Message in a Bottle
In Search Of ?

We’ve been doing some sophisticated computer-aided analysis here at Message in a Bottle headquarters, and we’ve determined that—wait, let me examine the precise figures…yes, they all check out—many people are reading our posts. We could even say many, many people. If we were number crunchers instead of word fiends, we might be able to tell you exactly how many, but as it is, we’re pretty satisfied with our results.

Not only do we know that we have readers, we also know how they’re finding us. Somewhat surprisingly, most of you are subscribers. That is, you regularly receive our posts via email. This is really good news as far as we’re concerned, because it means that you like what you’ve read in the past and want to read more of it, whatever it turns out to be. Insider secret: We don’t always know what kind of post you’ll be reading until a couple of hours before you read it. The deadline muse can be very inspiring.

The next largest group of readers visits the blog itself, and many of those are sent to it by the links we put on Facebook each time we make an update. Others follow the permanent link on our store’s website, and still others know that they can always go directly to http://www.mercerislandbooks.tumblr.com to see what’s new.

Now, some of you are forgetful, and you have to do a little searching to find us. We can tell, because records indicate that quite a few of you come to us only after plugging a phrase like “island books message bottle” into Google. Or into Bing, although that’s so far just a hypothetical. This is the equivalent of not knowing a street address but navigating by landmarks. “Turn left at the drugstore and look on the right for the blue house with the weather vane.” Works perfectly well, especially when you’re in your own neighborhood. We’ll leave the porch light on all night, just in case.

That covers almost everybody who visits us virtually, but the most entertaining oddities in the data pile are the singletons, the obscure search terms that directed someone to us just once. These are readers who probably didn’t know exactly what they were looking for and stumbled across one of our posts serendipitously. In some cases, it seems clear that they found something relevant when they arrived, but in others…well, who knows what they were thinking. Let’s look at some examples:

  • drugs jungle central america: I hope this wasn’t someone looking to set up an import/export business. This phrase directed the searcher to Miriam’s fine post about Ann Patchett’s most recent novel State of Wonder.
  • andorrans: I like to imagine that this word was typed into a search engine by a lonely expat from the Pyrenees looking for her kinfolk. If so, I hope she was interested to read a post about vanished nations from the days of yore.
  • fictitious worlds in one scene: Possibly related to the search above, as the natural landing page for this one was this post about realistic imaginary landscapes. Peter Cameron’s Andorra was one of the books mentioned.
  • famous friendships in literature: This led to one of my favorite Message in a Bottle posts, in which Miriam talks about her best friend since childhood and inadvertently calls her a pig. OK, not really. Charlotte and Wilbur from E.B. White’s classic novel do come up, though. 
  • donald barthelme the baby, whats the message: A confused student probably got more (and less) than he bargained for when he ran across part three of my series on books and parenthood
  • ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic: This is a quote from Stephen King that describes the novella, and I used it in this post
  • the north wind and the sun: A Wiccan practitioner? A budding meteorologist? Who knows, but whoever it was found a charming post that’s inspired by a fable from Aesop.
  • how to build a lego hot air balloon instructions: It’s not exactly a how-to, but Miriam did discuss the topic here
  • judas hanged himself: This searcher was undoubtedly surprised to click onto a piece about truthfulness in journalism.
  • how to draw catching fire symbol: One or the other of two posts must have been the destination for this searcher, but neither of them says anything about draftsmanship.

And then there were those searches that will remain forever cryptic:

  • i will have less sader [sic] days ahead: Hopefully true for the person who initiated a brief encounter with us. Feel better, anonymous visitor.
  • cool teen boy picking up something on the ground: Very specific and very strange. Maybe it led here?
  • sweater for book lovers: My mom used to buy patterns from McCall’s, but to my knowledge, I’ve never mentioned it on the blog.
  • french wife swap: Don’t want to dig too deeply here.
  • تالممةعي

Yes, you read that last one correctly. If you read Arabic, that is. And if you do, maybe you can explain what it means and how it led someone to Message in a Bottle. Until we figure that out, I’ll just say marhaban to you, mysterious guest from far away. And the same goes to all of you readers out there.

—James

First Line Friday

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Miriam, to illustrate the point she was making in her post on short sentences, had the brilliant insight to use the first lines of books. I call it brilliant, of course, because I’d been kicking around the idea of a whole post on great first lines. I hadn’t actually done anything about it until now mainly because there are so many to choose from that I didn’t know where to stop. (A recurring problem for me, as you may have read somewhere before.) Since she’s fired an opening salvo about opening salvos, though, the time has come.

Just a couple of the lines I wanted to use were preempted, fortunately for me. Not surprisingly, they were the short and sweet ones. From E.B. White there was “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” and from Virginia Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” The beginning of Charlotte’s Web is so arresting that it’s almost impossible not to keep reading, and while Mrs. Dalloway's opener isn't quite so dramatic, it creates a character instantly and sets an immediate tone for the narrative voice that follows. We're already in the mind of the protagonist, but we don't lose the sense that Woolf is behind the scenes. It'd be a very different book if it began with a fully third-person perspective like, ” 'I'll buy the flowers myself,' said Mrs. Dalloway,” or a first-person version like, “I told the maid I'd buy my own flowers.”

A couple of other classics are also brief. Melville’s “Call me Ishmael,” much like Dalloway's first line, gives necessary information and adds complexity in a hurry. Is that the narrator's real name or is he already in disguise? Is this an invitation or a command? Proust starts Remembrance of Things Past with the seemingly simple “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” but readers are already in deep, sifting through multiple layers of time and memory. Funny that these two long-winded authors both chose to serve such small appetizers before their wordy feasts.

