When I started this project last October I thought that I’d wrap it up as soon as my thesis was written. It’s written. In fact I finished it in March and got thumbs up from my committee. In June I make a thirty-minute oral defense of my work. My discoveries from writing this blog will be a huge part of my commentary.

I’m so glad I did this! It has made a huge difference in my understanding of what goes on in the opening of a novel and it focused my attention on what I was reading and how it motivated me forward.

So what has changed?

The format, mostly. I must recognize Susan Bell and her wonderful book THE ARTFUL EDIT. From her insightful work I have added several categories to my postings, including language, structure and foreshadowing. Ms. Bell offers excellent advise to writers on how to view their work for the purpose of editing – not over editing, but self editing. I recommend it highly.

Another format addition. I’ve added a category called THEMATIC PREAMBLE. Most significant works offer a three or four page cycle at the very beginning of the story that parallels the main story. An excellent example of this is John Irving’s CIDER HOUSE RULES where the book opens with a generic tale that segues into the story of Homer Wells and the orphanage. Often times a prologue will serve as a thematic preamble.

The thing that hasn’t changed is that I love writing these reviews. Even though I’ve finished my thesis assignment and am scheduled for September graduation I enjoy these close readings and commenting on what will happen after the first ten pages are over.

So for now, I’ll continue to write reviews every now and then, in between the collection of short stories that are due in August for me to graduate.

Thanks for reading.

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TWILIGHT / Stephanie Meyer

TWILIGHT / Stephanie Meyer. 2005 (498 pgs)  First Ten Pages = 2.01% of total book

First (& Last) Sentence-Preface:  “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” [had to include the last sentence of the preface] “The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me.”

First Paragraph-Chapter One: “My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  The voice is consistently that of the first person adolescent girl narrator who is the story’s main character. The story is from her point of view and from her perspective. Tension is heightened by placement in the relatively recent past tense. The sauntering stalker in the short preface is particularly creepy.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: Much effort is made by the narrator to show the huge environmental differences between the warm and sunny home she is leaving (mom) to the cold, rainy and sunless climate of Forks, Washington where she will live with Charlie, her father who is police chief of this very small town.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  Isabella “Bella” Swan, the narrator, who her father calls “Bells”, has voluntarily agreed to live with her dad so her mom can travel with her new husband. Bella has great reservations about her new arrangement, and since she is familiar with Forks from previous visits, she understands the sacrifice she is making for her mother; sacrifice – human, ritualistic and self – being prevailing thematic aspects of this story’s plot and premise. The story begins leisurely with the main events being Bella’s departure form Phoenix and arrival in Forks, where her dad gives her a cool, old truck he acquired from a buddy on the nearby Indian reservation. The early pages of this book cue the reader to settle in for a story of an unassuming girl who dreads the prospect of being bored out of her mind in small town USA. For anyone remotely familiar with the movie and the four sequel books, they know boredom will not be Bella’s problem. The Preface indicates this, but Prefaces are often out of context, as this one is, so they don’t seem to have a bearing on the simple realities presented in the subsequent chapter. I imagine that as the book goes on the reader understands how Bella recognizes her killer and is oddly resigned in the face of this danger.

Language: The language is clear, unadorned and personal as if taken from a sophisticated diary. These are the episodes of a young woman who offers her story without fanfare or hesitation. In these early pages the events – actual plot and her considerations regarding her actions – move steadily forward without recapitulation. In a simple statement to herself in front of the bathroom mirror Bella says, “…if I couldn’t find a niche in a school with three thousand people, what were my chances here?” Bella seems to have a clear picture of herself and in so gives the reader the benefit of narration that is easy to negotiate.

Setting: Having seen the film adaptation of this book it is fair that Bella concentrates on the differences between where she has lived in Phoenix with her mom and the rainy and dank atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest. Over these several pages her anticipation gives way to ambivalence, which becomes a running theme.  Her environmental change and acceptance of her circumstances represent the vast psychological differences in the light and dry world of the mother and the wet and fertile rainforest of the father. It is an unusual twist in the portrayal of male and female concept.

