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Archive for the ‘literary tidbit’ Category

great opening lines: iris’s ocean

Posted by rollinsloane on 8 December 2007

I’m a sucker for a head-turning opening line, and Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea delivers a first-page paragraph that sucks you effortlessly into her tome-sized psuedo-memoir novel.  I’d be an asshole to wax poetic on the very subject she so painterly sets up, but suffice it to say I’ve got my own nostalgic soft spot for the gunmetal grey of a northern sea:

The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine.  With the tide turning, it leans quietly against the land, almost unflecked by ripples or by foam.  Near to the horizon it is a luxurious purple, spotted with regular lines of emerald green.  At the horizon it is indigo.  Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock, there is a band of lighter green, icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however, not transparent.  We are in the north, and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea.  Where the gentle water taps the rocks there is still a surface skin of colour.  The cloudless sky is very pale at the indigo horizon which it lightly pencils in with silver.  Its blue gains towards the zenith and vibrates there.  But the sky looks cold, even the sun looks cold. 

 — Rafe


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this halloween, something to really fear

Posted by rollinsloane on 28 October 2007

In December of 1995, the editor-in-chief of French Vogue suffered a heart attack so massive it rendered him almost entirely immobile. Jean-Dominique Bauby would spend the next year and a half (his last) as a living vegetable, able only to blink his left eye. Thankfully, he managed to eek out a short account of his time incapacite, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a literary memoir (“Of Life in Death”) that ends all too soon. His simple, lyrical narrative voice leaves you wishing he had been equally articulate about his more mobile time in life, when the Paris high life and management of big-name magazine occupied his full attention. Here are a series of brief snippets, moving and horrifying in turn, that demonstrate the sharp bleakness of Bauby’s humor and the detailed observation of that lone eye:

In the past, it was known as a “massive stroke,” and you simply died. But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony. You survive, but you survive with what is so aptly known as “locked-in syndrome.” Paralyzed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move.


I have known gentler awakenings. When I came to that late-January morning, the hospital ophthalmologist was leaning over me and sewing my right eyelid shut with a needle and thread, just as if he were darning a sock. Irrational terror swept over me. What if this man got carried away and sewed up my left eye as well, my only link to the outside world, the only window to my cell, the one tiny opening of my diving bell? Luckily as it turned out, I wasn’t plunged into darkness. He carefully packed away his sewing kit in padded tin boxes. Then, in the tones of a prosecutor demanding a maximum sentence for a repeat offender, he barked out: “Six months!” I fired off a series of questioning signals with my working eye, but this man — who spent his days peering into people’s pupils — was apparently unable to interpret a simple look. With a big round head, a short body, and a fidgety manner, he was the very model of the couldn’t-care-less doctor: arrogant, brusque, sarcastic — the kind who summons his patients for 8:00 a.m., arrives at 9:00, and departs at 9:05, after giving each of them forty-five seconds of his precious time. Disinclined to chat with normal patients, he turned thoroughly evasive in dealing with ghosts of my ilk, apparently incapable of finding the words to offer the slightest explanation. But I finally discovered why he had put a six-month seal on my eye: the lid was no longer fulfilling its function as a protective cover, and I ran the risk of an ulcerated cornea.


Nowadays [the hospital] tends to concentrate more on the sufferings of the aged, on the inevitable breakdown of body and mind; but geriatrics is only one part of the picture I must paint to give an accurate idea of the hospital’s denizens. in one section are a score of comatose patients, patients at death’s door, plunged into endless night. They never leave their rooms. Yet everyone knows they are there, and they weigh strangely on our collective awareness, almost like a guilty conscience. In another wing, next door to the colony of elderly and enfeebled, is a cluster of morbidly obese patients whose substantial dimensions the doctors hope to whittle down. Elsewhere, a battalion of cripples forms the bulk of the inmates. Survivors of sport, of the highway, and of every possible and imaginable kind of domestic accident, these patients remain at Berck for as long as it takes to get their shattered limbs working again. I call them “tourists.”


I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.

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a recent bit from the bard of the cornfields

Posted by rollinsloane on 27 October 2007

Garrison Keillor is increasingly becoming the living embodiment of Americana nostalgia. Raised in the conservative farm country of Heartland Christianity, the writer-humorist-radio host continues to cherish and poke fun at his prim 50s youth. 2002’s Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 is a winning addition to the his on-going chronicles of a fictional small-town Minnesota community, narrated by 14-year-old wannabe writer Gary (author stand-in, much?) whose sexual awakenings/longings/confusion reads like a pint-size Philip Roth.






This little snippet is the teenage poetry of narrator Gary’s beloved cousin Kate, a rebel against the sexual restrictions of her religious family. It’s a simple bit, but we here at TORO! believe in preservation at even the smallest level. There’s some concluding narrative to give a dose of Keillor’s wry voice.


death is easy like taking a bath
with an electric fan and waving hello to god
you could die like walking in front of a bus
or jumping into the big blue air or into the lake
or doing almost anything
you could die by living in minnesota
and forgetting your scarf
or remembering your scarf and it catches on the axle and strangles you
god is love but
he doesn’t necessarily drop
everything and go save you
does he

Miss Lewis was horrified. She told Kate she was a very sick girl. She sent the poem home to my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Sugar, and it scared them silly. How could Kate say such crazy things? And putting an electric fan in the bath? Where did she come up with something so grisly? And why wasn’t god capitalized?

“It’s only a poem,” said Kate. She pointed out that a soliloquy is a speech to one’s self and that it wasn’t her talking, it was the person in the poem. Nonetheless, Sugar hustled around and locked up all the knives and razor blades and small electric appliances, and hid the rope and the garden hose.


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