Arresting Attention

The topic of the hour is superheroes, so I am going add my two cents, or less, to the conversation swirling around this cultural and cinematic phenomenon.

I was never that into superheroes.

On to a new topic. Good openings, endlessly emphasized in modern fiction, are defined by being evocative, and it doesn’t really matter of what. What counts is arresting the attention of the reader, whether through humor, originality, mystery, or a felicitous turn of phrase. Here is a list of beginnings that showcase the art of the good opening, being not only evocative but memorable. You will note that famous, immortal, and timeworn first sentences, such as “Call me Ishmael,” are omitted from this list. You will also note that other famous, immortal, and timeworn first sentences are included. There is no good reason for this.

Please share in the comments any book openings that would complete this list, or whether any opening included makes you want to pick up its book.

 

There is a young legend developing on the west side of the mountains. William E. Barrett, The Lilies of the Field

Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

I dreamed of Goliath last night, strangely enough, considering it was Joab, David’s general, who died yesterday. Eleanor Gustafson, The Stones

The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat. Not even black cats would cross his path. Sid Fleischman, The Whipping Boy

These tales concern the doing of things recognized as impossible to do; impossible to believe; and, as the weary reader may well cry aloud, impossible to read about. G. K. Chesterton, Tales of the Long Bow

April is the cruellest month. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

The universe is infinite but bounded, and therefore a beam of light, in whatever direction it may travel, will after billions of centuries return – if powerful enough – to the point of its departure; and it is no different with rumor, that flies about from star to star and makes the rounds of every planet. Stanislaw Lem, “The Seventh Sally

Monsters do, of course, exist. Matt Mikalatos, Night of the Living Dead Christian

The only possible excuse for this book is that it is an answer to a challenge. Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Technically, the cucumber came first. Phil Vischer, Me, Myself & Bob

I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born. It hasn’t been for lack of trying either. I’ve set for hours trying to go back as far as I could, but the earliest thing I remember is riding in the back of Floyd’s wagon and looking at myself in a looking glass. Jonathan Rogers, The Charlatan’s Boy

Had he but known that before the day was over he would discover the hidden dimensions of the universe, Kit might have been better prepared. At least, he would have brought an umbrella. Stephen Lawhead, The Skin Map

From the Office of Cooking Experiments (Christmas Edition)

Today, in timely festivity, the Office of Cooking Experiments presents its very first Christmas edition. Christmas is, of course, a beautiful, spiritual season that is easily ruined by stress, and it is our hope to reduce the stress that you, the amateur holiday cook, so naturally feel. At Christmas, you are expected to cook for numbers and at a culinary level beyond your comfort zone and possibly beyond your capability. With the cookies you bake, the eggnog you whip up, and the many side-dishes you concoct, you contribute to the joy of the season and the cherished holiday memories of your loved ones, many of whom are no help at all. So you are naturally, as we say, stressed.

The Office of Cooking Experiments understands! The Office of Cooking Experiments has been there! Once it almost cut its own cable line because it observed that the world is divided between those who cook on holidays and those who watch football, and no cable, no football! But it did not, because it remembered it would then have to call the cableperson and perhaps answer awkward questions. The Office of Cooking Experiments further reflected that Christmas is, after all, a time of warmth and charity, and of all the faces that charity wears, cooking is not always the least.

The Office of Cooking Experiments also resolved to reduce its stress and not-totally-necessary work. Now it shares its well-learned tips with you, the amateur holiday cook, in cautious optimism that they will help you to enjoy a merrier Christmas.

Nine types of Christmas cookies are not necessary. Reflect for a moment: What cookies are people digging up from the bottom of your festive Christmas-themed tins a week after New Year’s? Don’t make those anymore.

