Monthly Archives: January 2010

HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON / Ethan Mordden

HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON / Ethan Mordden. 1995 (590 pgs) First Ten Pages = 1.7% of total book

Garrison Keillor, the other day, quoted an author who’d said, “The novel is the answer to the question, ‘What is it about?’” This credited, but not captured by me, quote took hold of my thinking, and I wanted to find a way to work it in. It’s in.

[updated 2/7/10: English novelist and critic David Lodge, said, “A novel is a long answer to the question ‘What is it about?’ I think it should be possible to give a short answer — in other words, I believe a novel should have a thematic and narrative unity that can be described.” Garrison Keillor’s version can be viewed at THE WRITER’S ALMANAC from 1/28/10 at: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/01/28 %5D

What intrigued me about Eathan Mordden’s book, aside from the heft of it – just shy of 600 pages, with Part I titled “Los Angeles, 1949 – 1950” and Part IX called “New York City, Gay Pride Week, 1991” – is that I was very curious to know how this story would be told and how much, if any, would be my story. I came into the picture late in Part 2 and “out” onto the Scene around Part 5. From the book jacket it is clearly a gay history, “…as bit by bit, men and women come out of hiding to create America’s trendiest yet most revolutionary subculture: gay life”. I was absolutely mesmerized by Mordden’s Buddies “trilogy” of which I’ve read four out of five in the series. HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON? goes slightly against my thesis presentation criteria – discovery of common denominators in the first ten pages of selected fictional novels I have not read, which have achieved a solid degree of mainstream recognition where the book or the author has stood the test of time, such as it is (say that three times, fast, with quiche in your mouth!), but while I argued with myself over the meaning of “mainstream” I decided (as Mordden so convincingly does in his tril five-logy) that what makes up the mainstream depends upon the influence of its tributaries. Mordden’s books chronicle the history of my chosen family; therefore, I decide it qualifies. Besides, since I have already included SONG OF THE LOON, and LOVE STORY, HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON? is a shoe in and with quality writing.

First Sentences:  “In the days when men were men and women adored them, there was a club called Thriller Jill’s on a side street off Hollywood Boulevard. It was one of those late-night places, that didn’t get going till ten or even eleven. Bouncer at the door, tiny stage for the acts, one toilet marked “Men” and the other marked “Queens”.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Past tense. As indicated by the headings, the story is a review of history from a current point in time. The narrator begins these first ten pages in a broad, third person point of view focusing specifically on the bar and its clientele. However for short moments the voice shifts into the POV of various characters during spoken dialogue and thought. One character in particular refers to herself in the second person “you” voice, which prepares the reader for easy transitions of narrative to slip from one character’s perspective and into another’s. There are also significant moments when the narrator speaks to the reader as confidant and informant in direct address.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  The narrative events supply the reader with realities of the Hollywood gay bar scene during the post WW2 run up to the McCarthy era. The narrator shows how strictly closeted it was on the “Other Side” during a short history of Thriller Jill’s and its many downward spiraling transitions from Italian lunch counter serving movie industry technicians to the dark and closeted element that existed in the other Hollywood. Thriller Jill’s outlines the strong division between the Men and Queens, Johns and Hustlers. Most are introduced as types like the dyke bar-owner, the flamboyant entertainers, the dark and sturdy bartenders, the dirty cops and the Hollywood element that slums around after dark.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  These first ten pages stay mostly within the confines of the bar and give the reader a chance to get hip to the lingo of gay life inside the club and the oppressive elements that force its patrons to hide out on the “Other Side”.  Of the several character types mentioned in these early pages, a small handful begin to emerge with the potential of lasting from 1949 – 1991. We initially follow Lois, the bar owner, who maintains a strict no-touching policy for fear of retaliation by the cops as she moves from the front of the bar to the back area dressing room and dingy office where the reader meets the small coterie of entertainers who make up her staff: a pianist, a comic and an underage crooner. Over the course of the novel, the crooner ages from seventeen to fifty-nine. After spending the first several pages moving through the club, establishing a sense of how-goes a “normal” night, enter Hollywood in the form of a closeted, rising, second-rate matinee idol and his beard, his cover girlfriend, and the oily maneuver that hustles the crooner up to the Hollywood Hills palazzo for a midnight tryst. All the while the crooner keeps eyeing the chauffeur. Distilled, it is the stuff of soap opera. The book jacket calls it epic. What keeps these transparent characters from falling into caricature is the amount of first-person second thought and reconsideration the narrative allows in and between these budding character’s thoughts and actions. The crooner is an ambitious underage punk, and yet the narrator includes his nascent charm and need for a new way to live (ie: perform) via the neutral but sympathetic perspective of the piano player, the adoring eyes of the audience, the competitive nature of his co-worker, the comic. As the narrative point of view illuminates different angles of the same character, individual and multifaceted personality aspects emerge. This story, epic though it will become, begins by familiarizing the reader with a small element of characters against a very large social / political context.

Language: Evidence of a blurry line between the first and third person point of view and the shifting narrative perspective begins on the second page. The narration hovers over Lois, the club owner, as she makes her way through the bar in a long, descriptive paragraph set in her tough, no-nonsense voice. The next paragraph begins even more tersely: “Monday night. Slow. But slow even for Monday, this half-baked movie star slips over to the Other Side in Thriller Jill’s….” Seemingly, the narration is still from Jill’s thoughts and relays what she observes, but, for this entire paragraph, there is no attribution to Jill. In the preceding and the following paragraph Lois thinks, Lois says, but for a moment – a paragraph – the narration could be from the narrator or from Lois, similar to how one maintains a slippery identification maneuvering across one side to the other. This narration being a direct address to the reader and this being an historical – albeit fictional – telling, the reader is required to take part in making history, as history relies on involvement from those who will pass it on to future historians.

