I’m not a gamer, and If I hadn’t enjoyed Gabrielle Zevin’s previous book, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, I may never have opted to read Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, a novel about video game designers.
With my short attention span, I avoid long books, but one of the best novels ever written is Larry McMurtry’s 858 pager Lonesome Dove.
I’m a cat person, and my idea of enjoying the great outdoors is watering the flowers on my patio, yet I’m a fan of A Dog’s Devotion about a search and rescue dog who traipses through woods after disasters to identify survivors or remains.
Why did I go beyond my reading comfort zone and choose to read these books? All of these share the following qualities:
Deep in knowledge
I love a novel that not only tells a good story, but also teaches something and makes me think. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow helped solve the question: why are so many people into games? Through the three primary characters I now understand the gaming world is a bit like writing a novel: you are the god of that country and you control your characters.
The opening sentence makes me want to know more:
“Before Mazer invented himself as Mazer, he was Samson Mazer, and before that Samson Masur—a change of two letters that transformed him from a nice, ostensibly Jewish boy to a Professional Builder of Worlds –and for most of his youth, he was Sam, S.A.M on the hall of fame of his grandfather’s Donkey Kong machine, but mainly Sam.”
Lonesome Dove begins with Augustus McCrae watching the sunset:
“Evening took a long time getting to Lonesome Dove, but when it came it was a comfort. For most of the hours of the day –and most of the months of the year –the sun had the town trapped deep in dust, far out in the chapparal flats, a heaven for snakes and horny toads, roadrunners, and stinging lizards, but a hell for pigs and Tennesseans.
The writing is cinematic, and the voice in this passage conjures Jeff Bridges standing on a rickety porch contemplating the end of another day in this strange land. The long tale delivers a cast of unforgettable characters.
In addition to great prose and voice, A Dog’s Devotion is a gripping tale that gives the reader a snapshot into author Suzanne Elshult’s friendship with walking guide and co-author James Guy Mansfield, her training methods, and Elshult’s own doubts and fears. She begins the tale with:
“The avalanche debris field before us is a swath of icy destruction hundreds of yards wide and a quarter of a mile long. Above us, shadows sweep slowly over ragged mounds of white snow as clouds drift across the southern slopes of Mount Rainier.”
The star of the book is Keb, a Labrador retriever. As Elshult, Keb and Guy are searching for bodies, the author writes, “The notion that dogs can smell emotion such as fear and sadness from people in distress became more real in my mind. People were found in the debris: people whose last moments, no doubt, had been in panic and fear. What did she smell those first few days when she was alerting on piles of rubble and wood?”
During the pandemic I also read several lightweight romances and mysteries. The pandemic may have put a pause on my writing, but it helped open my reading window. Writers are readers, and we are influenced by all other stories we read. My writing advice this month is to select a book you may not otherwise choose and read the opening sentences. If you trust the author will lead you into a worthy adventure, buy the book or check it out from the library.
Which book(s) have you read that drew you out of your comfort zone?
Laura Moe is president of EPIC Group Writers and the author of Breakfast With Neruda, soon to be an audiobook, and two other novels. She will be moderating a discussion at Edmonds Bookshop Oct. 20 with Suzanne Elshult and Guy Mansfield.