Story Starters #8: Pride and Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

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Good morning, all, and happy April! It’s snowing here in New Hampshire, which makes it a good day to analyze the beginning of a book. Fortunately, that’s always what I do on the first Saturday of the month. And today, I have an excellent beginning to analyze. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen has one of the most memorable first lines in literature. I’m excited to take a closer look!

  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Apart from last month’s look at The Fellowship of the Ring, we haven’t seen any one-line opening paragraphs in this series. And this one has a lot more punch than Tolkien’s (no offense to Tolkien, of course; his was meant to be less, well, punchy). It sets the tone of the book immediately; any of you who are familiar with Pride and Prejudice will know that it’s all about romance and marriage. The omniscient narrator, probably much more common in 19th-century fiction than now, lets us know right off what kind of book we are reading. That’s always helpful; that way, the people who read the book are those who really want to read it. Similarly, the book is true to the expectations set by the first line; Austen does not mislead the reader. As writers, it’s not a good idea for us to mislead the reader; they tend to get annoyed by that and stop reading.
  • At this point you’re probably thinking: “Those are all great points, Anna, but we still haven’t discussed what makes it so memorable.” Very true, friends. What makes this line so oft-quoted, especially such a wordy line in a non-wordy age? Personally, I put this down to Austen’s tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. Men must want wives, mustn’t they? . . . At least according to the neighbors with eligible daughters. And so the story begins. It’s so subtly stated in this line that it could be lost on modern readers, and it’s hard to put a finger on exactly how she’s being sarcastic, but it’s there, and at least to me, it’s always come across. This is Austen’s brilliance: she succinctly states the whole substance of her novel in one prim, carefully crafted line, still quoted today.

That’s it for me today! I’ll see you all next week.

What do you think? Have you read Pride and Prejudice? Do you find this line memorable? What do you think of one-line opening paragraphs? Would you add anything to my analysis? Tell me in the comments!

What I’m Reading: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

I must confess that I saw the movie version of this story before I read the book. It was on TV one night, but we didn’t see all of it, so we got it out from the library and watched again a few days later. It was quite good, and that got me wanting to read the book. Hence this review.

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And let me tell you, the book was amazing. So let’s get to it!

Information for Readers

Genre: Science fiction/psychological

Age level: I’d say older teens and adults for the intensity.

Content? Because of the subject matter, there’s a lot of violence and death. Ender gets pretty traumatized eventually. There’s also a fair bit of swearing and occasional mentions of private parts. I’d rate the book PG-13.

The Story: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a brilliant six-year-old boy, is recruited for Battle School by the International Fleet. They need someone to defeat the “buggers,” insect-like aliens that have invaded Earth twice trying to colonize, and their best hope is in gifted children like Ender. Once at Battle School, Ender finds both friends and enemies, especially when he excels far past the norm for his age. His prowess in fighting, both mock and real, leaves him tortured, struggling not to be like his tyrannical brother Peter.

This was an excellent story. The premise was just fascinating, and Card did as much with it as he possibly could have. I also really liked the ending, how it wrapped everything up from earlier in the book. It was just a really well-done plot.

The Characters: They were excellent, beautifully written. I thought it was great how they all had goals: Colonel Graff, trying to save Earth and take care of Ender at the same time; Peter, trying to take over the world by influencing ideas on the nets; and Ender, trying to survive and, eventually, to make the IF stop manipulating him. These were just a few examples; all the characters were really well developed and interesting. Ender was my favorite, though I also liked the few scenes spent with Valentine, and the dialogue from Graff at the beginning of each chapter. I really appreciated Ender’s struggle to not become his brother and to cope with the things he’d done as he got older.

The Writing: So this book was published in 1977, almost forty years ago, and I’m not sure they had the same ideas about point-of-view and such then as we do now. It seemed like a book written in omniscient to me; usually, each scene was spent looking into one character’s mind (with a few exceptions), usually Ender, but occasionally the narrator would drop in warnings that something was going to happen and Ender didn’t know about it. There was also a lot of telling, which actually worked for the omniscient-ish POV, and it did go alongside showing things through Ender’s experiences.