Use crockpots. At the Office of Cooking Experiments, “Use crockpots” is our mantra; it would even be our motto, if our current one were not so absolutely superlative (“We make mistakes so you don’t have to”). It is ideal that, at Christmas dinner, there be dishes of unusual number and complexity and that they all be done at more or less the same time. Amateur cook, crockpots are your end run around this; things cooked in crockpots can be done hours apart and served, hot, at the same time with minimal burning.

Count the number of burners on your stove and add the oven. This is the upper limit of dishes to make for Christmas dinner, even if you use crockpots.

Measure the spices carefully. We mean this literally – many dishes are sadly sensitive to generous amounts of, say, cumin or red pepper – but also figuratively. In Yuletide recipes, you are liable to come across spices that you do not use the rest of the year and have never even seen in your local grocery store, though granted you were not looking. Measure the likely contribution of these spices to your Christmas joy and decide whether they are worth an excursion to the store. We recommend cloves but not fennel. We cannot even define cardamon.

NOTE: When the recipe calls for “grated lemon zest”, it is merely joking. Have a hearty laugh and break out the lemon juice.

There are many, many different ways to decorate a Christmas cookie. Some people regard sprinkles as a necessity, others as a superfluity. Some people prefer the dunk-and-done method, others view frosted Christmas cookies as works of art as elaborate as the Sistine Chapel, only not as permanent.

Which method is best? Whatever method is not yours. Trust us, and let everyone, including four-year-olds, frost as many cookies as they want in whatever way they want.

Yes, amateur holiday cook, there are many ways to reduce your stress during the Christmas season, and one of them is to get other people to do cookery for you. It makes them feel useful. It is a gift. ‘Tis the season.

Honors Villainy 312

(Because, coming off the election, we could all use a laugh.)

 

Good morning. Or bad morning – whichever is most applicable to your day, and as you all know, I don’t care.

First order of business, your tests. Observe, class, the newly empty seats. These belong to your former classmates, who have been dropped from the class. I will never tire of saying it: In the Higher University classroomof Super-Villainy, there are no second chances. Anyone not bright enough to pass the test, not competent enough to cheat and not be caught, not cunning enough to discern the one bribe I am willing to take – anyone who fails, fails. Because they were not superior enough to give orders, your ex-classmates have gone to the Lower College of Henchmen, where they will learn to take them.

Don’t smile. Next week, it could be you.

Second order of business, the recent pleasantness. You observed the riots surrounding the Superior Court of Inquisition, although as underclassmen it was not, of course, your privilege to participate. I am happy to tell you that justice was done. Total Expulsion was carried out, complete with a Demoralizing Monologue and several Witty Taunts. The honorable inquisitors did not even consider sending the criminal to the Spurious School of Mindless Minions.

The offense that brought about such a punishment is, of course, shocking, but I am going to explain it, because this is not a safe space, and I do not care about your triggers. The criminal, while preparing a treatise to earn the rating of a Malefic Magician –

(And don’t you see, class, that that is a clear sign that something was wrong? Who studies to become a Malefic Magician? It is really a matter of kidnapping or blackmailing or killing or ensorceling, all the good works of villainy) –

The criminal forgot the Infallible Law of Power, that teaches that Might Is Right and Will Prevails – forgot, I might add, the revered Doctrine of Self-Preservation and the sacred Imperative of Self-Interest – and presented to the Higher University the following statistics:

  • In 97.8% of all stories, the villain loses; in 70.5% of stories, the villain dies; in 83% of stories where the villain survives, it is only to die at a later date; in 99% of stories, the villain has an unhappy ending; to this we add, parenthetically but with great annoyance, that in 44% of stories, the villain is reputed to cry, and not the crocodile tears or boiling tears of pure rage that are the only acceptable kinds of crying.

 

All this is bad enough. But what disqualified the criminal from being even a Mindless Minion was the conclusion of the treatise. This put forward the thought – and let this be a lesson that you should always think twice before you think – that the universe works against us and beats us, and that is how Clotilde Skuld came to be banished to the Outer Regions of Perpetual Back-breaking, Soul-Destroying Work, Where Your Face Will Never Be Clean Again.

