First Lines in Fiction – Black Glass

Black Glass, by Karen Joy Fowler

Great First Lines in Fiction

First published in 1998, this book of short stories by the author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is just as rich and complex and strange as it was seventeen years ago. If you’ve read it before, it’s worth revisiting, and if you haven’t, it’s time to discover the short fiction of Karen Joy Fowler.

The best fiction sucks us in by presenting opening lines we simply can’t walk away from, because they raise so many intriguing questions, and we can’t leave until we have the answers. For this reason, I often begin fiction writing workshops with a study of the opening paragraphs of novels and stories.

What a first line shouldn’t be: boring or overwrought. Nothing is more irritating to me as a reader than when the writer uses the first line to show off, rather than to start a story. Anyone can show off, but it takes something more to let the reader know, in the very first line, that a)you can tell a story and b)you’re about to do just that.

What a first line must be: clear and suggestive. Clear because the reader should not be trying to untangle words in your very first sentence.  Suggestive because the line must suggest a character, or a place, or a situation, or a problem, or some combination thereof.

Here are a few of the first (or almost-first) lines from Black Glass:

From The “Elizabeth Complex”:

There is no evidence that Elizabeth ever blamed her father for killing her mother.

From “Shimbara”:

At the top of the cliffs was a castle and, inside the castle, a 15-year-old boy. Here is where it gets tricky. What is different and what is the same?

Here is the opening of “Letters From Home:”

I wish you could see me now. You would laugh. I have a husband. I have children.

To whom is the narrator speaking? And why would this person laugh at the notion of her having a husband and children?

We have to know. And so we read on. That’s exactly what great fiction urges us to do.

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Yangtze River Cruise

A Journey up the Yangtze River Through Three Gorges Dam

There is the sound of a releasing, water rushing in, and the ship begins to rise. It feels as if we are on an enormous elevator. Despite the early hour, the bridge above us is crowded with onlookers—the usual assortment of crumpled workers and lackluster soldiers, along with lithe elderly people who continue with their morning stretches as the array of boats rises to meet them. They wave and exchange greetings with the passengers. There are already a few vendors milling about, trying to sell postcards and jade trinkets, dried eel snacks and steamed buns. Bells ring, lights flash, and another set of massive doors opens. In the space of five minutes we have risen seventy feet.

Layers of green hills rise out of the water. Through the thin mist I can make out small houses huddled up to the water, and, behind them, steep terraced hills.

What looms before us now looks like some cold-war era industrial nightmare. The hillsides, shattered with explosives, are craggy banks of eroding soil dotted with tumble-down workers’ shacks and piles of dirt and granite. Graham lends me his binoculars, and through them I can make out small human figures dangling precariously from bamboo scaffolding that climbs one of the vertical walls of the new lock.

“That used to be a mountain,” Graham says. “They sliced it in half to build the locks. A 10,000-ton whip will be able to steer into the pair of locks, ascend from river to reservoir, and emerge on the other side in a lake as placid as your bathtub.”

The drilling is ceaseless. An explosion echoes through the valley, but it is impossible to tell where it came from. The air is gray and grainy. Simply to breathe is a challenge. My eyes water, my throat burns. I gaze out in astonishment. “How can the people let this happen? Don’t they see the damage that’s being done?”

The Red Victoria presses on toward the narrow pass. The river seems too much for us. Here, it is deep and very fast. I see the cranes, the concrete, the mounds of blasted granite.

“What do you expect them to do?” Bai says. “Paint signs? Stage a sit-in? Organize a petition?”

“Why not? Somebody has to.”

“It’s not that simple,” Bai says. “In 1992, 180 men and women from the Democratic Youth Party in Kaixian County did oppose the dam. They were arrested and charged with sabotage and counterrevolutionary activity.”

“Whatever happened to them?”

“No one’s seen them since they were arrested.”

yangtzerivermap.jpg

A small band of passengers is crowded around Elvis Paris, who is extolling the virtues of the dam. He points to a mass of rock and gravel and concrete littered with cranes and drilling rigs. “This used to be Zhongbao Island,” Elvis says. “Thanks to modern engineering, useless island is now foundation for world’s greatest dam.”

