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wood cat
Kate kate_nepveu
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100 Best First Lines (3/3)

Parts one and two.

The List, Part 3 of 3, with comments:

67. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

* Jump from the broad to the intimate, with suggestions of conflict all over; I like it.

68. Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden. —David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System (1987)

* Yeah, whatever. Maybe I'm letting my general ideas about the author color my reaction, but do I care at all about pretty girls and their ugly feet, or the kind of person who would notice? No, I do not.

69. If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog. —Saul Bellow, Herzog (1964)

* Well, it's a hook, but it doesn't do much for me otherwise.

70. Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up. —Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear it Away (1960)

* Okay, I'm out of breath now. Very clear picture of the kind of place we're in, though I don't know that it's a place I want to be.

71. Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. —Gÿnter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959; trans. Ralph Manheim)

* The end of the sentence gives some indication of a reason to be in a mental hospital, which is a nice little attention-bump since we hadn't had one before. The commas bother me, thought.

72. When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson. —Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show (1971)

* Umm, what? I don't know if I'm intrigued or just befuddled.

73. Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World. —Robert Coover, The Origin of the Brunists (1966)

* I smell satire. I don't like satire. (I could be wrong; I've never heard of this book.)

74. She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him. —Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (1902)

* What's wrong with "Kate Croy waited"? Also I get red with irritation.

75. In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. —Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

* Thump-thump thump-thump thump-thump . . . here, have some commas: ,,,,,,,

76. "Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. —Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)

* I like Aunt Dot!

77. 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.  —Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)

* I'm sorry, I saw the name "Joseph Conrad" and my brain immediately shut down. *hits reboot* Okay, well, it's descriptive, but "best"? Hardly.

78. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  —L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

* I know the sentence and not anything about the book. But it's a good sentence.

79. On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. —Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980)

* Ahhhh! The non-standard spelling, it burns, precious, it burns!

80. Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law. —William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own (1994)

* I am incapable of liking this sentence. Unfair, I know, but there is it.

81. Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash. —J. G. Ballard, Crash (1973)

* Well, yes, it would have to be his last, wouldn't it? Not much of a sentence.

82. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. —Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

* I have this on my in-pile, mostly because of the lovely voice it's supposed to have. A hint of this comes through here, but it's too short to really give it.

83. "When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing." —Katherine Dunn, Geek Love (1983)

* I really like the rhythm except that I expected it to be "waltzed" and hung up briefly as a result.

84. In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point. —John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)

* OMG SO LONG. And in 1960 too, there's such a thing as taking period too far. *deep breath, clears glazed eyes* No, I'm sorry, you're still making me work too hard.

85. When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.  —James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)

* Teeters on the edge of self-parody but doesn't quite slip over. The last clause initially seemed superfluous but grew on me.

86. It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man. —William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (1948)

* Here, have some commas: ,,,,,,,

87. I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as "Claudius the Idiot," or "That Claudius," or "Claudius the Stammerer," or "Clau-Clau-Claudius" or at best as "Poor Uncle Claudius," am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the "golden predicament" from which I have never since become disentangled. —Robert Graves, I, Claudius (1934)

* Is it wrong of me to follow "well, it has voice" with "but a weirdly contemporary one"? Probably, since I have the very vague impression that's the point.

88. Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I've come to learn, is women. —Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990)

* I just finished The Mauritius Command, so my first wonder was when this was set. It's a perfectly good sentence and opening, though I have a small corner of my mind on the lookout for misogyny.

89. I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. —Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

* Possibly hasn't aged well? "Somber" isn't my impression of Chicago. The structure seems unnecessarily complicated to me.

90. The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. —Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (1922)

* Towers "aspire"? Towers of Zenith, forsooth. Edging towards "cutesy," here.

91. I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl's underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self. —John Hawkes, Second Skin (1964)

* Two sentences! Also, that's not a few words. I don't think I have the patience for you.

92. He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. —Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche (1921)

* I can't disentangle this from my reaction to the book, I'm afraid.

93. Psychics can see the color of time it's blue. —Ronald Sukenick, Blown Away (1986)

* Here, have some commas: ,,,,,,, (Alternatively, Yes, you're very smart, now shut up.)

