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From Auster to Zusak: 2023 Reads Thus Far

I’ve mentioned briefly in a previous post or two that my wife has a system to determine which book she reads next. It’s evolved over the years and has gotten complicated, and I don’t follow it very well anymore. I boast about having the power to choose, which I think is a good thing, even if every now and then I am a little stuck on what to read next, but at least that way I don’t HAVE to read something I either don’t want to read, am not in the mood to read, or am not in the right frame of mind to read.

Nevertheless, when the first book I began reading at the beginning of this calendar year was Paul Auster, it occurred to me that I could follow a simple A-Z reading system which is basically how my wife’s system had been in the beginning. I, of course, received encouragement from her when I suggested I might do this. So here’s how it went:

Auster, Paul, Man in the Dark. Previously I have loved an Auster book, really liked another one, and was underwhelmed and even annoyed by two others. Nevertheless, on my wife’s and my annual wedding anniversary used bookstore tour, I bought two more Auster novels and almost immediately started reading this one. I really liked it. This is the shortest of the five of his that I’ve read, and it read very much like a short story, even if it is officially novella length. I will read the other I bought at some point.

Brooks, Geraldine, The Secret Chord. I don’t really like historical fiction, especially ancient historical fiction, but I had read Brooks’s March and was impressed by it, and so upon receiving this as a Christmas present, I went into it with an open mind, and ended up really enjoying it. We don’t know very much at all about King David, and the skill it took to make a telling of his life seem real was pretty admirable.

Cheever, John, The Wapshot Scandal. A year earlier I had resolved to re-read a lot of Cheever but, except for the first Wapshot book, I didn’t. Not much to say here. Great novel by a great writer, and my second time reading it.

Doerr, Anthony, Cloud Cuckoo Land. I did not like this much. It jumped around in time way too much, into the distant future, as well as back several hundred years. Every time I got invested in one part of the story, it dramatically switched settings and characters. I found the connection that tied everything together weak.

Ellis, Bret Easton, American Psycho. I wrote about this separately a couple of months ago. Man, oh man.

Franzen, Jonathen, Crossroads. I like Franzen, and I think it’s stupid that he’s controversial. I liked how this book centered around a church youth group, and a pastor and his family, and how roughly twenty years earlier Franzen had published a lengthy personal essay about his own youth group experiences, which pretty obviously served as partial inspiration for this book.

Somewhere around here I read a Harry Potter book at the behest of my children, who wanted to watch the movies but weren’t allowed to until we had all read the book. This happens a few more times throughout this list. I won’t mention them because they weren’t part of the system. I also read some books on ska, and I finished a book on the Rochester Red Wings that I’d been reading off and on for a couple of years.

Greene, Graham, The Heart of the Matter. We own a lot of Graham Greene. Not much to say except that this is a good one. It’s set in Africa, which is neat.

Hardy, Thomas, The Return of the Native. My wife laughs at this, though my father agrees that the quality of the actual edition of the book has an effect on one’s reading experience. The first time I read this was on an old Modern Library edition with very thin paper and lettering smudges throughout the book. I liked it well enough to want to name my daughter Tamsin, but a lot of it didn’t stick. This time, reading from a much nicer Heritage edition, already I can tell everything will stick much longer.

Ishiguro, Kazuo, The Remains of the Day. I’ve been intimidated by Ishiguro for a long time and this system sort of strongly pushed me to read him finally. Now I don’t know why I was intimidated. Not only was this not a hard read, but I loved it almost from page one. I will re-read this.

Johnson, Denis, Jesus’ Son. I hadn’t heard of this until recently, but an essay I read mentioned this collection of short stories along with Raymond Carver’s short stories as basically the models for MFA writing students, though the writer of the essay was bemoaning that this book had already fallen out of favor, as were Carver’s stories, in academia’s effort to read fewer white males.

Anyway, I like Carver so I picked up a copy of this. I was underwhelmed, I’m sorry to say, though I will certainly give it another read in a year or two; I’d hate to miss out on what all the fuss is about, or used to be about.

Keneally, Thomas, Schindler’s List. I’ve never seen the movie so I went into this with a fairly blank slate. I did not love it. I was expecting this narrative non-fiction book to be more like Unbroken, which I loved. But even though it claims to be a “novel,” it reads more like a text book. I was disappointed.