Skuld’s treatise is specious on its face. How can the villain lose in 97.8% of stories and be unhappy in 99%? Clearly, if the villain won, then the villain would be happy. These numbers are self-contradictory and worthless. Furthermore, how can anyone fail to consider the issue of authorial bias? The authors of these stories are nervous creatures, afflicted with too little exercise, too little sunlight, and too much caffeine, and write out of their timid heart’s desire to escape our coming dominion.

Take heart, students! The universe is blacker than they paint it. Time is a tyrant, Death conquers all. Entropy is on our side. Nature knows no law but Power – and neither do we. We fight without the self-imposed limits of the heroes. Our will to win is absolute, our cunning knows no qualms, our ambitions are unfettered. Our fashion sense is manifestly superior. We will prevail.

That is our time. Tomorrow night is the game against the Knights, and I encourage you to cheat whenever you can get away with it and commit wanton fouls against the enemy’s star players. Remember, it’s not how you play the game; it’s whether you win or lose.

And as I have taught you, you will win. Or else.

If I Were a Starfleet Captain

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would employ a strict policy of avoiding all unusual and/or unexplained phenomena. Temporal rifts, subspace distortions, collapsing stars, expanding black holes, folds in space, a stitch in time – whenever one of these appears, I will order my crew to point the ship 180 degrees away from it and depart at a brisk speed of Warp 5. Due to forward-thinking actions such as this, I anticipate a longer, happier life for myself and all my crew.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would listen very carefully to any advice my first officer has to give. If I am ever wrong, he will be the one to tell me so.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would turn the lights in Ten Forward all the way up. I would also replace unnaturally-colored drinks that appear to be foreign substances with ice cream sundaes. This would help to lift the gloomy atmosphere that too often pervades Ten Forward.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would permanently shut down the holodeck. As I would explain to the crew, the holodeck encourages unhealthy inclinations, anti-social tendencies, denial, and extended unnecessary, pretentious scenes. Additionally, the holodeck will invariably go wrong, not to mention weird, and further encourage disconnection from reality. For the crew’s mental and physical well-being, the holodeck will be replaced by a gym, library, coffee shop, and chapel.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would disassemble the self-destruct mechanism. There is no point.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would not assure obviously hostile persons that I mean them no harm. For one thing, the fact that they are firing on my ship, menacing my officers with a weapon, or commandeering the ship’s computer indicates that they do not care. For another thing, if they do not very shortly cease to fire, menace, or commandeer, I will mean them harm.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would install seat belts at every station on the bridge. I would also install seats for those officers who, for reasons undisclosed, always have to stand up. Their jobs are perfectly sedentary in nature and will, from a sitting position, be performed with equal efficiency, greater happiness, and (due to the new seat belts) increased safety.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would launch an inquiry into what, exactly, replicator food is and where it comes from. Nothing just appears out of nowhere.

If I were a Starfleet captain, and my ship unexpectedly crossed paths with eccentric scientists, superficially harmless wanderers, or mysterious aliens traveling alone, I would immediately order them clapped into the brig and their crafts impounded. They get you every time.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would memorize the Prime Directive so that I can quote it just before disregarding it.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would memorize the following words and phrases: “Red alert;” “Divert power to the shields;” “Compensate;” “Evasive maneuvers pattern [random letter of the Greek alphabet];” “Damage report;” “Launch the torpedoes;” “Fire;” and “Retreat.” This would prepare me to meet any battle situation.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would ban the color red from all uniforms save those worn by the most senior officers. In a related initiative, I would make it a policy to send only prominent deck officers into dangerous or mysterious off-ship situations. They always come back.