Character:  Those who the reader meets at Thriller Jill’s seem to be a very small contingent of the entire cast of characters. Each of the other parts are titled with different city names and cover a forty years span of time. It is not clear who will appear, or when, or how they will mesh, but in the style of an epic, they will. Like an episode of the television series, Star Trek, it is easy to see which character will not survive to the end of the hour. When Captain Kirk puts together a landing party to a planet’s questionable surface, clearly, the young ensign who is not a series regular will be dead by 9:00PM. Clearly, in Mordden’s story, if a character doesn’t get a name and a set of defining characteristics she will not make it to the end of the chapter. Mordden defines his characters, first by their gay type, and then adds in other personal contradictions that create human qualities.

Setting:  Even to the most inexperienced representative of any constituency, there is a huge disparity between the oppressed atmosphere of 1949 Thriller Jill’s and a 1990’s dance club / gay bar. Mordden effectively exploits contemporary cultural gains against mores of a post World War II era in the descriptions of “normal” society versus the secret world of Gays and Lesbians. The dark and dinginess of Thriller Jill’s against the opulence of the movie star’s mansion are images that readily exist in the imaginations of the contemporary reader. Mordden does not spend much page time describing details of setting, since the reader’s preprogrammed imagination and the characters’ interactions within their environment tell the story completely.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON? is a huge book. From past experience of reading Mordden’s work I knew it would be filled with a variety of iconic figures who represent a large majority of homosexual history via a strong core of real and accessible characters. And yes, I’m going to continue reading because I want to know his take on this period in my history. An Ethan Mordden book is like sugar water to a hummingbird: sweet and life affirming.

Random Comments:  Ethan Mordden has an admirable non-fiction output from opera history, Broadway commentary and movie lore. These themes also play major parts in his fictional works. While Mordden’s fictional novels usually end up on the “Gay and Lesbian” shelves, as if the only readers who would want to read about these marginalized souls are a marginalized GLTB audience, my experience in reading his fiction is that I can not stop being glad I come from a history of creative people who are willing to put down their stories so that the youngsters who follow, no matter how oppressed they may feel, will know they are never alone.

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THE BAD SEED / William March

THE BAD SEED / William March. 1954 (215 pgs)

First Sentence:  “Later that summer, when Mrs. Penmark looked back and remembered, when she was caught up in despair so deep that she knew there was no way out, no solution whatever for the circumstances that encompassed her, it seemed to her that June seventh, the day of the fern Grammar School picnic, was the last time had she known contentment or felt peace.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Past tense. Third person selective singular. From the opening line the reader is introduced to the internal thinking of Mrs. Christina Penmark. The narrator observes and reports on all the characters, but only enters Mrs. Penmark’s thought process.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The beginning of this book is immediately unsettling with the statement implying that the reader entering a conversation already in progress. “Later that summer…”. The story starts from a point in time that is in Mrs. Penmark’s memory. The narrator tells the reader, quite frankly, that there is a great amount of unhappiness in store for Mrs. Penmark. As soon as the first sentence finishes, the tone switches to an idyllic picnic setting – a picnic that is scheduled for the following day, and then to the historical significance of that annual event. The narrative takes a third step backwards to explain a time when the picnic’s hostesses were young girls. Young Rhoda, the title character, her mother, Mrs. Penmark, and Rhoda’s teachers, the hostesses who are from Rhoda’s grandparent’s era, represent three generations, an important aspect of the book’s theme; sometimes a “bad seed” passes down the line.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  The story begins very much in the same vein of a “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” episode. One can practically hear the underscoring in the background. The reader is familiarized with Mrs. Penrose, her natural excitement for the annual picnic, and her genuine admiration of her daughter’s ability to rise, dress and present herself so capably, “particularly the complicated plaiting her own thick, blonde hair.” One must remember this is the early 1950’s and all of the other characters except Rhoda lean closer toward the Victorian than the Modern era. Rhoda is presented as a regular child with excellent manners, but even as she impresses everyone else, her Mother observes and then dismisses Rhoda’s ability to manipulate in subtle but convincing ways.

Language: The language is a bit florid and seems to float in an artificial way. Commonplace events are “perfect” and “wonderful” which seems to indicate that Mrs. Penmark is in some degree of denial.

Character:  While Rhoda is the title character, it is her mother, Mrs. Penmark, who is the catalytic one and who, seemingly in retrospect, becomes hyper-vigilant in her observations of her daughter. She is not a suspicious woman, but she suspects that something is not right. This is played subtly in the early pages, since too much doubt on her part would tip the balance against Rhoda. Each of the other several characters who are introduced in the early pages are drawn clearly enough and reinforce what a remarkable young lady Rhoda is. It is unfortunate that Rhoda, in her psychopathic way, will turn against several of them in order to obtain something they have or cover her tracks from a previous event. But, I’m getting way past the first ten. Within the first ten pages we hear about a young boy who won the penmanship award, an honor that Rhoda wanted and is rather peeved about not getting, which is too bad for the boy.

Setting: The reader is not given as clear a relationship to place, or as early, as in many of the other books on this site, but taking a very close look at the first sentence one understands that the place the author begins this story is in Christine Penmark’s turbulent thoughts. The reader is placed into a vague notion of location via the nexus of her thought-storm, which points to the Fern Grammer School picnic. This indicates to the reader that the story has a starting point that includes children, teachers and parents. Otherwise the opening of the book is turbulent and murky, as is Mrs. Penmark’s very slow realization that her daughter is THE BAD SEED.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: Why, one must ask, when there is so much effort on the narrator’s behalf to show what a happy and harmonious existence there is in this fictional town “between the river and the bay,” is June seventh the last day that Mrs. Penmark will know happiness or contentment? This is a major expectation, which must be answered by the end of the book.

Random Comments: THE BAD SEED was William March’s last and most popular novel. Considered a second rate novelist, this book became an instant success and in 1954 sold over two million copies, was made into a highly successful play and won four Academy Awards for the 1956 film with the original Broadway cast. Unfortunately, Mr. March passed from a heart attack one month after the book was released. I’ll bet Rhoda did it.