Character:  All characters are projected via Bella’s perspective. Other people in the story take on aspects of stock characters as viewed through the lens of Bella’s youth. Bella and her voice is the constant through which all other perceptions must pass. Bella’s narration and thereby the projection of the unfolding story becomes somewhat tedious in the first ten pages. If the narrator isn’t having a good time, how can the reader expect to have one? Of course, if you’ve heard the buzz about the story, Bella will be running with a different crowd very quickly, and the company she keeps will be challenging to keep up with.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension): Bella is working hard to mitigate the huge life change she is undergoing at the beginning of the story and so the structure is highly controlled and awkwardly nonchalant. Bella is making a great sacrifice for her mother’s benefit. In this seemingly small amount of pages we are given a significant insight to her character, which reflects in the early story’s intentional lack of dramatic roll and pitch. If not for the mysterious and threatening preface, Bella’s story would be much more of an uphill climb for the reader. The risk of losing the reader in the early pages would be far greater.

Thematic Preamble: The preface serves as somewhat of a thematic preamble, mostly in the way that it makes a provocative statement and then abruptly ends at a high point of anticipation. The fact that Bella has a somewhat casual, or at least non-hysterical relationship to her potential murderer, recurs throughout this series of novels.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: It is unfair for me to indicate the intention of the story from these first ten pages as if I had no idea where they are going. I’ve seen the movie. However, knowing what I do (in the same way I had seen the movie of GONE WITH THE WIND prior to reviewing it on this blog) I must say that the preface does a great job of preparing the reader for Bella’s odd upcoming circumstance. I must also comment on the cover art – a pair of translucently pale forearms offering a vividly red apple with both hands. The combination of the nestled apple, its luscious juiciness reverently protected, parallels the loaded meaning of Bella as offered and offering.

Random Comments:  Wikepedia says: After multiple publishing rejections the novel was the biggest selling book of 2008 and, to date, has sold 17 million copies worldwide, spent over 91 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list and been translated into 37 different languages. It is the first book of the Twilight series, and introduces seventeen-year-old Isabella “Bella” Swan, who moves from Phoenix, Arizona to Forks, Washington and finds her life in danger when she falls in love with a vampire, Edward Cullen. The novel is followed by New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn. A film adaptation of Twilight was released in 2008. It was a commercial success, grossing more than $382 million worldwide and an additional $157 million from North American DVD sales, as of July 2009.


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HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED / Joe Meno. 2004 (270 pgs)

First Ten Pages =  3.7% of total book

First Sentence:  “The other problem I had was that I was falling in love with my best friend, Gretchen, who I thought the rest of the world considered fat.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: First person narrative of main character. Past tense.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: It is interesting that the author places the reader immediately into the first person narrator’s mind by announcing “the other problem,” before we learn the narrator’s description or gender. The reader learns more about Gretchen, who is driving the “crappy car” than we learn about the narrator. Gender remains obscured. It is only by process of assumption in the first several paragraphs that one gradually gathers that the narrator is a dude. It is very clear he is in love with Gretchen. It is also pathetic that he is so concerned about how big she is.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: The second chapter takes an interesting deviation from narrative story. Not only does the style shift to a diary entry / mix tape list, it is written by Gretchen. As it is not narration per se (it could be something that the narrator has appropriated), it is an indicator of the multiple styles and mirroring of erratic adolescent actions that are to come. In the third chapter the reader is brought more specifically into the plot through the narrator’s observations of Gretchen’s behavior toward another girl who has been flirting with a guy she is hot for.

Language: The narrator, who is also the main character, Brian Oswald, prepares lists of dream mix tapes and punk band names in separately standing chapters with short editorial comments like “awesome” and  “bad-ass.” From the self-deprecating disclosure, which is first person, it is fairly obvious Brian is a high school student and self-described band geek. His language indicates that he would like to view himself as a slacker, behavior his mom will not allow, counter indicates that he has much room to slack off.