The Red Victoria presses on toward the narrow pass. The river seems too much for us. Here, it is deep and very fast. I see the cranes, the concrete, the mounds of blasted granite. I hear the din of drills and chisels. But these bare facts are not enough to convince me. I cannot believe that this fast and powerful river will simply stop, paralyzed behind a manmade wall. I know nothing of physics, mathematics, the intricate workings of engineering. But I can see and feel the power of this ancient and magnificent river. Instinct tells me that she will not be so easily tamed.

Soon we are approaching Xiling Gorge. Graham translates a series of huge Chinese characters painted in white on the sheer side of a cliff: Serve the People. Develop the Three Gorges. Layers of green hills rise out of the water. Through the thin mist I can make out small houses huddled up to the water, and, behind them, steep terraced hills. Solitary figures stand atop bamboo rafts, using long poles to navigate the swirling rafts at the edge of the river. Flat-bottomed boats pass us, headed downstream with their loads of golden hay. Goats wander the hillsides, foraging. The ship rocks as the water whirls around us. The air is chilly, just the vaguest shadow of the sun visible through the fog.

The Voice calls out the names of attractions along the way: Sanyou Cave, Three Knives, Shadow of Lamp. Next we come to Ox Temple. Behind the temple a mountain rises. “Look close at the mountain and you will see strong young man leading ox,” The Voice says. Then there is Kongling Shoal, also known as the Gate of Hell, because many boats have been wrecked here. The Gate of Hell is dotted with dangerous reefs, the most deceptive of which is called Come to Me Stone. After that we pass, Horse-lung, Ox-liver, and Book of War Art and Sword Gorge.

The cliffs rise up sheer, like great walls. In some places the bases of the mountains are so close together that I am certain we will not be able to pass, but each time it seems that we are headed for disaster, the ship turns at just the right moment, to just the right degree, and we continue smoothly upstream

The cliffs rise up sheer, like great walls. In some places the bases of the mountains are so close together that I am certain we will not be able to pass, but each time it seems that we are headed for disaster, the ship turns at just the right moment, to just the right degree, and we continue smoothly upstream. Graham and Bai are standing on either side of me. Neither Dave nor Stacy is anywhere to be seen. I feel enclosed in some strange dream—the green mountains, the pale mist, the heavy tin covered with photos of Amanda Ruth, the weight of my longing for a man I met only days ago, the unsettling patience of his knowing wife. We have been standing here for some time when I realize that they have moved closer to me, that both of them have one arm wrapped around my back.

Excerpted from DREAM OF THE BLUE ROOM, a novel of the Yangtze River and the Three Gorges Dam, by Michelle Richmond

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via Behance

Lester the Minimalist 3D-Printed Book Holder – Old School Meets New School

One of my favorite sources for design inspiration is Design Taxi. Today, Design Taxi shared images of Lester, a “3D printed book holder” by designers Ludwig Mattsson and Simon Eriksson (leave it to the Scandinavians to be the arbiters of cool). I was confused by the description at first. Does 3D printed book holder mean that it is for the printed book, or that it was printed with a 3D printer? Both! Newfangled gadgets for the old-fashioned reader.LOVE

See more images and gifs of Lester on Behance.

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5 Odd & Wonderful Novels to Read This Spring (part 1)

The Room, by Jonas Karlsson

A delightfully strange, unflinchingly surreal novel that brings to mind Kafka and Hrabal. When a narcissistic government worker named Bjorn discovers a secret room, his co-workers, who do not believe the room exists, ostracize him. While in the room, however, Bjorn does his best work, making himself indispensable. The co-workers who despise him come to resentfully rely on him to keep their entire department relevant. A slim, tricky, maddeningly amusing novel that leaves many questions unanswered. Of all the books I’ve read this year, this is the one that most often comes to mind at random moments.

