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 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

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 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. 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. 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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Introduce Location Early, pt.1

People often ask me why I have a blog. If they’ve read some of my posts then they ask me why I’m doing it. My blog is a reflection of the research I am doing for my thesis on the consistent consequential elements that authors include in the first ten pages of fictional novels. Why ten pages? Why not? It’s a nice number. And it’s totally random.

What I’ve noticed in my ten page readings – which, by the way, I’m calling “discovery” instead of “research” – is that the majority of the books I start introduce a location within the first few paragraphs, and usually within the first three sentences. It is my opinion that by doing so the author gives the reader a tangible way to relate to the narrative voice and main character, which are often one and the same. For example, in my most recent posting of THE GOOD EARTH, the reader learns in the second sentence that the main character is “opening his eyes in the blackness of the curtains about his bed. It doesn’t tell the reader EVERYTHING about where the story is located, and yet it gives the reader a starting point. It places the character in a particular location and in turn allows the reader to create an opinion about that character. Even if that location is an unfamiliar or fantastical place, the reader establishes their relationship to the character by the world in which the character exists.

Readers of fictional literature are all (predominantly) human beings with strong ties to particular places and locations. As humans we view the world and our place in it, not the other way around. Even the most self-centered or megalomaniacal personalities who view themselves as the center of the universe have to have a universe in which to be the center of.  The author first introduces location (I’ll say 85% of the time) within the first three paragraphs. It is the main character’s relationship to the place he inhabits, even if that place is completely foreign to the character, that tells the reader how to relate to the character’s story.

People relate to each other differently depending on where they encounter each other. In the case of THE GOOD EARTH, the reader slowly awakens to the new day along with Wang Lung. Throughout the following few paragraphs the narrator describes the mud & straw hut, the cow and chickens sharing the kitchen and the vast sky dawning over their precious wheat fields. Our relationship to Wang Lung is enhanced by Wang Lung’s relationship to his bed, his home, and his fields.


Filed under Just the way I see it

THE GOOD EARTH / Pearl S. Buck

THE GOOD EARTH / Pearl S. Buck. 1931 (260)

First Sentence:  “It was Wang Lung’s marriage day.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: A close third person hovering over the shoulder of Wang Lung, the main character, viewing the world almost exclusively through his senses. In the opening pages of THE GOOD EARTH the narrative voice utilizes each of Wang Lung’s senses as narrative input; his sight, hearing, touch particularly and then frequently dipping into the emotional excitement of his pending marriage night.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: Wang Lung is a farmer living with his father in a three-room, mud and straw dwelling. The day begins with a blend of the ordinary and the exceptional, his father’s ritualistic early morning “faint gasping cough” and Wang Lung’s attempt to make the house look more presentable for his bride. Wang Lung is excited and apprehensive. In the first few paragraphs the author shows Wang Lung inside his dark hut glimpsing out to the sky and his fields with the promise of rain on the gentle wind. It is an omen that promises new life for his wheat and his pending new family.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  The author gradually paces Wang Lung through the beginning pages with the care of his father and his house with many comments on how life will be different with a woman in the house. The reader learns that everything they have is hard-won from the earth. For example as Wang Lung prepares his father’s morning bowl of warm water he splurges with two small flavorful leaves of tea. He debates the wisdom of using all their water to bathe in preparation of the evening to follow. His most recent full body bath was the previous fall. With each debate and decision he justifies his small gratifications with the promise of moisture on the wind that will bring rain. By the end of the tenth page we have not yet met his bride, a slave in a wealthy man’s house, but the reader is well on the way to that meeting. Wang Lung is a cautious man by nature, he deliberates each of his decisions, particularly as they affect the small amount of silver in his purse. It is interesting to note that the reader meets Wang Lung on an extraordinary day, which creates unusual excitement. An ordinary day would be spent in the fields, as opposed to his journey to town where he buys meat, has a shave, and goes to a great house. This unusual beginning heightens the reader’s experience of everyday life in a remote village, which was Pearl S. Buck’s intention with this story – to introduce Western readers to the East.