Elaine Showalter, in her preface to the 1997 Ecco Paperback edition commented, “Today, even those who have never read the book, and never seen the play or film, use March’s image of the “bad seed” as a proverbial term for an evil child.”

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SONG OF THE LOON / Richard Amory

SONG OF THE LOON / Richard Amory. 1966 (184 pgs)

First Sentences:  “A brilliant day; the high May sun streamed through the Douglas firs, into pools of air, tangibly blue. Darker green, the waters of the Umpqua fell in tiny crystals from the paddle – waves from the canoe sighed in the shadows of white alders and lacey vine maples.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Third person narrator from a past tense point of view.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The first paragraph describes a brilliant river forest setting. The second paragraph describes a shirtless, deeply-muscled man paddling up a river. The third paragraph tells how the man is drawn to the shore and eventually into the smoothly muscled, with sinews flexing, arms of Singing Heron, an Indian, who lays languidly on the bank playing his simple wooden flute. One. Two. Three. The author presents setting. The author presents a character within the setting. The author presents the character reacting to tension that occurs within the setting. This establishes conflict. (woods + man in the woods + unusual sound of flute in woods = tension & discovery).  The story has a simple set up with a classic introduction of location and character which leads the reader to the main plot and conflict of the story.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  It is apparent from glancing at the cover of this pulp classic that SONG OF THE LOON is written simply. It is a classic adult gay male porn story presented as a wild west drama between the good (handsome) white guys, the hot, muscled, sun-browned Indian natives and the evil white guys (some presumably dumpy and some hot and studly).  As this is classic porn, Ephraim MacIver and Singing Heron are rolling about in the bushes by page four. Before their tryst, we learn that Ephraim is deeply troubled, having been jilted and left for dead by his ex-lover, a confused and difficult man. Ephraim is also being hunted by the evil Mr. Calvin for a yet unexplained reason. Singing Heron offers character-strengthening observations from the wisdom of his people (read: the gay, liberal Indians) and once Ephraim experiences the “power of love” he will “understand”. Singing Heron fixes dinner before he illustrates his take on “the power of love” and it is obvious from all the rippling muscles, powerful thrusting, loving caresses and full releasing that Ephraim has understand the lesson. To keep this in an historical perspective, THE SONG OF THE LOON was published and circulated three years prior to the Stonewall Revolution. It is easy to draw parallels of the utopian, gay sex-positive, psycho love speak offered by Singing Heron to the powerful draw of gay bars and bath houses offered only in urban settings. That this story takes place in the deep woods of the rural Willamette Valley and the rugged coast of Northern Oregon where, in 1966 they would have been ridiculed or shot a la BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, gives SONG OF THE LOON an ironic twist. But, hey, gay men are very comfortable with irony, it being one of their major defining characteristics. Also since the environment of the story exists in a classically male world (the untamed out of doors) and that there are no women present, homosexuality is the only sexual option (animals excluded). In the case of these first ten pages, where everyone is hot, hung, rippling and horny, and since Singing Heron promises there will be “many more of his tribe” along Ephraim’s journey, it seems that SONG OF THE LOON will offer many more pages of steamy deep-woods couplings for its generally closeted mid-sixties readership.

Language: As with the set up and plot, the language is simple and undecorated. As Ephraim and Singing Heron first become acquainted there are echoes of gay male street cruising following the way men would have gathered in the mid-sixties urban bars and bookstores. The language of their discovery, courtship and lovemaking is cloaked in sentimentality and metaphor – I mean who would choose “penis” when one can write, “he glanced at Ephraim’s manhood, thick and muscular like an oak tree.” One can only wonder, with bark or without.

Character:  Ephraim is a good man who has been done wrong, which parallels the “homosexual everyman” who has been abused, spurned or shunned by a homophobic community. Ephraim has integrated some of the very homophobia that surrounds him and it is through Singing Heron’s open, uncomplicated view of love, community and love making that the reader sees, even in the opening pages, that Ephraim will be opened to a new way of living and respecting himself. Singing Heron is representative of the simple, subservient ethnic person whose true purpose in life is to support the white man and give him a good roll in the grass before his new hero moves on to another of his caste. Ironically, Singing Heron’s observations are intelligent, honest and foreshadow a generation of ‘respect-yourself’ psychologising that has been in effect in therapist’s offices and advertising campaigns since the mid-seventies. Leave it to the gays to take advantage of a movement or create one. Other characters are introduced into the plot: the self-hating ex-lover, the wise Indian leader, the evil gay-bashing villain and other caricatures, but they have yet to appear in these opening pages.

Setting:  The woods are dark and wild, but a mysterious place. Above the trees there is lots of sunlight, at ground level it is murky and moist; typical of the Pacific Northwest. The setting functions as a larger metaphor for the wild untamed, freedom offered someone looking for a trail that will take him off the beaten path. Or perhaps just the path where he can get beaten off. Sorry. Had to. There are a couple of geographical landmarks mentioned to locate the reader in some part of the world: Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River; the Willamette River valley and a couple of other towns that may or may not be fictional. What is most important is that the author creates a fantastic impression of a substantially real location, similarly to the way gay men might dream of a place where they can be one hundred percent true to their nature and have that nature be encouraged, respected and reciprocated by others.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  Oh my goodness! Of course one expects several more scenes of rippling muscles, shafts of iron, and smooth brown features supplicating over taut and hairy masculine flesh, but believe it or not, in the first ten pages, there is the set up for an interesting conflict with the potential for treachery and suspense.

Random Comments:  SONG OF THE LOON was a gay cult classic and made into an “art film” that relied heavily on the success of the book. The basic theme of the book and the movie is that it is OK to seek and have more than one lover at a time as long as you… wait for it… love the one you’re with. In a more hard-core version, the film would have been called “ Song of the Loins”. Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week. How’s your steak? Etc.