The worldbuilding was excellent; it felt very futuristic with the artificial gravity of Battle School (according to my physics professor, that’s scientifically accurate, too) and the video games on portable “desks.” One thing I found interesting was that, in Card’s future society, the Warsaw Pact still exists as a powerful faction, although Earth is allied under a global Hegemony. This leads to some friction later on, driven by Ender’s siblings, which is an interesting subplot. It was great how Card never overexplained anything about the worldbuilding; instead, he just let the reader be immersed in the world. I really liked it.

One more thing bears mentioning in this section: the themes. I was on the hunt for themes as I read this book, and I found so many. Childhood, war, guilt, forgiveness, power, ends justifying means, friendship, and love, and there are probably more that I could find if I re-read the book. The complexity, the many layers and levels of this story make it ripe with themes, with thoughts on life and humanity. I really loved the literary depth of it.

Overall: Ender’s Game is a fantastic book. The premise is fascinating, the characters compelling, the writing complex and deep. It’s a really magnificent work of fiction. Highly recommended!

What do you think? Have you ever read Ender’s Game? Would you like to? Have you seen the movie? What did you think of it (either one)? Tell me in the comments!

What I’m Reading: Persuasion by Jane Austen

Hello again! Normally I do book reviews on the third Saturday of the month, but since it’s a five-Saturday month, things got shifted around a little bit. And this will be a short review, since a) it’s a fairly short book and b) I’m writing this post rather last-minute (oops). So let’s jump right in!

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Information for Readers:

Genre: Classic Romance

Age Level: Probably all ages from teens up

Extreme Content? Not really; this is a pretty tame book.

The Story: Anne Elliot, the plain middle daughter of a noble family suffering from her father’s extravagance, wishes she had married her sweetheart Captain Wentworth eight years ago. When he unexpectedly reappears, interested in another girl, and in the midst of her family’s move to Bath to rent out their house, she must discern what his true intentions are and whether he or the charming Mr. Elliot is the better man.

The Characters: The characters were quite interesting. I didn’t see as much of Lady Russell as I would have liked from the beginning of the book; considering she was so involved in Anne’s prior decision to not marry Captain Wentworth, I would have thought she would be more involved toward the end. I loved how Austen used Sir Walter and Elizabeth, Anne’s father and older sister, to critique society. Mary, Anne’s younger sister, was delightfully annoying. Captain Wentworth was well-developed and well-rounded. Anne was definitely my favorite character; she just felt real to me. I appreciated her sensible outlook on life and logical, calm approach to problems like dealing with pesky family members. I think so much emphasis is placed on having “strong” female characters these days that the strength in quiet kindness gets lost a bit, so I found it quite refreshing to read about Anne.

The Writing: It’s difficult for me to critique Jane Austen, since she did write two centuries ago in another country and social class. I enjoyed the little tongue-in-cheek comments, a hallmark of Austen (as I know from reading three of her books), that she slipped in during descriptions and so forth. I think she really succeeded in transporting me to another time and place, something the familiarity of living in that time and place did a lot to help her with. None of the rules of inheritance or anything like that was explained, since, of course, the nineteenth-century upper-class reader would already know them. I really enjoyed it.

Overall: A pleasant short read. It made a nice break from classwork, and it was lovely getting to know Anne Elliot. Definitely recommended!

Have you ever read Persuasion? What do you think of it? If you haven’t, do you think you’d like to try it out? Tell me in the comments!

Story Starters #2: The Hobbit

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

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(Just to forewarn you, Mr. Tolkien is perhaps entirely responsible for my love of fantasy. I might gush a bit. And now that you’ve been warned, let’s all gush together. :P)

Hello, and welcome to the second installment of my “Story Starters” blog posts! On the first Saturday of each month, I analyze the beginning of a book, any book, and today, it happens to be a very good book: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

 

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Yes, that’s right: the hobbit.

