Wednesday, May 1, 2024

First Lines: April 2024 edition

Fence.  Shore.  Summer.  2015.

Below are the first lines of the books I finished reading in April.  Most are short books.   I did not plan to read two books in a row with the word “unexpected” in the title, but that is what happened.



Book 1

Part One: 1993

The morning was ideal, a crime to waste it cooped up.  They were off to the shore.  That means you, too, Pasha – you need some color, a dunk would do you good, so would a stroll.


Book 2

Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches stood at the top of a high mountain surrounded by a pine forest.  It looked more like a prison than a school, with its gloomy grey walls and turrets.



Book 3

Open Door

The first time I got drunk was on Elijah’s wine.  I was eight or so.


Book 4

Semiotics, Pubs, Decisions

It was summer.  The forward movement of the year, so tentative in the early months of spring, now seemed quite relentless.  

Book 5

Act One, Scene One

It is 1957.  TROY and BONO enter the yard, engaged in conversation.  TROY is fifty-three years old, a large man with thick heavy hands; it is this largeness that he strives to fill out and make an accommodation with.



Book 6

My Big Brother



had a



but now

         it's permanently lit.


Book 7

The nurse walked out of the room, closing the door behind her, and Mrs Pollifax looked at the doctor and he in turn looked at her.


Book 8

On the day that he was due to retire, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovered that he had inherited an elephant.

Elephants depicted on miniature elephant canvas.
Painted by Older Daughter, 2014.
The canvas is wood, about 2 inches wide.


Book 9

Chapter 1: The Kind of Problem Poverty Is

I recently spent a day on the tenth floor of Newark’s courthouse, the floor where the state decides welfare cases.

Did not finish

The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.  She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind.

The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya.  320 pages First published 2014.


The writing style gives us a froth of words, boiling over.  Cacophony amounting to nothing meaningful.   THe first two sentences you read up above may be the shortest sentences in the book.  My husband (who did not finish the book) pointed out that this confusing barrage of words may be brilliantly designed to reflect the confusion that an immigrant may feel on arrival in the US.


I disliked all the characters, their lives, their motives, their way of speaking.  This is one of those books where all the scenes take place in grime, either actual or metaphorical.


Here are a few words from several NPR reviews (all misleading):

·  a multitude of exuberant set pieces about modern émigré life

·  tart eloquence to her character studies

·  the excellent debut novel

·  such a breath of fresh air

·  patient, understated prose

·  Akhtiorskaya's dry, brilliant sense of humor


I thought it was going to be at least rather amusing, if not outright funny.  It turned out to be dark, frantic, and depressing.  I only finished it because I was the one to pick it for book club.  A rash decision, to suggest a book one has not read.  But to not finish would have left me with unending guilt.


Non-panicked suitcases


Book 2

The Worst Witch (#1 in the series) by Jill Murphy

107 pages • first published 1974.  Children’s lit.

One of many light reads this month.


Book 3

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

224 pages • first published 2005

Started strong.  But I skipped portions of the later essays.  Some of them seemed to meander.  I like the author’s writing style and I like reading essays.  I will probably read more from her.



Book 4

Espresso Tales (44 Scotland Street #2) by Alexander McCall Smith, illustrations by Iain McIntosh

345 pages • first published 2005

Having 17 books in this series makes life more tolerable.  I supremely enjoy these characters.  I have not read the series in order.  This is the 2nd in the series, and the 5th one I have read.


Book 5

Fences, by August Wilson.

119 pages.  First published 1986.

Masterful.  For book club in June.



Book 6

What About Will, by Ellen Hopkins

384 pages.  Published 2021.  For Grade 5 or higher.

This book is about a pre-teen whose older brother experiences addiction (trigger warning – attempted suicide).  It’s a meaningful story with interesting characters.  I hated the writing style.  Inexplicably the book is written in “verse”, which means a regular sentence is split up to land on several lines.  I don’t call it poetry just because the lines end up that way – the language has to be poetical also.  The advantage of this style is that a 384-page book is a very quick read.


 Book 7

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (Mrs. Pollifax #1) By Dorothy Gilman

208 pages • first published 1966

A totally improbable spy novel.  Quite enjoyable.  Most of the novel takes place in… well, let’s just call it an undisclosed location.


