What are your favorite first lines?

Yesterday, my friend Kori pointed me to a piece in the Atlantic in which authors choose their favorite opening lines, and write little paragraphs about their reasoning, or, in Margaret Atwood’s case, a tweet:

“Call me Ishmael.” 3 words. Power-packed. Why Ishmael? It’s not his real name. Who’s he speaking to? Eh?

That’s my favorite of the lot. My own favorite first line, however, is a tossup between Hamlet and Jane Eyre.

Hamlet begins with Bernardo’s challenge, “Who’s there?” — and the interpretive possibilities are endless. Is he afraid? Full of bravado? Why is a soldier, on duty in his own kingdom, challenging someone else in uniform? Is it nighttime? Is he speaking to us, the audience? Who’s the “who”? How do we define ourselves? How do we answer?

Shakespeare offers at least as many questions in two words as Melville does in three.

Now, on to Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Why not? Who was planning on walking? What’s the significance of “that” day?

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

This line has more meaning as you progress through the novel (and if you haven’t, now’s the time to stop reading this post so I don’t ruin the experience for you. And seriously, go read Jane Eyre!).

Of course, “that” day is the day that John Reed throws a book at Jane’s head and Mrs. Reed sends Jane to the Red Room, which precipitates her move to Lowood, and, eventually, Thornfield Hall. And while Jane and her cousins remain inside on account of the rain, in a few short weeks, she and the other unfortunate girls at Lowood will be exposed to all manner of the elements. Jane often walks when others think she ought not to, or when she has no other choice. For instance, it’s on a long walk alone (despite the protestations of Mrs. Fairfax) that she meets Mr. Rochester, and it’s alone again that she makes her way through the fields to the Riverses’ cottage.

But where would Jane have ended up if she had been able to walk that day?

What are your favorite first lines?

Movie Review: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

Imagine you’ve just finished shooting The Avengers, and you have a bit of vacation before editing what will go on to be a billion-dollar summer blockbuster. What would you do with your time off?

If you’re Joss Whedon, you get a bunch of your friends together and shoot a completely different movie. At your house. For fun.

And thus we have the delight that is Mr. Whedon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. For someone like me, it feels like the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates of lit and TV nerdom.

TV nerdom because Mr. Whedon’s shows — especially Buffy and Firefly — are some of the best written, most inventive shows that have ever aired (and in Firefly’s case, been canceled much too soon), which inspires rabid fandom (myself included). Lit nerdom, because Shakespeare is my favorite writer (not for nothing did I spend five years in grad school reading his plays), and Much Ado is my favorite comedy, which I taught twice to undergrads (maybe three times). I have a huge framed poster of the text of the play (all of it on one page!) in our front hall, one or our favorite wedding presents.

Much Ado full text

Full text of Much Ado

Shot in black and white, Much Ado never takes itself too seriously, instead recalling the screwball comedies of the thirties, which of course owe their sparring pairs, though centuries removed, to Shakespeare’s sublimely antagonistic Benedick and Beatrice. The handheld camera motions make the viewer feel part of the intimate setting, peeking over railings and through windows at the antics of the house’s inhabitants and guests. Though the tone is largely lighthearted, Mr. Whedon never shies away from the undertones of sex and violence that permeate the play. “Nothing” in early modern English was slang for the vagina (“thing” = slang for phallus; “no-thing” is its opposite), so the play’s title is a sexual pun. Sure, all the kerfuffle over Hero’s virginity turns out to be founded on nothing, but the point remains: there was, indeed, much ado about her nothing.

See? Told you I was a nerd.

All the performances are pitch perfect, and spotting regulars from Mr. Whedon’s shows was particularly fun for fans.

It’s difficult not to make comparisons with Kenneth Branagh’s succulent 1993 version of the play, in which the Tuscan landscape and lineup of stars compete for attention with the play’s mordant and often sexual wit; here we have a much more laid-back, modern approach to the language, which flows rapidly.

While Emma Thompson cannot be surpassed as Beatrice, Amy Acker is still an excellent match for Alexis Denisof’s surly (and excellent) Benedick. Nathan Fillion is the best Dogberry I’ve ever seen, with a generous assist from Tom Lenk as Vergese. And I liked newcomer Jillian Morgese as Hero, which is a tricky role to pull off without seeming like a simpering child. Ms. Morgese, elegant and restrained, finessed it beautifully. Another pleasant surprise was Sean Maher’s Don John, played here as an upper-class malcontent. Look for my favorite large change Mr. Whedon made — the relationship between Don John and Conrad.