Setting: In the opening we are placed in the immediacy of Gretchen’s “crappy” white Ford Escort, which provides a very close proximity for us to observe Brian’s attitude toward Gretchen and his conflicting physical desire and disgust. In the car, the reader is prepped for Anyplace, High School, USA, but as the action opens up, the novel places the reader in the south side of Chicago. It is interesting to note that the reader only hears the extreme vocal and dialectical style of Chicago’s south side in the minor and secondary characters. If Brian narrated the story with a noticeable regionalism it would detract from the emotional impact of his story.

Character: All the characters are young. Even the adults are immature and adolescent. Brian, and all the boys to some degree, is highly focused on sex and how to acquire it. When the story doesn’t focus on sex, it focuses on music, bands, punk culture, clothing, and if there is time remaining, schoolwork. It is fairly clear from the opening pages that Brian’s major conflict will occur because of his admiration for Gretchen and his distain for her physical appearance. As a self professed “secondary character,” Brian provides the reader with a vantage to observe the actions of his friends and fellow students and their interactions.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension): An exciting immediacy peppers the opening (and I suspect the entire) of this story. Right from the first the reader is plunked into Brian’s running dialogue with himself and those around him. At times he is character. At other times he is observer. As in a Broadway musical, when the pressure of any particular situation, albeit the relatively immature pressures of high school, and words no longer suffice, music takes over. The author includes many references to music from the eighties and earliest nineties that both indicate period and emotional state of mind.

Thematic Preamble: The narrative eye is extremely close to the action of the story. Unlike with a more distant narrative character or a third person narrator, HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED does not provide a clear thematic preamble in the way that something like CIDER HOUSE RULES does. Brian’s emotional immediacy and the fact that adolescents are more prone to display their emotions close to the surface, the reader does not get a sense of depth or thematic maturity at first. I suspect that the course of the book will offer much more in the way of journey toward emotional maturity, supporting what I see as a major theme of this work, which is simply adjusting to growing up and becoming responsible to one’s self.

Intention: Regardless of any maturity deficit, there is strong indication that Brian and Gretchen’s friendship will be put to a test. That Brian begins the story in the middle of a series of problems (see first sentence) indicates that there will be plenty of problems to replace any that might be solved over the course of the story. I suggest that regardless of the “slacker” tone there are significant hormonal variables as play. At quick glance through the book, it seems that the action covers about one year – from junior to senior year – an incredibly (in)formative period of one’s life. The opening pages reflect both the arrogance and idiocy of minor adolescent life, as well as the limitless possibility, even on the south side of Chi-town.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: He is seventeen at the opening. He will be eighteen by the end of the story.

Random Comments: The fourth chapter (which starts on the eleventh page, but I had to read it anyway) is a very funny punk-nerd list called “Causes of the Revolutionary War were many,” which gradually deviates into “Bad-ass names for a metal band….” Totally awesome beginning.


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RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE / Donald McCaig. 2007 (495 pgs)

First Ten Pages = 2% of total book

RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE is the companion piece to GONE WITH THE WIND posted a couple of days ago.

