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Archive for the 'First Paragraph Previews' Category

FPP#20: The Gun Jammed

Two other (long) novels must be read by Monday, and after those a memoir.

Several parcels arrived this afternoon. Several parcels arrive every afternoon. Today's I opened with every intention of contributing the books inside to our department's sprawling heap. But one of the jacket designs caught my attention. It's gorgeous, distinctive and yet somehow restrained. According to the back flap, someone named Archie Ferguson designed it. Probably he is a big deal. Among, you know, book designers.

Who wrote this lovely new book?

Oh. Her.

I've loved plenty of the author's early work, but it's been years. She's written books upon books since I last picked one up. Most have been very well received.

What does it take for you to try a favorite author's new work after a long hiatus? Have you gone back to an old standby recently? Was it worth the return?

The novel's jacket piqued my curiosity, but its opening paragraph stopped me in my tracks. The rest of today's mail went straight onto the heap. This book I brought home. It begins:

The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the


FPP#19: Three Fingers

From a book to be published in August by The Free Press:

First things first. You have to meet my mother. You have to meet the Mummy in the morning, sitting with her old tree root legs, stunted and worn, dangling off the edge of the king-size bed she shares with my father. In front of her is a purple walker, reminiscent of a racing bicycle with four wheels, its wire basket stuffed with socks, notebooks, a Kleenex or two. She looks up at the clock that sings a different bird song every hour on the hour and announces to my father, who is reading in a chair, "Monty, it is eight forty-five." She holds up three fingers to indicate the number of ounces of gin she wants in her drink. My father leaves the room, and I study my mother's face, the folds in her skin collapsed around bones and things she cannot express. I pat her shoulder and follow my father into the other room to watch him make my mother a drink.

Reason number sixty-four why reading is better than real life: In real life, when a stranger pulls you aside and demands that you meet her mother, you ...

FPP#18: It’s the Taxidermist

From a brand new novel published by MacAdam Cage:

It's the taxidermist. I can tell by my caller ID. His picture, which he once gave to one of the girls, is taped to the wall above my phone, between a photocopy of our business license and the list of descriptions that Mohammed has written to help sell the girls: "classy, mature, enthusiastic, efervessent, exotic, curvie" — whatever adjective might get a caller going.

Effervescent? Never mind that Mohammed misspelled it, how many callers are looking to spend good cash money for a quality most often associated with lemon-lime soda?

Enthusiastic, sure. And all things being equal, Mom always said, never skimp on class when you're going to break the law. Mature, presumably, means over forty; and as for exotic and curvie, let's chalk those two up to personal taste.

What are any of us looking for? And, take a step back, where are we looking? In bars or bookstores, churches, dance clubs, online? Far be it from me to pass judgment on a fictional character, the previous two paragraphs notwithstanding, but this may be one of those occasions when I disregard the first ninety thoughts that come to mind and simply take ...

FPP#17: A Lasting and Even Unshakable Impression

From the introduction to an anthology of short fiction published earlier this year (but discovered by yours truly only on Friday):

I never write short stories, and as a reader I find them a little scary. A good short story has to take the reader over for a half hour or so, imposing its own mood, sensibility, and events with enough intensity to make a lasting and even unshakable impression. There are, of course, stories I love, such as Stuart Dybek's "The Death of the Outfielder," but there are also stories I love but hate to think about, like Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill," in which a genteelly impoverished lady of a certain age goes to a concert dressed in a way she thinks is flattering, and overhears remarks that, the reader knows, must permanently disabuse her of her self-respect, or Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," which I read in high school and which may have been my first real exposure to plausible evil.

Let's be honest: not all stories are created equal. Open any literary quarterly or new collection and you're bound to find some of the contents wanting. Be it an anthology or the work of ...

FPP#16: Band Practice

From a novel to be published (with exquisite cover art, for what that's worth) by Harper Perennial in June:

When you grow up you can be anything, they said, but that's a lie too. So I go to band practice and plug in the Twin Reverb, the Stratocaster, and the noise is a beautiful plane crashing into my face. So I make a gun with my finger and thumb and aim heavenward. So I dream of a landscape, this one, darkened by the slow rolling shadows of cloud-sized tits.

Got your attention, at least. Hey, I don't really know what to make of the cloud-sized tits either, but as idylls dreamed up by electric guitar players I won't deny a certain vocational harmony. Surely the boobs-in-sky motif was established long ago in the annals of misogynist album covers?* Once upon a time, you'll remember, rock and roll was genuinely offensive. Why hold the modern rock novelist to higher standards?

"What's wrong with being sexy?" Nigel Tufnel famously asked.

Except, shouldn't they be tit-shaped clouds? If said formation is rolling over a landscape, they are clouds, right, not just cloud-sized? Granted, the narrator is daydreaming, so perhaps poetic license is ...