If I were a Starfleet captain, and any member of my crew began to exhibit classic and incontrovertible signs of insanity, I would immediately consider that he is suffering some disease unknown to medical science, that he is being tampered with by an alien, that he is an alien, that he recently arrived from another time-space continuum. I will continue to consider all these things even in the face of a total lack of physical, statistical, and anecdotal evidence. Finally, I will even consider that he is actually insane, just in case they try to trick us.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would lead the safest, happiest, most well-adjusted crew in Starfleet.

From the Office of Cooking Experiments

The Office of Cooking Experiments – lately released from the kitchen, which is why there is flour in our hair – is pleased to once again offer our cooking wisdom to you, the amateur cook who frankly needs it. We get our wisdom the old-fashioned way, through experience. We also get our experience the old-fashioned way, through lack of wisdom. “We make mistakes so you don’t have to,” that’s our motto.

Today’s topic is safety. Safety is, of course, of first and greatest importance, and we wish we had thought of it before now. On the expectation that it is not too late, we now present safety tips to be observed while you are also observing our cooking tips. We preface these tips with a brief reminder, sprung from sincere concern and a desire to protect: We are not legally liable for anything.

And now, fellow cooks, the tips:

When you cook, make sure the smoke alarm is turned off. Smoke alarms tend to be sensitive contraptions, liable to go off if you broil chicken or fry potatoes or even just boil water. Consequently, smoke alarms are always crying wolf (metaphorically speaking), and the members of your household become conditioned to roll their eyes in annoyance whenever they hear the smoke alarm go off. This is unsafe. You don’t want your loved ones assuming, whenever the smoke alarm sounds, that you are merely cooking. You want them assuming that something may be wrong. And if those two are the same in your household, we clarify: “something wrong to the point of maybe involving the fire department.”

EXCEPTION: This advice is predicated on the assumption that you remain in the kitchen. If you are one of those cooks who routinely leave to check the mailbox, do laundry, find a book, nap, etc., then you should definitely leave the smoke alarm on. It will signal you when it is time – high time, in fact – to be heading back.

Remain vigilant, spatula in hand, whenever broiling something that requires only a few minutes to roast. We are thinking of pecans, for example, or granola. Remember: If it is done at seven minutes, it is hopelessly burnt at eleven minutes, and at fifteen minutes it bursts into flames.

If, while you are boiling chicken, a flame starts in the burner, do not attempt to put it out by covering the burner with the lid that was on the pot. Having been on the pot, that lid is now splattered with chicken grease as well as water. Have you ever seen what flames do when exposed to grease? Shoom.

Before carrying around a heavy marble rolling pin, ensure that the handle is fully intact. If the handle is not intact, it may suddenly break, and the marble rolling pin will with unerring accuracy land on your foot. If you are lucky, no bone will break; rather, your skin will turn several impressive and unnatural shades, and your foot will be sore for weeks. And if this happens on Christmas, particularly that Christmas where you were already nursing a moderate-to-severe cold, your Christmas will be pretty much over; all that is left, after you finish whatever you needed the stupid rolling pin for in the first place, is to go to bed.

But enough with bitter memories. Our point is that you should remain safe in all your adventures in cookery, and this requires simple precautions and, in certain crucial moments, quick thinking. And if a speedy exit is ever absolutely necessary, the back door is always located very near the stove.

From the Office of Cooking Experiments

The Office of Cooking Experiments, in its ongoing quest to save amateur cooks from themselves, is pleased to present the latest installment of our cooking guide, tentatively titled Been There, Cooked That. We are also considering Been There, Done That, Sorry to Say. Or maybe just Sorry. One-word titles are all the rage, and Sorry is usually what we say after our experiments. Once or twice we’ve even had to say it to the fire department. We make mistakes so you don’t have to, that’s our motto.

Where were we? Ah, yes. The cooking guide. First of all, amateur cooks …

Crockpots are good; crockpots are our friends. What’s so great about crockpots, you ask? We’ll tell you: You just throw the stuff in and leave. The food cooks itself. Actually, the crockpot cooks it, but in practical experience, there is no difference. With crockpots, you can forget for whole hours that you are cooking and nothing will be the worse for it. This is not true when you are using the stove or the oven, as the fire department made clear to us.