So let’s jump right in and do a sentence-by-sentence analysis of the first paragraph!

  • In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. This one is pretty self-explanatory. As we’re reading the first sentence (unless we’ve seen the movie first, precious), we are sitting here wondering: what the heck is a hobbit? It’s a great hook; it poses a question that we, the readers, would really like answered. Tolkien gets to that by paragraph three, but he has to give us some hints first, which leads us to sentence two.
  • Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. The first thing that jumps out at me is how long this sentence is. Grammatically, it makes a great contrast with the first sentence; it’s long and meandering and draws us in by Tolkien’s vivid imagery. And it gives us some great hints about what hobbits are not, and by the end, something of what they are. The mention of comfort particularly strikes me as foreshadowing the main character and theme of the book in the very first paragraph. (My analytical writer brain is geeking out right now. I mean, isn’t that foreshadowing just awesome?!?)

And that’s it for this extraordinarily short post. I hope it had enough insights to make up for its brevity.

What do you think? Isn’t Tolkien a genius? Have you read The Hobbit? (If not . . . *shakes head* Just go read it, okay?) Do you have any further analysis that perhaps my tired brain didn’t pick up? Tell me in the comments!

 

 

What I’m Reading: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

In a society where books are forbidden, book-burning fireman Guy Montag must make a decision: whether or not resuscitating books’ secrets is worth losing the life he now lives.

Well, the votes are in! Two weeks ago, I asked you which book of the three I’d recently read you’d like me to review on the blog. The winner was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which I must admit I’m happy about, since I liked it so much.

Fahrenheit 451 is a classic for good reasons. Let’s examine them!

The Story: Guy Montag is a fireman, but in a future when all houses are fireproofed, that means he burns down houses filled with contraband (books). Then, he meets Clarisse, a young neighbor who thinks far more than the average person, and starts to venture down the same path. I shan’t say any more for fear of giving spoilers. . . .

This story was excellently written. Many events are unpredictable, yet foreshadowed enough that they are not unbelievable. The subplots–Montag’s marriage, his friendships with Clarisse and Faber, and his work life–all wove together really well. And the way it was written made it really memorable. More on that below.

The Characters: There are just enough characters in this book, not too many: Montag, our main fireman; Clarisse, his young friend; Faber, a professor before universities ceased to exist; Beatty, the fire chief; Millie, Montag’s wife; Granger, whom he meets near the end. They were all distinct and well-developed, and I got to know more about them as I read along and Bradbury revealed the backstory (again, just enough, not too much). They were all fascinating. I cared about all of them in different ways. Some made me sad; some made me happy. For me, that’s the mark of a good writer, that the characters are compelling.

I liked all the characters, but Montag was my favorite. I really enjoyed watching him grow and develop over the course of the book, watching him gradually discover the truth and cope with his misdeeds (some of which are pretty serious, reminding me of this post on Helping Writers Become Authors). He was just so compelling. I loved cheering him on. 🙂

The Writing: Ray Bradbury was a good writer. Sure, he used telling words here and there, and there were a few narrative passages explaining things, but overall, I was really inside Montag’s head. In several places, the book was slightly disorienting, the way it was written, but that served to emphasize Montag’s confusion. It was very immersive.

Another thing I noticed was the worldbuilding. Bradbury doesn’t do a lot of explaining up front about the storyworld; he just drops the reader right into it. He explains things as they come up, like the Mechanical Hound; or he has the characters explain them, like Beatty’s explanation of how firemen came to burn houses instead of fighting fires. And the world was fascinating. I think part of the reason Fahrenheit 451 is so classic is that the society is so relevant, so realistic. It could really happen, and that’s stuck with people since the book was first published in 1953. It will certainly stick with me; it was one of my favorite parts of the book.

Overall: Fahrenheit 451 was an excellent book, a timeless classic. I definitely recommend it!

What do you think? Have you ever read Fahrenheit 451? Anything else by Bradbury? If so, what did you like about it? If not, do you think you’d like to read it? Share in the comments!

