Archive for September, 2010

Her eyes were not exactly blue or grey: Short Story First Lines

28/09/2010 1 comment

This is the first sentence of a new short story: ‘Her eyes were not exactly blue or grey.’ Alisa Cox – she who wrote the writer guide  Writing Short Stories – has recently posted this (and three more sentences) of a new story on her blog. It whets the appetite and leaves me frustrated since I’ll have to buy the journal where the complete story is published if I want to  know what happened next.

It got me thinking about opening lines in short stories and how they can entice, tease, coax, plunge you in until you are propelled into the yarn. So I thought I’d have a bit of fun with story first lines. I gathered a bundle of my favourite short story collections, flicked through each and picked the opening line that grabbed me most. Here they are …

‘At seventeen, Jack Snyder’s daughter is slender-faced and long of limb and still able to startle her father with her seeming certainty about everything she thinks.’  (First sentence in the first story of Robin Black’s if i loved you, i would tell you this.)

‘Hollis was in the back at a table piled with books and a space among them where he was writing when Carol came in.’ James Salter, ‘Bangkok’  in Last Night.

‘Deegan, the forester, is not the type of man to remember his children’s birthdays, least likely that of his youngest, who bears a strong, witch-like resemblance to her mother.’ Claire Keegan, ‘The Forester’s Daughter’ in Walk the Blue Fields.

”The story I want to tell you has no particular point to it, maybe it isn’t really a story at all, but I must tell you about it.’ Heinrich Boll, ‘Across the Bridge’ in Children are Civilians Too.

‘It was among the last bucolic fantasies of the village that Mr Delahunty, the blind shopkeeper, was secure against chancers and thieves.’ Kevin Barry, ‘Ideal Homes’ in There ae Little Kingdoms.

‘About half-past five one afternoon at the end of June when the sun was shining warm and bright into the large courtyard, an elegant victoria with two beautiful horses drew up in front of the mansion.’  Guy de Maupassant, ‘Useless Beauty’ in The Best Short Stories.

They do not disappoint, these opening lines. I still have the problem of the woman whose eyes are not exactly blue or grey, a line that is followed  by ‘They were the colour of the sea, the sea on a dull morning without sunlight.’ Where is it all leading? What’s going on?  Maybe I should just go and write my own story using this great first line?

Best Book Club Reads: a half-dozen selection

20/09/2010 1 comment

To pick our Best Book Club Reads out of fifty books and five years of reading from an opinionated group can be daunting. We stuck to the task, made lists, noted votes, talked, changed our minds, remembered a great read that we’d omitted, voted again and came to our decision, exhausted and only slightly happy because of the great, great reads that we had to leave out. So here it is then, the Kyleglass Book Worms’ list of Best Book Club Reads:

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Clean, elegant writing from a German law professor; deals with the Holocaust for subsequent German generations and immediately reminded me of Uwe Timm’s moving memoir, In My Brother’s Shadow. As for the narrator’s motivation in writing the book,  ‘Maybe I did write the story to be free of it.’

The Sea by John Banville. He won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 with it and The Sea is one of Banville’s most accessible books. Max Morden, mourning the death of his wife, returns to the seaside scene of his childhood summers and the sea becomes memory, its surges ‘another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference’.

Englby by Sebastian Faulks. Mike Engleby, a fresher at Cambridge in the 1970s, is an odd, unpleasant, possibly evil, but engaging and funny character who uses his diary to chart his unravelling life. Story turns into a black mystery.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows. An off-beat read by an ex-librarian and bookseller who died months before publication of a book that she finished off with the help of her niece Ann Barrows. A quirky epistolary novel about the war years in Guernsey under Nazi occupation and imbued with a powerful love of books and reading.

Everyman by Philip Roth. A slim read about a Jewish-American confronting old age and death with Roth’s usual strong autobiographical influences. The page-long, one sentence description of a boy riding the ocean waves and running home ‘remembering the mightiness of that immense sea boiling in his own two ears’ is mesmerizing.

