One of the things I miss most in pandemic-time is my weekly visit to the local (Yarmouth) library. It’s a pilgrimage to a venerable 1908 brick building in the center of town where I climb stairs to a hushed second floor. The new fiction books display always captures my attention first. There I circle the wooden table, pick up/ examine/replace a dozen or so books—then carry a select few to my favorite overstuffed chair in the corner.
The memory brings me to the theme of today’s piece. By what criteria do I find the “select few”? More broadly, what makes a book good or even great?
Exceptional books share key elements. I’ll focus on just two:
• A Memorable Opening: The first lines of a terrific story create intrigue and grab your attention. George Orwell’s 1984 is one example: “It was a bright day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Reading that you ask “what clocks” and why thirteen rather than the usual twelve chimes? You’re hooked.
The opening of Walter Mosley’s Devil In A Blue Dress is my all-time favorite: “I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar.” With just a dozen words Mosley nails the speaker, Easy Rollins, an African-American hard-boiled detective and WWII veteran living in L.A. post WWII.
Louise Penny crafted another terrific opening for Still Life: “Chief inspector Armand Gamache … knelt down; his knees cracking like the report of a hunter’s rifle, his large expressive hands hover over the tiny circle of blood marring her fluffy cardigan, as though like a magician he could remove the wound and restore the woman. … The scent of mothballs, his grandmother’s perfume, met him halfway. Jane’s gentle and kindly eyes stared as though surprised to see him.
He was surprised to see her. That was his little secret … that in his mid-fifties, at the height of a long and now apparently stalled career, violent death still surprised him.”
With these fifty-odd words we have Gamache—an “unlikely chief inspector” still surprised by brutal death, reminded of his grandmother’s perfume, whose hands pause over the shot wound as if he could remove it. Learning that his long career is “apparently stalled”, readers are sympathetic.
I’ll borrow the limelight of esteemed company and talk about my own writing. I rather like the opening line of the first book in my Maine Oceanographer Mara Tusconi series, Cold Blood, Hot Sea:
“My father once said, ‘When you step aboard a ship, you leave solid behind for that vast unseen’”. Here I intend readers to anticipate the extraordinary experience of journeying out to sea aboard a three hundred foot oceanographic research vessel and at the same time wonder who is speaking and who is her father?
• Remarkable characters: Returning to Gamache, Penny’s Canadian Three Pines series have been called “character-driven” mysteries that deeply explore relationships. The author describes Gamache this way: “He always held unfashionable beliefs … that light would banish the shadows, kindness was more powerful than cruelty, that goodness existed, even in the most desperate places, and that evil had its limits”.In many of the books from Still Life onwards Gamache tells new detectives joining his team four sayings that can lead to wisdom: “I was wrong. I’m sorry. I don’t know. I need help”.
Through that remarkably short list we the essence of Gamache: a detective who regularly witnesses evil but believes in goodness, and who is wise, humble, unafraid to ask for support when he needs it.
Picking only one outstanding female character was a challenge, of course, but I finally settled on Harper Lee’s Scout Finch. Exceptionally bright (reading before she begins school), confident, and thoughtful (she worries about the goodness and evil of mankind), Scout is the narrator and protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird.
A few Scout Finch quotes say everything about her:
• “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
• “I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year.”
• “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”
Readers, relish words on the page until we can actually toss them back and forth once more.