Category Archives: Reading books

Trying to get through all the best sellers, Pulitzer Prize Winners and NY Times Best Sellers List on the subway

The Perfect Sentence

Standard

My weekend writing class is a welcome break from my week of molecular biology. In my 10-week Gotham Writing Workshop entitled Fiction Writing I, we read short stories, by professionals and each other. We discuss sentences and their merits and flaws, debate what works in a short and what just doesn’t quite move the reader. I am currently reading around 5 or 6 stories a week as homework. It is challenging but I have discovered that when I find a sentence that “sings” as our teacher Mike puts it, my heart flows over. But how do you write the “perfect sentence”?

Yesterday on my way out of class a fellow student gave me an article published in the NYTimes by the acclaimed writer Jhumpa Lahiri. My life’s Sentences discusses her relationship with words and the structures you can make with them.

I remember reading a sentence by Joyce, in the short story “Araby.” It appears toward the beginning. “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” I have never forgotten it. This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once. It is full of movement, of imagery. It distills a precise mood. It radiates with meaning and yet its sensibility is discreet.

I want to be able to measure, unguard and radiate with meaning. Now I am inspired. I want to find sentences that make my hair stand on end. I want to read how a wordsmith can conjure up vivid images on the page and make me smile at their genius. And I want you to help me. Have a little ponder on the best sentences or sections of prose that you have come across recently or in your distant past. Please share them so we can all marvel at the beauty of language (and by that I mean they don’t need to be in English).

Here are a couple of passages that I found after a quick browse on the Internet.

“Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being in love which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

“Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow, it was hotter then. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning; ladies bathed before noon, after their 3 o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum. The day was twenty-four hours long, but it seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go and nothing to buy… and no money to buy it with. Although Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself… That summer, I was six years old.”

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (is this the greatest opening to a book? I think it might be. Unless you can prove me wrong?) ‘The day was twenty-four hours long, but seemed longer” is just magnificent. Childhood recollections are often bathed in a soft hue of hotter, longer and safer. For me, Harper Lee achieves perfection in this simple phrase.

Other sentences that have stood out in my recent short story addiction include several examples in Roberto Bolano’s Labyrinth.

His face is round. it would be an exaggeration to say that this is the face of a fat man, but it probably will be in a few years’ time: it’s the face of a man who enjoys a good meal. An ironic, intelligent smile is hovering about his lips.

At first glance she could be Vietnamese. Except that her breasts, it seems, are larger than those of a Vietnamese woman. Hers is the only smile that allows us a glimpse of teeth.

Bolano plays with the reader, mocking us throughout the whole piece. His oddly straightforward descriptions of his characters are sometimes bizarre and therefore jolly good fun.

In Los Gigantes, T. Coraghessan Boyle shows us his skill.

I couldn’t see anything but her face in the mosaic shadow of the wire, but I could feel her shrug animate the mattress.

I came up off the bed, chains rattling loose around me, telling tales, and if the guard who must have been watching through a hidden peephole came hurtling into the room I barely noticed.

I could go on. But I am tired and I will be climbing into my bed now. More sentences please. Isn’t this just a great game?

Bookcrossing 101

Standard

This is my first attempt at Book crossing. Releasing books into the wild, to travel great distances and being enjoyed along the way. “Little Bee” by Chris Cleave and “The Clothes on their Backs” by Linda Grant were first registered on the website www.bookcrossing.com and allocated individual BCID numbers. Bookclub stickers and internal leaflets with slogans such as “I’M FREE! I’m not lost” and “You’ve caught a travelling book” were adhered to the inside and outside covers and then ‘the release’ date was chosen and a plan was set in motion.

As a BookCrossing ‘Giver’ you can choose to set your books free as a ‘controlled release’ to a friend or stranger or as a ‘wild release’ on a park bench, in a train station, in a coffee shop… The list is endless. A ‘wild release’ is perhaps a more risky approach…but definitely the more entertaining one.

