What’s my (opening) line?

I was sitting next to NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce when he challenged the group to recall a favorite first line of a book. His was the opening of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Many years later, as he faced a firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

We went round robin. My contribution was the epic opening of John Mortimer’s introduction to his titular character in “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” a line (it stretches half a page) too long to reproduce here, let alone remember in full at the time.

I hadn’t thought about that conversation until last week, when I came across the short story “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas in The New Yorker. The story opens with the line, “I slept through the burglary.” Now, who could possibly do that? I thought. It’s a provocative lead, one that introduces the unique voice of a singular character. I read the story in one gulp.

There are many well-known openings, from Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) to the Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to the oft-parodied line from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I’m sure you have some favorites, maybe Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” or Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Just so.

And then there are the lesser-known kickoffs, the ones that brim with promise, that say, if you keep reading, you shall discover new worlds with a companionable guide.

Here, in no particular order, is a collection of my favorites, a mix of contemporary and classic lines from male and female authors alike:

“Woman’s lying in bed and the bed’s on fire.” Don Winslow, California Fire and Life.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups.

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Gillian Flynn, Dark Places.

“It began, as the greatest of storms do begin, as a mere tremor in the air, a thread of sound so distant and faint, yet so ominous, that the ear that was sharp enough to catch it instantly pricked and shut out present sounds to strain after it again, and interpret the warning.” Ellis Peters, The Sanctuary Sparrow.

“On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.” Anne Lamott, Plan B.

“It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then.” Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley.

“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” Elmore Leonard, Glitz.

“This really happened, this story.” Laurie Lynn Drummond, Anything You Say Can and Will be Used Against You.

“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” T.C. Boyle, “Descent of Man.”

 “Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits.” Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer.

“Joe lived, but it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of.” C.J. Box, Open Season.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson, Neuromancer.

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” Janet Evanovich, One for the Money.

And lastly, my all-time favorite, a slight deviation from the pattern we’ve established here in that the quote needs a second sentence to complete the punchline. It’s from Jennifer Crusie’s breakout novel Tell Me Lies. “One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.”

Now that’s a keeper.

What are you favorite opening lines? Leave a comment here, or on your social medium of choice.

Exploring the character of place

Location, location, location. The mantra isn’t just for real estate agents. Writers have long known that a place works better as character than background. NPR does, too, which makes the radio program “Crime in the City” a delight for tourists of murder and mayhem.

The series features well-known authors and their beats—George Pelecanos’ Washington, D.C., Walter Mosley’s L.A.—as well as writers exploring smaller venues—Archer Mayor and Brattleboro, Vt., Julia Keller’s fictional town in West Virginia.

“Crime in the City” also gives armchair detectives a travelogue of international venues—Mary Lou Longworth in Aix-en-Provence, Ann Cleeves in the Shetland Islands, Richard Crompton in Nairobi, Paco Ignacio Taibo II in Mexico City.

Big or small, noisy or quiet, home or abroad, these locales illuminate both the authors and their characters in unexpected ways.

NPR’s correspondents intersperse the ambient sound of streets and cafes with the voices of police, shopkeepers and the writers themselves. As the sun becomes a distant memory in North America, the summer series offers armchair travelers a glimpse of the often superheated habitat of their favorite novelists. (In addition to the live broadcasts, the programs are available on the NPR website as downloadable MP3 files.)

As a reader or writer, what role do you think place can play in crime fiction?

NPR Crime in City Byzantine monument

Steaming up summer with romance novels

The heat is on this summer as National Public Radio takes on one of the steamier segments of the publishing industry.

Jennifer Crusie Bet MeNPR Books is focusing on romance novels. And their recommendations are not so-called “bodice rippers” or historical romances—they’re contemporary stories that straddle the categories of fiction.

The works blend the genres of romance and mystery or romance and humor to create contemporary novels that can appeal to a wide range of readers, not just those raised on Barbara Cartland or Janet Dailey. (Who hasn’t read at least one of the books in the Calder series? OK, don’t answer that.)

The NPR project features a more contemporary group of works like Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, Match Me If You Can by Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Something About You by Julie James, a murder mystery involving an attorney and an FBI agent.

No mention of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. How would you categorize them, as romantic suspense?

You can listen to the series on the NPR website.

Scene of the crime: the character of place

Location, location, location. The mantra isn’t just for real estate agents. Writers have long known that a place works better as character than background. NPR does, too, which makes the radio program “Crime in the City” a delight for tourists of murder and mayhem.

The long-running summer series features well-known authors and their beats—George Pelecanos’ Washington, D.C., Walter Mosley’s L.A.—as well as writers exploring smaller cities and towns—Archer Mayor and Brattleboro, Vt., Julia Keller’s fictional town in West Virginia.

“Crime in the City” also gives armchair detectives a travelogue of international cities—Mary Lou Longworth in Aix-en-Provence, Ann Cleeves in the Shetland Islands, Richard Crompton in Nairobi, Paco Ignacio Taibo II in Mexico City.

Big or small, noisy or quiet, home or abroad, these locales illuminate both the authors and their characters in unexpected ways.

