Opening sentences

Books on my coffee table right now include an eclectic assortment of fiction and nonfiction. Let’s take a look:

1. The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. Here’s the first sentence, which is the one that caught my eye and inspired this particular first-sentences post:

The butler, recognizing her Ladyship’s only surviving brother at a glance, as he afterwards informed his less percipient subordinates, favoured Sir Horace with a low bow, and took it upon himself to say that my lady, although not at home to less nearly-connected persons, would be happy to see him.

Fun sentence! Fifty words, a clutter of subordinate clauses, and the word “percipient,” which I’m pretty sure I have never actually used myself. The related “perspicacious,” yes, but not “percipient.” I should work that into a casual conversation this week, just for fun. I was semi-drafted to teach an evening section of General Biology this semester – first time I’ll be in the classroom in, I don’t know, fifteen years or so – and perhaps I should comment on a student’s perspicacity if I get the chance.

As I said, I have quite a miscellany of books on the table at the moment; let’s see what else is here . . . okay, just one fantasy novel, which I may or may not get around to reading shortly. If not, it’ll go back downstairs, to the immense TBR pile from whence it most recently came. Here it is:

Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett. I see there’s a prologue. I never know how to handle prologues in these first-line posts. This time I’m skipping the prologue and going straight to chapter one:

It was, they all agreed later, a fair measure of Rathe’s luck that he was the one on duty when the butcher came to report his missing apprentice.

That’s not bad! I see from the back that Rathe is a city guard and that a lot of children are vanishing. A good setup; that’s a hook that catches my interest. I tend to like police and investigator protagonists, as you’d expect since I like mysteries. This one, given the secondary world fantasy setting, makes me think at once of Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper series, which is a good association.

I liked Melissa Scott and Jo Graham’s Order of the Air series, by the way. I particularly liked the second book, as I recall, which is Steel Blues. I read it first, so I can say it stands alone pretty well.

Then I have various nonfiction books up here. Let’s see, this is a memoir type of thing, by Gerald Durrell. Some of you may have read something by his literary-author brother, Lawrence Durrell. I read White Eagles Over Serbia, which I did not much appreciate, unfortunately. If there are Nazis in a novel, they should lose, as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, Gerald wrote books that were more fun, about growing up in Corfu and all his animal-collecting trips for zoos and so on. Highly engaging. This one is Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, which is one I haven’t read before. It starts like this:

It had been a hard winter, and even when spring was supposed to have taken over, the crocuses – which seemed to have a touching and unshaken faith in the seasons – were having to push their way grimly through a thin crust of snow.

I don’t imagine that scene takes place on Corfu! No, I see, it’s a family reunion in England. Well, it’s a fine sentence, though I don’t personally think crocuses ever look grim regardless. An intrinsically cheerful little flower, the crocus, regardless of – or perhaps because of – the snow and ice they typically bloom through. Sounds like Gerald & Family will be glad to get back to a warmer location, though.

Here’s one that will perhaps seem a little different:

Thinking Like a Parrot by Bond & Diamond

In northeastern Australia, Barringtonia trees along the esplanade in the city of Cairns are magnets for rainbow lorikeets, small parrots specialized as nectar feeders. The trees have broad, glossy leaves and bear pendulous chains of creamy white flowers that produce huge quantities of pollen and nectar. Lorikeets descend onto the Barringtonias in the early morning: the birds dangle on the flower chain by one foot, stretching far down the stalk without disturbing the blooms. They then work systematically back up the inflorescence from the tip toward the base, grasping each flower in their beaks and sweeping their tongues around the floral cup.

I quoted the whole first paragraph because it’s a nice example of well-written, visually evocative nonfiction. Lorikeets can process a thousand flowers an hour, apparently, in case you wondered about that detail. This is a fine beginning, though I’m not sure when we’ll get to the thinking part – this book is supposed to be about parrot behavior and brains. Let me see, chapter headings are: Origins, Behavior, Sociality, Cognition, Disruption, Conservation, Parrots and People. A lot of appendices. Looks like an excellent addition to my ethology library, which badly needs to be updated. This book was published in 2019, which is excellent.

Oh, it occurs to me, the first General Bio lecture is over, basically, the characteristics of living things. I should use the rainbow lorikeet when talking about adaptations. I’m dead bored with penguins, which are the example given in the textbook. Way too obvious. A parrot that’s a nectar and pollen specialist sounds much more interesting. I should look up a little more about lorikeets before this evening.

