Thoughts on the Last Five Opening Paragraphs I've Read

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(yes, that is a word cloud of all the opening paragraphs. apparently Clubs is an important word here).

This is as much an exercise of interest for myself as it is for you, dear reader, in that you may be allowed to convince yourself of the desirability of these books (these opening paragraphs are ordered by my own perception of their desirability).

Looking at this page now, I am struck by HOW DAMN LONG some of these opening paragraphs are (they tend to fill an entire page!). You would expect this sort of behavior from legendarily verbose Henry James, but not from Jennifer Egan, in a novel that was widely praised for its concision as much as anything else. But let's move on to the individual commentary.

To the copy/paste machine! (or transcription machine, blech).

1. Jennifer Egan - A Visit From the Goon Squad

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand—it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.

This is the best book I've read in the past year, and you get vague hints of the style and approach of the novel from this paragraph, though I'm not sure it does the novel justice. There's a breathless quality here that fits this character, but not the overall tone of the book. But it is important to note that every chapter is written in a different style and from a different perspective, more like interlinked short stories than a novel. Maybe I should have given you the paragraph that opens the POWERPOINT CHAPTER.

2. Sarah Vowell - Wordy Shipmates

The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don't mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed.

This is a wonderfully entertaining history of one of the most boring topics in existence: the Puritans! And not the Mayflower Puritans, but the second wave of Arbella Puritans. But as this short but sweet paragraph hints, Sarah Vowell makes the journey come alive for the reader, employing wit and not a little bit of irreverence. But in the end, she comes to praise Puritans, not to bury them.

3. Joshua Foer - Moonwalking With Einstein

Dom DeLuise, celebrity fat man (and five of clubs), has been implicated in the following unseemly acts in my mind’s eye: He has hocked a fat globule of spittle (nine of clubs) on Albert Einstein’s thick white mane (three of diamonds) and delivered a devastating karate kick (five of spades) to the groin of Pope Benedict XVI (six of diamonds). Michael Jackson (king of hearts) has engaged in behavior bizarre even for him. He has defecated (two of clubs) on a salmon burger (king of clubs) and captured his flatulence (queen of clubs) in a balloon (six of spades). Rhea Perlman, diminutive Cheers bartendress (and queen of spades), has been caught cavorting with the seven-foot-seven Sudanese basketball star Manute Bol (seven of clubs) in a highly explicit (and in this case, anatomically improbable) two-digit act of congress (three of clubs).

If you don't already know what this book is about, that paragraph would make approximate ZERO sense. This in journalism is known as BURYING THE LEAD, by putting it in the second paragraph instead of the first. It's another great non-fiction though, about Foer's journey to becoming an international memory champion.

4. Adam Haslett - Union Atlantic

Their second night in port at Bahrain someone on the admiral’s staff decided the crew of the Vincennes deserved at least a free pack of cigarettes each. The gesture went over well until the canteen ran out and then the dispensing machines, leaving fifty or so enlisted men and a few petty officers feeling cheated of the one recognition anyone had offered of what they had been through. A number of them, considerably drunk, had begun milling outside the commissary, suggesting it ought to be opened up to make good on the promise. Realizing he had a situation on his hands, the admiral’s staffer pulled Vrieger aside, handed him an envelope of petty cash, and told him there was a jeep and driver waiting for him at the gate.

I've just started this novel, so I'm not sure how this fits into the larger narrative, but one thing definitely struck me. This book first came to public notice for Haslett's clairvoyance, predicting the financial crisis a year before it began. But this paragraph seems to predict the CURRENT crisis in the MIddle East, Bahrain especially. So really, I think Haslett has sold his soul to the devil. But I am enjoying this one thoroughly.

5. Henry James - Daisy Miller

At the little town of Vevey, in Switzerland, there is a particularly comfortable hotel. There are, indeed, many hotels, for the entertainment of tourists is the business of the place, which, as many travelers will remember, is seated upon the edge of a remarkably blue lake--a lake that it behooves every tourist to visit. The shore of the lake presents an unbroken array of establishments of this order, of every category, from the "grand hotel" of the newest fashion, with a chalk-white front, a hundred balconies, and a dozen flags flying from its roof, to the little Swiss pension of an elder day, with its name inscribed in German-looking lettering upon a pink or yellow wall and an awkward summerhouse in the angle of the garden. One of the hotels at Vevey, however, is famous, even classical, being distinguished from many of its upstart neighbors by an air both of luxury and of maturity. In this region, in the month of June, American travelers are extremely numerous; it may be said, indeed, that Vevey assumes at this period some of the characteristics of an American watering place. There are sights and sounds which evoke a vision, an echo, of Newport and Saratoga. There is a flitting hither and thither of "stylish" young girls, a rustling of muslin flounces, a rattle of dance music in the morning hours, a sound of high-pitched voices at all times. You receive an impression of these things at the excellent inn of the "Trois Couronnes" and are transported in fancy to the Ocean House or to Congress Hall. But at the "Trois Couronnes," it must be added, there are other features that are much at variance with these suggestions: neat German waiters, who look like secretaries of legation; Russian princesses sitting in the garden; little Polish boys walking about held by the hand, with their governors; a view of the sunny crest of the Dent du Midi and the picturesque towers of the Castle of Chillon.

You would never know from this doorstopper of a paragraph what a quick read this book was (quick, unmemorable, so on and so-forth). Reading this helped me appreciate how revolutionary the Lost Generation were, cutting out all the unnecessary words and leaving the essence. But Daisy Miller, like Sarah Vowell's novel, reminds us that once upon a time, Americans were British, with all their formalisms and stodginess, and all the 'manners' issues. Yes, Daisy shocks the foreign establishment, but the judgment by her fellow Americans is very very Austen-esque, and predicts the sort of snobbery you get today in America with the Inherited Rich vs. the Nouveau Riche.

Statistical note:

Fiction to non-fiction: 3-2

Female to Male: 2-3

21st Century to Prior: 4-1

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3 Responses to “ Thoughts on the Last Five Opening Paragraphs I've Read ”

  1. I was thinking about posting the first paragraph of my favourite book (so far, obviously) but it is '100 years of solitude' so the damn thing is 1 and a half pages long and I can't touch type...

    Suffice to say even in (excellent and author endorsed) translation, I think it is incredible. Here are the first few sentences...

    Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, General Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

  2. That is a good one! I need to give it another chance, that's one book I keep starting and not finishing (but not because I don't enjoy it, but because it's a doorstopper!)

  3. Hmm. Can't give you any advice there, I've read it at least 5 times now...


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