Saturday, June 3, 2023

First Lines: May 2023 edition

Two of my progeny reading
on a bench in Philadelphia in 2012.
Because what else is there to do in Philadelphia?

Below are the first lines of the 8 books I finished reading in May, 2 of which were children’s lit.  This was election month, with a candidate in the house, doors to knock, and deadlines to meet.  (The candidate and his slate won the primary election - on to November!)  But also we went on vacation (after the election) which meant I had a little extra time to read these 2,381 pages.



Book 1


When people say “terminal,” I think of the airport.



Book 2

You may think you know what’s inside, but you don’t.

You see the boxy buildings, brick or concrete – flanked by lush green athletic fields, a primary-colored playground, or a crumbling blacktop spiked with rusted basketball hoops – in front of which yellow buses groan exhaustive sighs before depositing or collecting lines of chattering bag-backed students.

         Look deeper.



Book 3

Kneeling in the fragrant moist grass of the village green Clara Morrow carefully hid the Easter egg and thought about raising the dead, which she planned to do right after supper. 


Book 4

Jane and Prudence were walking in the college garden before dinner.


Book 5


Every historian writes in – and is impacted by – a precise historical moment.  My moment, this book’s moment, coincides with the televised and untelevised killings of unarmed human beings at the hands of law enforcement officials, and with the televised and untelevised life of the shooting star of #Black Lives Matter during America’s stormiest nights.


Book 6

At the end of the century before last, in the market square of the city of Baltese, there stood a boy with a hat on his head and a coin in his hand.


Book 7

Mma Ramotswe had by no means forgotten her late white van. 


Book 8

(The book begins with graphic pages)

“Happy birthday to Youuuuuuuu.”

“What’s this, Donald?”

“This is your birthday present. It is a Ulysses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 200X!  Happy birthday.”

“It’s a vacuum cleaner.”

The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot, by Marianne Cronin.  Published 2021.  323 pages. 

Quite amusing in parts, despite the centrality of death in the story.  Made me cry at the end.  Everyone in book club loved it.


Book 2

The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession, by Alexandra Robbins. Published 2023.  338 pages.

In which it is credibly posited that teachers have a very hard job, sometimes with untenable working conditions.  I am a little untrusting of books that try to make a point with just anecdotes, but this book intersperses national statistics with a deep dive into the stories of three particular teachers.  I am descended from teachers and in general have respect and fondness for teachers and the teaching profession.  I tend to agree with the author that many teachers in the US are not adequately compensated for their jobs.



Book 3

The Cruelest Month (Chief Inspector Gamache #3) by Louise Penny.  311 pages. Published 2007.

In which it is acknowledged that this tiny town in Quebec has a morbid past.  Enjoyable, and funny at times.  Includes murder and  baby waterfowl.


Book 4

Jane and Prudence, by Barbara Pym.  222 pages. First published 1953.

I was delighted to find this Pym novel that I had not known about.  The story is akin to Jane Austen’s Emma, but set in the 1950s. Pym excels at depicting nervous wives of clergy and workplaces where it is unclear what kind of work is being done.  Prudence works in Dr. Grampian’s office, where there is grave uncertainty about the usefulness of the work and the workers:   

Dr. Grampian was some kind of an economist or historian, she believed. He wrote the kind of books that nobody could be expected to read.


His voice droned on, dictating endless sentences without verbs.


The characters' names are sometimes Dickensian:  the office co-workers Mr. Mortlake (Deadpool?!) and Miss Trapnell, the villagers Miss Doggett and Mrs. Arkright.  In a Pym novel there is usually at least one character named obliquely in reference to church terminology:  In another book there is Father Greatorex; in this book perhaps it is Mr. Manifold.  As in “Join with all nature in manifold witness To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.”  And in several scripture verses.


This book fulfills my need for tea featured in writing.  Pym would have us believe that pouring out tea is a challenging skill and also a great honour. Perhaps in 1953 England she was correct.  Of course, there are some things that Simply Are Not Done:

         ‘Have you some garlic?’ Prudence asked.

         ‘Garlic?’ echoed Jane in astonishment. ‘Certainly not!  Imagine a clergyman and his wife

                 going about the parish smelling of garlic!’


Book 5

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi, 592 pages. Published 2016.

A few adjectives for this book: all-encompassing, challenging, necessary, damning, and in the end, hopeful.  The author makes his excellent and difficult point repeatedly, but repetition is necessary, because his thesis upends just about every way I have had of thinking about the role of racist ideas in our history.  The book examines major figures who spoke and acted on racial justice, diving into where each famous figure exhibits antiracist and, yes, racist thinking.  It’s mind-blowing to read about how W.E.B. Du Bois or Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. or William Lloyd Garrison promoted antiracist ideas at this point, but racist ideas at that point. 