Character:  The reader primarily meets Wang Lung and his father in the opening paragraphs and the following ten pages of narrative. There are the occasional voices of other folks as Wang Lung ventures into town to meet his bride. The generational relationship between father and son is a gentle metaphor of young man caring for older father. Wang Lung is respectful, patient and dutiful as his father expects. The father is crotchety, irascible and grateful, as is his right. Through brief, often wordless, exchanges between father and son the author reveals character aspects of these two men as well as the character of men of this region, time and place. It would be easy to see – and perhaps Buck is making this point – these characters as farmers on the plains of Nebraska, or Poland, or Guatemala. There is a universal understanding of type that Buck suggests, one that communicates clearly through the personal actions of one man in the early morning hours preparing for his wedding day.

Setting:  The opening sentences place the reader into Wang Lung’s world. After the opening sentence that sets a tone of excitement and premonition for Wang Lung, the narrative brings us to consciousness of Wang Lung’s world through his first waking moments. The second sentence has him “opening his eyes in the blackness of the curtains about his bed.” With each successive sentence Wang Lung experiences his waking world via sight, sound, and sensation and the reader comprehends the setting from behind Wang Lung’s closed, sleepy eyes, building to the dawning panorama of earth and sky over an endless landscape with Wang Lung thanking Heaven for the blessing of wife and rain, a metaphor of one particular man in a small farming area in a vast and limitless world governed by forces well beyond Man’s influence. While the narrator does not say China, per se, Wang Lung’s name and the customs described are particularly rural Chinese.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  The gradual pace of the first pages of this story leads this reader to expect the full story of Wang Lung’s wedding day. As this is a special day, one that has taken Wang Lung away from his fields and responsibilities, this reader would expect for the next chapters to show what every-day life holds. Some of his predictions and wishes will come true, some will not. That’s life. When I mentioned I was reading THE GOOD EARTH to a friend, she clucked her tongue said how sad a book it is. I don’t see that in the first ten pages, and yet I feel prepared for a story of life rising out of the earth like wheat and eventually making its return to dust. The eternal or endless cycle, depending on how one views the flow of life.

Random Comments:  Pearl S. Buck was born in West Virginia in 1892 but raised in China by missionary parents. In writing THE GOOD EARTH and several other books about Asian culture she hoped to bring about a better understanding “between the peoples of Asia and the West.” [Author notes, Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, 1939] She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for THE GOOD EARTH and it was made into a play in 1932 (not successful) and a major motion picture in 1937 (wildly successful). As a book, it remained on the bestseller list for its first two years and returned to the list in 2004 when it was placed on Oprah’s Book Club. THE GOOD EARTH is one of those books that, supposedly, no one escapes High School without reading…except me. I won’t escape grad school in the same fashion. I intend to read the remaining 250 pages right away.


Filed under first10pages review


AWAIT YOUR REPLY / Dan Chaon. 2009 (324 pgs)

First Sentence:  “We are on our way to the hospital, Ryan’s father says. Listen to me, Son: You are not going to bleed to death.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: An engaged third-person voice that seems to come from a luminously distant perspective. The events seem to be viewed from a past that is very familiar, but not necessarily recent. The text tells the reader that events are being recalled with clarity and with the feeling of absolute recall, and yet there is a distant feeling – the safety of memory.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: Well, this is thrilling! As the reader can see from the first sentence, there is considerable urgency. From these opening words we quickly learn that father and son are speeding to a hospital because the boy’s hand is resting on a bed of ice in a cooler on the seat between them. Talk about being hooked into a story in the first few paragraphs! It is interesting to note that the reader is given a big dose of plot/action, but setting and character are left somewhat vague. In the first few paragraphs the reader learns three vital things: there is a father and a son; the son is experiencing shock (quaking, seeing colors, difficulty focusing); there is a severed hand on the seat between them. Very economical. Very exciting.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: After the brief first chapter (1.5 pgs) and the episode in the car with the hand, the reader is introduced to a second set of characters in chapter two, which is also brief at four pages. It begins, “A few days after Lucy graduated from high school, she and George Orson left town in the middle of the night.” Then there is a quick third chapter, also brief (2 pgs), that introduces a third character’s perspective with, “By the time the first flush of recklessness had begun to burn off, Miles was already nearing the arctic circle.” Something larger than plot incidents are being introduced and that is RECKLESSNESS. In these three introductory scenes we meet characters who have done something far beyond their scope of everyday capability. They have stepped outside themselves and into what they can only imagine doing or having happen to them. In the second chapter we meet Lucy and George, but like “the father” in the first chapter, we view George via the experience of Lucy – familiar but distant. Lucy is a recent high school graduate. George is her boyfriend…and her former history teacher. Like with the severed hand, there is a whole lot of creepy in the sudden disclosure of this fact. In the third chapter we are introduced to a very disoriented Miles who has just – suddenly and somewhat recklessly – gotten into his car and driven from Cleveland to Inuvik, Canada on the edge of the Arctic Circle. In the last words of the chapter we learn that he “hopes” to find his twin brother. The reader is given a high level of urgency and excitement, a few facts about place and situation, but very little else in the way of substantiating information. This is a hugely exciting opening – three openings – with a narrative voice that is both extraordinarily familiar and yet simultaneously distant supporting the actions of these three main characters who are very far out of their familiar element.