– Caveat: The pitfall of this is that crockpots cook slowly; we believe this is why some people call them “slow-cookers”. Sometimes crockpots cook too slowly. When this happens, and for some reason you cannot wait, such as the natives are rioting, you can pull out the crockpot and finish the food in the oven.

– Caveat on the Caveat: If you do this, do not put the lid of the crockpot into the oven. The handle may melt and drip over the food, and that could ruin it.

A little peppermint extract goes a long way. The good news is that those tiny little bottles of extract are a better value than they look. The bad news is that if you don’t know this and you dump half the bottle into your hot chocolate, your hot chocolate will have the refreshing minty taste of mouth wash. And the little bottle of extract will be a bad value after all.

Baker’s chocolate is unsweetened. This was one of the greatest disappointments of our experiments, even worse than the time we destroyed an entire dish of chicken with red pepper. Chicken is, after all, just chicken, but chocolate is chocolate. And chocolate should be sweet. Baker’s chocolate looks like it should be so good, like Godiva or some expensive chocolate with an Italian name. But no. Instead, biting into one of those perfect squares of chocolate, you get …

No. We cannot contemplate it.

You, the amateur cook, will also grow sadder and wiser in the ways of the kitchen. But like us, you will also learn what not to do, until finally you no longer have to say sorry to your family, or at any rate to the fire department.

From the Office of Cooking Experiments

We at the Office of Cooking Experiments are proud to once again offer you, the home cook, the benefit of our experience and knowledge. “We make mistakes so you don’t have to” is our motto. So read on, cooks of America, and do as we say, not as we did.


Always cook from a recipe. That way, nothing is ever your fault. You can always blame the recipe, like so:
I don’t know why it’s taking so long. The recipe said half an hour and it’s already been in the oven forty-five minutes.
I wasn’t sure about the amount of salt, but it’s what the recipe said.
The combination of anchovies and peanut butter sounded weird, but the recipe had a four-star rating.


When making meatloaf, you should add either oatmeal or bread torn into pieces. We prefer oatmeal. It’s easier.


Everything needs salt. You wonder why this is, why even chocolate cake and strawberry lemon zest mousse need salt? We wonder, too. We don’t understand it. But put the salt in, like the recipe says.


Do not use celery. There is no purpose to celery, except to maybe exercise your jaw muscles. We have left the celery out of many, many recipes that called for it and never noticed the difference.


Do not try to make any recipe with more than two ingredients you have never heard of.


If a recipe calls for buttermilk, you can buy the buttermilk at the grocery store, or you can whip up an easy substitute, taking normal milk and mixing in one tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice for every cup of milk. Or you could take the normal milk and just pour it right in. We at the Office of Cooking Experiments project that adding vinegar or lemon juice will make the milk sour, and who needs sour milk? We recall the old Irish song about drinking buttermilk through the week, and we judge this to be one of the reasons so many of the Irish ended up in America. There are many Irish-Americans, but you’ll notice that none of them drink buttermilk through the week.


The experienced cook evaluates recipes for three things: flavor, cost, and ease of preparation. As a general rule, each one comes at some cost to the others.

From the Army Manual to the Gilded Age

While looking for old Thanksgiving recipes, I came across a page of Thanksgiving Recipes From America’s Past. There are forty-one recipes in all; here’s the highlight reel.

The Manual for Army Cooks, published in 1916 by the Government Printing Office, contained a recipe for pumpkin pie – or, rather, 12-15 pumpkin pies. (First ingredient: 25 pounds pumpkin.) In 1941 the Manual of Mess Management had a recipe for cooking 70 pounds of turkey.