I am grateful to my friend Tracy for pointing me to this book.  I’m planning to read it again at some point.  I think there’s a children’s adaptation.  Regarding page count in the version I read: the text ends at page 510 and the rest are endnotes, discussion questions, and other info. 



Book 6

The Magician's Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo with Yoko Tanaka (Illustrator).  224 pages. Published 2009.

It was okay. As with the other DiCamillo stories I have read, an animal features prominently.   I enjoyed DiCamillo’s  The Beatryce Prophecy and Flora and Ulysses a bit more than this one.

Book 7

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency #12) by Alexander McCall Smith.  213 pages. Published 2011.

The familiar thoughtful characters, and a not too strenuous plot. Includes talking shoes.  Good for vacation reading.



Book 8

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo with K. G. Campbell (Illustrator)  240 pages. Published 2013.

My second reading.  It’s a favorite.  Recommend.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

First Lines: April 2023 edition


Below are the first lines of the 6 books I finished reading in April.   I see a faint outline of a common theme this month: imprisonment, literal or figurative, not of the character’s own making.



Book 1

Session One

My name is Cara Romero, and I came to this country because my husband wanted to kill me.  Don’t look so shocked.  You’re the one who asked me to say something about myself.



Book 2

The hills of Jerusalem are a bath of fog.  Rami moves by memory through a straight stretch, and calculates the camber of an upcoming turn.



Book 3

Though the sun was hot on this July morning Mrs Lucas preferred to cover the half-mile that lay between the station and her house on her own brisk feet, and sent on her maid and her luggage in the fly that her husband had ordered to meet her. 


Book 4

Answelica was a goat with teeth that were the mirror of her soul—large, sharp, and uncompromising.


Book 5

A Wild and Lonely Place

Fortrezza, Near Bondeno, 1561

Lucrezia is taking her seat at the long dining table, which is polished to a watery gleam and spread with dishes, inverted cups, a woven circlet of fir.   


Book 6

Day 1,299 of My Captivity

Darkness suits me.

Each evening, I await the click of the overhead lights, leaving only the glow from the main tank.  Not perfect, but close enough.



The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, by Angie Cruz.  2022.  208 pages.

Hilarious and yet poignantly sad, all at the same time.  Recommend.

I read this for book club, for the discussion in July or August.  But these days, when the book arrives on my kindle from the library (due to an injustice that is just added to other much greater injustices in the world), I have to read it.


Book 2

Apeirogon, by Colum McCann • first pub 2020.  480 pages.

A singular book that requires a lot of effort by the reader because of the narrative style.  I usually admire a book that has a structure that reflects the book’s theme – this one has that in spades.  The subject is difficult; the characters are fascinating and likeable.  I gave it 5 stars on StoryGraph but caution that it takes concentration to read.  The author classifies this book as fiction, but it is very much based on real people and real events, centering around the killing of two girls, one Israeli and one Palestinian.  The page count is somewhat misleading, as there is more than usual blank space on each page.  I read it for book club, which is where I learned that the narrative structure is called "kaleidoscope."


Book 3

Queen Lucia, by E.F. Benson.  The Mapp & Lucia Novels #1.  1920. 

244 pages. 

I chose to read this because some list somewhere tagged it as a comedy of manners. Sometimes a reader requires a 1920s comedy of manners in order to escape current events.  I stopped reading this one in order to finish some book club books.  And when I came back to it, I had forgotten some of the details about the characters.  The characters are amusing, but the woman who wants to be “queen” of her little town gets a bit tiresome after a while.  



Book 4

The Beatryce Prophecy, by Kate DiCamillo with Sophie Blackall (Illustrator).  2021.  256 pages.

For those who may think that children’s literature has nothing to tell us, I will just say that this book is set in a culture that does not allow girls to learn how to read.  Much to my own surprise, I currently live in a country where the powers in charge want very much to oppress women and girls, and want certain people to just stay in their place, and want the entire populace to be ignorant of history.  This book is about a person who fights against such things. It also has the best-named goat I have ever encountered in literature.


Book 5

The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O’Farrell.  2022.  333 pages

I can’t say this was a joyful book to read, but Maggie O’Farrell’s writing just carries the reader right along.  In a certain way this book reminded me of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, which deals with a toy rabbit who has no agency of his own.  The main character here is the unfortunate teen Lucrezia de Medici who becomes the child bride of the Duke of Ferrara in the 1550s, and despite being part of a rich family, seems to have precious little agency. 


I spent 5 minutes on the internet looking up general European history at that time.  There was an awful lot of beheading and burning people at the stake; this book features yet other ways of doing in your royal enemies, including members of your own family.  What fun!  And yet, somehow, the book seems relevant to our situation today, in which basic bodily autonomy is being reversed, using justification not quite from the 16th century, but with similar results in the personal agency category. 

I read this for book club.  There will be plenty to discuss.


I think the book cover design is brilliant.



