Monday, May 10, 2010

Reading Fiction Because of the Author

When I pick up a new book it's often because I've enjoyed books by that author before. I've been having a grouchy spell with my reading--nothing I was reading struck me as much good--so I picked up some recent books by three different authors I've enjoyed in the past.

The first one was Megan Whalen Turner. I loved The Thief, The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, so when other book bloggers (like Stella Matutina) told me that she had a new one in that series out, A Conspiracy of Kings, I found it and read it immediately. It was as much fun as the second and third ones. If you like adventure stories and you haven't read these, go find them.

The second author was Susan Beth Pfeffer. My daughter and I both loved Life As We Knew It, as much as you can love any post-apocalyptic novel. Then I read The Dead and the Gone and told her not to bother, that I didn't like it much. After I read the third one, This World We Live In, I went out and bought the middle one for her so she could read it purely for the sake of enjoying the third one fully. She's the same age as the heroine of the first and third novels, 16-year-old Miranda, and that probably adds to my interest in this YA series.

The third author was Umberto Eco. My husband has read many of his books, so I've read a few of his essays here and there, but I hadn't read any of his fiction since The Name of the Rose, a thoroughly wonderful tale (and a best-seller when it came out). I came across The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana in the audiobooks section of the library, translated by Geoffrey Brock and read by George Guidall, and listened to it during my commute. I didn't realize what an unlikely audiobook it is until I took down our copy from the built-in bookshelves (the ones you can see at Scene of the Blog) and flipped through it to see all the comic book illustrations. And the irony, of course, is that I'd never have read it if I'd seen those, because I don't care for books that depend too heavily on anything other than text.

The first half of the novel is mildly interesting, all about memory and how a man who has read avidly all his life, Yambo, is affected by a stroke so that he remembers only what he's read, and none of the details of his personal life. The title comes from a comic he discovers to have been "the most insipid tale ever conceived by the human brain," but one that had built up in his mind until it became a symbol for memory and immortality, the "mysterious flame" of recognition when he doesn't remember what is being recognized, but feels the emotion of it.

The second half, although finally revealing what the "fog" he has been unable to penetrate previously is hiding, ultimately peters out. Yambo remembers the events that shaped him as a boy, and then apparently has another stroke, blends memory with all that he's read and then re-discovered through rereading, and dies. It's not a success as fiction; it reads as thinly veiled autobiography, and the ideas might have been better explored in his essays.

So in two out of three cases, picking books by an author I'd previously enjoyed meant that I enjoyed the new one at least as much. How well does it work for you to pick books by a tried-and-true author when you want a particular level of satisfaction from your reading?

15 comments:

Colleen said...

I definitely return to reliable authors when reading new ones make me grouchy (a fairly frequent occurrence). I've also recently returned to re-reading favourite books in the face of such irritation, exhaustion, etc. My most reliable authors include Wodehouse, Ellis Peters, and Dickens. I would add David Mitchell to that list but he's too new, too in the midst of things (but luckily, his 5th novel will be out this week!)

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I tend to read books by authors I've read before for a very different set of reasons than for new books. Sometimes I'm just looking for something new. With books by familiar authors, though, I'm either a) looking for an old friend, in which case I may just read the same book or two over and over again, or b) I liked the first book I read, but it felt like there was more to it, an imperfection, an unfinished idea. Authors of the former type have included Louisa May Alcott and Dorothy Sayres. I've read many Sayres books, for instance, but I read Gaudy Night over and over. Ditto for Alcott and little women.

When it's the latter kind, I often find myself reading every book the author ever wrote, maybe as a way of trying to figure out what they're about. Authors that have come under that treatment have included Margaret Atwood, Anita Brookner and John Irving. In all cases (although for Atwood, this is less true of her more recent books), I feel like they've had something they were trying to say through their novels, but no one novel says is quite right. Ultimately, I find each novel dissatisfying in some way, but enjoyable and interesting enough to want to keep reading.

PAJ said...

If I like a book, I almost always look for something else the author has written and continue to read old and new works until there are no more.
One thing I really like about your reviews is that you aren't afraid to "dump" an author you've liked in the past. I don't always agree with you, but when I do, it's added "permission" to move on from that author!
(The calendar indicates that beach weather is approaching. Please tell me you're going to do a summer reading list--one with light, fun books (not ones for the brain dead, which seem to make up a lot of such lists).

Amanda said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because I've been in a cranky reading mood which makes for a lot of 20-page-in-DNF reads. It's times like these that I tend to want to go back to classic authors that I know I love - Maugham, for instance. It's also when I go back and reread books I loved. I'm likely to be very judgemental with anything I read, so old favorites are good. I'm also more likely to give an author that I consistantly like mroe of a chance after coming across of a book of theirs that I dislike.

Jenny said...

When I'm feeling frustrated with the new books I'm reading, I'll sometimes give myself a treat and read a hitherto-unread book by an author I love. I try to save a few of my favorite authors' books for this very purpose. The only thing is that if I've saved up a book by a favorite author, and it disappoints me, it's a far more crushing disappointment than if a random author's book isn't good.

readersguide said...