Crown Publishing, Feb. 2015

ISBN  9780804139984

Buy the book:  Indiebound   Amazon

There Must Be Some Mistake, by Frederick Barthelme

Forgetful Bay reminds me a lot of the Gulf Coast, where I grew up. No one does Gulf Coast torpor–the heat and humidity and wrenching boredom of it–quite like Barthelme. Wallace Webster lives a quiet life, observing the strange goings-on and frequent deaths in this backwater community with a sharp eye and quick wit. I was reminded of the short story “The School,” by Barthelme’s brother Donald, in which a series of small animals dies, leaving a group of innocent children wondering, “Is death that which gives meaning to life?” As with “The School,” the crimes that befall Forgetful Bay become increasingly difficult to ignore.

Barthelme draws Webster’s relationships with the various women in his life–daughter, co-worker, and occasional lover–with tenderness and complexity. A wonderful novel by one of my favorite writers, whose work proves, again and again, that you don’t need a lot of pages to cover a whole lot of emotional ground.

Buy the book:  Indiebound   Amazon

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Coming of Age at the End of Days by Alice LaPlante

If, like me, you were raised on a steady diet of Rapture sermons, you’ll find much to relate to in Coming of Age at the End of Days, the darkly entertaining novel of faith gone awry by Alice LaPlante, the bestselling author of Circle of Wives.

Sixteen year old Anna, unpopular at school and searching for something to hold on to, falls under the spell of the Goldshmidts. The Goldshmidt parents and their teenaged son, Lars, belong to a cult whose mission is to speed up the coming of the Tribulation–the dark period of hell on earth that fundamentalist Christians believe will follow the second coming of Christ. When she is suddenly orphaned, Anna becomes ever more obsessed with the Tribulation and her role in making it happen.

The cult’s mission centers on the breeding of pure red heifers; Orthodox Judaism holds that Jews must be purified by the ashes of a red heifer in order to rebuild the Third Temple. Evangelical Christians have long been on this bandwagon, as they believe that the rebuilding of the Third Temple is a prerequisite for the coming of Christ. This is great stuff, and it’s not even made up. For a fascinating, in-depth explanation of the red heifer mythology and a profile of the Mississippi preacher named Clyde Lott and the Orthodox Rabbi who are in cahoots to breed cattle to get things rolling, read the excellent PBS Frontline report, Forcing the End: Why Do a Pentecostal Preacher from Mississippi and an Orthodox Rabbi from Jerusalem Believe That a Red Heifer Can Bring Change?

In the background of LaPlante’s novel is a far-away figure who is working to breed the heifers–a character who seems to be based to large extent on Lott. For readers who didn’t grow up with the terrifying Left Behind series (we watched them at church lock-ins) and with the Rapture in the background as a constant threat, LaPlante’s novel may seem delightfully far-fetched. As someone who believed all this stuff hook, line, and sinker until I left high school, it’s fun to read it as an adult, when I am able to see it as a dark fairy tale instead of a terrifying inevitability.

Anna is an interesting character, and I easily found myself rooting for her. The only bit that didn’t quite ring true was Anna’s initial fascination with Lars. He utters a few words to her at a bus stop, and she falls instantly under his spell. I would have liked to see her more gradually sucked in; a deeper exploration of why she fell for Lars’s story, and for and Lars’s outsized view of his own elevated place in the world, would have made for a richer character.

What I find most interesting about the Tribulation is its potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Evangelical American presidents have made monumentally dangerous decisions based upon the belief that it is their duty to move the world in the direction of the Second Coming. As I write this, ISIS too is attempting to bring on the Apocalypse. With three distinctly different groups–evangelical Christians, Islamic extremists, and Orthodox Jews–moving toward three very different versions of the end of days, the Tribulation, which Evangelical Christian envision as hell on earth, may very well come to pass.

In Coming of Age at the End of Days, LaPlante has crafted a darkly entertaining and often enlightening cautionary tale about what happens when youth and faith collide.

Buy the book: Indiebound   Amazon

ISBN 9780802121653

Atlantic Monthly Press, August 2015

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels, including Golden State and The Year of Fog, and two award-winning story collections, including Hum.

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