Pop quiz: first paragraphs

What do you think of these first paragraphs, collected from here and there? I doubt you’ll guess the authors, but see if you can guess where they come from. Answers at the bottom; don’t cheat.


The landline was mewling again in the kitchen, obliging Pell Munnelly, woke now for good, to climb from the cozy rut of her bed and pad downstairs in bare feet. She skimmed her fingertips along the dulled gray-and-lilac grain of the walls, swatted each light switch she passed to feel less alone.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

Somewhere near the end, she decided that the drinking was the problem. So we stopped cold, both of us, in the middle of February. One of those winters where the sky looms over the town like a gray roof that never changes. Old ice and blackened snow in the gutters. It was maybe a mistake.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

Many years ago, after I retired from the bank, James brought a small terrier to our apartment in Paris. I told him I did not want it. I knew he was trying to keep me occupied, and it is a ridiculous thing, to have a dog. Maybe one day you rise from bed and say, “I would like to pick up five thousand pieces of shit.” Well, then, I have just the thing for you. And for a man to have a small dog—it makes you a fool.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

It had been an ordinary day, to a point. I had a headache that wouldn’t let up, and there was a party I’d promised I’d go to—I’d said see you soon to the people at work. But after I unlocked my door and kicked off my shoes all I could think about was jumping into bed. Once I allowed myself to think that this was a reasonable idea, I felt released from the grip of the party; I realized that if I slept right through nobody would really care.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

I was walking down High Street to the funeral home when I spotted Ed Hankey coming toward me. He said, “Jay,” then, “Guess who’s sick?,” then blinked and concluded, “Murray Cutler.”

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university. It was a big, bay-windowed house that seemed to Grant both luxurious and disorderly, with rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish. Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics. The father was an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home, where he would listen to his wife’s strange tirades with an absent-minded smile. Fiona had her own little car and a pile of cashmere sweaters, but she wasn’t in a sorority, and her mother’s political activity was probably the reason. Not that she cared. Sororities were a joke to her, and so was politics—though she liked to play “The Four Insurgent Generals” on the phonograph, and sometimes also the “Internationale,” very loud, if there was a guest she thought she could make nervous. A curly-haired gloomy-looking foreigner was courting her—she said he was a Visigoth—and so were two or three quite respectable and uneasy young interns. She made fun of them all and of Grant as well. She would drolly repeat some of his small-town phrases. He thought maybe she was joking when she proposed to him, on a cold bright day on the beach at Port Stanley. Sand was stinging in their faces and the waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course


You weren’t allowed to cheat, but I was. (And the three I think are worth pursuing are Meloy, Theroux, and Munro.)

B. Colin Barrett; New Yorker, 1/5/2015; B. Kevin CantyNew Yorker, 10/6/2014; B. Maile Meloy; New Yorker, 6/23/2014; B. Elizabeth McKenzie; New Yorker, 12/15/2014; B. Paul Theroux; New Yorker, 10/7/2013; B. Alice Munro; New Yorker, 10/21/2013


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Newtonville Books, Newton, MA

Town House Books & Cafe, St. Charles, IL

Broadway Books, Portland, OR

Andre Dubus III, travelin’ man

I do not review books on this blog; book reviewing is a special skill I don’t have. But I do often express preferences, confess infatuations, cheerlead for my favorites.

Dirty Love, by Andre Dubus III is an astonishing book in every way, not least for its form: separate but slightly interwoven long stories (as opposed to short stories) that focus on different characters but allow peripherally reappearing characters. It’s rich, very rich—and dirty in the best way.

This description doesn’t begin to capture the quality of the book, which is why I disclaim book-reviewer mentality. I can’t explain this book, but the writing is extraordinary and I was transfixed.

So, curious about the writer and not yet having read his memoir Townie, I poked around to find out a bit about him beyond the obvious. Read Wiki for the obvious, though you won’t learn much. You do learn that he has a wife and three children.

