Updike a misogynist? Not according to these writers

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and several of John Updike’s other male characters have a stratospheric sex drive and a habit of pursuing sexual gratification so often that their antics have led to charges of misogyny in the #MeToo era. But not according to two women who recently considered several of Updike’s novels.

In reviewing Updike Novels 1968-1975 (LOA edition, ed. Christopher Carduff), which includes Couples, Rabbit Redux, and A Month of Sundays, Kate Padilla writes on Author Link that “Harry doesn’t appear that bothered” when his wife leaves to move in with her lover in this “dark and disturbing novel, laced with sensual details, common in the other Updike novels in this volume.” But Padilla adds, Updike’s “descriptive, voluminous prose is both dazzling and racy. . . . He skillfully blended extraordinary details in character-driven stories, and the chronology included in this volume offers insights into how he developed his fictional interactions.”

Meanwhile, in her thoughtful consideration of “the best books about female artists,” Annalena McAfee considers a later Updike novel: “John Updike trained as an artist and turned his observational gifts to fiction, using words with the gorgeous precision of the finest sable brush. In Seek My Face, his meta-subject is Amerian art since the 1940s, but the focus is a female painter, Hope Chafetz, unfairly but predictably known less for her work than for the men she married (two celebrated artists). There is a roman-à-clef element, summoning echoes of Lee Krasner impatiently batting away questions about Jackson Pollock, as Updike’s elderly painter is interviewed by a thrusting young female art historian. It’s hard to detect in Updike’s extraordinary portrayal of both women the die-hard misogynist depicted by recent critics. He’s as good on female ageing as he is on art, and behind the unsparing observations of humanity, with all its flaws and vulnerabilities, lies a rueful compassion.

“‘All a woman does for a man…’ Hope reflects, ‘is secondary, inessential. Art was what these men had love—that is, themselves.'”

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Readers in Covid-19 isolation are turning to John Updike

Frank T. Pool (Longview News-Journal)recently quoted Emily Dickinson (“There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away”) and referenced John Updike, who “once said that he had read all of Dickens except for one novel, Our Mutual Friend, which he was saving for some time in his life he really needed it.”

As David McGrath of the Naperville Sun observed, “If there’s one benefit to self-quarantining and sheltering in place, it’s the gift of time you now have to read”—and McGrath and a number of readers are reading, rediscovering, and recommending Updike.

McGrath has three criteria for picking a solitary confinement book to read: ” 1) The book is pleasurable to read. 2) The book is a long-lasting self investment. 3) The book is a prize winner, but one we probably have yet to read.” Updike heads  McGrath’s list of top 10 recommendations for reading in the time of Covid-19—specifically, Updike’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Rabbit Is Rich, which McGrath calls “one of the titles you might not have read by the American novelist, who should have won the Nobel Prize in any single year from 1981 to 2008. That’s 27 times that the Nobel committee blew it.”

For British Vogue editor Rachel Garrahan (“The Vogue Editors’ Favourite Books of All Time”), the series she’s “looking forward to rereading is John Updike’s Rabbit books. Against a backdrop of massive social, political, and economic change in post-war America, it follows Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom through the ups and downs of what David Baddiel once described as his ‘beautifully mundane’ life. Rabbit is a perfectly imperfect protagonist who makes you laugh, cry and scream at him in frustration. It will be good to do those things to someone other than my husband and children over the coming weeks.”

Meanwhile, satirist Craig Brown, himself the author of 18 books, told The Guardian that the writer he returns to most often is John Updike, who is “pretty reliable.”

And more recently, The Washington Post staff included Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu as one of “The best sports books to read now” in this time of self-isolation:

Micah Pollack writes, “Less a sports book and more a sports essay, Updike’s 1960 New Yorker chronicle of Ted Williams’s final game as a player lives on nearly 60 years later as a towering piece of sportswriting. Lyrical, mystical and with a fluidity to match the Splinter’s swing, it has been reprinted countless times, but the 50-year anniversary that came out in hardcover 10 years ago is worth the time and the change. It includes a great afterward from the author on his fascination with Williams, and both the inside cover and back cover pull the curtain back on some of Updike’s own self-editing, a nice touch. Updike dabbled in sports in his Rabbit series (those novels’ central figure is a former high school basketball star), but this was his only true foray into sportswriting. He was one of 10,454 at Fenway Park on that chilly, overcast September day. He stayed to watch Williams homer in his final at-bat. Then he left to write about it. He retired as a sportswriter, undefeated.”