Book 6

Remarkably Bright Creatures, by Shelby Van Pelt.  Published 2022.  355 pages.

An enjoyable story, with interesting plot and enjoyable characters, including an octopus.  Includes an excellent heavy metal band name.



Sunday, April 2, 2023

First Lines: March 2023 edition

Below are the first lines of the books I finished reading in March.   If there was a theme, it might be: women who were bold to fight for justice or break down barriers.



Book 1

The thing to know about me is this: if I’d been born just 10 years earlier and my parents hadn’t left Germany when they did, I would’ve been killed by Nazis. 



Book 2

Catalpa Tree

A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun.


Book 3

Dear young girls, Home again from the deserts and oases of the Sheikdoms I find your enthusiastic letters on my desk. They have aroused in me the wish to tell you and many others who take an interest in our ancestors about these strange discoveries in Danish bogs.


Book 4

No one could have foretold how it was going to end.  Not even the murderer.



Book 5

I sometimes think of the Supreme Court oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt on March 2, 2016 as the last truly great day for women and the legal system in America. 


Book 6

I knew something was wrong as I turned the corner around the copse of black walnut trees where mourning doves roosted.  The stillness of the gray-breasted birds perched in a dull slash on a tree limb contrasted with the clamorous buzzing of thousands of bees.


Book 7

New York, 1887

“Miss Bly, you may leave.”

Did not finish - 

His cousin Freddie brought him on the heist one hot night in early June.

The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

Rolling Warrior:  The incredible, sometimes awkward true story of a rebel girl on wheels who helped spark a revolution, by Judith Heumann with Kristen Joiner.  Audiobook, 4 hours, read by Allie Stroker,  Beacon Press Audio,   Published 2021.  215 pages in print form.

Memoir written for young adults.  Fascinating story of activism, well told.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, I downloaded this audiobook from the library on the day Judith Heumann died. She dedicated her life to improving life for all of us.


Book 2

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishments, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.  Published 2020. 184 pages.

Memoir in essay form.  After each essay, I would declare to myself, that one was the most profound.  I recommend this book.


Book 3

Meet Me at the Museum, by Anne Youngson, Published 2018.  244 pages.

A second read, for book club this time.  I really enjoyed this book.  I found Tollund Man fascinating.


Book 4

Murder for Christmas, copyright 2017 by Francis Duncan.  Originally published in 1949 in the UK by John Long.  345 pages.  

A classic murder mystery with all of the suspects trapped in a big mansion during a snowstorm.  The detective’s name, Mordecai Tremaine, is pleasant to say.

The author’s identity is a mystery.  The author is listed as Francis Duncan and/or John Long.  But the notes at the beginning of the book say “Duncan’s daughter came forward to the publishers, revealing that Francis Duncan is actually a pseudonym for her own father, William Underhill, who was born in 1918.”  Where does the name John Long come from?  That is never explained.

Wikipedia says: Francis Duncan was the pen name of William Underhill (1918–1988), a British writer who published over twenty works of detective fiction between 1938 and 1959. Later in his career he also wrote five historical romances (as Hilary West) and children's fiction (as Robert Preston). 


Book 5

Lady Justice:  Women, the Law and the Battle to Save America, by Dahlia Lithwick.  Published 2022.  284 pages (text).  With endnotes 369 pages.  

Heartrending accounts of lawyers battling against the cruelties brought to us by the Trump presidency during and after that man and his cronies’ time in the highest office of the land.   What was most fascinating to me was how the author involved her son in some of the events. 

This book reminded me that  I would like to learn more about Pauli Murray and Constance Baker Motley.

Book 6

Death by a Honeybee: A Josiah Reynolds Mystery 1, by Abigail Keam.  Published 2014.  223 pages.  

I needed a light read, and this fit the bill.  This is by the same author as Murder Under a Blue Moon, which I read last month and liked a little better than this one.


Book 7

The Incredible Nellie Bly: Journalist, Investigator, Feminist, and Philanthropist.  Graphic biography. By Luciana Cimino, Illustrator Ergio Algozzino.  Translated by Laura Garofalo.  Originally published in Italian in 2019.  English translation 2021. 138 pages.

In the art work, I found it difficult to differentiate between the young Nellie Bly (late 1800s) and the young journalist (1922) interviewing the elderly Nellie Bly.  The story skipped around time frames a lot, which is not necessarily a problem, but there was no visible break that I could see.  That said, I did learn that: Nellie Bly got her start in Pittsburgh.  Nellie Bly was the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochran.  She did other groundbreaking journalism besides going undercover in the asylum for mentally ill women.   

Did not finish 

The Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead, Published 2020.  for book club.

Whitehead is an excellent writer, but the subject matter was too tense for me at the time.  I got about a quarter of the way through, but stopped in the part about Pepper during the war, where a violent act is described in detail.