David Vann, speaking on a panel at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival in September this year, said that he only reads books which contain beautiful sentences.
I read more widely, up to a thousand pages a week – for my research, work and pleasure. I enjoy it (nearly) all, and get something out of every book, story and essay. I have been trained to read critically, too critically sometimes; even when reading for pleasure, I find it hard not to focus on flaws and faults, and all the things I would have done differently.
I find myself hunting for beautiful sentences. The perfectly executed novel. A book I can actually lose myself in. Works that challenge me, writers who I admire and aspire to emulate in some way. Who raise the bar. The bar I set for myself.
I ‘find’ one or two a year. Who write the sort of books I wish I had written. The sort of books I wish I could live in. I remember the Christmas I discovered Sarah Hall (The Carhullan Army) and Per Petterson (Out Stealing Horses). I read them both on Boxing day: one of the best days of my life. I’ve read those two books – and everything else Hall and Petterson have published – several times since. Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, recommended by at least a dozen people before I read it, was another. In quiet ways, each of these books changed my life.
This week, I discovered a new (to me, anyway) writer I’d put in this category: Lauren Groff. I’ve just finished Arcadia, a gorgeous, intelligent, lightly dystopian novel. It’s beautifully written; the sort of book you find yourself writing down sentences from, or reading aloud (eg. Miles later he slows and sees the island turtling out of the stream). The sort of book where, about half way down the first page, you realise that you are in very safe hands. That you will enter, willingly, this gorgeous fictional world and live it for a while. That is it is a world you want to inhabit, and that you will come out changed.
James Bradley praised Arcadia in his review of another (less successfully executed) novel, and I looked Groff up. I’m not sure how I had managed not to hear of her; she is much lauded and awarded. There is a short story collection, Delicate Edible Birds, in a lovely hardcover, which I ordered for my Nike’s birthday, to justify getting Arcadia for myself.
It is a risk to try and introduce Nike to a new writer: wonderful when it comes off, terrible when it fails. I have made poor choices before; books have been left unfinished. Not mentioned. She read Groff‘s collection in a day (two train trips) and walked in the door raving about it. “So good,” she said. “That woman sure can write.”
Nike put her hand on Arcadia the next morning but I shook my head, despite the sad face she pulled. It had been sitting in a high pile for a while, but I didn’t want it heading out on the morning train; I wanted to read it first. I wanted to share in that thrill of discovery. After all, it was me who found her.
The best part is, there’s more: I still have the short stories to read, and Groff‘s first novel, Monsters of Templeton, A New York Times best seller (!), which I ordered today.
I don’t want to say too much about Arcadia; part of its pleasure is in entering the world of its story, and the surprising, yet inevitable, way it unfolds. The main character, Bit, and Arcadia itself, are with me still.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
The women in the river, singing.
This is Bit’s first memory, although he hadn’t been born when it happened. Still, the road winding through the mountains is clear to him, the rest stop with the yellow flowers that closed under the children’s touch. It was dusk when the Caravan saw the river greening around the bed and stopped there for the night. It was a blue spring evening, and cold.