Book 8

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation #1)

By Vaseem Khan.  320 pages  • first published 2015

A totally improbable murder mystery. Quite enjoyable.  Most of the novel takes place in Mumbai, India.


Book 9

Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond

284 pages • first published 2023.  The main text is 190 pages; the footnotes take up about 40% of the book. 


The premise of this book is that poverty in the US is intentional, caused by policies that most of us approve of; most of us benefit from the existence of poverty.  It is, for sure, an uncomfortable thesis.  It will make for a good discussion at church next week.


The section on rental housing vs homeownership was eye opening.


The author is spot on when he says that the question to ask about a particular economic situation or policy is:  Who benefits?

The question that ... we should ask every time we drive past a tent encampment, those tarped American slums smelling of asphalt and bodies, every time we see someone asleep on the bus, slumped over in work clothes, is simply:  Who benefits?  Not Why don’t you find a better job?  Or Why don’t you move?  Or Why don’t you stop taking out such bad loans?  But Who is feeding off this?  (page 79)


This book is a quick read for those who don’t need to refer to the footnotes.  But ever since my read of the Mueller Report, I have loved footnotes with substance.  As I was reading Poverty, by America I would question whether the numbers quoted were in constant or nominal dollars (i.e. had inflation been taken into account).  I had to refer to the footnotes for that.  As another example, that section I quoted above has a whole page of a footnote that makes a very important point.


Some of the footnotes have meaty explanations that I wish were in the main text, but maybe that would make some people quit reading.


The author is a sociologist at Princeton Univ.  I am sure economists (and maybe sociologists) will disagree about the cause(s) of poverty and solutions to eliminate it; for me to make my conclusions I will have to do more reading. 


Did not finish

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O'Connor

264 pages • first pub 1955

Great writing.  I kind of saw which direction the story was going and could not read further, given my current mental status.  I am completely intrigued that by page 17, we know the names of the son of the grandmother, and his children, but not the names of grandmother nor the mother of the children.


Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Absolutely Wonderful

cherry tree in bloom April 2024

Today I went for a walk outside and discovered that spring has arrived.  I hadn’t noticed sooner that our Kwanzan cherry tree is in full bloom.  I hadn’t noticed sooner that the big lilac bush is on the verge of blooming.  I hadn’t seen until today that the neighbor’s dogwood tree looks stunning.  Suddenly today there is evidence that it is time for tiny children to learn how to ride tiny bicycles.

I don’t know yet if this is a break in my recent pattern.  In the last week of February, I was energetic enough to get myself to walk (inside, on the treadmill) every day. I was successful, for about a week, at engaging in this healthier practice.   Then my aunt died, and that exercise effort ceased.  There was just so much to do and at the same time so much to process in my head and heart.

Bleeding heart.  So delicate.

My aunt would have loved a day like today.   She was by vocation an artist, especially in watercolor painting.  She thrived on noticing color, shape, and line.  Her go-to phrase was “Absolutely wonderful!” which is how she would have described today. 

We weren’t expecting my aunt to depart so soon.  She had been quite ill, but I really thought she would turn the corner.  Earlier in the year, she said, “I’m planning to make it to 90 years old.”  I thought she would, but she missed it by a few weeks.  My last words to her were, “I love you, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”  And she replied, "Wonderful!" I had planned to drive to see her the next day, but it was not to be.  Instead, we made the trip to the funeral home.

I have conflicting emotions I am working through.  And a whole lot of estate tasks I am working through.  I was glad to have some moments today to leave all that behind and enjoy the flowers and warm air.

Lilac bush ready to bloom

Sunday, March 31, 2024

First Lines: March 2024 edition

Reading skills

Below are the first lines of the books I finished reading in March.   It’s been a tough month, for reasons I may go into later on.  Or not.

About mid-month I found I was disappointed with the large list of books I had hastily downloaded to read in the hopes of taking my mind off things. I haven’t even listed them here as “Did not finish” because I didn’t get far enough.  I abandoned those, and instead I searched for authors I had enjoyed reading in the recent past.  And found something I actually liked reading.


Book 1

That Veronica and I were given keys and told to come early on a frozen Saturday in April to open the school for the Our Town auditions was proof of our dull reliability.

Book 2

September 1955

It had been raining for hours and still a light pattering soaked the cobbled pavement, fallen leaves swimming in puddles all around.