The Star Tribune‘s longtime baseball reporter and current college sports editor Joe Christensen also included Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu in his “Suggested sports books, from the Star Tribune Staff” recommendations: “John Updike and a few thousand Bostonians turned out to witness what would be Ted Williams’ final baseball game. That he hit a home run in his last at-bat and refused to tip his cap to a roaring crowd, provides the germ for the best sports profile ever written.”

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Blogger writes of Quarantines and Updike

Blogger Ed Newman (Ennyman’s Territory: Arts, Culture and Other Life Obsessions) posted an entry today titled “Quarantines and Updike’s Four Life Forces.” It begins with a consideration of Leviticus 8:35 and the author revealing he once wanted to write a one-act play about the seven days and nights that Aaron and his sons were “quarantined” by the Lord so they “will not die.” Newman wonders (like so many who are suddenly seeing a lot more of family members than they’re accustomed to), “What did they talk about for seven days?”

“One of the positive’s of the Covid-19 pandemic may be how it forces us into some reflective thinking about who we are, and perhaps some deeper levels of communication with one another,” Newman writes, pivoting to “John Updike’s Four Life Forces” and sharing a blog post he wrote on the topic back in 2012.

“John Updike once suggested that there are four life forces: Love, Habit, Time and Boredom. This morning’s ramble (reference to my daily blogging) is the product of Habit. I’m not sure I have that much to say, and the proper thing to do when you have nothing to say is to shut your mouth. But then, I digress.

“When Updike speaks of love he is referring to passion. Passion is the driver that impels us to make sacrifices in order to accomplish great things. Passion is what makes Olympians, not simply skill. There are plenty of pianists with skill, but it’s passion that sets apart the cream from the rest. It’s passion that leads them to make the sacrifices necessary to sharpen their virtuosity,” he says of the first life force. Skipping ahead,

Boredom is another of those interesting forces that surprised me when Updike placed it in this list, but it’s a real force. Bertrand Russell once observed, ‘Boredom is… a vital problem for the moralist, since half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.’ What strikes me is that last part of this statement. People really do fear boredom. And this may be why some people fear death. What if there really is an afterlife and it was boring? Eternal boredom would truly be hell.

“It’s this last life force that our current quarantine brought to mind. I wonder how well we’d all be doing if we did not have Internet connections and television sets or iPhones and were truly quarantined from one another. Would our actions be primarily driven by efforts to stave off boredom? Or would we motivated by the Passion driver, seeking to fulfill our purpose in being?

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Happy Birthday, John Updike

One of America’s most celebrated writers would have turned 88 today if he were still alive. His voice is missed, but his legacy goes on. With the help of family, classmates, friends, and fans, the John Updike Society is currently working  to create unique exhibits that will celebrate the author and the influence that Shillington and Berks County, Pa. had on his life and works.

Here, in remembrance of his birthday, is a photo of an early childhood book with a very young John Updike owner signature inside that will go on display in the house come October 3, when The John Updike Childhood Home, at 117 Philadelphia Ave. in Shillington, has its Grand Opening.

Also at this 1 p.m. ceremony, the plaque confirming the house as being listed on the National Register of Historic Places will be unveiled, as well as a Historic Pennsylvania Marker—both of which were approved last year.

Updike often said that his first ambition was to be a cartoonist and a Disney animator. Instead, he wound up being one of only three American writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice, and he wrote more than 60 books over a storied career that spanned some 60 years—enough to earn him the unofficial title of “America’s Man of Letters.”

Happy Birthday, John Updike.

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New Updike monograph by Fromer now available for pre-order

The Moderate Imagination: The Political Thought of John Updike and the Decline of New Deal Liberalism, a monograph by John Updike Society member Yoav Fromer, is now available for pre-orders at Amazon.com.

Scheduled for June 12, 2020 publication by the University Press of Kansas, the new critical work on Updike is 288 pages, hardcover, and priced at $39.95.  Here’s the description:

“In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, Americans finally faced a perplexing political reality: Democrats, purported champions of working people since the New Deal, had lost the white, working-class voters of Middle America. For answers about how this could be, Yoav Fromer turns to an unlikely source: the fiction of John Updike. Though commonly viewed as an East Coast chronicler of suburban angst, the gifted writer (in fact a native of the quintessential rust-belt state, Pennsylvania) was also an ardent man of ideas, political ideas—whose fiction, Fromer tells us, should be read not merely as a reflection of the postwar era, but rather as a critical investigation into the liberal culture that helped define it.