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THE ROAD / Cormac McCarthy

THE ROAD / Cormac McCarthy. 2006 (285 pgs)

First Sentence:  “When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Third person familiar. Past tense. Unaffected, simple, functional. Considering the past tense voice, what makes this post-apocalyptic story so engaging is the constant comparison of the world as we know it (the past), to the world the story says is yet to come (the present). The narrator is neither of the two characters presented in the first ten pages, and I imagine will remain an unnamed character throughout the story. Much of the suspense of the story lies in the fact that these characters are seemingly alone, and yet “man” carries a loaded pistol in his belt and is on guard at all times. It is compelling to see how simply McCarthy utilizes two commonplace structural forms to support his story: third person – unseen, and past tense – unattainable. This kind of story could have been told as a first person account, but to have an unnamed, unseen observer in a dangerous world adds suspense.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The first sentence tells the reader that “man”’s awakening in the night to monitor the child is a generic, ongoing act. In the next several sentence McCormac gradually shifts the action from generic, nightly routine to waking from a specific dream as if every night feels like every other night in a world such as this, and one’s dreams are as dangerous as the waking hours. The author transitions into the dream by the sixth sentence of the book and it lasts half again as long as the first page. Presenting the dream so early in the narrative give it elevated importance, one that will recur, even though the reader does not return to the dream before the end of the tenth page.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: The world has undergone a dramatic change. It isn’t explained, yet, and it has happened long enough ago to become blurred in memory (before the boy’s birth?) but not so long ago that one can’t remember the days prior to the cataclysmic event. “Man” comes across a telephone in an abandoned gas station. “…he picked up the phone and dialed the number of his father’s house in that long ago.” The boy asked him what he was doing.

Language: I found McCarthy’s abbreviated and sometimes abrupt linguistic flow mesmerizing. His sentences seem to fall away from familiar grammatical form as the post-apocalyptic world of THE ROAD presents to an unfamiliar reality. Complete sentences are often followed by descriptive fragments or lists of meaning, like a billboard “Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered.” McCarthy frequently uses prepositional phrases, often several in succession (like the first sentence quoted above) as if relationship currents between characters are undergoing constant adjustment or redefinition. In a failed society such as in THE ROAD breakdown is constant. McCarthy utilizes intentional violations of grammar to support the mood and environment of the story.

Character:  The characters of “man” and “boy” seem to metaphorically resemble greater imagistic pairs of older / younger elements such as: responsible / vulnerable, vigilant / dependent, hardened / innocent, watching / wondering. They are the only two characters the reader comes in contact with in these first ten pages; however most of the dream that occupies the first page is of a monster in a dark, subterranean cavern (don’t let yourself think Beowulf!) and is given more descriptive detail than either “man” or “boy”. We learn more about these two main characters through their actions and their response to the eerie journey through empty, burned-out forest and town. Their vigilance against intruders is markedly more strange since over the several days covered in the first ten pages, they don’t encounter another living being.

Setting: The narrator gives regular, but subtle reminders of the gray ash the covers most objects and drifts down from the sky. “Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.” It is an interesting use of “before”. Does he mean before the event that caused this or each day is successively darker and grayer? It is clearly a bleak world, made bleaker by man’s interaction within it. The character “man” is a man, as the reader would know a human man to be, and his son whom he loves is a real boy, not a fantastical being or a Terminator, or a Beowulf. And yet, monsters have created this world.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: How did this happen? What did mankind do to let this happen? What will become of “man” and “boy”, literally and metaphorically? Is the book better than the movie? How will Viggo Mortensen look in a parka and a bushy, unkempt beard? I expect to meet more characters. Whether they are in the past or in the present, remains to be seen.

Random Comments: I originally read these first ten pages standing in the aisle at Powell’s, thinking that I could take notes and remember enough to write my comments. Foolish me! When I went back to buy it I had to force myself to stop after the tenth page. I can’t wait to post this so I can read it.

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THE LUNATIC, THE LOVER, AND THE POET / Myrlin A. Hermes

THE LUNATIC, THE LOVER, AND THE POET / Myrlin A. Hermes. 2010 (363 pgs)

First Ten Pages = 2.75% of total book

Preamble: This is the first preamble I’ve written on this site, for this is the first book I’ve commented on that is yet to be published. The author stumbled across First10pages.com from a Facebook posting and asked if I’d be interested in including her book. Wow! Sure. Here it is.

First Sentences:  (from the Prologue entitled: Magicians And Messengers)“Even the face you will remember is not her face at all, but only its reflection in the mirror: painted white, black lines inked in around her lowered eyes.”

(from Chapter One entitled; What Is Carried Across) “A translation. That is what the gentleman originally wanted, nothing more.”

I also want to note that the title comes from a speech in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the speech is quoted on the preface page prior to the prologue.