Book Quote 4: Fahrenheit 451

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”

Hello, all! It’s the first Saturday of a new month, and that must mean I am analyzing a book quote. Today’s quote comes from the fantastic book Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which I recently read and am considering reviewing for you. (I have several options, and am leaving it up to you to decide. See below for more details!)

For now, let’s talk about the above quote, particularly the part I put in bold. I picked this one because I think it’s really striking (you can find many more on Goodreads if you’re interested–be warned, there is some language in some of them). Let’s analyze: why is it so striking, and what can we writers learn from it?

1. It speaks to truth. A big theme of Fahrenheit 451 is that books speak to truth (or, at least, they should). Ironically, or perhaps purposefully, Bradbury is doing exactly that here. This quote comes near the end of the book, and he wants to leave us with something that speaks to what the storyworld is not, at the moment, but might become, something that it used to be. This quote embodies the theme of the story: life should be worth something. We should all have quotes somewhere in our books that bring out the themes of our stories.

2. Literary devices are used well. In the second sentence, Bradbury uses parallelism to make his point; each phrase has a similar structure. This reinforces the ideas presented in the reader’s mind and makes the writer’s point better. (Of course, this would only work coming from particularly well-spoken characters, such as the well-read man who is speaking about his grandfather here.) Bradbury also uses the metaphor of the soul going into an object when it dies to make his writing that much more powerful.

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Before I finish, I need you to help me decide which book to review this month. I read three candidates, described below:

The Tombs of Atuan: I reviewed the first book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, A Wizard of Earthsea, back in April. The Tombs of Atuan is the second book, and I thought it was just as good as the first.

Fahrenheit 451: I had wanted to read this classic about book-burning for years, and finally got it out from the library this past month. I flew through it, and it was every bit as good as I’ve been told.

The Andromeda Strain: I had previously read Jurassic Park, another of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi novels. As part of my recent sci-fi kick, I read The Andromeda Strain, about an extraterrestrial organism that comes down to Earth on a satellite and promptly causes disease and mayhem. It thrilled my inner scientist, but not so much my inner writer.

Just answer in the typeform below to give your opinion! The review will go up on the 18th.

What do you think of today’s quote? Have you read Fahrenheit 451? Did you like it? Which book did you vote for? Share in the comments!

Book Quote 2: Oliver Twist

As they passed Sunbury Church, the clock struck seven. There was a light in the ferry-house window opposite which streamed across the road and threw into more sombre shadow a dark yew-tree with graves beneath it. There was a dull sound of falling water not far off, and the leaves of the old tree stirred gently in the night wind. It seemed like quiet music for the repose of the dead.

Hello, all, and happy April! Let’s start off the month with a book quote. Last month’s was from Tolkien (The Fellowship of the Ring, to be precise). This one is from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, which I reviewed last month. Needless to say, Dickens books are quite different from Tolkien books, though both were masterful writers. I particularly like this quote for its descriptive qualities, so that’s what I’m going to focus on today. What can we learn about descriptive writing from the quote above?

1. It suits the mood. At this point, Oliver Twist and a thief, Sikes, are on their way to commit a robbery, and Oliver, our main character, is afraid. Because of this, he (or, more properly, the omniscient narrator) does not see cheery light casting welcoming rays into the darkness, but light that sets a tree and the gravestones beneath it in shadow. You can sense the foreboding just by reading this one paragraph of description.

2. (Spoiler alert!) It serves to foreshadow a later event. I won’t give too many spoilers here, but near the end of the book, someone dies. Dickens has snuck in some very clever foreshadowing about twenty-five chapters ahead of time (yes, this is a long book) with his description of the graves and his comparison of water and wind to music for the dead. It’s smart to add moments like these early in the book so the climax doesn’t come completely out of the blue for the reader.

And there you have it! Lessons about description from a paragraph of Dickens.

