Monthly Archives: October 2009

RAGTIME / E.L. Doctorow

RAGTIME / E.L. Doctorow 1975. (320 pgs)

First Sentence“In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: Very familiar, folksy but distant third-person narrator, who is intimately aware of the characters, their actions and their setting, but maintains a separation as if not to become personally responsible for them or their activities. This is supported by the intimation that the story you are about to hear took place in a slightly glamorized past, but is being told as if that past was just a few minutes ago.

Setting: As you might grasp from the title of the book and its first sentence we are in America, with a capitol ‘A’, when Teddy Roosevelt was President, deals were “square” and the First World War was barely yet a murmur.

What we learn in first paragraphs: In these opening paragraphs we are clearly set down in a universally familiar location: a house that Father built with the fortune from his bunting business and a description of its “stoutness.” From this simple address we move quickly upward in a flurry of patriotic public pastimes, hang out with Teddy Roosevelt, swing back to “Little Boy” playing on his porch, while skimming the muted agreement that fallen women best go elsewhere to fall, and end up in media headlines that create public opinion. Two and a half pages later, the first, very long, paragraph ends with, “And though the newspapers called it the Crime of the Century, (Emma) Goldman knew there were ninety-four years to go.” It is confirmed. The year is 1904. As a reader I feel secure being placed firmly into a period of history by an author who utilizes the brash histrionics of media sensationalism and historical characters – Emma Goldberg, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Houdini – in contrast to the consumers of such as played by generic characters, Father, Mother, Younger Brother and Little Boy. In Ragtime the faces of America are the faces we see in the headlines and chiseled into stone at Mt. Rushmore. The faces of you and me hold the majority, but are vaguely ubiquitous and somewhat interchangeable.

What we learn in first 10 pages: Right off the bat we are told, “There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants.”, and yet we can see that, “Apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants.” The first ten pages that we are in that America were really and truly anything can happen. Little Boy dreams of Harry Houdini and on the next page Harry Houdini’s car breaks down in front of their house and the great magician comes in for tea. After a couple of magic tricks, Little Boy warns Houdini and ends the first chapter with the prophetic exclamation, “Warn the duke,” intended, I presume, as a premonition to the beginning of the First World War. What vastness! The first chapter slices through an enthusiastic consciousness of post turn of the century giddiness, proclaiming an echo from Voltaire, “everything is as it is” and how “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Cue marching band. Unfurl bunting!

Chapter two is brief, personal and shadowy, beginning in the aftermath of sex, albeit interrupted by Houdini’s visit, traveling through the prospect of death and Father’s imminent departure with Perry’s third expedition to the North Pole, and ending with a metaphysical snapshot of the precious timing of life – as Perry’s expedition travels away from the Statue of Liberty a rag ship packed to the railings with dark eyed immigrants (get it, Ragtime) passes on its way into New York Harbor.

Plot & Expectations: From these first ten pages my expectations for the book are huge. Doctorow has brought forth a world that is in the transition between individual craftsmanship and the production line of Henry Ford, literally. Ford Motor Company began in 1903. Ragtime begins in 1904. Immigrants are pouring through Ellis Island. Father has enlisted with Admiral Perry, Younger Brother is in love with the woman responsible for the crime of the century and Mother will wait. The reader is set up for a story that can go in any direction.

Notes:  Ragtime was made into a movie and decade and a half later into a Broadway musical.

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MRS. DALLOWAY / Virginia Woolf

MRS. DALLOWAY. Virginia Woolf. 1925. (190 pgs)

First Sentence:  “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Stream of Consciousness from a universal, but interior point of view that predominantly utilizes the third-person, some times in the present tense and some times in the past. Mrs. Dalloway is the center point of the thought stream. Where it goes from there can, sometimes, be challenging to follow.

Setting:  A glorious London spring morning immediately after WWI.

