A Year in First Sentences, Non-Fiction Edition

I can’t promise my Fiction/Non-Fiction split will always be as equal as it was in 2014 (13 fiction to 11 non-fiction, with On the Road being shifted to the former) but I do like to try. I find well-told narrative non-fiction (you’re unlikely to find me embracing the term “creative non-fiction”) to be every bit as enjoyable as the most far-fetched fictional stories owing to the old adage that truth is, sometimes, stranger than fiction. Here you’ll find a number of travel memoirs, some excellent, some decidedly less-so, and also several tales of endurance and high adventure.

The purpose of this exercise isn’t to serve as a quiz about one’s book knowledge or to try and decipher a secret meaning behind these sentences. My entire goal in doing this is to help educate myself in the art of crafting a tremendous opening. I’m taking a closer look at the first sentences from books that wound their way into my hands, to better understand what made them tick. To see which, if any, of the who, what, where, when, why and how questions the author targeted in order to hook the reader’s interest right from the start, before they know how the story turns out.

This post is a continuation from last week’s post, which covered the fiction books I read in 2014.

14) Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven (2003)

In September 1923, a diminutive twenty five-year-old Eskimo woman named Ada Blackjack emerged as the heroic survivor of an ambitious polar expedition.

Now I’m betting that if you haven’t heard of Ada Blackjack before, you probably just added this to your reading list. And that’s the power of a strong opening sentence! Even one as straightforward as this. Non-fiction books, of which I read a fair number, tend to eschew catchy dialogue or flowery descriptions in favor of a plays-it-straight thesis statement that lets you know right away what the book is about. Just look at that sentence. Lots of information there, but it still manages to pack three purposeful adjectives into it to really make you feel like you’re about to learn something remarkable. Diminutive Eskimo woman, heroic survivor, ambitious polar expedition. Take my money!

15) Walking the Gobi: A 1,600 Mile Trek Across the Desert of Hope and Despair by Helen Thayer (2007)

I first learned of Mongolia at age thirteen during a lecture by our teacher, Miss Carpenter, at Pukekohe High School in New Zealand, the country where I was born.

This book, a first-person account of a monumental feat of endurance and suffering, starts out with, in my estimation, a heavy reliance on the title and the author’s world class resume. Instead of spelling out what the book is about, the author begins a lengthy introduction by letting us know just how long she’s been interested in Mongolia. Several paragraphs in, you get to the real hook: Her desire to explore Mongolia has been simmering for fifty years. While I can certainly understand her not wanting to put her age front-and-center and rather tease it out in this manner, it could have added some oomph to a rather dry opening line. After all, knowing that this first-of-its-kind expedition was not only completed, but by a woman over 60 years old (alongside her even older husband), makes it all the more interesting — and inspiring.

16) Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer by Rolf Potts (2008)

The title of this book is not my own creation: It is a direct quote from an inmate I met at Bangkok’s women’s prison in January of 1999.

I absolutely love this opening sentence. Who among us, travel writers particularly, doesn’t wish to have an anecdote as juicy as that to drop into an otherwise self-effacing confession? Potts is a wonderful teller of travel stories and this book is a superb teacher of the form, as Potts follows each story with a behind-the-scenes tell-all about how the story came to be, what parts were fabricated (after all, even travel writers have to put the art of story telling front and center to keep reader’s attention) and the mechanics of the journey. Potts is best known for his inspirational travel how-to Vagabonding, a book I read some fourteen years ago and is partly responsible for the bicycle trip my wife and I recently completed.

17) The Voyageur by Grace Lee Nute (1931)

The term voyageur, a French word meaning “traveler,” was applied originally in Canadian history to all explorers, fur-traders, and travelers.

With an opening line as fact-forward as that, it should be no surprise that we’re dealing with a book that was reprinted by a historical society. This is an encyclopedic study of a particular class/profession of people in every aspect from how they dressed, what songs they sang, to how many vices they packed into their adventurous days. Though you wouldn’t know it from the opening sentence, one wasting no time in providing the early definition of the term voyageur, the author does wax romantic about these hearty canoe paddlers who made the North American fur trade possible. As for the book’s opening chapter (which does follow a helpful preface), one has to read to the second sentence to understand how the meaning of the term shifted, and how we interpret the word today. As an aside, one of the minor characters in my work-in-progress is a voyageur… or at least thinks he is.

18) The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst (1999)

‘Whenever I smell salt water, I know that I am not far from one of the works of my ancestors,’ wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in 1880.

This is a fantastic opening because it begins with a quote from the very person the book is decidedly not about. The author quotes Robert Louis Stevenson, famed author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, writing about his ancestors and makes you immediately wonder why the ocean would remind him of them. The dichotomy of having a famous author wax nostalgic about his seemingly unremarkable ancestors strikes us as odd. And for that we want to know more. The Stevenson family, going back four generations from Robert Louis, was enormously responsible for the myriad lighthouses built around the coast of Scotland, many of them affixed to slabs of rock miles offshore that lay hidden beneath the water during high tide. A fascinating book about engineering in the 19th century, Scotland, and a most impressive family.