There are several “Recipes From a ‘Gilded Age’.” The most eye-catching of these is called Terrapin, a la Gastronome. If you are like me, you would suspect that a “terrapin” is some sort of animal. This is immediately confirmed by the recipe, which begins, “Take live terrapin, and blanch them in boiling water for two minutes. Remove the skin from the feet …”

Terrapin, I find in the Dictionary, is a kind of turtle. Yes, they ate turtles for Thanksgiving, garnished with Espagnole sauce, consommé, Parisian sauce, half a glassful of Maderia wine, and a “good bouquet”. And that is why they called it the Gilded Age.

Another recipe from the Gilded Age is Lalla Rookh Punch. Initially it looks good, but it goes on through sieves and ice cream tubs and broken ice mixed with rock-salt, and in the end you should not attempt it unless you have a kitchen staff and only scant mercy on them.

In 1883 Practical Housekeeping published a recipe for English Roast Turkey, which would be an ironic dish for Thanksgiving Day. But the herbs suggested for it are appealing, and I’m with them until this sentence: “Garnish with fried oysters, and serve with celery-sauce and stewed gooseberries.”

Fried oysters are probably good, but celery is a purposeless vegetable not meant for humans to eat, except in extreme circumstances such as famines or diets. And I don’t really know what stewed gooseberries are.

There is also a recipe for a French-style turkey – which may be more ironic yet. It begins: “Choose a small fat turkey; draw, singe and clean it well, extracting all the pin feathers; break the breast-bone, remove it and fill the breast with a bread dressing; sew up with the skin underneath.”

This year, I am thankful for supermarkets.

A recipe for Cranberry Tart, dated 1796, shows touching faith in humanity by giving these instructions: “Stewed, strained and sweetened, put into paste No. 9, and baked gently.”

Then they describe “paste No. 9”. And that’s it.

Happy Thanksgiving, and may God give you even more to be thankful for.

And please, leave the poor terrapin alone.

Dragon Hopping

Last week I entered a writing challenge. It works this way: You are given an opening sentence, to which you are supposed to coherently attach one to two hundred words. You post it, and readers can add their comments and give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The three highest-rated entries will then be voted on. If you win, you get … well, to be the winner.

So this isn’t a step up the career ladder. It isn’t supposed to be. It’s supposed to be fun. To prove it, here is the challenge’s opening sentence: If dragon hopping was safe, then I wouldn’t have any interest in it, but of course it’s not, so guess where I’m heading.

It takes a little time to figure out where to go with that. Dragon hopping is a fundamentally bizarre thing to do, like “lion-tickling”. It makes you wonder: Who are these crazy people?

In an inspired touch, the narrator muses on if dragon hopping was safe instead of if it were safe. And it stands to reason that someone who would hop on dragons should not be too punctilious about grammar.

Here is what I posted:

If dragon hopping was safe, then I wouldn’t have any interest in it, but of course it’s not, so guess where I’m heading.

Yes, you know: Basilisk. The terraformers abandoned it a century ago, when they finally figured out that nobody is going to move to Basilisk while there is standing room on any other planet. Weather comes two different ways there: Too hot and too cold. There is very little water, and the only creatures that manage to live on that forsaken planet are mutant and hostile. Snips. Eye lizards. The Raz.

And, of course, dragons.

The terraformers built their skeleton settlement deep in a cave system, thinking it would be a refuge. You can imagine their horror when a flock of dragons came swooping in to settle at their doorstep. What are the odds they’d found their colony smack-dab in the middle of a hibernation nest?

A couple decades back the deserted colony was taken over by somebody with more con than morals. Now it’s a resort, and it runs Dragon Shows all year round. This season’s show is dragon hopping.

So I’m on my way back. It’s a crazy thing, I suppose, to hop from one hibernating dragon to another, but I’ll fill my pockets nicely. And, provided I don’t slip and land on some touchy dragon’s snout, I’ll enjoy it.


The link that I posted above is to phase one of the challenge; this one is to phase two. All due credit to Becky Miller for creating the challenge – and that opening line.