have read (or, in the case of 'The Illiad', started to read) but they are not why I read those books. They are all great lines- lines that set the scene and the tone of the book, and that grab you from the first moment (with the possible exception of Chaucer). But I have also my personal canon of first lines, those that got a book past the first page test and onto my favourites list. Do you recognise them? First off-

"The book was thick and black and covered with dust"- designed, it seems, to appeal to a book lover, hinting at mystery and perfectly setting the scene for a novel about literature, this caught my interest from the beginning.

"A galaxy of cream unribbons in my coffee cup"- ok that's cheating, it's on the first page but it's not the first line, in any case it sold me on the book from that moment.

Any notable first lines that I've forgotten or should know about?

On another note- I've added a link to The Omnivore on the sidebar- a UK site that collects reviews on books, movies and theatre, and adds some commentary too.

Monday, July 19, 2010

what am i reading? of blogs and books

A while ago I wrote about looking for book review blogs- I love reading blogs, I love reading books, and a blog that helps me find new books has got to be a good thing. I've done a bit of wandering in the blogosphere, which has been good, and I has been reflected in my last trip to the library. Here's what I borrowed:

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. I found this here, and was immediately intrigued. Tove Jansson! Writer of Moomintroll! Writing something completely different! It took me a couple of library visits to find it, but I was not disappointed. What a beautiful book. Set on a Finnish island it tells the story of Grandmother and Sophia with a style that is in fact similar to the Moomintroll books, but without the outlandish adventures and therefore allowing the characters more room to shine. 

Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson. Having been reminded of Tove Jansson I couldn't resist borrowing a Moomin book, especially as I'm not sure I've read this one before. When you start dreaming about reading a book I feel that means you should read it!

The Changeover by Margeret Mahy. This one kept popping up all over the place. It's described as 'a supernatural romance', which I would usually find off-putting, but it's by Margeret Mahy, who I love (I read 'The Door in the Air' so many times as a kid, if you haven't read it I recommend it highly) and so many people loved it I had to give it a go. Again, I wasn't disappointed, very much enjoyed it.

Those are all books by authors I've previously loved. I did buy 'The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie' by Alan Bradley (which I thought I saw on this blog, but can't find now, but I swear it was on some blog somewhere). Really enjoyed that.

Next up: I've found that 'Demons' Lexicon' by Sarah Rees Brennan (written about here among other places, though I haven't read that link yet since I'm avoiding spoilers) is in the USYD library, so I'm going to see how that goes. Other books I'm thinking about reading include:

Something by Sarah Waters- maybe Fingersmith to start?
'The City and the City'- China Mieville
'The Knife of Never Letting Go'- Patrick Ness
'Howard's End is  on the Landing'- Susan Hill
'The Winter Book'- Tove Jansson
'At Home: A Short History of Private Life'- Bill Bryson

Unfortunately they're not all in the library catalogue, so I have to find some other way to read them...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


As always- meme hosted by Should be Reading.

"Sophia was climbing very slowly now, with long pauses between steps, and Grandmother could see she was scared. The old woman stood up too quickly."
- p. 47, 'The Summer Book', Tove Jansson

i'm on the pursuit of happiness and i know... i'll be fine once i get it, i'll be good

A while ago I read 'Fire in the Blood' by Irene Nemirovsky, then more picked up 'Madame Bovary' by Gustave Flaubert, and thought "this sounds familiar". Not that I am accusing Flaubert of copying a work written about 90 years after his, or Nemirovsky of copying Flaubert. I just noticed that 'Madame Bovary' is subtitled 'Patterns of Provincial Life', and that's what these two books provide- patterns. It's hard to describe the patterns exactly- there's the obvious (watch out there may be spoilers) pattern of infidelity in young French provincial wives, but that sounds a bit broad. There are the large country weddings, the hope of happiness that turns to discontent- or merely marriage as a chance to get away from home.


While these patterns repeat themselves between books, and within books in the case of 'Fire in the Blood', I reacted very differently to the two. 'Fire in the Blood' seems all about patterns. The title refers to youthful passion which supposedly makes everyone act crazily and is contrasted to  the contentment and passivity of the aged narrator. As a bit of an aside- what I really liked about this book is that the apparent contrast and the detachment of the narrator is brought into question at the end, and you are left questioning his true feelings. There is also the pattern within families- the children repeat the sins of the parents. It's an interesting dynamic that's presented- the children believe their parents are above reproach and vice versa, but in reality they all make the same mistakes.


While 'Fire in the Blood' sees infidelity as one of the inevitable mistakes of youth, in 'Madame Bovary' it is perhaps a tragic side effect of being female. Or maybe an individual foible. Despite the fame of 'Madame Bovary' I didn't really know much about it, and had the impression that the main character was very unsympathetic. So I was surprised at how much sympathy I had for her, particularly to begin with. It really made me think how limited a woman's life was at that time, particularly in a small country town. Emma Bovary seemed fairly intelligent, but with no outlet for her energy she became extremely bored and dissatisfied, looking to wild schemes and affairs for love and happiness that continued to elude her. At the beginning I was sympathetic to her, she had very little choice in her marriage, in where she lived, and very few available occupations. But her dream of grand living and grand romance appears from the beginning to be flawed. When she becomes discontent I was reminded of the words of Merlin in Prince Valiant: 'Only a turtle on a sunny rock knows contentment' (ie no human is ever content). In this instance the search for contentment is indeed futile, and becomes more and more selfish seeming as it continues. I don't think Prince Valiant is alone in talking about the difficulties inherent in pursuing happiness, take the words of Kid Cudi for instance:


I'm on the pursuit of happiness and I know
Everything that's shining always gonna be golden.
I'll be fine once I get it,
I'll be good. 

Thursday, July 01, 2010

when inspiration fails, links!

I'm afraid this is going to be a very short post, because while I have a couple of blog post ideas turning over in my head (French provincial women in 'Madame Bovary' and 'Fire in the Blood', 'memento mori' and celebrity) they are as yet only half-formed. 


But I just read a blog post on reading books in translation that struck me as particularly true, and reading through this blog so far I am really liking her observations on many book-related things. So you might like to check out Book Snob. And I will write a proper blog post of my own soon, honest.