94. In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. —Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

* I've read this and I can't remember a thing about it. I don't think it's very much of a hook or a sentence, though.

95. Once upon a time two or three weeks ago, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record for posterity, exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man for indeed what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal, a somewhat paranoiac fellow unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible, who had decided to lock himself in a room a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facilities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair, in New York City, for a year 365 days to be precise, to write the story of another person—a shy young man about of 19 years old—who, after the war the Second World War, had come to America the land of opportunities from France under the sponsorship of his uncle—a journalist, fluent in five languages—who himself had come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established sometime during the war after a series of rather gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew, curious to know if he the father and his family had survived the German occupation, and indeed was deeply saddened to learn, in a letter from the young man—a long and touching letter written in English, not by the young man, however, who did not know a damn word of English, but by a good friend of his who had studied English in school—that his parents both his father and mother and his two sisters one older and the other younger than he had been deported they were Jewish to a German concentration camp Auschwitz probably and never returned, no doubt having been exterminated deliberately X * X * X * X, and that, therefore, the young man who was now an orphan, a displaced person, who, during the war, had managed to escape deportation by working very hard on a farm in Southern France, would be happy and grateful to be given the opportunity to come to America that great country he had heard so much about and yet knew so little about to start a new life, possibly go to school, learn a trade, and become a good, loyal citizen. —Raymond Federman, Double or Nothing (1971)

* No, I'm sorry, I refuse to read this. Especially at #95. Someone else tell me if it's any good.

96. Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. —Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye (1988)

* You think you're offering a profound statement of the human experience, but all I see is "duh, relativity, space-time continumm, we know this already."

97. He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. —Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928)

* A hook! Hurray!

98. High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. —David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)

* On one hand, it's a great image; on the other hand, literature about academics is often not to my taste. (I suppose it says something about my reading habits these days that I assumed magical realism or fantasy rather than science fiction.)

99. They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. —Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

* Doesn't do anything for me. Very mild hook but not interesting as a sentence.

100. The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. —Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

* I like the image and the way the sentence unfolds.

Possibly I should've stretched this out over three nights, but then it would never have been finished. Maybe I'll go through at leisure tomorrow and pick out favorites then.

(Deleted comment)
Like I said, I don't a thing about #78. Except that thanks to Neil Gaiman, or Terry Pratchett, or both, I always want to end it with "and besides, the wench is dead." =>

And of course the real purpose of all such lists is to give people something to argue over. =>

76 - I would read this book. In fact, I'm going to see if my library has it.

78 - I have a niggling thought that he's quoting someone else. I seem to think the original is in blank verse? I could be wrong, but if I'm right, blatant copying shouldn't get you a spot on the list.

82 - I would be interested to hear what you think of this book, as it is wonderful. I think it's another example of book not sentence, however.

95 - ?????

I just checked on 76 at Amazon, and based on the preview, it's wonderful. The first sentence captures the tone and feel of the book, and seems to set it up well. So I think this is a good choice for the list.

76: do tell us what you think if you read it!

78: the first page of Google hits are all for this book, but I may track it down further later. Like I said, I always conflate it with "and besides, the wench is dead."

82: I do own it and mean to read it.

95: I'm still not reading it. =>

(Deleted comment)
Thank you; I am putting Aunt Dot and her camel in my Amazon shopping cart.

76. I went to Amazon, and based on the exerpt they had, I'm picking it up at the library today.

78. I bow to Google and papersky, although I too heard "the wench is dead" in my mind. Odd that we both had the same thought!

If you read Gaiman or Pratchett, one or the other or possibly both has combined the two as a joke. That's where I've got it from.

(no subject) - teckelvik, 2006-02-01 04:19 pm (UTC)(Expand)
#95 stole everyone else's commas.

So that's what happened!

You're not missing anything. And believe it or not, #95 is missing a lot of commas itself. For example:

who himself had come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established sometime during the war after a series of rather gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew,

IOW, "I'm going to make this as difficult and painful to read as possible". The Eye of Argon is at least bad in a funny way.

I am going at this backwards so I haven't see parts one and two yet; but I do think it's unfair to judge openings by first sentences rather than first paragraphs.

