reading: choosing a book

I am reading, reading, reading. Finished a book last night and, with no had-to-reads awaiting, I chose four, thick paperbacks (all given to me by friends) from my to-be-read stack. Two I discarded easily based on subject matter–generally not interested in novels about ghosts. One of the paperbacks, by a former winner of the Whitbread Prize, I read for 6 pages but then tossed aside. The fourth, I wasn’t sure about but gave 39 pages before I dropped it into the give-away pile.

I returned to my stack and chose a book I had borrowed from a friend an embarrassingly long time ago–The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk.

I read the first paragraph and thought, now you’re talking.

What is art? Thomas Bradshaw asks himself this question frequently. He does not yet know the answer. He used to believe art was a kind of pretending, but he doesn’t think that any more. He uses the word authenticity to describe what he thinks now. Some things are artificial and some are authentic. It is easy to tell when something is artificial. The other is harder.

I settled back and relaxed into the book. I knew right from the start that I would stay with this one. The first year of this blog, I read all of Rachel Cusk’s books in order–well, I read the most recent one first. Loved it. Then started from the beginning, rereading the most recent one when I got to it.

But it wasn’t just because I had enjoyed books by this author before that I felt safe. In fact, when, about six weeks ago, I was also deciding what book to read, I was choosing between two books, each one by a favorite author. The first one I chose, I only made it about 3 pages. Is it me? I wondered. So I turned to the other one–Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. From the first sentence, I was a goner.

The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope.

Two very different openings. One begins with a huge question but in the next sentence dives inside the head of the character. Close in. And the other begins with a matter-of-fact sentence, focusing on a concrete object rather than an esoteric question. It’s difficult to put my finger on just what does the trick in each case.

Any ideas?

10 thoughts on “reading: choosing a book

  1. Both paragraphs pique curiosity. And therefore pull readers into the story. In the first example, I love that Thomas Bradshaw “does not yet know the answer.” So I want to know what he figures out. In the second paragraph, I want to know more about Anders Eckman because he died (I am always curious about someone who has died), and Patchett sets the scene beautifully with the envelope.


    • I agree, and yet for me, what pulls me into the second example is the object, not the death. And with the first example, I’m amazed at how fast Cusk moves from a general question to deep inside the character’s head.


  2. Both intrigue. I affirm your tossing dud books aside, something I have not done in a while. But I just finished Fried Green Tomatoes and might not have if I didn’t love the movie: it is not a dud, with a complex braided structure, a huge cast of characters, and powerful themes. But it wasn’t emotionally involving for me, not like the movie, which honed in on the relationship between the two women cafe owners and can make me cry several times.


  3. I thought you’d like State of Wonder. I read it last summer. Patchett is one of my favorite authors, but although some of it was fabulous, the story was not my favorite of hers. She certainly raises the bar with her writing. The opening didn’t grab until we got to the exotic location, but in that opening sentence, we do see the simple but poetic clarity of her writing that marks her style. She talks about ordinary things in a way that sounds fresh but not pretentious.

    As for Rachel Cusk, her books I’ve tried and dropped. Those opening sentences strike me as a bit pretentious, but maybe I’m reading them through an artist’s eyes.

    I like that you read and discard books, not bothering with those that don’t grab you. Perhaps you are reading like an editor now?


    • Well, I’m certainly doing enough editing to be reading like an editor : )

      You wrote about Ann Patchett: “the simple but poetic clarity of her writing.” Perfect description.


  4. Pingback: our reading lives | catching days

  5. Pingback: my writing notebook: state of wonder | catching days

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