Updike’s 1 of 1000 book to read? The Maples Stories

These days everybody’s talking bucket lists, but James Mustich has compiled a reference for readers that goes beyond the token click-bait lists. In his 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List (Workman Publishing, 2018—Amazon price $23.79/cloth), Mustich covers a lot of ground but sounds almost apologetic about the volume he chose from John Updike:

“It is hard to name a major twentieth-century American writer more constant than John Updike. His commitment to his art, his puzzling over the knottiness and nobility (and inconstancy) of ordinary love, his apparent wonder at every subject he embraced, and his delight in the vocabulary at his command to describe them—in every aspect, Updike was a paragon of dedication and productivity. His sentences seem to smile with his pleasure in his vocation, and the uniform physical design and typographic consistency of the many volumes he published over a half century demonstrate how he cherished and groomed his appearance as an author in the world. . . .

The Maples Stories, a collection of eighteen tales written between 1956 and 1994 about a married, then divorced, couple named Joan and Richard Maples, may seem too modest to single out from Updike’s generous oeuvre. Yet considered together, these short stories offer a probing, astute, and often poignant anatomy of a marriage that is remarkable both as a literary testament and a cultural portrait of a tumultuous period in American domestic life. Although Updike portrays the same themes on a much grander scale in his justly acclaimed sequence of Rabbit Angstrom novels, The Maples Stories, in their fleeting intimacy and atmosphere of amorous regret, distill the author’s gift for evoking emotional uncertainty into an exquisitely moving testament.”

It wouldn’t surprise us if more and more people gravitated toward the Maples rather than the Angstroms over time, especially given the more explicit sexuality in the latter.

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