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Well this is interesting! Not only is this short prologue set in the present tense (the first line is set in a future tense), but the narrator is speaking in the second person (gender-unspecific) voice about his or her childhood self. The first chapter clearly shifts to the past tense – as in recalling the events of a story from a single point in time – but remains in first person voice, which is male.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  I recall being confused during my first reading of the prologue. It is an intimate scene of a mother reading from a much-loved storybook. The most obvious story element is that the child is enraptured with her stories, most of which would seem to be about the child’s father. Regardless of which one she chooses, the much loved, leather bound book belonged to the child’s father.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  As the prologue is from the child’s perspective, and that the child is drifting off to sleep, it is understandable that there is an element of slipping away and perhaps why I felt somewhat confused. Other than being in a bedroom, the story could be taking place in any period of the English speaking, story-telling world. The first chapter is much more helpful in that “Wittenberg” and “philosopher” are placed in the first paragraph (and the placement of the Shakespeare quote at the beginning) clues me in to the fact that we are probably in Germany in the time of Hamlet (plus the headline on the publicity postcard is “Was Hamlet Gay”), and yet even by page ten of the first chapter, I’m still not clear on who the (male) first-person narrator is. What we concretely learn in the first ten pages of chapter one is that a student of philosophy has been retained to translate a romantic story for an important gentleman, the Baron de Maricourt, who wants to impress his guests with the presentation of a play at a Midsummer Ball. (btw: the quote at the beginning is from the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, during the part when the nobles are trying to figure out what’s been going on in the forest.) I found it difficult to grasp exactly what was going on in these early pages because I didn’t have a clear understanding of where the action was taking place or who the main character was. It is clear that he is a writer and that he is frustrated, but so was William Shakespeare in “Shakespeare In Love”. I also think my confusion was partly due to my understanding that Hermes’ story uses the frame of Hamlet and Shakespearean literature as major plot points and in my head I was trying to plug-in parallels from my understanding of Hamlet and other Shakespearean plots. Fortunately, six pages into chapter one the story returns (after the main character procrastinates on his translating job and cruises the apprentice trimming the quills) to back-story information presented in the prologue. The most surprising point is the return of the leather bound story book, which the reader discovers is blank. Blank! The reader learns that the, as of yet, unnamed boy grew up in a monastery, the son of a whore who was burned for sorcery. For this reader this is where the story really begins. At this point the reader becomes emotionally engaged with the young man and his idiosyncratic behavior. It is here that the metaphor of an open, blank book coalesces with the current story of the young man.

Character:  As mentioned above it is difficult to grasp who this young man is until the reader is given particular information on his present situation as compared to his past. I believe this reinforces the point I have made in other postings on how comforting it is to a reader when the story is located in a specific place and the narrator/character’s relationship to that place is defined. The boy in the prologue is the object of the prologue, while his mother is the subject. The verb is reading a bedtime story. The young man of chapter one (and beyond, I presume) is an outsider, which is an excellent point of perspective for a narrator, and yet the mysterious beginning kept this reader apart from the story until it became personalized by the narrator’s connection to the prologue information. By the end of the first ten pages the only information about the narrator and his state of mind is provided by the narrator, who we know has a strong connection to fantasy in that he reads stories from a book that has no writing. This narrator might be unreliable.

Setting:  Wittenberg. After Martin Luther’s church door posting (1517) and during the life of William Shakespeare (d.1616). There is little setting description in the opening pages. The boarding house where the main character lives is said to be on the side of campus near the noisy road with ox carts. There is a descriptive passage of the apprentice who is cutting quills into pens, but there is not a lot of specific visual imagery employed in the opening pages. My imagination filled in some of the movie images from “Shakespeare in Love” in the spaces that felt empty.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: Who is this narrator? This is element number one that I want provided very soon after page ten. With a total of 365 pages there is plenty of space to draw out a complete picture of all the crucial elements, however a reader only reads one page at a time and their aggregate knowledge of a book is the page they are reading and the pages that preceded it. The rest is silence.

Random Comments:  Well, I found out that the main character’s is Hamlet’s best bud, Horatio, and the only one of the main characters left standing at the end of Shakespeare’s play. Included below is the book description of Ms. Hermes’ story from HarperCollins.com.

I enjoyed the beginning of Ms. Hermes story, regardless of what I’ve written above. Her story is very readable and she sticks to a narrow set of facts in the early pages of her novel which keeps the reader’s attention focused on the world of the story as she is creating it. Based on the little bit of PR information on the postcard that came with manuscript, this is the beginning of a very clever story that asks, “Was Hamlet Gay?” Hamlet is the longest and most written about of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m looking forward to finding out which side of the closet door Ms. Hermes’ story places him.

From HarperCollins.com regarding Myrlin A. Hermes’ story THE LUNATIC, THE LOVER, AND THE POET, in stores January 26, 2010: “When a freelance translation job turns into a full-scale theatrical production, Horatio arranges for the theater-loving prince to act in the play-disguised as the heroine! This attracts the attention of Horatio′s patroness, the dark and manipulative Lady Adriana. A voracious and astute reader of both books and people, she performs her own seductions to test whether the “platonic true-love” described in his poems is truly so platonic. But when a mysterious rival poet calling himself “Will Shakespeare” begins to court both Prince Hamlet and his Dark Lady, Horatio is forced to choose between his skepticism and his love.”

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BORSTAL BOY / Brendan Behan

BORSTAL BOY / Brendan Behan. 1958 (362 pgs)

First Sentence:  “Friday, in the evening, the landlady shouted up the stairs: “Oh God, oh Jesus, oh Sacred Heart, Boy, there’s two gentlemen to see you”.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: First-person narrator in an immediate past tense. As the narrator is the main character narrating his own story, and as dialogue frequently forwards the action, the narrative feels as if it is occurring in present tense even thought the verbs are in the past.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The reader immediately learns that two “gentlemen” are cops and that the “Boy” they’re after is the main character, an Irish Sinn Fein terrorist. The narrator, Brendan Behan, and the cops exchange various levels of insult, but there seems to be an odd kind of respect between the arresting English Sergeant and the boy. The action is quick and dialogue between them, short. We also learn that he is sixteen years old.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  The reader may not get a clear picture of the house they are in even though the narrator refers to places in the room: window, door, fireplace, chair, etc. Every item seems to be generic and seemingly undecorated. The curtains are just curtains; no color, texture or pattern. As it turns out they are in a boarding house and Brendan feels like an outsider, hence the generic feeling. The next setting (and one that he will probably be in for a while) is prison with all of the generic imagery of his cell, the washroom and the prison personnel. Regardless of location, the narrator seems an ebullient youth and well versed in the Irish / English conflict, mostly from personal experience. There is a brief scene during the arrest in which the sergeant tells Behan “what a silly lot of chaps” these Irish boys are and how they “don’t even know why (they’re) bloody well doing it”. The sergeant dares him to name the Six Counties. The narrator pretends not to know them all, yet underneath his glib exterior he is passionate and committed to his work. In a brief scene in the washroom he strikes up a relationship with another prisoner who offers him cigarettes and a newspaper. Later, the narrator hears him singing an Irish song from a far off cell.