19) Tales of the Alhambra (Revised) by Washington Irving (1851)

In the spring of 1829, the author of this work, whom curiosity had brought into Spain, made a rambling expedition from Seville to Granada in company with a friend, a member of the Russian Embassy at Madrid.

The opening here, like a lot of good travel memoirs, opts to lay out the details of the trip, or at least its premise, directly, albeit with a casual flair. What makes this opening great, in my opinion, was Irving’s decision to incorporate a piece of information about his traveling companion that evokes a sense of intrigue. A member of the Russian Embassy? Again, we want answers: Who? Why? How? It was only in the revised edition, which I happened to have been reading, that Irving mentions that his traveling companion was the then-present Prince serving as Russian minister at the court of Persia.

20) The Next Port by Heyward Coleman (2007)

The subject was one of my favorites.

A simple sentence that tells us very little when ripped apart from the ones that follow, but even here, on its own, it makes us wonder: What subject is that, dear author? Coleman continues with a conversation my wife and I have had innumerable times: He’s outlining the route he and his family will take on their upcoming trip around the world. It’s a strong opening, filled with excitement and foreshadowing — and I know firsthand from seeing the reactions to those listening to my own tale, that it’s one that commands attention. This self-published travel memoir came recommended to me by a friend who had read One Lousy Pirate and thought I would enjoy it. She was right.

21) Attempted Hippie by David Noonan (2014)

I worked mornings at the cemetery and nights at the gas station, and if I could have found a third shitty job, I would have taken it in my futile quest to stay busy and not think about the fact that my girlfriend was living on a commune in Vermont (or was it New Hampshire?) with a bunch of hippies while I was living at home with my disappointed parents and my little brother and sisters.

The longest first sentence of any book I read in 2014 (and likely in other years too), this sentence is also one of my favorites. Sure, there’s a lot of expository information being dumped onto the reader right from the start, but, more importantly, we’re getting a really good taste of the writer’s voice. We can tell right away that this is going to be a loose, casual, conversational telling of a period in the author’s life that was anything but calm and predictable. We know there might be some talk of drugs, some profanity, and maybe some sex, and that it’s going to be a really fast read. Sadly, not much really ever ends up happening in this Kindle Single travel memoir.

22) Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (Revised) by Jon Krakauer (2010)

If David Uthlaut was still angry when the convoy finally rolled out of Magarah, Afghanistan, the young lieutenant kept his emotions hidden from the forty-four Army Rangers under his command.

Krakauer begins the book with a detailed “Dramatis Personae” that lists each and every vehicle, its occupants, and their rank and seating position in a convoy of Army Rangers moving through Khost Province in Afghanistan. Only after several pages listing the vehicle locations of all forty-four men, and a brief preface outlining the disgraceful evidence that came to light after his initial publication, does he then begin with the prologue, from which I include the opening line above. This is a journalistic investigation with a storyteller’s command of language and form. That opening sentence, and those that follow, read like the narrative from a refined novel. Unfortunately, we know going in that the story is true, and we know how it’s going to end. And that only makes us as angry as Mr. Uthlaut may have been in this opening line.

 23) Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes (1996)

“What are you growing here?” the upholsterer lugs an armchair up the walkway to the house but his quick eyes are on the land.

The author doesn’t begin this book so much en medias res, but is actually hinting much further down the line, towards the end of the story. After all, when in a construction process are you worrying about furniture? After the house is built. We know from the blurb (or the movie trailers for those with a good memory) that this is a book about a woman who uses her life savings to buy a dilapidated villa in Tuscany and turn it into her dream home. And this sentence tells us two things. Not only did she pull it off, but the land the house sits on is her true prize. This book is one part Italian travel memoir and one part Tuscan cookbook, And should be read by anyone with an interest in either topic.

24) Excursions by Henry David Thoreau (1863)

Books of natural history make the most cheerful winter reading.

For a book that I found, at-times, very difficult to stay awake for, I really like this opening. It’s the type of charming thought-provoking comment that puts the reader at ease and invites them to keep reading, despite only revealing what any Thoreau fan would already know: this book is about nature. For the uninitiated, Thoreau is an acquired taste. This book may be his most accessible that I’ve read (and finished) aside from Walden. But let that opening sentence, as inviting as it is, serve as a warning. If you do not have a palate for plodding, detail-rich descriptions of such topics as crab apple fruit, slow strolls across the countryside, and the various species of New England maple trees, then you may want to look elsewhere for your winter reading this year.

That covers the books I read in 2014. I’ll have similar posts for the books I read in 2015 up in the coming weeks (or months). As always, please leave any thoughts, suggestions, or questions related to this topic in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Post Image by Dun_Deagh, used under Creative Commons.

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1 thought on “A Year in First Sentences, Non-Fiction Edition”

  1. Potts, Bathurst & Noonan NAILED it!

    Very interesting subject matter for the post – I’ll probably have to start paying more attention to first lines now!

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