December 17, 2009 by Reader's Connection
The holidays are hard upon you. You´ve no time to read novels or even short stories. But you don´t want to be out of touch. Your sense of wellness depends on being neurally massaged on a regular basis with fictional prose.
We´re here to help. Below are the opening passages of five novels. Breeze through for some quick stimulation and then move on. No commitment is required. If interested, you can scroll down and determine the sources of the quotes.
There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood. The air was motionless, but would soon start to move as the sun came up and winds from Canada came charging down the Hudson.
The horse had escaped from his master’s small clapboard stable in Brooklyn. He trotted alone over the carriage road of the Williamsburg bridge, before the light, while the toll keeper was sleeping by his stove and many stars were still blazing above the city. Fresh snow on the bridge muffled his hoofbeats, and he sometimes turned his head and looked behind him to see if he was being followed. He was warm from his own effort and he breathed steadily, having loped four or five miles through the dead of Brooklyn past silent churches and shuttered stores. Far to the south, in the black, ice-choked waters of the Narrows, a sparkling light marked the ferry on its way to Manhattan, where only market men were up, waiting for the fishing boats to glide down through Hell Gate and the night.
The horse was crazy, but, still, he was able to worry about what he had done.
This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch. I know what this means. Since I go there every Sunday for dinner and today is Wednesday, it can mean only one thing: she wants to have one of her serious talks. It will be extremely grave, either a piece of bad news about her stepdaughter Kate or else a serious talk about me, about the future and what I ought to do. It is enough to scare the wits out of anyone, yet I confess I do not find the prospect altogether unpleasant.
I remember when my brother Scott died of pneumonia. I was eight years old. My aunt had charge of me and she took me for a walk behind the hospital. It was an interesting street. On one side were the power plant and blowers and incinerator of the hospital, all humming and blowing out a hot meaty smell. On the other side was a row of Negro houses. Children and old folks and dogs sat on the porches watching us. I noticed with pleasure that Aunt Emily seemed to have all the time in the world and was willing to talk about anything I was willing to talk about. We walked slowly in step. “Jack,” she said, squeezing me tight and smiling at the Negro shacks, “you and I have always been good buddies, haven’t we?” “Yes ma’am.” My heart gave a big pump and the back of my neck prickled like a dog’s. “I’ve got bad news for you, son.” She squeezed me tighter than ever. “Scotty is dead. Now it’s all up to you. It´s going to be difficult for you but I know you´re going to act like a soldier.” This was true. I could easily act like a soldier. Was that all I had to do?
It reminds me of a movie I saw last month . . .
Two elderly women sat knitting on that part of the verandah which was screened from the sun by a golden shower creeper; the tough stems were so thick with flower it was as if the glaring afternoon was dammed against them in a surf of its own light made visible in the dripping, orange-colored clusters. Inside this coloured barrier was a darkened recess, rough mud walls (the outer walls of the house itself) forming two sides, the third consisting of a bench loaded with painted petrol tins which held pink and white geraniums. The sun splashed liberal gold through the foliage, over the red cement floor and over the ladies. They had been here since lunchtime, and would remain until sunset, talking, talking incessantly, their tongues mercifully let off the leash.
A silver-haired guy in a black Jaguar bit off a yawn as he rolled through the intersection and then, as though he’d tasted an anchovy, his cheeks cauliflowered and his eyes widened. The woman behind him in the maroon Izuzu looked like Elizabeth Jennings–so much so that I was startled. I know she’s up in British Columbia with her professor guy who’s half again as old as she is, but this woman’s smile broke across her face as she drove, and it was much like Elizabeth’s smile–surprising, out of nowhere, the rabbit in the garden.
For a moment I thought she was eating something. She seemed to be holding a piece of rind, and I wanted to taste the melon that had triggered that smile. But of course she was holding a cell phone.
The intersection emptied, and I waited. Westbound traffic started moving again, and the van behind me pulled around to my right. A bearded guy leaned out of his window, said in a friendly tone, “You have to be on the sensor to get the green arrow,” and then rolled around in front of me and got himself sensed. This was embarrassing, and his license plate made it worse: bloodstreaked eggs on a rectangular skillet. New Mexico. He hadn’t been sharing local wisdom but telling me something that grown-ups know about intersections.