First Sentence:  “One hour before sunrise, twelve years before the war, a closed carriage hurried through the Carolina Low Country. The Ashley River road was pitch-black except for the coach’s sidelights, and fog swirled through the open windows, moistening the passengers’ cheeks and the backs of their hands.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: Distant third person narrative voice. Past tense told chronologically with brief back-flashes to acquaint the reader with past events, ironically, the same as in GONE WITH THE WIND. In RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE the reader has the huge advantage, most likely, of having read Margaret Mitchell’s classic.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: A young Rhett Butler and his close friend, John Haynes, are hurrying through the marshes in a carriage. The reader, via too much dialogue, learns that the driver is the long time servant and accomplished horseman to the Butler family. The reader also learns that John Haynes is very agitated, while Rhett is his classic, carefree self. The book is set in past tense, and the first paragraphs often refer to a time even farther back in the past. It is confusing to trace the present tense of dialogue, the past tense of the narration, and the farther back past tense that the narrator refers to.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  After waxing poetic over the beauty of his rice fields in the predawn light, we learn that Rhett, and John as his second, are on their way to a duel with Belle Watley’s brother. You remember Belle from the movie, the Madame with a heart of gold who shields Rhett and whom Melanie visits in her gaudy carriage? Apparently the brother claims that Rhett has knocked up his sister and now both boys have honor to defend. It is rather like the beginning of GWTW where the two Tarleton twins have been kicked out of another college so all the Tarleton boys quit in fraternal unity. The main thing the reader learns, aside from the logistics of the cow pasture where the duel will take place, is that John Haynes is at wit’s end over the duel and Rhett is the already the calm, cool gentleman he will be thirteen years hence.

Language: Donald McCaig attempts to counteract Rhett’s casual tone with the thundering of horse’s hooves and jostling carriage straps and other such environmental effects. Much of the scene is told in dialogue, which lends an awkward sense of eavesdropping on unfamiliar people. There is something false in the language that mimics that of Mitchell’s work from seventy years earlier.

Character:  More focus is placed on the other characters than on Rhett, or perhaps the author intends for the reader to view Rhett via reflections from the others. The characters that successfully spring to life are those of Rhett and Belle, as they are well represented in GWTW. The others are difficult to visualize.

Setting: “We wouldn’t want to shoot a cow.” Rhett stretched. “My father would be furious if we shot one of his cows.” I suppose the irony of Rhett Butler standing in cow patties against a superior opponent is intended to be, well, ironic. I found myself confused by the opening action, as I found it difficult to visualize. In this case, too much is left to the reader’s imagination because not enough factual narrative informs the opening several pages. At about the sixth page, the story back tracks to an anecdote of his opponent shooting the head off of a whippoorwill at sixty paces, which gives the reader a clear understanding of the gravity of John Haynes point of view, not to mention Rhett Butler’s position as a dueling partner.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  McCaig, on the twelfth page brings the opening duel to it’s climactic conclusion seconds after ending the scene. No, we don’t know the outcome of the duel, as the action ends at: “Shad Watling fired first, an explosion of white smoke at the muzzle when the hammer struck home.” This is immediately followed by: “Nine years earlier”. I’m not concerned about whether Rhett survives the duel. I’m more curious about how the author is going to fill up the remaining 480 pages. It seems to me that what makes Rhett Butler so fulfilling in GWTW is that he remains enigmatic.

Random Comments:  RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE has not been made into a movie.

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GONE WITH THE WIND / Margaret Mitchell

GONE WITH THE WIND / Margaret Mitchell. 1936 (1037 pgs)

First Ten Pages =  .96 % of total book

If only, if only, if only there could be a sound track to this blogisode. One does not have to have read GONE WITH THE WIND to feel they know it. Doesn’t familiarity of the myth and media of a classic familiarize one with the writing itself? (fade up music) Oh, fiddle de dee!