Character: As this seems to be a self narrated biography the reader receives a great deal of information from the narrator’s perspective, particularly his thoughts. The reader learns what the narrator looks like based on comparisons he makes to other characters. The reader sees other characters, most of who are prison guards and police officers who dislike him intensely, from the narrator’s biased point of view.

Setting: As mentioned above, the narrator is in prison for much of the first ten pages, and it looks like he is going to stay there for a while. The larger setting is the Irish / English conflict that has been in progress for decades. Through the narrator’s brief musings on his being incarcerated the reader understands why he feels there is no shame in being so.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: The narrative flow of the first ten pages is very smooth. Behan’s narrator is an amiable storyteller. It is difficult to guess where the story is going since prison seems like a dead end option. I expect the book to offer insight, perhaps balanced, perhaps not, into the narrator’s participation in Sinn Fein and how it affected the rest of his life. I suspect that the reader will learn a bit about the Ancient conflict between the green and the orange.

Random Comments: Brendan Behan was a poet and a playwright whose material came mostly from the incarcerated periods of his life as well as his connection to the Irish Republican Army.

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THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY / Oscar Wilde

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY / Oscar Wilde. 1891 (244 pgs)

First Sentence:  “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” (Preface)

“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” (Chapter One)

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Distant third party (not even person) narrator who only has observational power. The narrator is a traffic director (stage manager might be closer to the point) who makes occasional descriptive observations about scenery, costume, facial expression and movements within the room, but has no relationship to any of the interacting characters. The characters within the story speak the narrative to each other, as it is told entirely in dialogue, eg: “You don’t understand me, Harry,” answered the artist, “of course I am not like him.” It is so much like a play that it is difficult not to imagine a boxed drawing room set on a proscenium stage.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  As at the beginning of a stage play, the first few paragraphs describe the artist’s studio and the two men who are in it. We are in London with the sounds of birds mixing with distant traffic sounds. And there is an artist’s easel in the center of the room with a picture of a captivatingly handsome young man. What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  The painter, Basil Hallward, is in the midst of an existential crisis over the discovery of his muse, a young man named Dorian Gray. Basil’s close friend questions him about the young man, the portrait, his mood and simultaneously the reader is given a great deal of background information. On the surface, Lord Henry is trying to understand the reasoning that Basil won’t display his most recent paintings to society. Basil responds that it would violate the delicate relationship between artist and muse, and more to the point, he is afraid that if he displays his paintings the socialites might see something in his work that he has not been able to articulate to Dorian Gray. It is a bit melodramatic and very “the love that dare not speak its name”.

The preface is unusual in that it is series of paired statements, the first states a position, the second modifies or promotes the first: for example: “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. / Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.”

Character:  Lord Henry Wotton…Basil Hallward…the butler’s name is Parker. The names sound like the character list off an English Drawing Room Drama program. What is awkward to a contemporary reader is how absolutely fey the men sound. If Basil didn’t mention to Lord Henry what a good and devoted husband and father he was I would have thought that Lord Henry was making some serious moves on Basil. Basil continually waxes over Dorian’s characteristics, which are all couched in the metaphor of the artist’s relationship to his muse.

Setting: It seems very important to the author that the reader is oriented in place through out the character’s speeches. The narrator does not spend any time in the thoughts of the various characters; instead the author uses the narrator and the characters to paint a picture of their locations through brief narration and dialogue, relying on certain stereotypes of what a “drawing room” or “a park” would look like to a Victorian reader. It is interesting that with the first two words, Wilde points out the place where the title object has been created: “The studio…”. It is also interesting that the room is “filled with the rich odour of roses” as the rose was the sacred flower of Aphrodite the great Olympian goddess of pleasure, joy, beauty, love and procreation. It is also emblematic that the secondary fragrance is the delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” Even with knowing the briefest outline of what happens to Dorian Gray, the fact that the narrator is calling our attention back to the rose bush’s floral and thorny combination has particular meaning when one thinks about the fair young man who stays lovely as a flower, while his picture more closely resembles the rose’s stem.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  Duh. An aging portrait in the attic. Aside from the little I know about THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, the first ten pages have prepared me for how dialogue heavy this story is going to be. Dialogue gives a feeling of slowness, for one can only forward the plot as fast as one can speak. With narrative, an author can skip over the mundane bits and streamline a scene of two men talking in real time. On the other hand it heightens the suspense for the reader to glean the general direction of their discourse as it’s revealed. I suspect that if Dorian Gray is going to stay young while his portrait ages, the action of the story will be somewhat episodic so that we can cover many decades.

Random Comments:  The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared in 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and is often mistakenly referred to as The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

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BREATHING LESSONS / Anne Tyler

BREATHING LESSONS / Anne Tyler. 1988 (388 pgs)

First Sentence:  “Maggie and Ira Moran had to go to a funeral in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania. Maggie’s girlhood friend had lost her husband.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Third person narrative. Very close on both Maggie and Ira, but the narrator is closer on Maggie and knows her thoughts. The narrator closely observes Ira as if it is Maggie doing the observing. They’ve been married for 30+ years, if that explains anything. The narrative is told in the immediate past tense and the author frequently uses dialogue between Maggie and Ira, which is predominantly in the present tense. This makes the narrative seem particularly immediate.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  Maggie set the alarm clock wrong. They got a late start. She is dressed up, but her panty hose are droopy. She wants to go to the funeral, Ira does not. We learn that even though they’re not in agreement, they know how to navigate around each other with the least amount of disturbance. They have lived and worked in the same Baltimore neighborhood for over thirty years.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  In her haste to get to the funeral, Maggie has a fender bender with a Pepsi truck, but drives off from the scene of the accident. It is a sore spot between her and her husband, but we also learn that Maggie and Ira have been married for many years, have a grandchild and are “in it for the long haul.” Maggie also discovers that her daughter-in-law is preparing to remarry; the first time was for love, this time will be for security. This has such a strong effect on Maggie that the dichotomy feels catalytic toward a major tension of the story.