First off I was able to secure a successful ‘controlled release’ to a writing class buddy. She hails from New Jersey and was eager to whip “Little Bee” out of my clutches early in the day. However, settled in the fact that I had managed to get my first book out of the State with such minimal effort I was keen for the excitement of a “wild release” for the second novel.

Installed on a bench in Washington Square Park, our novel of choice lay in wait. On the opposite side of the walkway, Giles and I took up position as booky spies, ready to snap up photographs of any prospective book receivers. We waited. Hipsters came and went as the bright sunshine illuminating Manhattan began to fade. We watched as student types approached the lonely literature and inspected our sticky additions. “I’m not lost. I’m free” the book exclaimed. And yet each time they placed it back on its perch. Deflated after a stream of excited potentials let us down we began to feel the chilly evening drawing in. And I wanted to go shopping in SoHo. So finally getting my own way we wandered off, taking one last glance at our gift to the literary-minded.

On returning to Washington Square Park a few hours later we found the bench empty. No evidence of a struggle and no sign of any impromptu fires or floods. Success. We hope.

by  Roey Ahram

by Roey Ahram

If you want to get involved in Bookcrossing I highly recommend it. It is a very satisfying endeavour so check out the website.

You can also follow our recent releases on our bookclub website into the ring with tolstoy. Just scroll down and see them travel.

Death of a Salesman

Standard

Phillip Seymour Hoffman has recently climbed up onto the Ethel Barrymore stage on Broadway to revive this Arthur Miller classic.

Let me reiterate. Phillip Seymour Hoffman of “Scent of a Woman”, “Flawless”, “The Savages” etc. etc. is ON STAGE NOW in a legendary New York based play by the man Miller. Needless to say I was booked well in advance. No care or thought to cost.

Eager to make the most of my experience I speedily ordered a used Penguin paperback on Amazon and kept my fingers crossed that it would arrive in good time. The performance is Thursday night. The book arrives Tuesday evening. The race is on. Luckily I have an uncomfortably early appointment with the orthodontist on Wednesday, so slim paperback in hand, I begin my commute to the Upper East Side clinic. By lunchtime, gripped by the anguish of Willy Loman and his family’s disappointments I am on the final page. The clue is in the name and yet my heart is wrenched out of my chest as I imagine the headlights come on and the car revving up as Willy drives away to his demise.

In my mind I already know Biff, Willy’s eldest. A failed football player who doesn’t get into college after flunking math (a subject in the singular here), Biff has drifted around the country since he graduated high school, trying to “find himself”. He works on farms, with horses. He is strong. Tanned. Masculine. Andrew Garfield (“The Social Network” and “Never Let Me Go”) takes up the role here. Ermm he is not the Biff I had in mind and I am dubious. His physique is too slight. He is faded, true, but he doesn’t seem commanding, magnificent enough for the part. But the verdict?

Completely nailed it. By Act Two, when he begins to really interact with his father and we see their struggle with guilt, love, respect and the loss of it, I am mesmerised and torn up inside watching them fight for those good old days of comradeship. His debut on Broadway? I say “roaring success.”

Biff’s younger brother, Happy (Hap), is also an attractive athletic specimen (and he is actually just that. Mmm rippling biceps). His presence on stage is wonderful. Do I sense a crush coming on? Probably yes. The rest of the cast was faultless too. But I probably shouldn’t detail them one by one. Could get boring. But well done Mr Casting Director. The 1940s truly came alive on stage. Linda Loman generates as many sniffles from the audience as the boys and their father. Her trembling hands as she battles to bring father and sons back together, back to love, is powerful. And these people really know how to cry. Can we just take a timeout to comment on the crying? Genuine agonising weeping was the theme of the evening and whoever was coaching that should get a medal. If there are such medals for such feats.

Now. I am sure you are all wondering. No mention of Phillip Seymour Hoffman? How strange. Was she disappointed? Was she overwhelmed and distracted by the true-to-Miller set design bringing the written word to vivid life? Or was she simply smitten with the bicep built Hap and his chiselled jawline?