Quibbles: I hate, hate, hate flashback sex scenes to establish characters’ mututal history (worst offender: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet); I think they show a director’s lack of trust in Shakespeare’s language (and the audience’s ability to understand it). And I didn’t love Mr. Whedon’s additions to the play (there’s a little scene with Benedick and Margaret near the end of the movie that I’m thinking of in particular). Correct me if he simply moved a swath of text out of order.

Something I’m on the fence about: the implied Borachio/Hero backstory.

These quibbles aside, I loved the movie, and I heartily recommend it if you need a break from the blockbusters. Not that they aren’t fun too.

P.S. I have a wishlist of Benedick/Beatrice pairings I’d like to see. At the top: Bradley Whitford and Mary Louise Parker. Who’s on your list?

Recommended Reading: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon

My copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh includes an interview with Michael Chabon, in which he talks about the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Philip Roth on this, Mr. Chabon’s first published novel. While I haven’t read enough Roth to comment on the connection (truly, one of his novels was quite enough for me, though you may, if you choose, think me a Philistine), The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, without being at all similar in plot or setting, did indeed seem caught up in the summer-long wave of events that is The Great Gatsby; the last page of the novel, especially, savored strongly of the green light.

Art Bechstein, the narrator, spends his first post-collegiate summer in Pittsburgh looking for adventures and answers with a new, wildly interesting set of friends.

That’s not a great summary, but really, how do you summarize a novel? I’ve always found it tremendously difficult, and the stress that results from worrying about what to leave out and what to highlight makes me thirst for a tall gin and tonic.

But I digress.

This is my third Chabon novel. I very much enjoyed Wonder Boys, which I like to read in conjunction with Straight Man, by Richard Russo, my number-one contemporary lit-fic squeeze, and I recommend Mr. Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to just about everyone. It was the first-year summer reading at Ohio State (Go Bucks!) when I was a freshman (lo these many years ago), and it was an awesome pick.

Reading a first novel after reading those polished, longer pieces was delightful; I saw later characters germinating, saw the beginnings of Mr. Chabon’s wit and breadth of view. It wasn’t jarring (the way that reading The Comedy of Errors after reading King Lear is almost terrifying), but rather gave me a chance to appreciate the author’s mature prose in light of his youthful exuberance, without denigrating either.

A few other stray thoughts: I’m a sucker for kind but clear-eyed descriptions of north-easternly cities that aren’t New York (hailing as I do from Cleveland by way of Buffalo), and Mr. Chabon’s Pittsburgh is a character in this novel. The first-person narration works, and the slight departure from it in the penultimate chapter made me sit up and take notice of what was happening, without fanfare or fireworks.

It’s a fine bildungsroman with charm and verve, and it comes highly recommended.

By the way, I hear there’s a film version, and that you shouldn’t see it.

“Sweet love, renew thy force”

After the awful and exhausting events of last week, I felt drained just contemplating the search for this week’s poem. Then I realized that today is the Bard’s birthday, and my dear Aunt Rita’s, and the choice was clear.

A sonnet!

Who doesn’t love fourteen lines of love poetry? I’ve taught the sonnets whenever I could, and students are always amazed at just how much meaning Will packs into those lines (and that the first cycle is addressed to a man — that’s mind-blowing to them, and perhaps unsurprising, since some editions “regularize” the pronouns in the earlier poem. Don’t get me started.).

My favorite is 116, which we asked a friend to read at our wedding, and which is probably one of the five most famous. I remember hearing it (or rather, part of it) first in Sense and Sensibility (adapted by Emma Thompson, bless her, and directed by Ang Lee), and that’s one of my favorite literary combinations.

But that’s not the first time I heard a sonnet. I can precisely date my first memory of one of the poems: my tenth birthday. At the time, my father was working out of state, but he and my uncle (my mother’s brother) took the time to sit in my uncle’s kitchen and record a tape (yes, I’m that old) of songs and poems for me. I treasure it; it’s on my desk as we speak. My uncle played the guitar and my dad attempted the drums, and they both sang and read. Simon and Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, Robert Frost, Shakespeare, and even a few originals made it on to the tape. I listen to it every year on my birthday, but it’s been so long that I can hear clips of the tape in my mind if I choose to.  The banter and the squeaky chair are hilarious.

My father is an excellent reader (more on that some other time), and so I’m choosing to memorize the sonnet he read for me, “Sonnet 6–Number 56,” as he corrected himself.

William Shakespeare

Sonnet 56

Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but to-day by feeding is allay’d,
To-morrow sharp’ned in his former might:
So, love, be thou: although to-day thou fill
Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
To-morrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness:
Let this sad int’rim like the ocean be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that, when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;
As call it winter, which being full of care
Makes summer’s welcome thrice more wish’d, more rare.

 

Happy birthday Shakespeare!