And then I went to his website and discovered the meaning of “traveling man.” I nearly fell off my desk chair. According to his “Tour Dates” page, the man has been and will be on the road in 2014 for fifty-nine events, some of them gobbling up more than one day. And there’s travel time between dates, because he hopscotches the country (and sometimes the globe) without cease.

Take June, for instance, in sequence: Toronto, Massachusetts, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Mississippi, Louisiana, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Maine. Awesome.

How about April: Massachusetts, Florida, Italy, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

And this is a guy who says, “Whenever I’ve gone without writing two or three days at the most I feel far away from my center almost on a spiritual level and I have to get to the desk.” So with all that traveling, when and how does he get to a desk and summon enough mental wherewithal to write?

But clearly he does find it, and I would be riveted to hear how he does it. One can’t help but be knocked over by the sheer energy of the man. One little weekend trip to Richmond, another week-long trip to Oregon, and I’m ready to tear out my hair. I want to know what his secret is. No, I really mean it. How does he do it? I want what he’s got.

In an interview he gave in 2010, Dubus said, “I really feel that if I hadn’t started writing I would not have outgrown my rage. But I’ll tell you this—I’ve always loved human beings, working out and taking care of my body while helping others to do the same. So I think I might have become a family doctor in some small town. At least that’s my hope.”

I don’t think a small town could have contained his energy.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Horton’s Books & Gifts, Carrollton, GA

Edgartown Books, Edgartown, MA

Boulder Bookstore, Boulder, CO

Reader’s (summer) diary: dipping into short stories

IMG_0086Short stories are a little like pornography: You know them when you read them, but they’re hard to define.  Style, length, subject matter–all up for grabs.  O. Henry’s short stories are a world apart from, say, George Saunders’s stories, but they coexist in the same universe.

Here’s a list (in no particular order) of just a few of the writers who have tackled the short story with success. Some are equally or better known for novels, but not all.  Alice Munro, for instance, is primarily a short story writer, while you’d probably say that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a novelist who wrote short stories. You’ll notice right away that the list comprises writers from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and many of them are North American. My bias. Sorry.  Send me your favorites too, please, in the Comments.

  • Alice Munro
  • William Trevor
  • James Joyce
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • Jhumpa Lahiri
  • James Baldwin
  • W. Somerset Maugham
  • Sandra Cisneros
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Lorrie Moore
  • John O’Hara
  • Alix Ohlin
  • Irwin Shaw
  • Maile Meloy
  • Jessica Francis Kane
  • J.D. Salinger
  • Junot Diaz
  • Jennifer Egan
  • Raymond Carver
  • Shirley Jackson
  • Annie Proulx
  • Sherwood Anderson
  • Haruki Murakami
  • John Cheever
  • Sherman Alexie
  • Eudora Welty
  • Tessa Hadley
  • Jorge Luis Borges
  • Tobias Wolff
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Andre Dubus
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Isaac Asimov
  • Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Grace Paley
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • T.C. Boyle
  • Ann Beattie
  • James Salter
  • Colm Tóibín
  • Amy Bloom
  • Anaïs Nin
  • Gabriel García Márquez
  • E.L. Doctorow
  • Joan Wickersham
  • Mavis Gallant
  • Susan Minot
  • Truman Capote
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Junichiro Tanizaki
  • Toni Cade Bambara
  • Jane Bowles
  • Angela Carter

And don’t overlook the major short story anthologies, some of which come out each year; they’re great for an overview of the short story world past and present. Here’s a selection:

  • PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories
  • The Best American Short Stories
  • The Best American Short Stories of the Century
  • The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories
  • The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories
  • The Oxford Book of American Short Stories

Confessions of a short story devotee: Alice Munro is my favorite short story writer, but E.L. Doctorow’s story called “The Writer in the Family” is my favorite short story. If you’re a writer (and even if you’re not) you’ll want to read that one.



 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Out West Books, Grand Junction, CO

Maple Street Book Shop, New Orleans, LA

Jack & Allie’s, Vernon, CT