What we learn in first paragraphs: Clarissa Dalloway is on the move. She’s out the door and moving toward the park. This is the action of the first few paragraphs. The bulk of the narrative follows her thoughts and memories, beginning with flowers and then, crossing into the park she veers into the memory of a love affair as a girl.

What we learn in first 10 pages: Clarissa Dalloway will buy the flowers herself, for she is throwing a party. The staff is busy. The weather is fantastic. Every view of the park reminds her of slender moments from life’s theatre: as a girl of eighteen, the aging woman in the house next door, a bitter scene with Peter in front of Hugh before she marries Richard, now Peter returning from India in the next few months, and now Hugh – creaky and aging – meeting on the street, promising to attend her party this evening. Events whirl from one imagined episode to the next – the past predominating – inspired by the constant stream of events in the world around her – the world of the present. Each of the first few paragraphs begins like a proclamation with several of the paragraphs beginning with “for” which could be considered a substitute for “whereas”.

Spreading over her are both feelings of joy and feelings of relief; the war (WWI) is finally over, the king and queen are attending parties; she is throwing a party herself. Peter is coming home. Hugh, whom she grew up with, will attend. She reminisces that she was better off not marrying Peter (that day is still living on in her head as if it was just yesterday) because the marriage of a man and a woman requires independence and separation, which she would not have gotten with him. By abstraction, we learn that her husband gives her plenty of space as he is often separated from her by affairs of state – she often doesn’t know what.

Plot & Expectations: This is tough for me to answer. Having read and seen The Hours I have a vague idea that Mrs. Dalloway throws a party and that in so doing comes to the reasonable conclusion that she is an excellent hostess, just as Peter accused of becoming one day. That day has come. I suspect there will be some new awareness and some pain because of it. The frequent use of paragraphs beginning with “For” implies that there is an ongoing sense of proclamation. Clarissa Dalloway (notice how “Dalloway” sounds a bit like “dilly-dally away”) is judging herself through the projected events from her memory. Clearly, like in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the plot and action are secondary to the character and her development.

Notes:  These first ten pages wrap up perfectly from the first sentence to the end of the tenth page. The story beings with the proclamation saying that Mrs. Dalloway would buy the flowers herself and as these first ten pages end, after many circular diversions, we are in the flower shop in a seeming profusion of beautiful blooms. The reader has been shown three other merchants with skimpy offerings due to post-war rationing; a fish monger with a single salmon, a jewelry store that features only pearls, a glove shop where in the past one could have bought almost the perfect glove, and “one role of tweed in a shop where her father had bought his suits for fifty years.” Compared to the neighboring shops, Mulberry’s, the florists, is fully equipped with every bloom Mrs. Dalloway can imagine. I have to wonder. Is it? Or is this her imagination – her steaming consciousness – working to create the perfect party on behalf of the perfect hostess. I can’t tell. I’ll have to read further.

Over the first ten pages, we probably spend only three of those pages in the present.  Some paragraphs required multiple readings for me to understand the meaning. The narrative voice shifts, at times, with very little fanfare, and requires the reader to abruptly jump from one scenario to another. It helped me to read quickly so as not to over-think it. It more made sense without a lot of effort as long as I was not distracted by my own stream of consciousness.

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EMPIRE FALLS / Richard Russo

EMPIRE FALLS. Richard Russo. 2001. Vintage Books. (483 pgs)

First Sentence: (from the Prologue) “Compared to the Whiting mansion in town, the house Charles Beaumont Whiting built a decade after his return to Maine was modest.”

(from Chapter One) “The Empire Grill was long and low-slung, with windows that ran its entire length, and since the building next door, a Rexall drugstore, had been condemned and razed, it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory.”

Note: After I read the italicized thirteen page prologue, which is set predominantly in the prosperous past of previous decades, I suspected that the first chapter – in regular block print – would take place in present day (the photo on the book jacket clued me in) so I read the first ten pages of Chapter One and realized that while the Prologue contained the catalytic events of this epic story, the bulk of Richard Russo’s 483 pages would take place in the early 2000’s. So, I’ve decided to comment on the first ten pages of Chapter One instead of the Prologue.