If I understood anything about human sexuality, how people go about it, I would draw an analogy. Perhaps you’d like to do that, and if I weren’t so concerned for our timber resources I would leave you a space.
In the winter, she lived like a mole, buried deep in her office, digging among maps and manuscripts. She lived close to her work and shopped on the way between her apartment and the Institute, scurrying hastily through the tube of winter from refuge to refuge, wasting no time. She did not like cold air on her skin.
Her basement room at the Institute was close to the steam pipes and protectively lined with books, wooden filing cabinets and very old, brown, framed photographs of unlikely people: General Booth and somebody’s Grandma Town, France from the air in 1915, groups of athletes and sappers; things people brought her because she would not throw them out, because it was her job to keep them.
“Don’t throw it out,” people said. “Lug it all down to the Historical Institute. They might want it. He might have been more of a somebody than we thought, even if he did drink.”
There was a white horse . . . Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
Around the turn of the past century, a thief called Peter Lake breaks into a mansion in Manhattan and falls in love with the young woman he finds there. There are stretches of this novel that don’t work for me, but I love the parts that I love so much that I tolerate the rest when I reread the book. There’s even a death and a resurrection, and a sort of harrowing of the underworld.
If you love New York City, or if you dislike it or don’t care about it and wonder why people love it so much, try Winter’s Tale. At the moment, the library offers it on CD and downloadable audiobook, and the Bureau of Jewish Education, one of our Shared System Partners, owns the only paper copy in our catalog. We’re working on that.
This morning I got a note from my aunt . . . The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
Binx Bolling manages a small branch of a brokerage firm in New Orleans; and this work, he tells us, is not as uninteresting as we might think.
Mardi Gras is approaching, and Binx is on a search. He wakes up one morning with the taste of his Korean War experience in his mouth, and he’s able to see his little pile of things–his wallet and his keys and so on. They looked both unfamiliar and at the same time full of clues. I stood in the center of the room and gazed at the little pile, sighting through a hold made by thumb and forefinger. What was unfamiliar about them was that I could see them. They might have belonged to someone else. A man can look at this little pile on his bureau for thirty years and never once see it. It is as invisible as his own hand. Once I saw it, however, the search became possible.
Two elderly women sat knitting . . . Martha Quest by Doris Lessing.
This is the first novel in her Children of Violence sequence. Years ago, a friend told me that its fifth and final novel, The Four-Gated City, was weird and mystical, and that I might like it.
I started at the beginning. The independent-minded Martha is raised in central Africa, and–skipping over most of what happens in the first three novels–joins the Communist Party. Lessing does a splendid job of capturing the claustrophobia of the local Party meetings, and I began to have headaches. I had to go read some poems by Shelley. The headaches went away. This seems like a silly recommendation, but I truly enjoyed Martha’s journey until the headaches kicked in, and sturdier souls will no doubt reach the four-gated city.
A silver-haired guy in a black Jaguar . . . I’m afraid this passage is a stand-alone. The novel, by Larry Franklin, has not been finished or given a title, let alone published and purchased by the library. Let’s wish Larry well.
In the winter, she lived like a mole . . . Bear by Marian Engel
Since becoming a master of library science, 24 years ago, I have been campaigning on behalf of this book. I just came across a website that tore it apart, so I’m at it again.
Lou, on behalf of the Historical Institute, is sent to examine the estate of Colonel Jocelyn Cary, including Cary Island. On the island, along with the cabin and the collection of books that she’s supposed to evaluate, is a bear. She is asked to feed the bear while she’s there, and the two of them become . . . involved.
Yes, a lady librarian and a bear. How did this book fail to hit the bestseller list? The cover art above, by the way, has been lifted from another bear-book. Our original dustjacket doesn’t appear in the catalog, and lacks a picture or any summary of what goes on in the story.
This symbol, Before Completion, is the final hexagram in the I Ching, or Book of Changes, a Chinese book of wisdom and divination. I’ve mentioned Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa in recent posts, and I thought I should work in something Taoist. You may think it’s a poor choice for this post, since we’ve just been reading the beginnings of books and have been nowhere near the completion of anything. We’re approaching the end of a year, though, perhaps the end of a decade (depending on your calendrical orientation), and the end of one thing leads to the beginning of another. The end of 2009 will lead you to new beginnings–or at least to the beginnings of some new books. Happy reading.