NPR’s correspondents intersperse the ambient sound of streets and cafes with the voices of police, shopkeepers and the writers themselves. As summer draws to an end in North America, the spots serve as a sweet treat for readers who like to investigate their favorite novelists. (In addition to the live broadcasts, the programs are available on the NPR website as downloadable MP3 files.)

As a reader or writer, what role do you think place can play in crime fiction?

Is Sybarite5 Sarasota’s Best-Kept Musical Secret?

Someone left the radio tuned to a station that programs NPR’s Weekend Edition on Saturday mornings. As I reached for the dial to switch to a classical music station, Fred Child, the host of Performance Today, cued up Astor Piazzolla’s “La Muerte del Angel” by the string quintet Sybarite5, recorded live in Holley Hall in Sarasota, Florida.

My wife and I had just seen a series of bracing concerts there, and so I stepped into the shower . . . and back a lifetime to a concert by the Guarneri Quartet, who played Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1 with an intensity that shredded their bows. And here was a quintet whose founder came from Sarasota and who could play with the same nuance and fervor. Not what you would expect from a laid-back city by the sea.

Then Child announced that Sybarite5 had recently recorded an album of Radiohead covers. Time to step out the shower and learn a bit more about the group.

Named after the ancient Greek city in southern Italy now identified with seekers of pleasure and luxury, Sybarite5 is the first string quintet ever selected as winners of Concert Artists Guild International Competition in its 60 year history. The media have compared the group to rock stars who play with missionary zeal. Its members have performed in traditional venues (Carnegie Hall) as well as nontraditional ones (the CBS Early Show).

And while their repertoire includes composers known in the classical world, such as Piazzolla and Mozart, the quartet released a recording of covers of the music of Radiohead called “Everything in its Right Place,” following in the wake of another musical pioneer, pianist Christopher O’Riley, the host of NPR’s From the Top, who has released several transcriptions of Radiohead music.

Sybarite5 was founded by double bassist and former Sarasota resident Louis Levitt. In addition to his work with Sybarite5, Levitt has been featured on chamber music appearances that have included the Aspen Music Festival as well as performances with Grammy winning composer Bob James. He has also performed with the Sarasota Orchestra. He recently became the first ever double bassist to win the Concert Artist Guild Competition.

As for the other members of the quintet, many have a foot in both classical and contemporary worlds:

  • Laura Metcalf, cello, was featured as a soloist with the One World Symphony playing an arrangement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
  • Sarah Whitney, violin, led the Cleveland Central Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra as concertmaster on tour to Carnegie Hall.
  • Angela Pickett, viola, performs with the Princeton Symphony and has played the fiddle with numerous ensembles, including the Chieftains.
  • Sami Merdinian, an Argentinian violinist, has received worldwide recognition for his performances as a soloist and chamber musician, including his work with the Perlman Chamber Music Workshop, which holds a winter residency in Sarasota.

I’m downloading another of the group’s recordings now, the EP “Disturb the Silence.” It features music by Radiohead and Piazzolla, plus two original works written for the quintet, and made its debut at number 11 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart.

It’s a good way to start your weekend.

 

Culture as an engine of commerce

U.S. politicians who want to cut federal funding for NPR might read a study by the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich. Researchers there found a direct link between spending on culture and regional economic health.

The authors studied the economic growth of regions with and without opera houses. Their conclusion: regions with these cultural centers attracted residents with more training and education, leading to greater economic growth for the region as a whole.

Or in the arcane language of the study: “Proximity to a Baroque opera house is a strong predictor of the district’s share of employees with a tertiary degree.” The study is quoted in the Economix blog by the New York Times.

Now you might dismiss the parallel with public broadcasting by saying that no one moves to a new location solely to be near a radio or television station and that’s a valid point. But for affluent and well-educated citizens, proximity to sources of knowledge and culture factor almost as heavily as health care in the decision to relocate. (In a recent survey by  homebuilder Del Webb 61% said one of the top reasons for deciding where to move involves cultural and recreational amenities — a percentage point more than a favorable climate.)

Since these consumers have the wherewithal to support politicians as well as newscasters, lawmakers might reconsider using fiscal policy to drive social change.

Bavarian State Opera, Munich

Bavarian State Opera, Munich

All things video

More than half of all adults in the United States have used the internet to watch or download video. That from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, run by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

The most popular content? Comedy or humorous videos, rising in viewership from 31% of adult internet users in 2007 to 50% of adult internet users in the current survey. Educational videos ranked second, rising from 22% to 38%. In last place were political videos, although their doubling in viewership from 15% to 30% signals yet another shift in engagement and content delivery.

The report is based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International between June 18-21, 2009 among a dual-frame (cell and landline) sample of 1,005 adults, 18 and older.

While marketers have plotted this growth for years, traditional media have recently seen the light, with newspapers and other outlets charging their reporters with carting video-capable cameras along with their notepads. The newest wrinkle in that trend comes by way of National Public Radio, which shows that it, too, has the chops to survive in this brave new world.

Prior to an interview at the All Things Digital conference, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller provided a humorous glimpse at NPR personalities trying out new digital technologies. After a passionate introduction by Schiller, the co-hosts of All Things Considered, Robert Siegel and Michele Norris, are transformed through the magic of stutter edit into urban hipsters.

Max Headroom would be proud.

max_headroom sunglasses