More great lines that cut to the chase: 

  • Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.”
  • Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
  • Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: “A screaming comes across the sky.”
  • L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
  • David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress: “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.”
  • Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
  • Samuel Beckett’s Murphy: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”
  • Felipe Alfau’s Chromos: “The moment one learns English, complications set in.”
  • Louise Erdrich’s Tracks: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.”
  • Anita Brookner’s The Debut: “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.”

I know just how you feel, Dr. Weiss. Stretching things a bit, there’s Rose Macauly’s The Towers of Trebizond: ” ‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” Even more irreverently, Anthony Burgess tees off Earthly Powers with, “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” 

In the realm of the long quote, there’s this oddity from Walter Abish:

Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement … anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation.

As may be apparent, every word in the opening chapter of Alphabetical Africa begins with A. In the second, Abish uses A and B words; in the third, A, B, and C; and so on through the alphabet and the book. Whether you think that sounds intriguing or idiotic, the initial sentence gets you right into the spirit of the thing, doesn’t it? That’s the name of the game where first lines are concerned.

The contemporary writer who best plays that game might be Jeffrey Eugenides. He’s authored just three novels, but each of them starts with a fantastic hook that’s almost a summary of the whole story. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides, tells a tragic tale in a choral voice:

"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."  

His second novel, Middlesex, recalls the fictional style of an earlier century, as his protagonist encapsulates his/her life for us:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

Similarly, his latest, The Marriage Plot, focuses most closely on a young heroine who’s been heavily influenced by the literary masters of ages past, and begins by showing us her room:

To start with, look at all the books.

The novel itself asks its readers if the old-fashioned question of how love should be sought is still relevant, and Eugenides is consciously comparing himself to the authors of the past, so this is both descriptive of his main character and assertive about his underlying theme and ambitions. It’s terse and plain, but it’s the perfect opening for what’s to follow.

Speaking of what’s to follow, the staff behind the counter here at the Message in the Bottle bar is cutting me off before I get too sentence-drunk to type coherently. I’ll save some of my other favorites for another Friday, but there’s plenty of room in the comments for you to add your own.

—James

Short and Sweet

The fact is we all speak in short sentences like “How’s it going?,” “I’ll have a tall nonfat vanilla latte,” or “No, officer, I didn’t know I was speeding.”  In last Wednesday’s post, James set out to conquer the 56-word sentence and posited that the way we speak is a window into our personality. I’m going to follow that magnificent piece (which managed to include a dazzling array of literary feats, including a rework of the Gettysburg address, a haiku about the post itself, and an impressive triumph of achieving exact word counts) by comparing some similar opening sentences. In the three instances below, do you prefer A, B, or C?

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Stephen KingA) Stephen King’s The Mist: “This is what happened.”

B) Stephen King’s Cell: The event that came to be known as The Pulse began at 3:03 p.m., eastern standard time, on the afternoon of October 1st.

C) Stephen King’s It: The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

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Virginia WoolfA) Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

B) Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?

C) Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: “He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.”

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E.B. WhiteA) E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”

B) E.B. White’s Stuart Little: “When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse.”

C) E.B. White’s “The Practical Farmer” from One Man’s Meat: “Mr. Highstone, being himself a practicing farmer, knows one important truth about country life: he knows that farming is about twenty per cent agriculture and eighty per cent mending something that has got busted.”

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As you can see, I put the quotes in order from shortest to longest. Did the wordiness, or lack thereof, have an impact on you? Once you get further along in these books, there are certainly longer sentences, but by then the author has hooked you enough that you’ll put up with them. In general, though, I’m a fan of a shorter sentence, although it’s probably a reflection of my short attention span and the influence of Facebook and Twitter. So, what says you, reader? Short or long?

—Miriam

Memorable Friendships

My best friend since 3rd grade recently came to visit for a week. It’s hard to believe we’ve been friends for over 25 years. Time goes so fast! While she was here, we planted a tree at my new house, which we both thought was symbolic of our enduring friendship and would be fun to watch grow over the years.

Let's Take the Long Way HomeRight before she arrived, by chance, I happen to be reading Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell, a memoir about two women who bond over their dogs and become the dearest of friends. As they grow older together, their relationship changes them and charts their courses through life. It’s a good portrait of the strong emotional support and security in close friendships that doesn’t exist in superficial connections.

I couldn’t help but get nostalgic when I saw my friend. Many of the passages from the book came to mind as we settled back into our groove together. Our long history brings up so many coming-of-age memories, and every time we see each other my whole life flashes in front of my eyes.

Friendship is such an important part of life, and literature as well. I tried to ask her which characters in books she’d read best resembled our friendship. That was a bust, because she’s not much of a reader. The adventures I spend my time reading about are often what she’s often busy doing in real life.

"Are we Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn?" I asked.

"No, we’re girls," she said.

"Are we Anne of Green Gables and Diana Barry?"

She rolled her eyes. “No, we’re not that goody-goody.”

"How about Charlotte and Wilbur?"

Charlotte's Web"Now we’re a spider and a pig? Give it up," she said. But I was stuck on it, and spent hours googling famous friendships in literature. Nothing I found or could think of was quite like us. I guess no two friendships are the same. That’s the beauty of them.

Still, I know that she would save my life if she could and vice-versa, just like Charlotte saves Wilbur. I’m comforted by that thought. Because no matter how different we are, we will always have our whole lives in common, and nothing can replace that.

Miriam

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