I'm agreeing with Harriet, but I think I often go on and read all the books I can find by authors I've liked, too. But it usually is to figure out what they're up to. (Although maybe she's right -if the first book is pretty much perfect, would I be inclined to go on? Maybe not so quickly.) I loved the Thief, and remember not liking the second one quite as much. I'm not sure I even knew the third one existed -- maybe I'll check it and now the fourth one out.

FreshHell said...

I'm always looking for new books by unknown authors (or even books by known authors that I've never gotten around to reading) but I love a new book by a very much loved author. I will always read the next book by John Irving (those they can be uneven), PD James, Sue Grafton, Ruth Rendell, Stephen King (these range from great to really awful), Margaret Atwood (though I really don't like dystopia/sci fi stuff as a rule), A.S. Byatt, Ethan Canin, Lee Smith, etc. etc. I'd add Donald Westlake - probably one of the funniest writers ever - but he's sadly dead now. Even when a well-loved author doesn't hit the mark with one book, I'm always willing to read the next one.

Aarti said...

I definitely look to certain authors I have enjoyed in the past! I also love Turner's series and look forward to her next one. I trust Terry Pratchett and Lindsey Davis a lot- even if I don't particularly LOVE the books they come out with, I still enjoy them. It's fun to discover new authors, too, though. I hope that I have a good mix.

lemming said...

I tend to look to fellow readers who have steered me right more often than not. I have a good friend who doesn't like my history books and I don't like her novels, but our taste in mysteries is almost always the same. If she sends me book one in a series, it's almost always worth getting the rest of the series from the library.

Jodie said...

I find it a pretty good bet to trun to authors I've read before, although long running series can be a bit iffy in places. Also second books in trilogies and later works about an earlier book I previously enjoyed ('The Apple' after 'The Crimson Petal and the White' for example) can be hit or miss. I'd rather grab stand alone books by an author I love I think.

Good to hear another endorsement for Meghan Whalen Turner. Now if only someone would buy me the books!

Trapunto said...

Reading old authors hasn't worked so well for me lately.

I'm drafting a review of Conspiracy of Kings right now. I'm glad Turner performed up to expectation for you. I felt a sharp drop in quality with King of Attolia. I had been hoping for a recovery with this one and didn't find it. But I will save my thoughts for the review.

Sherck said...

I've tended to be a completist in both books and music: if I like an author or musician, I start gobbling up everything they've ever written (unless it turns out that they've written the same novel/song over and over and over).

Of course, even as I type that, I know that there are fairly broad exceptions, authors I've really, really liked but never read deeper than a novel or two. I did say "tend."

The only Eco books I've read were The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, and I particularly liked the latter.

Recently, I've been re-reading some novels because they've come up in book clubs or because a new entry in a series is coming out and I want to refresh my memory, but very often there are new discoveries to be made on a re-read.

Jeanne said...

Colleen, Yes, re-reading is even more infallible than picking authors, and I am also a great re-reader. I'll check out some of your authors--I agree about Ellis Peters!

Harriet, That's interesting, that you're searching for what the author is all about. I don't do that, at least not the same way. It may be because so far in my life, I'm not a big fan of biography (although my father tells me that I will be a bigger fan as I get older).

PAJ, I'll think about a summer reading list. It might turn out to be the list of books I intend to read this summer...

Amanda, yes, I feel like my grouchiness is making me give new authors less of a chance. I know I'll give the already-beloved authors more of a chance.

Jenny, I have trouble saving books I'm pretty sure I'll love. I did that with one Sherlock Holmes story for about six months because I didn't want to have already read all the Sherlock Holmes stories in the world.

Readersguide, The Thief is still the best one, as far as I'm concerned.

FreshHell, When my kids were little, I came across a Ruth Rendell in the library and had a good six months reading all the other books by her on the shelf.

Aarti, that's a good word, trust. I think I was saying that--that there are authors I trust won't let me down too terribly. John Irving is an interesting example, as Freshhell points out, because I think she's not alone in finding his books very uneven. (Teena?)

Lemming, I'm looking forward to getting a chance to read the ones you've lent me because even if they're not my exact taste, I'll have fun trying to figure out why they might appeal to you...

Jodie, I have given up on some authors of long-running series (like Elizabeth George).

Trapunto, I don't have terribly high expectations for the Turner books--if they're entertaining, they're fine with me. The Thief, as I said, is the best. The rest are interesting enough, although not as good.

Sherck, I tend to be a completist, too. It takes a lot of disappointment to make me drop a series. Sometimes I even cheat on my previous resolution and take a look when I see a new one in the library. Rarely is cheating rewarded, though!

Avid Reader said...

I've found a few authors that I know I'll probably love just about anything I read of theirs, Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, Richard Russo to name a few. That doesn't mean those authors don't sometimes disappoint, but usually not. I also try to pace my reading of those authors. It's like I'm rationing the good stuff. I try to only read one book of theirs each year so I don't get in a rut.

Jeanne said...

Avid Reader, it sounds like you're a more disciplined reader than I am. I could ration out Russo, who I'm not overly fond of, but not Adams or Austen! Gaiman, well, maybe I do ration that a bit but mostly in the interests of not reading too much of the same kind of book at once.