Prevailing Narrative Voice: Third-person with an omniscient narrative voice, the kind that knows everything, can see everyone and what they think, too. This is reflected in the sweeping, “historical” prologue followed by a much slower and more detailed telling of contemporary events.

Setting:  Present day. Empire Falls, Maine, a fictional town based on fundamentally real,  contemporary circumstances

What we learn in first paragraphs: Not only do we learn certain gossipy events of a small, declining factory town population, but we are given strong clues to how this author will tell us the story. Empire Falls is a fictional place that represents a much larger demographic of Maine and America as a whole. Likewise, the narrator establishes an item, in this case the Empire Grill, and then telescopes in and out from short to long range views of the town and its population. We telescope from inside the Empire Grill, to next door, to outside of the Grill. The reader is then slung down to the end of the street and then directly into the thoughts of the proprietor of the Grill and his distain for certain members of his community. This in and out action continues and becomes a device that Russo continues to use in the Prologue and the first ten pages of Chapter One, and, I suspect, throughout the novel. We also learn that Miles Robey, from whose point of view the reader gets their first contemporary view of Empire Falls, is an educated man, smarter than most everyone he knows, and who made a huge error in returning to Empire Falls. This is underscored by an interesting comment the narrator makes. Most people only look out the Empire Grill’s window and DOWN the street toward the failed mill. Rarely does anyone look UP the street (at what we don’t know just yet). Miles Roby’s situation and accounting for the error he has made, it seems, will be a major element of this story.

What we learn in first 10 pages:  Without being derogatory, we learn more of the same. Clearly established over the course of the first ten pages is that this is going to be a big story full of small-town people whose lives interconnect. We meet Myles, his brother, his daughter, the town newspaper reporter, the jerk who married Myles’ ex-wife and during this extrapolation the reader is told from several points of view about the rich woman who owns the town, Myles’ duplicitous father, his dear and departed mother, old friends in Martha’s Vineyard, and why it was probably Myles’ fault that his ex-wife divorced him. In addition, not only do we learn it from Myles’ POV, but via comments and contributions made by the other characters, which illustrates how everyone is connected to everyone else’s business in Empire Falls. Mr. Russo offers the narrative information carefully and evenly, and what keeps the information from becoming an overwhelming list of facts is how he allows each contributing character to invest the information with their own point of view. For instance, Myles accepts much of the blame (and none of the credit) for his failed marriage. His daughter and brother, on the other hand, contradict that point of view. Voila! Differing points of view create characters that are more like real people. What a concept! Allowing multiple character points of view softens the omniscient narrative voice, and allows the reader to follow the narrative point of view without being told how to think.

Plot & Expectations: Right away, the reader must understand that there will be a lot of information to assimilate over the course of this story. It is clear that Mr. Russo’s story has many facets and that the reader is being prepared to receive several interconnecting story lines, but that the pace will be comfortable. Even though I don’t know how all of these characters will influence each other, I grasp that they will. Myles Roby has a very strong relationship to his daughter. His daughter’s bond to her mother is less strong, and that bond is even weaker with her stepfather, who is unanimously revealed as a jerk. I would expect to meet several more characters and proceed along at this pace for at least a hundred pages or so (25% of the total book) in order to understand all of the events, players and how they will interface and conflict, and ultimately resolve.

Comments: There is something about the declining mill town that reflects several areas of the country, Detroit, areas of the south, anyplace that his been hit by recession, and even though there seems to be quite a bit of griping at the Empire Grill, the narrative is revealed with humor or at least irony. As a reader, I feel prepped to travel along whichever course the author and this narrator will go. The fact that Empire Falls won the Pulitzer Prize also makes me more receptive to whatever course and tempo the narrator releases information, and I assume there will be plenty of information revealed as we to travel through Empire Falls, Maine.

