It absolutely astonishes me that I have never once read Louise Erdrich. I studied literature at a women’s college, and have read many varied and wonderful women writers. I’m also not a stranger to Native American writers, though clearly I haven’t read as widely in that area as I should. Erdrich has been on my radar for at least ten years, and I could have sworn I first read her ages ago, but looking through her book titles I was surprised to see that’s not the case. Which is why I’ll be talking about a seventeen year old novel today, and not Erdrich’s most recent, The Round House (though that is ready and waiting on my ereader. I learn from my mistakes and oversights). It also brings me to a new, and hopefully somewhat regular, feature. First Impressions: the first experience I have reading an established author, and why that matters.
Tales of Burning Love is a novel centered around Jack Mauser, a hapless yet curiously lucky man, who has a trail of five wives behind him. After his funeral (despite the fact that he is not actually dead), the four living ex-wives get stuck in a dangerous blizzard, and only keep themselves alive by telling stories of their lives before, during, and after Jack Mauser.
The writing is intensely lyrical and occasionally deeply funny; early chapters show lots of promise. There’s a lot of lovely repeated imagery: blizzards, religious epiphany, physical accidents brought on by sex. The weather is a character of it’s own in this novel, and I found myself awed by how many descriptions of ice and snow Erditch wove. But Tales of Burning Love is about a hundred pages too long. The symmetry of the imagery hints at a more even book than it turns out to be. The absurd situations the character find themselves in start off touching and funny, but eventually become somewhat ridiculous when added all together. I wasn’t all that surprised when I came across a bunch of Goodreads reviews warning not to start reading Erdrich with this novel.
Well, I’ve already done it and it can’t be undone, but I can’t help but wonder. where should I have begun? I liked this novel well enough to keep going with Erdrich, but first impressions are important. They color how you view an author, and a bad experience can turn you off a potentially great author for good. For years I’ve labored under the assumption that I hate J.D. Salinger because I hated high school and The Catcher in the Rye. It was only after coming across a short story (that I wouldn’t have even read if I’d realized he’d written it) that I realized this might not be the case, and I should try more than just that one novel.
Sometimes, the longer an author’s canon is, the harder it can be to crack into them. This is one way in which reading genre fiction can be helpful: you just find the beginning of a series (they almost always come in a series) and start there. But where do you begin with an author who has ten standalone novels, or fifteen, or even only two?
I don’t really have a process of figuring out where to start with an author. How I came to pick up Tales of Burning Love went something like this: I was wandering the stacks in my local used bookstore. I’d been hearing a lot of good things about The Round House. Tales of Burning Love was the cheapest thing on the Erdrich shelf. All very scientific, I assure you.
My first Murakami was Norwegian Wood (an easy choice, it’s my favorite Lennon-sung Beatles song). My first Chabon was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, because my friends would not shut up about it (with good reason). My first Gaiman was American Gods, which I still think is the best entry point into his canon. My first Nabokov was Lolita, because everyone starts with Lolita. Sometimes I start with an author’s newest novel and work my way backwards. Sometimes I try to find the earliest thing an author wrote and work my way forward. Sometimes it just depends on what the library has to offer, or a novel’s cover, or how I feel about the blurb.
There’s no right or wrong way to start down the road of reading a given author. But what you read first helps you decide to read more. So, how do you make those decisions? (I’m speaking specifically here, not generally. How do *you* first pick up an author? Tell me in the comments!)