Character: As I mention earlier, the reader is given a few specific details about each of the three main characters: Ryan, Lucy and Miles, and their states of mind. Each of them is in a highly unfamiliar place and in an agitated state. We are led to draw conclusions about each character based on their present circumstance and with circumstantial evidence that may only outline their point of view in the present moment. Since Ryan, Lucy and Miles are under duress, the reader can not exactly know what their version of regular might be.  Assumedly after page ten, Choan presents enough back story or circumstances that gives the reader a picture of how each character operates under less stressful conditions.

Setting: Each setting is experienced via the somewhat disoriented perception of its main character. Ryan’s setting in the car is highly influenced by his circumstances. Lucy’s arrival at the very odd Lighthouse Motel in the middle of nowhere Nebraska (which reminded me of the motel in Psycho), is influenced by her feelings of abandoning her former life and running away with her teacher/lover. (When you read this book, notice how Choan utilizes the image of her lover’s hand resting on her thigh… after the previous chapter, this is an unsettling callback to the hand in the ice chest.) Miles, who is as far North in Canada as one can get, and as far away from his familiar Cleveland, is experiencing his surroundings as supernaturally glowing from within. Particularly with Lucy and Miles, the reader is given a sample of information from the character’s present experience, blended with expectations from what they had expected the future to resemble.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: Choan, in very few pages, outlines three sets of conditions in three main characters that signal to the reader that there is a lot of excitement and urgency to follow. In a fictional setting such as this where the reader is introduced to three distinctly different situations and characters, one could assume that – somehow – these three stories are going to interact. That would be a traditional expectation based on what the author offers in these early pages. How he does that remains to be seen. Each narrative subject that Choan establishes in the three individual openings feels like a stand-alone story. That is probably not the case, as this is a novel. (Read it and find out.) What I haven’t mentioned yet is that the majority of the fourth chapter falls within the first ten pages and begins (referring to Ryan and his hand) like this, “The man said, “Above the wrist? Or below the wrist?”” It was horrifying for me to grasp that Ryan’s hand had been removed intentionally and maliciously by an unidentified man “with a sleepy, almost affectless voice, the voice you might hear if you called a hotline for computer technical support.” Then the reader is given a description of how this happened and why. It is so creepy! This all happens within the first ten pages of the story.

Random Comments: With any luck at all, Mr. Choan will be given a big, fat film deal for his story I AWAIT YOUR REPLY. With no reservation at all I admit I have read the entire book and suspect that it is one of the finest and most economically written fictions I have read. The graphically disturbing images of the first ten pages give way to different kinds of disturbances in the main character’s situations. I am a very lucky guy, as later today, I will attend a graduate seminar with Dan Choan discussing this story and his observations on story telling. The opportunity to engage with significant, live writers such as him is one of the great benefits of my grad school program. And the faculty assigns great reading material such as I AWAIT YOUR REPLY.

Read this book!