Number 88 (The Middle Passage) is set in the 19th century; the "middle passage" was the journey of slave ships from Africa to the US. The book is brilliant, funny, and painfully misogynistic, though I read it a long time ago and may be conflating narrator and author with the last complaint.

98 is mainstream contemporary fiction; the professors are in airplanes.

Very likely; I just found myself reading a list of purported best first lines, found myself mentally commenting on each, and since Chad was being productive and writing lecture notes, it seemed unfair to inflict it on him.

I am bitterly disappointed about 98. =>

Okay, going to go read 76 now. Because Aunt Dot is wonderful.

I loved I Capture The Castle.

I am never ever ever reading 95.

I'm still not reading 95!

Do let us know how Aunt Dot is at book-length. And I will read _I Capture the Castle_ someday, honest.

(Deleted comment)
What Douglas Adams parody? It's not coming to mind just now.

Wanna tell us the 15-words-or-less version of 95?

I don't recognize your first, but it has an interesting hook and the promise of elegant, possibly over-elegant, writing.

The second, well, I have a taste of dust in my mouth now from recognizing the book.

The third is certainly, as I understand it, characteristic.

The fourth, hee! Someday when I feel like mucking about the bookshelves, I'll do what Chad did a while ago and look for good quotes, but openings in particular.

(Deleted comment)
Thank you for digesting #95.

The SF opening lines discussion gets done every so often, and IMO suffers from much the same problem as this list--more than one sentence, things that are famous because of their books, and so forth. Which is not surprising.

It's not only one sentence, and it's not in the opening paragraph, but when I try to sell people on reading Octavia Butler's "The Evening and the Morning and the Night", I give them:
Dad had killed Mom, then skinned her completely. At least that's how I hope it happened. I mean I hope he killed her first.
It didn't work on my brother (it repelled him, actually), but I think I hooked one or two people on RASFW.

I think it would probably repel me too without further information.

67. Never read anything by Sylvia Plath. This sentence makes me interested to try.

It's terribly easy to get started, since mostly what she wrote was fairly short poetry. Some if it is brilliant (IMHO), but terribly depressing in the aggregate.

I would recommend "Cut" and "Lady Lazarus" as good, representative poems to start with. And, speaking of first sentences, "Cut" opens with a classic:

"What a thrill -- my thumb instead of an onion."


Self-referential: 12
[12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 35, 38, 41, 45, 54, 61, 63]

Longer than Bulwer-Lytton: 9
[19, 23, 46, 56, 70, 84, 87, 91, 95]

Five words or less: 6
[1, 10, 26, 28, 32, 51]

More than one sentence: 2
[32, 33]

Books I've read: 3
[12, 47, 64]

Interesting enough to belong on this list: 18
[2, 6, 11, 14, 24, 29, 30, 31, 44, 47, 49, 50, 52, 57, 76, 78, 82, 92]

I've also posted a few first lines I like on my journal. (And I just learned something: LJ's spellchecker doesn't check the subject line.)

Re: Statistics

Thank you so much!

(But 91 is also more than one sentence.)

11, 14, and 78 seem to be going over particularly well, especially for unfamiliar works.

*goes off to look at yours*

Like you, I found most of these openings unimpressive. So all I'm going to do now is nitpick.

81. Well, yes, it would have to be his last, wouldn't it?

If he died in a car crash, and didn't turn into a zombie or anything, then yes, it wuold have to be his last. But says he had to have died in a car crash? Maybe his last car crash was 5 years ago, and then he died of a heart attack?

Of course, whatever we think of the opening sentence, based on the movie, which I couldn't get into, the book is pretty definitely one to miss.

I didn't realize one was based on the other; of course movies aren't required to have any resemblance to the books they're based on, but the movie didn't seem like my type of thing.

Yes, the 1996 movie Crash directed by David Cronenberg was based on the book. I went to see it largely because I follow the director, but I should have known from just the description, "people with a sexual fetish for car crashes", that it would be too alien for me to get.

Your snark is mighty. This has given me some new To-Reads; thanks!

If Amazon sees a small but distinct bump in orders for Aunt Dot's book, we'll know why! =>