On a more empirical note, in the first ten pages Russo delivers who’s talking to the reader (a congenial, omniscient voice), where we are right now (in a Diner, in Maine) what seems to be upsetting this location from being a perfect world (in a recession, in the thought world of a guy who is awfully hard on himself, and in the thought worlds of several of his friends who confirm that message). I feel that as a reader I am being set up to be with people with agree to disagree. And somehow that will come around and bite them.

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THE BEAN TREES / Barbara Kingsolver

The Bean Trees. Barbara Kingsolver 1988. (232 pgs)

First Sentence:  “I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. I’m not lying.” (First chapter title: THE ONE TO GET AWAY)

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  First person. Past tense. A spunky, upbeat recollection from a woman about when she was an adolescent country girl who realizes she might have a chance go farther than her circumstances.

Setting:  The south, possibly Kentucky, in a town of haves and the have-nots. The narrator clearly came from the have-not community.

What we learn in first paragraphs:  It is interesting that the opening paragraphs reflect the second sentence: “I’m not lying.” We are about to embark on the narrated story of a girl’s coming of age and the narrater wants us to believe she is credible. It is also interesting that the narrator offers more information about Newt Hardbine than the main character in order to substantiate the alternative direction the girl’s life could have gone.

What we learn in first 10 pages:  Marietta, who demands to be called “Missy” at a young age, is a success story, because she realizes that she must direct her fate if she ‘s going to avoid following the path of most of the girls in her school; barefoot and pregnant by tenth grade. The action of the first ten pages begins with the tractor tire accident that maims Old Man Hardbine, and ends with the self-inflicted shooting death of his son, Newt. It is the tidiest ten pages I have read so far, and what makes it more convenient to discuss is that Missy uses parallels from the life story of Newt Hardbine as a contrast to her own. The reader is lucky to have this narrator retelling her story from several years down the road. Even though her circumstances are humble the voice is never discouraging. I doubt that I could have picked a better example for first10pages.

A secondary factor, but equally important in these early pages and for the whole story, I suspect, is the absolute, ongoing love and support that Missy receives from her mother, a grateful single parent who says about Missy’s absent father, “He was famous for drinking Old Grand Dad with a gasoline funnel, and always told Mama never to pull anything cute like getting pregnant. Mama says trading Foster for me was the best deal this side of the Jackson Purchase.” Missy’s mother offers Missy alternative ways to view the events of her life and her presence offers the reader confirmation of and a counterpoint to Missy’s movements through the story.

Plot & Expectations:  I don’t know how the title contributes to the overall story as there is no mention of Bean Trees in the first ten pages, but the irony of bean trees seems to underscore the non sequitur of how Missy, a poor country girl, seems to be endowed with the ability to climb out of her circumstances and flourish. Even though the narrator, who resides in the future and voices the story from the future, has the benefit of time to understand past events, she doesn’t give away the outcome, which heightens tension. I expect “older” Missy to recount the story of her life in an engaging and entertaining way focusing on following key life lesson regarding people: “The way I see it, she said, “a person isn’t nothing more than a scarecrow. You, me, (him), the President of the United States, and even God Almighty, as far as I can see. The only difference between one that stands up good and one that blows over is what kind of a stick they’re stuck up there on.”

Notes:  I’ve not read any Barbara Kingsolver, but a close friend of mine was so enamored by The Poisonwood Bible that she detailed the plot so meticulously that I feel I’ve read it myself.  I look forward to reading the entire book. Probably during the summer.

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THE AWAKENING / Kate Chopin

The Awakening. Kate Chopin. 1899. (221 pgs)

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  A third-person, highly detached voice describing a character’s actions and conversations, but not allowing the reader to know what a character is thinking. That voice shifts equally from one to another, giving the same value to persons as to pets, furniture or the weather.

First Sentence:  “A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: ‘Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!” (Get out! Get out! Damn it!)

What we learn in first paragraphs:  After a slightly confusing exchange between a parrot and a mockingbird, we observe Mr Pontellier, unable to focus on yesterday’s newspaper. It is Sunday, mid-day, and he is on a summer vacation with his wife and family from New Orleans in an idyllic setting on Grande Isle, Louisiana.