A Fine Balance by Rohinson Mistry. A sweeping story of contemporary India from Independence in 1947 to the Emergency of 1977 with a character cast of innocents and outcasts who show the power of the human spirit in adversity.

Hours of shared reading and great chat, not all of it about books. Looking forward to the next fifty reads. (See Joe Duffy and Fiona Looney top reads shared at Ennis Book Festival here.)

En Route to Bekan in September

13/09/2010 1 comment

I was back in my childhood places – the village of Greenwood and the parish of Bekan – in East Mayo at the week-end and heard talk of a strange walk the previous Sunday when about 60 people gathered, I’m told, and made their way through fields and paths in Larganboy, Lassany and Lissaniska. It’s part of the En Route public art project coordinated by Aileen Lambert and supported by Mayo County Council. They walked and told stories of personal memories and associations with these local tracks and ended the trip on the old school route from Lassany to Bekan.

It all got me thinking of my own walks to Bekan School – on roads, not tracks – in the month of September when we started back, lucky if we had pristine new school books to be carefully covered with wallpaper left-overs; but more often than not it was hand-me-downs with the finger-prints of older brothers and sisters on the pages. We gathered in Greenwood and set off for the first meeting point at the end of the road where we met the scholars from Riasc near the lake where we fished for perch with bamboo sticks and wriggling worms; then on to the low crossroads to be joined by the strollers from Cullintra on the Knock Road where we had gathered in the summer to watch the cars speeding on their way to Knock Shrine; then up ‘the hill of the wood’ to the high crossroads and a convergence with the meanderers from Erriff and Knocknafola before the final run-in to Bekan, feeling resentful that our classmates in Spotfield had such a short distance to walk from home.

After school in  those early weeks of  September it was a quick change of clothes and down the lane at the side of our house that connected Greenwood to Riasc and Larganboy; the fields all had their names  – our’s  were Ait Abhaile, Craggach and Lios  Ban – and it was at the end of the road that we gathered fists of blackberries for the jam-making before setting off for home, mouths stained with purple berry juice and the marks of indigo school ink still on our fingers.

Thanks to En route for getting my memory juices flowing.

Human Chain and Butts on Mullaghmore

06/09/2010 3 comments

In the week that Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain was published,  four of us – me, Joan, Deirdre and Mary – wound our way along the blue waymarked path around Mullaghmore in the Burren.  The heat of the day was blunted by a lively breeze and Mary asked us, Did you hear Seamus Heaney on the radio this morning talking about how he searched his father’s suit pocket for cigarette butts?  He had a way of describing the look and smell of that suit but for the life of me I can’t remember the words he used.  I said I could tell them about it after Sunday since I was going to hear Seamus  read from his new collection at the Abbey Theatre two days later.

Then we followed the red-arrowed path that took us between Mullaghmore and its sister hill Sliabh Rua for a spot of lunch and chat and then down the west side with a fine view of Craggy Island Parochial Hall – Father Ted’s House – and back to Corofin and a drink in Bofey Quinn’s where a girl paraded in a blood-red bridesmaid dress.

The sun had deserted Dublin by late Sunday afternoon and drenched hurling supporters waited at the Luas stop beside the Abbey – the Tipperary fans the happier after dethroning the Cats – and I met up with my friend, Heather, and soon I had a signed copy of Human Chain in my hands. There it was, the description of  the blue serge suit in the poem,  ‘The Butts’, and that smell: stale smoke and oxter-sweat/came at you in a stirred-up brew/when you reached in.

The poet ranged over and back between old poems and new ones  ‘written in sudden swoops’ and in a nice symmetry ended with an earlier piece  ‘Postcript’ that is set in The Burren: And some time make the time to drive out west/Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore/In September or October, when the wind/And the light are working off each other …

We headed back in a grey night drizzle, caught up in the Kilkenny and Premier County traffic after the hurling heroics. I knew the summer days were over.


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