Lethem, Jonathan, The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye. Like Auster, I’ve had great success with Lethem as well as some disappointments. My interest in Lethem was rekindled last year by reading one of his earlier novels, Gun With Occasional Music, which I loved. This collection of short stories is from that time period and has fantasy elements, such as the Gun book did. I liked it pretty well, but didn’t love it.

McEwan, Ian, Sweet Tooth. I’d loved everything I’d read by McEwan previously. This one was not so interesting. It also reminded me a lot of, Transcription, the last Kate Atkinson novel I read, which I feel the same way about.

There weren’t any N or O authors I was interested in reading. We have some, and I’ve read some in the past; I could reread Orwell, for instance, or read a second Nabokov novel. But I didn’t feel like it, so I skipped them, which got a “That’s cheating” reaction from my wife.

Patchett, Ann, These Precious Days. I’m a fan of Patchett and I compare her novels favorably with Franzen’s. This is a collection of essays. Some of them were very interesting, such as her essay about her father and two step-fathers. But some of the essays, including the longest one which the book was named for, were too safe and boring and had a “isn’t it nice how much we all love each other” feel to it. She also brought up the aforementioned Denis Johnson book, a couple of months after I’d first heard of it, and she mentioned John Updike in three separate essays, including one of the final essays in which she describes sharing a table with him at a banquet.

I didn’t feel like reading a Q author, either. We might have one, but I can’t even think of a Q author off the top of my head. This will happen for X, as well.

Roth, Philip, Indignation. In her essay collection, Patchett cites Roth, Updike, and Saul Bellow as her biggest influences and bemoans that they, like Carver and Denis Johnson in that other essay I’d read, are falling out of favor. She would know better than me if that is actually happening, but I hope we don’t stop reading them. Roth is phenomenal. This is a later book of his, and I loved every word of it.

Saramago, Jose, The Double. I don’t understand why Saramago doesn’t use paragraphs divisions, quotation marks, or even periods and question marks. Nevertheless, I was blown away by Blindness and really enjoyed, even if I didn’t totally understand, The Cave. This one is less interesting, like he’s trying too hard to be funny. Great premise, and a great twist at the end, but the actual narration got on my nerves occasionally.

Towles, Amor, A Gentleman in Moscow. This was recommended to me by someone to whom I had leant Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, because both novels deal with living in an oppressive regime. It was shortly thereafter coincidentally given to me by someone else. I liked it a lot, but honestly I don’t think it has much in common with the Johnson.

Updike, John, The Centaur. Updike’s “high school” novel, like American Graffiti or Sixteen Candles. The mythology parallels went completely over my head, but otherwise I loved this. Other than a lot of his early short stories, I don’t recall a high school-aged Updike protagonist, and yes I think the boy, not the father, is the main character. This was a lot of fun! It read a lot like a long short story, too.

Verne, Jules, Around the World in Eighty Days. It was either Verne or Vonnegut and my interest in Vonnegut is spotty. Not much to say here. Good read. Classic.

White, T.H., The Sword and the Stone. When I first saw the Disney movie adaptation of this book, it confused me that it had so little to do with Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, and that, except for the final five minutes, it could’ve been called anything. I didn’t know the movie was based on a book. Well, turns out the adaptation is pretty faithful — except for the very end of the book, it doesn’t have anything to do with the actual legend.

I finished the White in Rochester where I’d gone for a few weeks to visit friends and family. I didn’t bother looking for a book by an author with an X last name that I was interested in reading, but I did bring Y and Z books with me. When I opened the Y book for the first time, though, my interest in it drained, so I chose to move on to my Z selection.

Zusak, Markus, I Am the Messenger. There are other Zs, but I had a hankering to reread this one. I’m a sucker for a wayward post-high school protagonist, and this one is a lot of fun. Plus it’s set in Australia, and I don’t read very many Australians.

Twenty-six letters in the alphabet, twenty-one books read, although I also read several Harry Potter books at the insistence of my children (and I loved them, I admit) as well as a couple of books on ska. What did I learn? I don’t think anything. Some of these books I probably would have skipped if I hadn’t felt like I kind of had to read them. I will continue with my haphazard method of reading whatever I feel like—which currently is a reread of High Fidelity—but I won’t rule out doing something like this again.

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