First Paragraph (truncated):  “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. …eyes… brows… lashes… magnolia-white skin…so prized by Southern women… bonnets, veils, mittens… against hot Georgia suns.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: Distant third person narrative voice. Past tense told chronologically with brief back-flashes to acquaint the reader with past events. In these first ten pages the narrator does not reveal any of the character’s thoughts, using dialogue, instead, to give the reader an inside view. The narrator offers a common point of view, such as, “everybody in the county knows…” to differentiate fact from gossip – as accurate as that might be. The narrator makes it very clear, very early, that none of the three characters introduced in the first ten pages, nor many of their neighbors up in the country of North Georgia “…trouble their heads with dull things in books”.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: Similarly to other “classic” (read older) popular stories, GONE WITH THE WIND spends the first paragraph describing Scarlett O’Hara (notice they are the first words of the story) and her unique features, the second describing what she is wearing and that she is a model of Southern women in general, and the third describing her two suitors as models of hot-headed, attractive, aristocratic Southern boys. Even without previous knowledge of the MGM film production the reader gathers a strong impression of the ‘look’ of these people and what they are wearing. The author takes her time with the narrative. Go figure, the story is over a thousand pages. There is plenty of time for set up. Even so, the pace in these three paragraphs is brisk and animated, which matches how the three are adolescent and warm-blooded.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  Whoo laws! Gossip! The BBQ tomorrow, who’s dating whom, who’s wearing what, and which parties will announce their engagement. Actually, in the course of the first ten pages, the announcement that Ashley Wilkes will marry Melanie Hamilton, is a show stopper. The boys carry on and yet Scarlett becomes subdued. The boys are too thick to realize their blunder and are sent off to face their mother, as they have just been expelled from their fourth university. Ms. Mitchell is adept at previewing the name of an upcoming character (Ashley Wilkes via his Pa, Charles Hamilton (Scarlett’s future husband) via his sister Melanie, and a guy named Rhett Butler via a cousin in Atlanta) and giving small amounts of character information. She is able to weave particular character traits into general aspects of character within the social order. She’ll mention Scarlett, and follow it with a paradigm of southern girlhood intended to cover many other girls who will emerge within the story. Conversely, Scarlett poses as a model for the opposite of the many of southern belles.

Language: Decorated. Sharp. Flowing. Descriptive. Picturesque. Blunt. Mitchell uses dialogue to slow down the general narrative description and to focus the reader’s attention on small details of the broad landscape. The size of the book alone informs the reader that there is a great deal of territory to traverse. Mitchell strikes a nice balance in the first pages between exposition and revelation.

Character:  In a way, the three prominent characters seem generically similar (the two boys are twins!) to the place they live. Born southern aristocrats, they seem to act the part, when in reality they are the part – a depiction of the real thing. The author sets them up, but gives them details that are at odds with their generic type. The boys are not well educated, and they are proud of it. Scarlett is not attractive, and yet the odd blending of her genetics create a woman one cannot take their eyes from.

Setting:  Very early in the story the name of their home, Tara, is used, but without the resonating meaning it will achieve in later pages. In this way the reader is slowly introduced to concepts of Georgia, War, Southern, Fort Sumpter, Cracker, Mr. Lincoln or Yankee before they have a larger and personal meaning. Setting is introduced, not so much as physical setting, but in terms of character driven narrative. Ms. Mitchell slowly disperses information as she sets up the story. Character comes first. Place follows. And yet, each character is a product of where they come from. GONE WITH THE WIND is another example of the author relies upon the reader’s imagination and prior knowledge to allow the setting to slowly emerge with relatively little description. There is some beautiful imagery on page eight: “It was a savagely red land, blood-colored after rains, brick dust in droughts, the best cotton land in the world.” Aside from the variations between wet and dry, blood and brick, there is an eerie sense of foreshadow in wet, blood and drought preceding the indication of plenty with the best cotton land in the world. Unfortunately, with the approach of the Civil War, all that will come crashing down.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  I expect the story to unfold gradually. The year 1861 is prominently placed early in the story and is quickly followed by references that led up to the Civil War. Scarlett O’Hara, however, does not want to think about “the war” as it detracts from her favorite subject, Scarlett O’Hara.

Random Comments:  Time magazine included the novel in its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. GONE WITH THE WIND sold for the unpresidented cost of $3 in 1936 and was an MGM classic, produced by David O. Selznick in 1939, starring Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable. They say Margaret Mitchell was not pleased with the film.