Character:  Both Maggie and Ira are very clearly drawn through their clothing choices and the way the comment on each other’s actions. Maggie walks and drives through her nearby neighborhood and the blend of residential and business buildings seems to reflect the kind of people the Moran’s are. Maggie appears unfocused and both characters are upset by the auto accident, but they manage their emotions to avoid confrontation. I mention this as character description, since running parallel to their efforts to avoid confrontation is the upset that their daughter in law is “leaving” their family for another man.

The first ten pages BREATHING LESSONS focuses more on character and character set up than on location or setting. It seems that while these characters fit logically into their setting, who they are is more important that where they are. Still, it is easy to understand that Baltimore and Ira and Maggie Moran run on a parallel track.

Setting:  The action starts in Baltimore and by page 5 the action is on its way to Deer Lick, PA. The settings are simple and put forward simply. While no particular descriptions of their home and neighborhood are detailed, enough information is disclosed to give the reader a sense of the type of neighborhood they live in. It is easy to suppose that they will return home and the reader will receive more details of their home and home life when they return. Since much of the action of the first ten pages centers around their car, the reader has a stronger sense of the vehicle and its (tattered) condition.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  There are several parallels and allusions made to happy married life versus secure married life. The first line clues the reader into a marriage that is gone out of balance due to a lost husband. Even though Maggie and Ira cope with their disagreements and differing points of view, there seems to be an underlying tension that Maggie will have to confront. Maggie comments on a trait of Ira’s: he whistles. Not only does he whistle, but when he whistles the lyrics of those songs make sub-textual commentary on conversations between Ira and Maggie, which, according to Ira, are unconscious.

Anne Tyler’s writing style is easy to follow, encouraging the reader to add in the small details. Her characters in BREATHING LESSONS are about to fall into emotional crisis or crisis of personal value. Tyler does not spend a large amount of narrative time on details, since what is about to come is far more important than the buckle on a shoe, or the pattern on a dress. That’s the way I see it.

Random Comments:  I have read two or three of Anne Tyler’s other novels. Middle-aged woman in crisis seems to be a popular theme. It is an easy bet that Maggie will undergo some serious consideration regarding her marriage, her place in the family or the validity of her life to date.

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LIVE AND LET DIE / Ian Fleming

LIVE AND LET DIE / Ian Fleming. 1954 (159 pgs)

First Sentence:  “There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Third person. Very close and observant of the chronological telling of events as if they have just recently happened. The story is told in past tense and often utilizes a passive verb choice, such as “the man had stepped forward” or “what was happening to”. It is very different in tone from the James Bond film franchise where the language is strong and direct. The sensibility in the book is considerably softer and more effete.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  James Bond is a secret agent. James Bond is landing at Idlewild airport (Long Island. The reader is told that luxury and privilege await agent Bond, yet Bond anticipates bureaucratically drudging through customs like a regular visitor with its “drab-green rooms smelling like last year’s air and stale sweat and guilt and fear….”. The list goes on. What I learned in reading the opening of LIVE AND LET DIE that this book, and probably most of the others, are not very well written.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  In the first few paragraphs and throughout the first two chapters that comprise the first ten pages, the narrator utilizes several topical references contemporary to the early 1950’s, which are intended to fill in the blanks where the narrator has elected not to give the character’s impression of his situation and location. The narrator name-drops that Bond is arriving on a Stratocruiser (a luxurious flight), FBI, CIA, Secret Service, and over the Triborough Bridge into a teeming concrete jungle smelling of petrol. There are several references to Civil Defense, the cold war and the Atomic Bomb. Upon arrival at the St. Regis Hotel, Bond is whisked to his room, all the mundane details he has anticipated, evaporated. What is odd about these introductory pages is, while the reader is given a great deal of detail of the world surrounding James Bond, there is very little physical description of Bond or what he looks like. Perhaps as LIVE AND LET DIE was the second Bond book (CASINO ROYALE was the first), the author relies on the reader’s memory, and that they have read book #1.

The second chapter is a flashback to James Bond’s meeting with his boss “M”, for whom he has great respect. Bond is deferential and follows orders. The reader is given back-story on Bond’s previous case where he sustained an injury from a Russian spy from SMERSH and his upcoming assignment to the US and Caribbean Islands where he will meet his nemesis Mr. Big, head of the Black Widow voodoo cult and a known member of that evil Russian spy organization!

Character:  In this installment of the James Bond adventure, the reader doesn’t learn so much about the character of James Bond, but instead about the character of the world in which Bond is a secret agent. There is a naïve quality to Mr. Bond, particularly in his meeting with his superior, “M”, which is not present in the film adaptations. The reader, as mentioned before, is given several references to cars, bridges, the cityscape, and the deferential attitudes of those who are greeting Bond. These attitudes reflect back onto Bond and give the reader clues to the identity of this world-class secret agent. Of course it is difficult not to see Sean Connery, or in this case Roger Moore in his debut at Agent 007.

Setting:  Like said above, the world Bond operates within – upstanding and nefarious – is the setting for this story. In a strict sense the reader is placed in the locations of New York, London and will eventually travel to the Caribbean and other places with James Bond, but the underlying setting is that of Cold War Europe and the US. In the first ten pages there are at least two dozen references to Atomic War, bombs, spies, agents, secrets and the need to defend “ourselves”.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  Between the first two chapters, the forward motion of this story has been put into place. We have seen Bond land in NYC and welcomed by his FBI / CIA counterparts. We have gotten the background on his assignment to track the golden treasure flowing from the Caribbean to the US via Harlem to finance the Russian underworld dealings of SMERSH.  In keeping with the formulaic style of the genre, the third chapter opens with, “And now it was ten days later,” which insures that the reader returns to New York and where James Bond was operating prior to the flashback.

