What makes a good book good? My friend Leigh asked me last week to put together a list of recommended books for her, and as I started to think about the books I knew she would like, I also started considering the reasons I have for making these recommendations. My thought process is colored, in part, by a recent reading experience. I just finished a book called The Lost Van Gogh, by A. J. Zerries (a nom-de-plume for a husband-and-wife writing team). I picked the book off of a bargain table at Barnes and Noble last spring, but never got around to reading it. On Labor Day I found myself heading out for a pedicure with nothing to read, so I grabbed this book on my way out the door. If I hadn’t been stuck in the pedi-chair with nothing else to hold my attention, I probably would never have made it past the first chapter of this book.
In theory, The Lost Van Gogh would have been the perfect book for me. I always enjoy crime stories and mysteries, and this book had the added attraction of an art-related subject. It was full of puzzling clues and psychological intrigue, and featured a back story relating to World War II and Nazi war criminals. Who could ask for more?
And yet, somehow the book just barely held my attention. The writing was competent, but nothing more. There was plenty of technique, but no art. The authors cluttered up the main story with multitudes of subplots, and hackneyed devices that didn’t contribute to the overall development of the narrative. Am I ever going to read a detective novel where the departmental captain DOESN’T give the main character a hard time? Where the willowy and timid heroine does not turn out to be surprisingly strong and resilient in the face of torture? There were flashbacks and side trips and other extraneous elements that kept pulling me from the main story. Why did I keep reading? I suppose I wanted to find out how things would turn out, even if I didn’t really care about the main protagonists and their inevitable romance; even if I knew that the bad guys would never end up in possession of the missing painting. The main plot was cleverly constructed, but it wasn’t strong enough to stand up to all the peripheral fluff the authors padded around it. My one encouraging thought was that, thanks to my recent creative writing class, I was able to more clearly identify what went wrong and why. It took me over a month to finish the book (and it’s not that long – only 352 pages), and I think the reason that it took so long is because I tended to read it out of desperation (nothing else to do) or a misguided sense of responsibility (I started it so I ought to finish it).
Contrast that to the next book on my reading list. Friday I started reading The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Since I started the book last Friday (today is Tuesday), I’ve gotten almost halfway through – I’m on page 177. I’m not saying this to brag, but to point to the fact that this book is so well-written, and tells such a compelling story, that I have really had trouble putting it down, and I can’t wait to pick it up again. In fact, I just stored it in my desk drawer because the temptation to open it up and resume reading is drawing my concentration away from completing this blog entry. The characters are so intriguing that I’ve become invested in their fictional lives. Niffenegger feeds the reader crumbs of information at at time, just enough to keep us reading for more. Her prose is smart, fluid, spare and yet rich. Although I’m only halfway through, the author’s foreshadowing has led me to suspect emotional depths that are as yet only hinted. I read with a double sense of delight – on the one hand, enjoying the fascination of the story, while on the other hand, marvelling at the author’s masterful artistry in composition, balance, rhythm, and illumination. This is a reading experience to be treasured and remembered. I know even now that this book will forever change my perspective – which is what great art, in any medium, is all about.
So, having said all that, what books am I going to recommend to my dear friend Leigh? The following is a short list, just to get her started, based on what I know about her interests (which I must admit is not extensive – I know she loves the Ring trilogy and the Harry Potter books). Leigh (and anyone else out there) – give these books a try:
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel, by Susanna Clarke – a saga of love, wizardry, political intrigue, and war that ranges from England across Europe to Italy during the mid-19th century.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl – a coming-of-age story with a dramatic twist, set against the backdrop of academia, underground political movements, and the snobbery of private prep schools. Wry humor mixes with bare-knuckled emotional honesty and an intriguing personal mystery.
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman – SO much better than the movie! A young boy embarks on a magical quest, with surprising results. Witty, sweet, imaginative, and fun.
The Flanders Panel, by Arturo Perez-Reverte – clues from a mysterious 15th-century painting help to unravel a 20th-century theft and murder. The riveting story is set against fascinating dual backdrops – the realm of art, with its museums, dealers, patrons, and restorers, and the world of competitive chess.
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde -rollicking good fun in a parallel universe where Shakespeare is admired more than football, time travel is possible, and – best of all – certain gifted individuals can actually enter the Bookworld, meet and interact with characters, and even change the course of their plots. The first installment in this 5-book series is by far the best, but the others are also delightful.
These suggestions should be enough to start. Obviously, the opinions are mine alone. While I’m certainly no expert, I believe I can know a good book when I read one, and these are at the top of my list.