What do you think? Have you ever read Oliver Twist? Can we draw some advice from this quote that I didn’t note here? Do you enjoy reading Dickens’s descriptions as much as I do? Tell me in the comments!

What I’m Reading: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

An orphan raised in a workhouse runs away to London, where he rubs shoulders with both impoverished thieves and the well-to-do and finds out who he really is.

Welcome to my first book review post! This book is a bit of a departure from my genre, as described on this blog. It is not one jot speculative or fantastical, but I think all writers can benefit from reading and studying the classics, like Dickens. And Oliver Twist hammers Dickens’s mastery home.

The Story: This book is introduced as a biography of Oliver Twist, an orphan boy born and raised in a Victorian English workhouse for poor children. When his apprenticeship to an undertaker results in his being beaten, Oliver runs away to London, where he falls in with a gang of thieves. Although (spoiler alert) he gets rescued from them a couple times, his fate is woven in with theirs until he finds out at the very end who he really is.

This book is half mystery and half social critique, as you’ve probably heard. The narrator’s tongue-in-cheek comments about various characters kept me both chuckling and nodding at the reality of life for the poor in Victorian England. The mystery, meanwhile, kept me hooked, as was probably necessary, since Dickens wrote this as a serial.

A major problem I have with the story is that, once it got to a certain point, Oliver was left behind. It was still (ostensibly) about Oliver, but he didn’t figure as prominently as the rest of the cast. That being said, it was still a good read.

The Characters: There are a lot of characters in this book. Offhand, I can think of eighteen recurring characters, not one-time figures (like the magistrate, who is only in one or maybe two scenes). Because of the great number of characters, it can be difficult to keep track of who’s who among the less important ones. That being said, the major characters are quite well written and thus memorable.

My favorite character in this book was Nancy, the prostitute girl who lives with the thief Sikes. She, along with Oliver, embodies much of the book’s theme of escaping from poverty’s degradations. Spoiler alert: Though she often acts as a double agent, working for both Oliver’s interests and those of the robber gang, her compassion for Oliver eventually wins out, defining the events of the last part of the book. In fact, I would say hers is the major arc of the story; she grows the most of any of the characters, though she still falls short of really changing. In short, she is a deep, interesting, and well-written character.

The Writing: Dickens’s writing is . . . well, let’s just say it’s very different from what we see in books published in this century. Consider the opening of Oliver Twist:

Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born–on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events–the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

(The chapter is called “Treats of the place where Oliver Twist was born, and of the circumstances attending his birth.”)

A modern writer might boil this very long sentence, which makes up an entire paragraph by itself, down to this:

Oliver Twist was born in a workhouse.

This example just goes to show how different the writing of the Victorian era is from today’s cut-to-the-chase style. Today, especially in the common third-person limited point of view, it is most common to open with a character, maybe going about his or her usual business. But Dickens is not writing in third-person limited; his omniscient narrator knows what is going on inside each and every head involved and is not afraid to add some commentary. While this would not be accepted today, it works for Dickens. As I have already mentioned, his purpose is to effect social change while telling a good story, and the omniscient POV and his wordy style work well for that. Also, readers in the Victorian era were probably a lot more tolerant than today’s readers.

The one thing that most amused me, as a modern reader, were the chapter titles. They tend to be descriptive, and some poke sarcasm at the characters they mention. Others, however, are written as though Dickens ran out of ideas for titling his chapters. Consider this:

“Chapter XXXVI. Is a very short one, and may appear of no great importance in its place, but it should be read notwithstanding, as a sequel to the last and a key to the one that will follow when its time arrives.”

I can’t help thinking: Yes, Mr. Dickens, that is an excellent description of the function of a middle chapter.

Another writing topic for this book, which I won’t touch on today, is Dickens’s description. Look for a discussion of that in a forthcoming book quote post.

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My copy of Oliver Twist.

 

Overall: All things considered, I enjoyed Oliver Twist. The unexpected twists and turns kept me on the edge of my seat, and the characterizations gave me an idea of what life was like for the poor when this book was written. I definitely recommend it!