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THE CATCHER IN THE RYE / J.D. Salinger. 1951 (277 pgs)

First 10 Pages = 3.6% of total book

OK, here it is, the book that everyone else read in high school except me. I guess I grew up protected from phonies. With Salinger’s passing a couple of weeks ago, this seems particularly timely, in fact, I checked the book out of the library on the day the news became public. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, with its Picasso style Minotaur drawing of a frightened horse, has been sitting on top of the pile while I have been finding other things to do.

First Sentences:  “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  The first person steam of consciousness declaration of the main character is a presumptive teenage voice speaking of recent past events in a recent past tense. Events are relayed chronologically and, in the first ten pages, the action moves in a forward direction.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  The nameless narrator spends the first long paragraph disclosing the events he is willing to discuss, which have taken place “around last Christmas just before I got run down and had to come out here and take it easy.” Out here is somewhere near Hollywood, California where his brother is a “prostitute” / writer in the movie industry. As you read in the first paragraph, the narrator is sensitive to his parent’s privacy, and he is also conscious of social standing, money and the four thousand dollar Jaguar his brother drives. The information that follows refers to a short story the narrator’s brother wrote before he became a “Hollywood prostitute” about a secret goldfish that no one else is allowed to see because the little kid in the story bought it with his own money. What follows is: “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.”

The second paragraph begins the framed story of the narrator’s time around Christmas. It is the end of the school term and he has not been invited back to Pencey Prep in Agerstown, Pennsylvania, one of several prep schools he has been kicked out of.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  The first ten pages (and beyond) are a chronological recounting of his last day at Pencey Prep. He recounts a trip to New York that morning, as manager of the fencing team, losing the fencing equipment and gaining the disgust of the team. When he returns to Pencey, an important football game is in progress, which he ignores in order to visit his history teacher who is upset with the narrator’s failure. This scene continues beyond the tenth page and becomes an admonishment by his history teacher. One also learns that the narrator’s first name is Holden.  Aside from narrated events, the reader learns that Holden has been brought up to be respectful and that it is his nature to be so. In the scene with old Spencer, his teacher, he is deferential and polite, and yet his inner conversation runs on a different track indicating that Holden is a complicated young man; a dispiriting combination of bright and lazy. The action is slow and Holden is anxious to leave as soon as the conversation turns peremptory.

Language: Holden is very aware of social standing and is respectful to his elderly teacher, but the language of his thoughts is casual, sloppy and with a sense of know it all bravado. “I don’t much like to see old guys in their pajamas and bathrobes anyway. Their bumpy old chests are always showing. And their legs… “Hello, sir,” I said. “I got your note. Thanks a lot.” He’d written me this note asking me to stop by and say good-by before vacation started, on account of I wasn’t coming back.”

Character:  Holden is self deprecating and unsure of himself which he masks with outward respect and inward bravado. As he recounts the events of his last days at Pencey, he gives the reader an inside story that serves as running commentary of the thoughts that pass through his mind. Most of his thoughts are derogatory toward others, seemingly in an attempt to build himself up in his own mind.

Setting:  In the first paragraph, the reader is not given any indication of the place where Holden is resting in California. It is easy to forget the first paragraph once the action turns to Pencey Prep school. It seems that Holden will return to the frame of the current story  – in California – but that he is intentionally withholding that information out of shame. He is very descriptive about the school, other characters and his perspective in the past segments

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  I suspect that THE CATCHER IN THE RYE will build in tempo and tension as events progress. Holden Caulfield frankly tells the reader upon entering the story that he is “resting,” a coded term for the aftermath of a breakdown. Why he is in California when the story begins in Pennsylvania is a mystery that may or may not be revealed, as Holden seems to be a rather unreliable narrator. How he attempts to right himself or how he sinks, remains to be seen.

Random Comments: Like MRS. DALLOWAY (also reviewed on this site) and other stream of consciousness stories, the reader is kept at arms distance from events, even though Holden is telling the story in an accessible first person.

The copyright dates in the book say 1945 and yet the book came out in 1951.

It is interesting to me that this book emerged into public consciousness in the years WW2 service men re-assimilated into post war society.

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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: %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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