What we learn in first 10 pages:  Mr Pontellier is a satisfied man who loves his family.  He observes his wife and a young male friend of the family (indicated as “very young” however, more an indicator of emotional maturity since he smokes cigarettes but prefers cigars) emerge from a swim without suspicion of threat and yet he cannot sit still as they approach. At the end of the first short chapter – all chapters seem to be 5 – 10 pages – he kisses his two sons and goes off to the clubs and a late-night poker game. In the second short chapter we are given a detailed physical description of Mrs Pontellier and her young friend, Robert. She is described as “an American woman”. She observes that her husband is not coming back for dinner. At the beginning of the third chapter it is eleven o’clock and Mr Pontellier returns ebulliently intoxicated from many hours of winning at the tables. He chides his sleeping wife for not taking adequate care of the children and laments that he can’t be everywhere at once, making money in business and guardian at home. She ignores. He escalates. He smokes a cigar. She gets out of bed and checks the boys. When she returns to bed her husband is snoring. She retires to a rocker on the porch and begins to cry, slowly at first and soon with such force that “the damp sleeve of her peignoir no longer served to dry them.” She has no idea why she is weeping. The following morning, as Mr Pontellier prepares to leave for a week in the city, he regrets his “lack of composure” the previous night and gives his wife half of his winnings, which “she accepted it with no little satisfaction”. Later in the week an elaborate box of candies, fruit, pate and flowers arrives which Mrs Pontellier generously shares with her friends, all declaring that “Mr Pontellier was the best husband in the world. Mrs Pontellier was forced to admit that she knew of none better.”

Setting:  The lakeshore and cottages of a Grande Isle summer vacation establishment and New Orleans.

Plot & Expectations:  it is important to remember the social backdrop of the time and that The Awakening was written at the turn of the previous century long before the feminist movements and in the midst of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement.  Women did not gain the right to vote in the US until 1920. That said, my expectation, based on the book’s title and from reading the opening pages (chapter three ends on pg 13), is that we are about to embark on a woman’s personal journey of discovering the source of her dissatisfaction and her powerlessness to change her situation and remain within her societal group. Those who awaken to new ideas or life concepts are faced with great upheaval, not from the proposal or its newness, but from the impossibility of maintaining the old order with a new conception. How does one return the round peg to the square hole without damaging both? Mrs Pontillier’s inability to grasp the meaning of her tears immediately following her husband’s accusations bode trouble and is the thread the this reader is excited to follow. The conflict of the book appears to reside in Mrs Pontellier and the realities she will awaken over the course of the novel. Her husband offers the catalyst; the social norms of the time will provide many opportunities for rising and falling action over the course of the story. Even though the text is simply written and even though we are not (yet) invited into the personal thoughts of the main character, it is clear that Edna Pontellier is about to embark on an emotional struggle that will challenge her core believes of womanhood and what it means to be a wife and mother.

Notes:  I intend to finish reading The Awakening as I am curious about how Edna Pontellier navigates the cultural situation outlined in the early pages. From researching (Google-ing) the author and title, it is clear that Edna Pontellier drowns herself at the end of the book. I was able to put that out of my mind while I was reading the first ten, but as I was writing this commentary I had to peek at the last page and indeed, that is the ultimate solution to her dilemma. From page 221, “’Good-by – because I love you.’ He did not know; he did not understand… but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone.” Moments later, “There was a hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.” Hmmm, even in suicide a woman was required to go quietly and with decorum.

Interestingly, I wrestled with how to notate the publisher of this entry. The version I read was a Knopf imprint publication of the Everyman’s Library added in 1992. Needless to say, The Awakening resonates deeply and has aligned with feminine movements since the turn of the century, but in the day, public reaction to The Awakening in 1899 was vicious and Ms. Chopin’s story garnered “offensive reviews and local displeasure” that affected her personally. The Everyman’s Library publication offers a fantastically researched and written introduction by Elaine Showalter, one of the founders of feminist literary criticism in the United States and who coined the term ‘gynocritics’ to describe literary criticism based in a feminine perspective.