FPP#15: Decide

From a novel to be published in June by Broadway Books:

If you choose books the way I do, you still have a chance to save yourself a few bucks. You are probably standing, feet comfortably spread, before the shelves of the Fiction section of your favorite bookstore. Having made a selection, you've settled onto your dominant side (for me, it is the left) to decide, based on the first page or two, whether or not this one is worth either the trouble or the cover price. You aren't looking for anything in particular. Even a single word can win you. You once bought a book because the word macadam appeared on the first page.


The author — okay, the narrator — is actively soliciting our attention. All novelists face the same challenge, of course, but few are so up front about it.

This one brings to the table self-deprecation, humor, a genuine stab at camaraderie...

"The whole conceit behind your First Paragraph Peek series is faulty," Valaas declares. It's a noteworthy criticism if for no other reason than Valaas rarely speaks.

"First Paragraph Preview. Not peek," I clarify, "preview." He probably got it wrong just to irk me. "Faulty how?"

"I can't ...

FPP#14: No Fixed Address

The best-selling poet in America in the nineteen-thirties was also a newspaper columnist, a small-time actor, and a successful designer of Hawaii-themed dinnerware. His name was Don Blanding. He wore an oversized fedora and had a Clark Gable mustache, and he described himself as an "artist by nature, actor by instinct, poet by accident, vagabond by choice." He was born in Kingfisher, Oklahoma Territory, in 1894. In 1912, he saved the life of a six-year-old neighbor, Billie Cassin, who grew up to be the actress Joan Crawford. In 1915, he briefly shared an apartment in Chicago with the novelist and playwright Sherwood Anderson. For a few years in the nineteen-forties, he was married to the crayon heiress Dorothy Binney. He was famous for having no fixed address, but he kept turning up in certain favorite warm-weather locales, mainly in Florida, Hawaii, and California. He died in 1957, at the age of sixty-two. In 1986, the musician Jimmy Buffett borrowed the title of one of his poetry collections, Floridays, for a song (which he dedicated partly to Blanding) and an album.

So begins the new nonfiction of a New Yorker columnist whose name ...

FPP#13: Because No One Else Had

This week I've been reading a collection of short fiction by an author whose work I'd managed to overlook for the last couple decades, despite recommendations. The first story starts like this*:

My heart — I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God. I passed two churches with cars parked in front. Then I stopped at the third because no one else had.

How many times can I read that paragraph before it starts to wear thin? I'm going on fifteen or twenty.

This being the first piece in a 400-page book, the story could be long or short, funny or tragic. The first paragraph isn't giving much away. What almost stopped the narrator's heart? Who picks a church by the number of cars parked outside — the less, the better? And why would someone apparently disinclined toward popular religion rush to a house of God in the first place? Why not a bar or a friend's place? Questions, I've got questions.

One thing about reading for employment is that you're often immersed in material that doesn't suit your mood**, and you can't simply put a book down when interest wanes. Never would I suggest that ...

FPP#12: Obvious to Each Other

This week's first paragraph was lifted from a novel scheduled for publication by Algonquin Books later this month:

I know my own kind. We're obvious to each other. I suppose this is true of other kinds, too: military brats, for example, anarchists, mattress salesmen, women who once got ponies as birthday gifts.

So, what kind are you?

One that prefers the intimacy of small towns? Drinks darker beer in colder climates? Sleeps on the left side of the bed? The kind of person who stores coins in a mason jar, versus a piggy bank, versus a sprawling pile that threatens to overtake whatever flat surface it finds? A junk bond trader, saxophonist, spot welder, Sunday golfer who heads straight from the eighteenth hole to an all-you-can-eat brunch? Some kinds, let's agree, are immediately obvious to each other: New Englanders, for example — and it's not always a Red Sox hat that gives us away. My waitress last night had only just started reciting the dinner specials before I placed her accent as coming from somewhere in southern New Hampshire or Maine.

Michael Ondaatje has a long, very funny piece called Elimination Dance in The Cinnamon Peeler, a collection of ...

FPP#11: How She Felt about Him

Lilac and wisteria, spring blossoms and short-sleeve shirts. This week's first paragraph is sponsored by the birds and the bees and by falling for better (or sometimes for worse) in love.

There were times when she wished he were dead. Not that she's never met him, or that he'd never been born, but that he'd get hit by a car or get himself killed in some other violent way like a bar fight, or his arm would get caught in a machine and he would bleed to death before anyone could save him. And she wished that in those final moments, when he felt his life draining from him, that he'd understand what a bastard he was, what a waste of life. She could envision him, his blood pooling in a black kidney-shaped puddle beneath him as he repented in terror, understanding with a final clarity that he was about to pay for the man he was. In those dark moments he'd be sorry, so sorry. But it would be too late. That's how she felt about him.

For worse, it sounds, this time. Full disclosure: I have never wished someone would get his arm caught in a machine and bleed to ...

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