Nope. I was saving the best ’til last. Phillip Seymour Hoffman (PSH for convenience), you have successfully infiltrated the Ashbridge Family core. Many have tried and failed but you, among a few select others, get us all riled with admiration. For years we have watched and rewatched “Scent of a Woman” (not least for the “Hoo haaa” of Al Pacino). We have snuggled up with M&S biscuits and Cadbury’s Buttons and praised you on screen. Sister Jo even queued for over 5 hours at the Toronto Film Festival to hear your gruff, intoxicating tone discussing your craft (disregarding the looks of bewilderment from her peers no doubt).

Like Biff we would love you no matter what. Isn’t it amazing how film and theatre can do that to a person? Can make you buzz from top to toe and ache with inspiration. PSH, the front left stalls gasped as you tore down that anemic Bernard with your ferocity and I smiled to myself. Didn’t you know he had it in him? We did.

Finally Meeting Alec

Standard

It was my birthday yesterday and I was excessively enthusiastic for near-30 digits. As if getting an excess of presents and sugar was not enough I was also able to fulfill a (lifelong?) dream to meet the man. Mr Alec “he is just too cheeky” Baldwin, as I was reliably informed by Giles, would be reading from a book in a SoHo bookstore. 7:30pm.

Fingers crossed

As always, I had taken on a little TOO much for one day and was then presented with the opportunity to rush downtown immediately after a squash match to see Baldwin himself in the glorious flesh! Could I resist? I could not.

Completely hyper with anticipation, I ran between court and subway stop, skipping stairs to save valuable minutes. Seeing a train pulling in, I swiped the metro card and dove into the carriage. The doors slid closed and I realised, with comic timing and to much dismay, that I was actually being directed UPTOWN. I sometimes do this. Jump on trains without thinking. Panicking I urged the train silently on to 68th St, hopped out, sprinted at full pelt upstairs, over and back down to the reverse platform, panting at this point and tearing my new scarf (birthday present) from around my neck, to the effect of cooling my overheated person. Can we get some air down here? Luckily, and perhaps as an act of fate, the next subway arrived in less than 2 minutes. I, flustered, bundled myself on with my endless baggage and plonked myself down on my bottom to wait. Sitting for 20 minutes with only 25 minutes to go before the Baldwin show, I was a little nervous. Toe tapping anxiously I could do nothing but rest, patiently. But as I approached my planned destination- Broadway-Lafayette- I realised that the subway didn’t stop there. An optical illusion on the map. And I remembered I had done this once before. But a poor product of evolution as I am, I had learned not a thing. And the train kept rolling on. DOWNtown.

Eventually resurfacing at Spring St I rushed up to Prince St to meet my co-adventurer and stumbled on and in to the appropriate bookstore.

The queue was winding, and the floor below, where Mr Baldwin was in session, was full to the rafters. They announced that there was a one in, one out policy for the reading. They were currently at capacity. And we must simply live in hope. But hope is a magnificent thing and always wins out. So soon enough it was my turn and without pause or care (Alec B tends to make a celebrity nuts monster out of me. I must work on that. Sorry G), I trundled down the few steps and positioned myself rudely between some new neighbours. Now calm that my goal would be achieved I sorted my ruffled self out. Dropped my bag, undressed to the boundary between decency and other, and practiced tip toes to get THE BEST view. A couple of other actors were also reading. ER’s Mr Green/Goose (aka Anthony Edwards) read about his private plane trip around the world. Nice. Another lady talked about Morocco. But the main event was still to come. I am getting goose bumps as I type this. Mr Alec “the magnificent” Baldwin was up next. A huge cheer roared in this low-ceiling book emporium as the big man stepped up to the mike.

Looking trim and magical he proceeded to read from his chapter on his loathing of L.A. He said absolutely nothing really but all the while, with his sultry voice, he entertained us all with his gripping prose. I was tippy toed for all of it, dodging an annoying little man who spent most of it taking pictures, and not just taking it all in. I think this is what I needed. To see real celebrity-loving nutbars was a jolt back to Earth. I love you Alec Baldwin, and my heart skips a beat when you giggle, but that was enough now. After all celebrities are really just people (some of them are just steely blue-eyed gods!)

Magnificence in human form?