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THE HEART OF THE MATTER / Graham Greene

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene. 1948. Viking Press, NYC (306 pgs)

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Third-Person standard, near, but not close. The reader is able to know the thoughts of the character being followed, but to only observe other characters actions and words. That voice shifts from one character to another, but remains consistent, changing at the beginnings of the short chapters.

First Sentence or so:  “Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the iron work.”

What we learn in first paragraphs:  Wilson is new in town, indicated by “his bald pink knees”. The streets of this British Colonial port town are a hub-bub of activity. He sits alone in a bar watching the passersby but has no interest in the black women in the street below and their “brilliant afternoon dresses of blue and cerise”.  It is Sunday and the blacks are heading churchward. The white governmental-classes are at the beach several miles away. A bearded Indian offers to tell Wilson’s fortune. He feels “almost intolerably lonely” as a large vulture lands on the roof of the building across the street.

What we learn in first 10 pages:  Early in the first ten pages we are introduced to Wilson and the tangled local politics from a man who joins him in the bar who is, ironically, a government official whose job it is to read the secret cable transmissions, but has no compunction about discussing them in public. This looseness reflects further as he gossips about Scobie, a high ranking police officer, who passes by, again ironically, as the vulture flaps its great wings.

The story shifts away from Wilson to Scobie, who, from these ten pages I assume, will become the main character of the story. (I’ll have to read past the tenth page to find out.) As we move away from Wilson toward Scobie, the focus of the narrative narrows from the largeness of politics and the city streets to a more personal description of a man “who is reducing”, giving away his things instead of accumulating.  Scobie is informed that he has been passed over for the Commissioner’s position and the commissioner expresses his regret saying that Scobie is just and a, “…wonderful man for picking up enemies.”  After the interview the narrative focus narrows further as Scobie interviews a young black women with a complaint. He want to help, but he has seen in all before and helping would probably cause more hurt than good. He dismisses her admonishing her to, “try and tell the truth,” and then watching, “her go out of the dark office like fifteen wasted years.”

Character:  Interestingly, women play a large part in the thoughts and actions of each of the men indicated in the first ten pages. Scobie has regrets about bringing his wife to the tropics. Wilson is unaffected by the native women in the street. And yet, their point of view and the authorial narrative often refer to women both as setting and atmosphere as well as characters.

Setting:  West Indian Coastal city after the war has started, presumably World War II. Climate is hot and sticky. Everyone sweats.

Plot & Expectations:  Over the course of the novel I expect the plot will follow Scobie, Wilson and others as they negotiate class, bureaucracy, human need, dignity and the smearing effects of gossip. Scobie, a man of decent moral character, is on a downward trajectory and the plot indicates that we will follow his slide as a parallel to the sliding authority of the British Colonial government. It seems that each character, colonial and native, will wrestle with their ability to do good or get ahead in the world. Historically we are watching the end of  World War II and the dissolution of the British Empire played out on an individual, human level in Scobie and the other characters.

Notes:  I have not read a Graham Greene novel before so I was interested to find this hardcover in a garage sale box in the rain. It is interesting to note that the early narrative of The Heart of the Matter telescopes the readers attention from small to larger and then back to an intimate exchange. Greene introduces a character (Wilson), widens the reader’s view to include the immediate bar and street and the characters within Wilson’s visual scope, and then flies into Wilson’s imagination and his shame of being considered a poet. From this loft  point he is interrupted by the arrival of another character who wishes to join him, during which they engage in the first dialogue of the story which slows the pace of the story to real time. The introduction of Scobie at the beginning of the next chapter follows a similar pattern, going from simple physical descriptions to Scobie’s larger thoughts and imagination. The scene ends in a dialogue scene with his Sergent about the girl Scobie will meet at the end of the scene.

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