Random Comments:  It is interesting to note that Ian Fleming’s bio on the book jacket says that he is (in 1962) a member of the editorial board of The London Sunday Times, which makes sense given the journalistic style his book has taken; chronology, single sentence paragraphs, references to current events, and a sense of narrative reportage.

There are several uncomfortable and insulting racial references toward members of several ethnic groups, particularly black characters, which Fleming refers to as Negros and Negresses. While he is being briefed about Mr. Big and the assignment, Bond makes the alarming statement, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a great Negro criminal before…Chinamen, of course, the men behind the opium trade. There’ve been some big-time Japs, mostly in pearls and drugs. Plenty of Negroes mixed up in diamonds and gold in Africa, but always in a small way. They don’t seem to take to big business. Pretty law-abiding chaps, on the whole. I should have thought.” His superior, “M” responds that Mr. Big was born in Haiti with “a big dose of French blood.” It is awkward to read, even fifty years later.

Interestingly, Ian Fleming intended for his second book to be less of an action-thriller and be a more serious meditation on the nature of evil. The novel’s original title was The Undertaker’s Wind, however, his publisher offered him a three book deal and required Bond to continue in the style of the popular CASINO ROYALE.

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LORD JIM / Joseph Conrad

LORD JIM / Joseph Conrad. 1900 (363 pgs)

First Sentence:  “He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  A focused, but somewhat distant third person, past-tense voice. This narrator is unlike most of the other third person voices I am familiar with, as he (yes, I experience it as male) is connected to the main character and yet never feels as if he is actually in the same location as the main character, Jim. This narrator is the classic storyteller who, in these early pages, draws the reader / listener into what will, most likely, be a long, satisfying tale.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: LORD JIM begins unlike the majority of stories presented on this blog, and unlike most contemporary novels I have read. LORD JIM begins with a brief physical description of an unnamed man and then continues to describe a type of man by the work he does, in this case a ship-chandler’s water-clerk. In the first paragraph we are told that this unnamed man is tall, powerful, and slightly stoop shouldered in the manner of a charging bull. We also learn that his voice is deep and loud, that he wears white and is immaculately dressed. The only hint of location is a vague reference to “various Eastern ports.” Following paragraphs continue with a job description and the type of man who would hold it. The reader is clearly not given much specific information about Jim or where Jim is because Jim does not want to be discovered.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: Jim is constantly on the move. When his past catches up to him he moves to another of the “various Eastern ports”. In fact the narrator discloses Jim’s behavior as “incognito”, the object of the sentence, as if it is a piece of clothing. In the opening chapter (6 pages) the narrator gives a hasty overview of Jim’s early life and his love of the sea. The narrator acknowledges an event that changed the course of Jim’s life and then teases the reader with Jim’s gradual Eastward retreat from white men to the Malayan jungles where he is eventually given the name Lord Jim. Very few distinguishing facts of Jim’s early life are disclosed, no towns are named, and his mates and teachers are referred to by their rank and title. One curious exception is a story the narrator yields to illustrate the life of adventure Jim expects from the sea.

The second chapter (6 pages) continues at a much more stately pace. The story settles down to more detail. The reader is hooked. The storyteller will offer more information if the reader is willing to wait for it. In chapter two the unnamed narrator (similarly to the scantily detailed “Lord Jim”) becomes more than an unseen third person device, he begins to allow a sense of perspective into the story. This prompts the reader to accept that whatever the tragedy that has kept Jim running to “various Eastern ports” include mitigating circumstances that might require the reader’s consideration. In chapter two Jim begins a journey (from where, we don’t know) on a third-class vessel called the Patna, which is transporting 800+ “souls” from one part of the world to another, led by “an Arab”, their pious leader. Aside from the Patna the only other detail with a proper name is the Red Sea.

Character:  Jim is a mystery, as is the storyteller narrating Jim’s story. The reader is given few identifying details of where the story takes place or the characters in it. Jim’s desire to prevent his past from catching up to him is masterfully illustrated in the method that the narrator gives out very little identifying information, as if he is saying this story will stay just between us. In lieu of character the reader is given a description of the type of man who would love the sea and hold certain jobs. The reader is given the description of a boy who witnesses a river rescue and asserts that a life on the sea would offer the same kind of excitement in every foreign port.

Jim’s incognito drives the mystery. The undisclosed provides the storyteller’s hold over the reader. In a more journalistic telling of Jim’s story, a narrator would know all the events and that narrator would be able to fill in the blanks with material from the conclusion of Jim’s story. The narrator’s hold over the reader is that he is able to parse out the story in a somewhat chronological fashion, throwing tidbits of information into the mix that promote what the narrator really knows, baiting the reader to continue.

Setting:  “Various Eastern ports.” This so goes against the theory I presented in the previous blog about how 85% of the time an author locates his main character in a specific place within the first several sentences of the story. With LORD JIM this is just not so. LORD JIM is a character driven story. The reader is given enough information to deduce that the story takes place in the Middle and Far East. Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon, Penang, and Batavia are named as some of the last cities Jim visits, but by the telling, Jim is long gone.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:   I expect Jim’s life story told by a distinguished storyteller. The reader is aware that Jim has done something he is ashamed of. Guilt keeps him running. I expect the narrator to offer evidence to exonerate Jim enough to make him a sympathetic figure. I would expect to get much more deeply into Jim’s psyche and personality, as well as the places he is going. If these things remain secret for a significant portion of the book, this reader will lose interest.

Random Comments:  I found this copy of LORD JIM in a garage sale box and am so glad I did. Reprinted in 1957, it includes several biographical articles and author’s notes that I found very interesting. For instance, born December 3, 1857, Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski (Joseph Conrad), one of the major English novelists, knew no English before he was twenty-one. From the landlocked Ukraine, a son of landed gentry, he developed a passion for the sea and didn’t begin novel writing until he was thirty-eight. He did not achieve any measure of recognition for his stories until he was well over fifty.

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