Ep. 16: Hilarious entrances: Funny first lines in literature
Have you ever opened a book and cracked a smile with just the first line? We have, and usually that's an indication that the book will keep us amused throughout. Today, we want to share with you some humorous first lines, and, of course, the books they introduce.
Photo by Samson Katt
🖋 "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to"
This book opens with a joke, and the humorous tone continues throughout with touches of cynicism and self-deprecation without much political correctness. Bill Bryson offers us a travelogue of small town America while he completes a road trip through 38 states in 1987-88. The author completes the road trip, and consequently the book, as he reencounters with his homeland after living in England for 10 years.
If you would like to go on a similar road trip than Bill Bryson, almost 40 years after the original, you can follow the itinerary provided in an infographic we found at Read and Survive blog. The roundtrip from Des Moines, Iowa will require a lot of driving (93 hrs. on 5,355 miles). We have referred to another road trip included in the infographic before in our Episode 1, where we talked about books written in less than 1 month.
🖋 "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink"
So starts the diary of Cassandra Mortmain, a 17 year-old in the 1930s who lives with her eccentric and impoverished family in a crumbling castle in Suffolk. Cassandra's diary entries are full of wit and humor as she describes her life in the ruinous residence along with her once-famous father, her siblings, her step-mother, and the son of a former maid. One day, a pair of gentlemen visitors arrive, causing a stirring in the lives of Cassandra and the Mortmain household.
This book is great bibliotherapy if you need romance and humor without unnecessary fluff. I have even heard the book being refer to as a novel that would take care of the reader. There is also a movie adaptation of the book starring Romola Garai, Henry Cavill, and Rose Byrne.
🖋 "If this typewriter can’t do it, then f*** it, it can’t be done.”
So starts this quirky, zany, and explicit novel about the love story between a modern-day redhead princess and an outlaw. Tom Robbins book is written almost as a stream-of-consciousness, and he treats readers to hysterical puns and absurd associations.
In this bizarre novel, the princess and the imprisoned outlaw each has a pack of Camel cigarettes. They are connected by this item; but if they open the pack and smoke the cigarettes, the connection will be destroyed. For this reason, the novel has been recommended as great bibliotherapy to quit smoking by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin in their book The Novel Cure.
🖋 "If you're going to read this, don't bother."
Well, we would disagree with that statement. Do bother, and do read Choke. It will make you uncomfortable, sometimes gross, and it will definitely shock you. The protagonist of the book is Victor Mancini, a young man with a complicated upbringing, and a medical school drop-out turned con man in order to pay for his mother elderly care. His scams involve him pretending to choke at upscale restaurants to lure wealthy patrons into giving him money. But that is just one of the unlikable traits you will discover about Victor's dissolute character if you decide to read this visceral story. If you get to the end and you did not like it, Palahniuk did warn you at the beginning, didn't he?
There is a movie adaptation from 2008 starring Sam Rockwell as Victor Mancini. And what should we say about it? If you are going to watch it, don't bother? ;)
🖋 "As a boy, I wanted to be a train."
This is the start to the story of Charlie Neumann, a man who loses a leg in an accident and see this as an opportunity to gradually replace almost every part of his body with an upgraded mechanical prosthesis. Neumann (new man, get it?) gets the attention of a military contractor, who sees his enhancements as potential weapons. However, Neumann's original objective was never to become a weapon and this starts a battle for control over Neumann's body.
We have chosen the cover from the 2011 Hardcover edition by Vintage for our Cover Gallery. The cover contains the image of a man whose legs have been replaced by artificial limbs. What makes this cover so interesting and different form others, is that it was the one chosen by voters among six others in a poll that Barry himself initiated in his website. You can follow the link to see the rest of the options which vied for the cover of Machine Man.
🖋 "It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”
That is the opening line of these children's classic about Matilda, a super smart five-year-old protagonist with self-absorbed parents and a thorn on her side in the form of Miss Trunchbull, the school principal. Matilda wins the heart of readers when she retaliates against her parents and Miss Trunchbull with practical jokes, ingenuity and her good heart.
Readers of Matilda might want to check the recipe we found in delish.com by Candace Braun Davison for a multilayered chocolate fudge cake inspired by the book. In the story, a kid steals a piece of chocolate cake from Miss Trunchbull, and as punishment, he has to eat a whole cake. I don't know about you, but that does not sound as punishment to me, especially if the cake is the one in the recipe from delish.com.
🖋 "We’re going to tell you about three of the children in Mrs. Jewls’s class, on the thirtieth story of Wayside School. But before we get to them, there is something you ought to know. Wayside School was accidentally built sideways. It was supposed to be only one story high, with thirty classrooms all in a row. Instead, it is thirty stories high, with one classroom on each story. The builder said he was very sorry.”
Not technically a first line, rather an opening paragraph, but what a way to start a book! Although the book is written for young readers, the child in all of us will delight on this read. At least our inner child enjoyed it enough to choose it for our Six-Word Review this week: Funny shenanigans at absurdly built school.
For lovers of the book and fans of cartoons, there is a Canadian animated series called Wayside created by John Derevlany in 2005 and adapted from Sachar's book.
For Book vs. Book, this week we have chosen two books written by a mastermind of comedy. The man who, to quote Emmet Asher-Perrin, "gave science fiction a sense of humor", Douglas Adams (we say his name reverently). Both of the books we chose happen to be the second installment in their respective series, and they both have hilarious first lines:
🖋 "In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
This is the start to the second installment in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, and I promise you the laughs are not going to stop there. This book is full of witty puns, and absurdly funny lines. We meet again Arthur Dent and his improbable and unique shipmates facing annihilation from the Vogons. And what is their course of action when they find themselves in this dire situation? Looking for a place to eat, naturally!
🖋 "It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as an airport.’”
So starts the second installment of the series featuring Dirk Gently, the private investigator whose task is to solve the mysteries of the universe. This one in particular starts when a check-in counter at London's Heathrow Airport goes off in flames. What follows is a succession of random, absurd, and humorous events featuring the detective alongside Norse gods, stray eagles, and hit records of "Hot Potato", in the unique style of Douglas Adams.
Speaking of humorous first lines, can you guess the title of the book that start with "It was the day my grandmother exploded"? Let us know your answer at GuessWork.
For lovers of literary first lines, you might like the board game It was a Dark and Stormy Night. We mentioned this game in Episode 7 when we discussed several unusual first lines found in books. As you might have guessed from the name, the game's objective is to match a book with its first line. We also mentioned in Episode 7 the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where readers submit the worst possible first line for a hypothetical novel.
If any first line in a book has made you laugh, please tell us in the comments, we love those around here.
To buy books covered in this episode, visit our TBR Bundles.