Filed under first10pages review

A WILD SHEEP CHASE / Haruki Murakami

A WILD SHEEP CHASE / Haruki Murakami. 1989 (353 pgs)

First Sentence:  “It was a short one-paragraph item in the morning edition. A friend rang me up and read it to me. Nothing special. Something a rookie reporter fresh out of college might’ve written for practice.” [I posted the entire first paragraph since Murakami’s style often requires several sentences to complete one thought. And this book was written prior to texting!]

Prevailing Narrative Voice: First person narrator and main character throughout most of the story. Occasionally the storyline switches to other scenes or readings from the news that have a different narrative source.  Most of the story continues in present tense or present time activity but switches to the recent or distant past as in recalling a memory.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The narrator learns of an obituary and tracks down information on the family and the funeral.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: What is most startling about the first chapter (8 pages) is that the narrator who tells the story of a girl he hung out with, fed and slept with when he was twenty-one, doesn’t seem to be actually involved with his own story. The characters remain nameless and somewhat unidentified, except for their mental / emotional descriptions. We learn that this part of the story takes place in Tokyo, but we learn nothing else of the where or what the place they inhabit looks like. There is a date stamp of “October 25, 1970” as a chapter heading, but little other information of time, place or setting is revealed to the reader. I estimate that this is to offer a sense of uniformity and interchangeability to the characters, their situation and setting. In the last short paragraph, and from out of the blue, we learn that the girl he is sleeping with projects that she “…is going to live to be twenty-five,” she said, “then die.” July, eight years later, she was dead at twenty-six. This, seemingly, ties the story back to the obituary and funeral at the beginning. In the next section titled: “Part Two, July, eight years later”, we meet the narrator returning home, drunk (presumably from the funeral) and justifying the difference between being drunk and being a drunk, which his business partner has lately become.

Character: There isn’t much to say about character description. This narrator / main character does not describe character traits very far beyond wardrobe quirks and language exchanges. The reader is not offered much in the way of description beyond what they can glean from the narrative. Even though one may feel they are being narrated to by a somewhat disembodied guy, there is still a strong sense of a person with a good story leading the reader down the narrative path.

Setting: In the first ten pages there is so little setting revealed beyond the most intimate and interchangeable elements of chairs, beds, streets that the narrator occupies, this reader wonders if we are supposed to already be familiar with the larger setting of Tokyo in order to comprehend the lesser portions. As there is a large time jump between the first and second chapters and that each of the characters narrated and narrating seem to be mixed up, the lack of ground in the form of setting seems justified. There is a strongly unsettled feeling about the story being told by the narrator, to the point that I don’t trust him to relay information accurately. It is very odd to me that, as a reader, if I am not connected to the setting of a story. In this case I have a difficult time entering the world of the narrator’s story. Murkami has utilized this effect expertly, leaving this reader hanging at every turn, waiting for more information that will support the narrative.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: Like several of the first ten pages posted on this site, there is a tremendous expectation that the narrator is going to let us in on more information at any moment. The title is odd. The events in the first paragraph are odd. The events that unfold during the first chapter are unconventional (think 1970). And so there is a building desire for some element of convention that the reader can relate to.

Random Comments: Why does the reader continue beyond these first ten pages? In this case the book was assigned to my class by a fiction-writing professor. Based on the book jacket blurbs and the author’s bio, I would not have chosen to read A WILD SHEEP CHASE. But, I was soon drawn in to the world of the nameless narrator and all the other generically named characters in the story. (“My ex-wife, my girlfriend, the secretary, the guy across the hall, etc.) Murakami creates a very simple story where the main character must find a sheep. Murakami presents all the information for the narrator to present back to the reader without the narrator grasping the gist of the facts and so he spins his wheels in the pointless (self-admitted) distractions of fruitless meandering that somehow circle around into making a lot of sense. If you are a fan of author JIM KRUSOE’s stories, you will really enjoy Murakami. A further note about character: Even after finishing the story, I cannot tell much of what the main character looks like. I made a racial generalization, which I plugged in to meet the needs of my imagination, but other than “generic Japanese twenty-something pre-slacker” I wouldn’t be able to point him out in a line up. I find that odd.


Filed under first10pages review