Here is a representative sentence, not the first sentence, from another new ethology title. I don’t expect to read this one straight through, so I picked the first sentence of the chapter I read first:

Deep Thinkers, edited by Janet Mann

Although similar selective pressures shaped the brains of odontocetes and mysticetes during their evolution, several key differences exist between these two suborders in terms of external brain shape, size, and organization.

Boring! I mean, boringly written. The comparative brain anatomy of toothed whales versus baleen whales is interesting as a subject. But what a contrast in reading experience the whale book is going to present compared to the parrot book.

In case you are interested, the odontocete brain is shorter and broader than the mysticete brain, with substantially more cortical folds, a bigger cerebellum, a bigger hippocampus (still relatively small compared to other mammals), and a few other differences having to do with clusters of neurons and general neuron density.

Back to fiction! This is a contemporary by Madeleine L’Engle:

Troubling a Star

The iceberg was not a large one, but it was big enough that the seal and I were not crowded, and I was grateful for that. The seal was asleep after its night of hunting. It was a crab-eater seal, and crab-eaters live on krill, not crab, and as far as I know do not eat people. I willed it to stay asleep and not even notice that Vicky Austin was sharing its iceberg, which was floating majestically in the dark and icy waters of the Antarctic Ocean, or that my heart was beating wildly with terror.

How about that! The book opens with a flash-forward of one and a half pages, after which Vicky begins to explain to the reader how she got into that remarkable predicament. Certainly attention grabbing. I didn’t know that crabeater seals don’t eat crabs! Google confirms this odd fact. “Krill comprise 90% of the crabeater seal’s diet,” it says here. Well, good God above. I may never be able to refer to this animal by its common name, ever again. The scientific name is, let me see, Lobodon carcinophaga. What a terrible, terrible scientific name. Sounds for all the world like the animal eats cancer! This seal just can’t catch a break. Fortunately the genus apparently contains only the one species, so it’s fine to just call this seal Lobodon. To be clear, one could say, “Lobodon, you know, that krill-specialist phocid.” I’m sure people would immediately understand what animal you have in mind.

Okay, and on the bottom of the pile on the coffee table, another memoir! That’s unexpected. I really don’t read a lot of memoirs. This one is:

Under the Table by Katherine Darling.

Katherine Darling! Did anybody else immediately wonder if she has a Dalmatian? I know, of course, it’s not that uncommon a name, but that is a powerful association for me. Well, anyway, here is the opening:

The night before chef school began, I dreamt I ate Jacques Pépin.

Oh, that’s funny! Jacques Pépin is a famous chef, as you may know, and he was the one teaching this introductory class at the French Culinary Institute, also famous. Oh ho, I see from the back flap of the book that Katherine Darling graduated first in her class! I’m impressed. She was involved with the magazine Saveur, to which I used to subscribe. Her little bio here indicates she does have a dog, but does not specify whether it is a Dalmatian. Probably not.

There have to be recipes in this book . . . let me flip through . . . oh, here: The Most Decadent Potato Puree. Well, as far as I’m concerned, you can just call it mashed potatoes, but . . . okay, wow. Four potatoes, a whole cup of cream, and a full stick of butter. And four ounces of cream cheese. Okay, yes, I have to admit, that is outstandingly decadent. I have never much cared for mashed potatoes, but if I were going to make them, this is certainly the recipe I’d use. Quite a few of the recipes sprinkled through the memoir sound appealing. Oyster Stew. Cheddar Biscuits. Mahi Mahi with Lime-Cilantro Beurre Noisette. Hopefully I’ll like the book as well.

So that’s what’s on my coffee table right now! What are you all reading at the moment?

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1 thought on “Opening sentences”

  1. I really enjoyed POINT OF HOPES and its sequels, and now I’m certain I need to find that Katherine Darling book. I love food books with recipes, even ones I’ll never make.

    A quick glance at the top of my my electronic TBR pile (not counting rereads or books currently-in-progress):

    The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery (from Jo Walton’s Twitter rec): “‘Marx has completely changed the way I view the world,’ declared the Pallières boy this morning, although ordinarily he says nary a word to me.” — the narrator then goes on with some wickedly funny class commentary too long to quote here; I’m looking forward to this one.

    The October Man, Ben Aaronovitch: “In late September, as the nights close in, a strange madness possesses my father.” — The madness is apparently building a bonfire and inviting acquaintances for beer and baked potatoes, which isn’t quite what I was expecting!

    The Priory of the Orange Tree, Samantha Shannon: “The stranger came out of the sea like a water ghost, barefoot and wearing the scars of his journey.” — Oh, wow. I love this line.

    I then skimmed through a bunch with much less memorable first lines… which means these three probably should be top of the stack for this weekend!

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