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.