Twisted by Jessica Zafra – Pumping irony since 1994

Archive for the ‘Books’

Can you remember the first lines of your favorite books? Take this quiz. (Updated with answers)

October 20, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books 5 Comments →

The first session of our Writing Boot Camp was held last Saturday at WSI Corporate Center in Makati. We discussed the basics of writing a short story and how to develop a story beginning with the protagonist. At the second session on Saturday, the participants will read their first drafts (and if not, engage in a therapeutic session on what is stopping them from writing).

I’m a great believer in the Killer First Sentence. Ideally the first sentence sets the tone for the whole piece, or establishes the character, or encapsulates the setting, or makes an observation about human nature that will be borne out in the story that follows, or all of the above. Find your opening sentence and you’ve found your voice.

While we’re sitting out the storm—I hope you are safe and dry—take this First Lines from Famous Books Quiz.

First, look into Drogon’s eyes and swear that you will not look up the answers on Google.

Drogon took his own picture (note mirror image, the funny ear should be on the right) under Ricky’s direction.

Now identify the novel or short story which begins with these words.

1. Let’s start with a giveaway so you can proceed with confidence.

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.

2. This one captures how we sometimes feel.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

3. I learned to write by imitating this.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

4. Someday I’m going to finish reading this doorstop.

A screaming comes across the sky.

5. There’s an ongoing argument on the best way to put this translated line.

Mother died today.

6. And another very short opening for a very long, phantasmagorical work.

Call me Ishmael.

7. Clue: It’s so strong, it even opens the movie adaptation with Julie Christie.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

8. This book was very popular in its day. I discovered it on NYRB Classics.

“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

9. You know this one.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

10. We should reread this, it’s our present.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

11. This is how NOT to write a first sentence. On the other hand it’s gone down in history, so it is, in a way, successful.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

12. SF classic.

It was a pleasure to burn.

13. The beginning of a perfect short novel.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

14. This novel has some very long sentences.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

15. He begins the novel by talking about the writing of the novel.

A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

The answers tomorrow.

* * * * *

The Answers

1. If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. The whole book reads like that first sentence: so clever, sometimes you feel like hitting Calvino over the head with his book. However, if you read it all the way to the end, you will feel very…clever.

2. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. There’s a podcast in which it is read by Benedict Cumberbatch—listen to it while you are stuck in traffic.

3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The recent “unmasking” of Elena Ferrante which, despite the journalist’s claim that it was by public demand, no one was asking for, calls to mind Salinger’s insistence on being left alone. The Thomas Pynchon model for reclusiveness is the best method: hiding in plain sight, since no one knows what you look like anyway.

4. Speaking of Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow.

5. Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. In basic French: Today, mother has died. The beginning of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Check out our group translation of The Stranger.

6. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, which had defeated my attempts to read it, so I listened to the audiobook/podcast by Tilda Swinton et al.

7. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. I recommend it highly. The narrator, now an old man, looks back on an idyllic summer he spent in the country with a wealthy family, and the part he unknowingly played in their unhappiness. One of the models for Atonement by Ian McEwan.

8. The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay. Trebizond was a kingdom in what is now known as Turkey, where we’re going back in December for a shoot, yay!

9. Pride and Prejudice by everybody’s tita, Jane Austen.

10. 1984 by George Orwell. “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” Oy.

11. The first sentence of Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton is so cliche that an annual bad writing award has been named after Bulwer-Lytton.

12. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. One of the writers who sent us to space. When Mars is colonized there has to be a city named Bradbury.

13. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

14. 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There’s a Netflix series waiting to happen.

15. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene.


Good effort, geeksturr and juleste! We dub you the Honestly Well-Read Readers of the Week.

Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature!

October 13, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Music 3 Comments →


The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

Desolation Row
by Bob Dylan

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

The Power of Checklists

October 13, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books No Comments →


Checklists provide an effective method for avoiding error. They trigger the right action by the right person at the right time. Effective checklists activate the specialized knowledge most applicable at a particular point in time, and optimize communication between different sets of specialists. In this way, checklists help avoid one of the principal challenges of modern organizations: the ‘silent disengagement’ that results when specialists only keep their narrow tasks in mind instead of focusing on broader team or organizational outcomes.

In advocating for the checklist, Gawande is not minimizing the importance of human discretion. On the contrary: in conditions of uncertainty – when a surgeon is operating on a patient, or a building is being constructed, or a venture capitalist is picking an entrepreneur to back – human judgment is vital. The goal of the checklist is not to eliminate discretion but to help ensure the optimal mix of procedure and discretion. Gawande notes that good checklists help balance competing principles: freedom and discipline, craft and protocol, specialized ability and group collaboration.

Read The Power of Checklists at 3QD.