“Several generations of Americans since the 1960s have increasingly felt ‘left behind.’ In Updike’s early work, Fromer finds a fictional map of the failures of liberalism that might explain these grievances. The Moderate Imagination also taps previously unknown archival materials and unread works from his college years at Harvard to offer a clearer view of the author’s acute political thought and ideas. Updike’s prescient literary imagination, Fromer shows, sensed the disappointments and alienation of rural white working- and middle-class Americans decades before conservatives sought to exploit them. In his writing, he traced liberalism’s historic decline to its own philosophical contradictions rather than to only commonly cited external circumstances like the Vietnam War, racial strife, economic recession, and conservative backlash.

“A subtle reinterpretation of John Updike’s legacy, Fromer’s work complicates and enriches our understanding of one of the twentieth century’s great American writers—even as the book deftly demonstrates what literature can teach us about politics and history.”

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Ten Updike books make the Bucket List 1000

List Challenges released their “Final List of Books Recommended in ‘1000 Books to Read Before You Die’: U-Z,” and of course John Updike made that list.

Included in this Bucket List 1000 are (in order of listing):

  • The Maples Stories
  • Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism
  • Odd jobs: Essays and Criticism
  • Rabbit, Run
  • Rabbit Redux
  • Rabbit Is Rich
  • Rabbit at Rest
  • Couples
  • The Witches of Eastwick
  • The Coup



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New Yorker February podcasts start with an Updike story

Yesterday The New Yorker podcasts began the month with playwright David Rabe reading John Updike’s short story, “The Other Side of the Street,” which was published in a 1991 issue of the magazine. He was joined by Deborah Treisman for the reading and discussion.

Here’s the link.

For the book lovers out there, “The Other Side of the Street” was collected in The Afterlife, a group of short stories published by Knopf in 1994.

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Book clinic recommends romantic reads, like Updike’s Couples

The Observer‘s Book critic, Kate Kellaway, was asked to recommend “some good romantic novels that are not cliched,” and she responded,

“Your question makes me think about what it is to be cliched—if only because you might argue that love is the greatest and most necessary of cliches, and if you steer too far from the heart’s core in literature, romance sometimes retreats. . . .

“I imagine you are not insisting that ‘romantic’ involves a happy ending? John Updike’s Couples is full of torment but an addictive read—as is D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Nabokov’s Lolita about the doomed love between an older man and a ‘nymphet’—is a sullied romance. Marguerite Duras’s The Lover is erotic (are romance and eroticism permitted, momentarily, to be interchangeable?).

“Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera is gorgeously sensual. For those seeking gay romance, André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies and What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell are winners (the last particularly elegaic and passionate). Also worth adding is Sally Rooney’s smash hit Conversations with Friends—balanced between sophistication and naivety; Colm Tóibín’s superb Brooklyn—exploring love when geography is not on its side; and Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday—a beautiful novel about a Jane who does not share Jane Eyre’s good luck.”

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Writer’s take on post-Cold War America includes Rabbit wisdom

In his book The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory (Metropolitan Books, 2020) and in excerpts and essays from the book that were published in the Sundiata Post and RealClear World, writer Andrew Bacevich assesses American history and the country’s current predicament with a little help from John Updike’s best known alter ego:

“‘Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?’ As the long twilight struggle was finally winding down, Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, novelist John Updike’s late-twentieth-century Everyman, pondered that question. In short order, Rabbit got his answer. So too, after only perfunctory consultation, did his fellow citizens.”

Bacevich’s book takes into account the presidencies of Barack Obama, whom Updike voted for, and Donald Trump, whose rise many feel was predicted by Rabbit’s own evolving attitudes. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University and a former career Army officer.

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Updike’s early Christmas memory recalled

Scot Lehigh began his Boston Globe opinion piece on “The bookish delights of Christmas” with a recollection of an exchange he had with John Updike about gifts. He had asked Updike and “other luminaries” to talk about “their favorite Christmas gift ever.”

“The ever-gracious Updike wrote back: ‘What the mind goes to first is a copy of a book by James Thurber called Men, Women and Dogs. This must have been in the early ’40s, so I would have been 11 or 12. It was a book of both cartoons and Thurber prose. I remember the delight with which I opened it. It had a lovely fresh smell of glue and new paper. For me, it was a connection to the wonderful world of New York sophistication.’

“The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner added, ‘The opening of the book on the floor was all mixed up with the smell of the Christmas tree and the quality of December light outside the windows and remains in my mind as an island of Christmas joy.'”

Lehigh called Updike’s response the “most evocative” of all the celebrities he contacted.

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