Book 3

1:  Pat Distracted on a Tedious Art Course.

Pat let her gaze move slowly round the room, over the figures seated at the table in the seminar room.  There were ten of them; eleven if one counted Dr Fantouse himself, although he was exactly the sort of person one wouldn’t count.

Book 4

1: I Really Hope… But Then Again

As the final chapter of my junior high school life comes to an end, there’s so much that I’m hoping for… or AM I?  For example: I really hope that I get into art school.  But I’d miss all my friends at RAD. 


Book 5

The Story of Two Sons and Their Father

There was a man who had two sons.  The younger one said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that will come to me.”


Book 6

Prologue:  Tumult at Carnegie Hall

May 5, 1916. Some three thousand people are packed into seats on both the sloping main floor and the four tiers of boxes and balconies sweeping in graceful arcs around the side and back walls.


The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett. Published 2023. 312 pages. 

I loved this book, I think, because of the rhythm of it, the acknowledgement of the pandemic, and because the main character used the dilemma of the pandemic to tell her story (or at least some of it!) to her children.  The love that is expressed in the family, the sense of home that was found after searching – it turns out I was longing to read about that.  I read it for book club, to be discussed in May.

The one big problem with my reading of it is that I have never seen nor read the play Our Town, which features prominently.   I also liked Patchett’s recent memoir. But I could not read Bel Canto. I am not a full-throated fan of Ann Patchett’s writing, sad to say.



Book 2

The Radcliffe Ladies' Reading Club by Julia Bryan Thomas.  384 pages. First published 2023.

The book takes place in the mid-1950s in Cambridge, Mass.  The first part of the book seemed stilted and weird.  A woman who has left an unpleasant situation in Chicago establishes a book shop in Cambridge, near Radcliffe & Harvard.  She hosts a book club in her shop, to which four undergrad women show up.  The book discussions were interesting to me but mostly involved the bookshop owner pedantically driving the book discussion.  The characters of the four college women seemed one-dimensional.  Then suddenly the book took a very dark turn, with a violent incident.  It seemed like a completely different book.  But I guess this plot twist was what kept me reading to the end. 



Book 3

Love over Scotland:  44 Scotland Street Series #3, by Alexander McCall Smith.  Illustrations by Iain McIntosh.  First published 2006.

Lighthearted, funny, loveable characters.  Bertie’s trip to Paris is The Best.


Book 4

School Trip, by Jerry Craft. Y.A. graphic novel.  248 pages. Published 2023.

The author is a Newbery Medal winner for a different book.  This one seems geared toward middle school kids, but it held my attention.  I liked the art work and the characters, although a few characters are ultra-annoying, to make a pedantic point, as is sometimes the case with YA novels. 



Book 5

 ​​The Return of the Prodigal Son:  A Story of Homecoming, by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Published 1992. 162 pages. 

I read this for my church’s Lenten study.  It’s slim but gave me plenty to think about.  A parable is an allegory which gives us an opportunity to decide which one character in the story represents us.  Nouwen’s genius is to depart from that unnecessarily narrow method, allowing a much richer understanding of the parable.

I found myself exploring the title of the parable/book in other languages.  Here are two.  The German one is very different from the notion of “homecoming” in the English title.

Title in Dutch: Eindelijk thuis = Finally Home

Subtitle: Gedachten bij Rembrandts 'De Terugkeer van de Verloren Zoon

= Thoughts on Rembrandt's 'The Return of the Prodigal Son

Title in German: Nimm Sein Bild In Dein Herz = Take His Image Into Your Heart 

Subtitle: Geistliche Deutung Eines Gemäldes Von Rembrandt

= Spiritual Interpretation of a Painting by Rembrandt


Book 6

Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes by Adam Hochschild  320 pages • first pub 2020.

The story of a woman in the early 1900s who marries a man in the upper class but who maintains her passion for rights for workers.  I picked this book because I had read another by this author, and appreciated his writing style.  

The book starts out with a public violation of the Comstock Act, a law originally passed in the 1870s which outlawed the distribution of contraception or information about contraception.  As our (bad) luck would have it, the Comstock Act is rearing its ugly head now, 150 years later.  Pay close attention.  The powers that seek to control and oppress are still there and still strong.