I’m a great believer in checklists. I have notebooks full of checklists. Just writing the daily to-do list makes me feel like I’ve already accomplished something.

Monday Links: Nazi drug use, Nobel Prize in Literature bets, and a wonderful takedown of Tom Wolfe’s attack on Darwin

October 10, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, History No Comments →

Workers at the Temmler factory in Berlin produced 35m tablets of Pervitin for the German army and Luftwaffe in 1940. Photograph: Temmler Pharma GmbH & Co KG, Marburg

Read High Hitler: How Nazi drug abuse steered the course of history.

The story Ohler tells begins in the days of the Weimar Republic, when Germany’s pharmaceutical industry was thriving – the country was a leading exporter both of opiates, such as morphine, and of cocaine – and drugs were available on every street corner. It was during this period that Hitler’s inner circle established an image of him as an unassailable figure who was willing to work tirelessly on behalf of his country, and who would permit no toxins – not even coffee – to enter his body.

“He is all genius and body,” reported one of his allies in 1930. “And he mortifies that body in a way that would shock people like us! He doesn’t drink, he practically only eats vegetables, and he doesn’t touch women.” No wonder that when the Nazis seized power in 1933, “seductive poisons” were immediately outlawed. In the years that followed, drug users would be deemed “criminally insane”; some would be killed by the state using a lethal injection; others would be sent to concentration camps. Drug use also began to be associated with Jews. The Nazi party’s office of racial purity claimed that the Jewish character was essentially drug-dependent. Both needed to be eradicated from Germany.

Some drugs, however, had their uses, particularly in a society hell bent on keeping up with the energetic Hitler (“Germany awake!” the Nazis ordered, and the nation had no choice but to snap to attention). A substance that could “integrate shirkers, malingerers, defeatists and whiners” into the labour market might even be sanctioned.

Read Tom Wolfe’s Reflections on Language. It’s long, but worth your time. Haay mahirap talagang magmarunong kung kayabangan lang ang puhunan mo.


A Gentleman In Moscow is a delightful novel about staying civilized in a squalid world.

October 07, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books 8 Comments →

A Gentleman in Moscow is available at National Bookstores, Php755. Did you know that National Bookstore delivers? Go to for details.

I try not to go out on Fridays when the traffic is even more horrible than usual (You didn’t think this was possible, but it is!). So Friday is Hole Up With A Good Book Day, and today I’m reading A Gentleman In Moscow. The first chapters are delightful, considering that the hero Count Rostov has just been found guilty by a Bolshevik tribunal of being an unrepentant member of the corrupt leisure class.

Ordinarily he would be taken out and shot, but since he is considered a prerevolutionary hero he is placed under house arrest at a Moscow hotel. Not in his suite, but in a utility room in the attic. If he ventures out of the hotel, he will be shot. How will this sophisticated aristocrat endure the confinement? True, it is easier to deal with boredom than constant beatings, deprivation, and threats to his life, but he left all his favorite books at his estate.

A Gentleman In Moscow reminds me of the Garbo movie Ninotchka by Ernst Lubitsch–witty, frothy, lightness concealing social commentary. And of The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson in its combination of whimsy and melancholy (It makes us nostalgic for an era we never actually lived in). Exactly what I need at the end of a verklempt week.

Did anyone read Towles’s previous novel Rules of Civility? I bought a copy but I gave it away in a contest.

What are you reading this weekend?

Best Writing Tips from William Boyd, Claire Messud, Tessa Hadley, Philip Hensher and others

September 26, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books No Comments →

Illustration by Jill Calder in The Guardian

Plan your ending

About once a month or so, when someone says to me, “I’ve got this great idea for a novel/film/play/TV series” and then outlines the (usually pretty good) opening, I say: “So – how does it end?”. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the answer is: “I haven’t quite figured that out yet.”

Therefore my default response to all “great” ideas in the writing business is to do with the ending. A good ending can redeem a mediocre idea. A bad ending can sink a really good idea. As soon as you know how your narrative ends – in whatever medium – then a huge percentage of the problematic issues that arise in the writing will be solved.

If you have a clear sense of how your story will end then you can, as it were, rewind to the beginning and plot any number of various routes that will allow you to arrive at that desired ending – with its attendant catharsis, of course. If you start writing (however striking your original idea) with no sense of how your story will end, then life becomes progressively harder. Flailing around. Writer’s block. Draft after draft. This is how novels get abandoned; film scripts bottom-drawered. The thing to do is to stop and envisage your final pages, your final scene. Take your time. What note do you want to strike? What surprise do you want to spring? What denouement will justify this journey?

It may sound mechanical, but story-telling is a very complicated business, full of moving parts and many cogs engaging. You can’t rely on the Muse to descend and sort it all out for you. A bit of serious forethought about the conclusion will mean you don’t need the Muse’s help at all.

Read My Best Writing Tip