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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Updike Society acquires original Updike house property

It’s official:  On Friday, Dec. 19, The John Updike Society purchased land that was originally the backyard of the John Updike Childhood Home at 117 Philadelphia Avenue—land that includes an aging structure known among Updike scholars and fans as the family “chicken coop.” The Updike property now runs all the way to Brobst St. and the length of Shilling, which was at one time an alley. Realtor Conrad Vanino, who previously received the society’s Distinguished Service Award, represented the society at closing.

The $90,000 purchase was made possible because of a generous donation from the Robert & Adele Schiff Family Foundation, which had given the society the money to buy the Updike house back in 2012. The land provides for additional parking needed to operate the house as a museum, and lawn that can be used for tented receptions.





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Updike Society receives American Family Insurance award

Because of their work preserving The John Updike Childhood Home and turning it into a museum, The John Updike Society was chosen as one of 100 nonprofit organizations to receive a $2500 donation from American Family Insurance and the American Family Insurance Dreams Foundation.

“We selected 100 organizations across the country in support of causes important to those who matter most to us—our customers,” the American Family Insurance Dreams Foundation website stated.

Nearly 10,000 nonprofit organizations were nominated by American Family Insurance customers, and the Updike Society’s work with the Childhood Home stood out as a project worthy of support. The John Updike Society was nominated by a customer of American Family insurance agent John Blumenshine. American Family Insurance is based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Here is a list of the 100 recipients for 2019.

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An insider’s thoughts on Updike and Roth

As Charles McGrath explains in an essay on “Roth/Updike” that was published in the Autumn 2019 edition of The Hudson Review, he had the privilege of knowing John Updike well enough to play golf with him and Philip Roth enough to visit him in his home. Those privileges came to him because he was a literary insider, one whose essays appeared in The New Yorker (where he was deputy editor) and The New York Times Book Review (which he formerly edited).

His thoughtful consideration and comparison is perhaps the best essay written on the topic of Updike and Roth. Reading it, you get a pretty fair summary of each writer’s career but also an assessment of their relationship:  “They weren’t enemies, but neither were they friends, exactly. They were rivals who also happened to be mutual admirers—two of America’s greatest living writers, peering over each other’s shoulders.”

McGrath doesn’t shy away from assessing Updike’s and Roth’s careers, either. “Overnight, Roth and Updike became the two dirtiest book writers in America, or the two dirtiest with serious literary credentials. Then, in mid-career, each of them wrote a four-volume masterwork about a single character—Zuckerman in Roth’s case, Rabbit in Updike’s.”

“The two men weren’t in lockstep, and they weren’t imitating each other, certainly, but each was reading the other—with interest, admiration, maybe a tinge of envy—and surely they were both aware that each of them was assembling a major body of work and that (with the possible exception of Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison) no one else in America was writing at the same level.”

Continuing with a horse race analogy, McGrath writes,”Updike shot out in front with the first two Rabbit books; then, with The Ghost Writer, Roth caught up and even edged ahead a bit, before stumbling a little in mid-career while Updike, with the second two Rabbit books, took a big lead, practically lapping Roth. Then, just when Roth seemed to be out of gas, he got a second wind—probably the greatest late-career burst in all of American literature—with Sabbath’s Theater and the American Trilogy, and now Updike was struggling to catch up.”

Those assessments are wonderful, but it’s McGrath’s insightful perceptions of the two writers that makes this essay so poignantly powerful. He misses them and their book-a-year regimen, and so do many readers.

Read the full essay


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Writer-actress picks Rabbit for her desert island companion

TV watchers know British actress Katy Brand for such series as Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show, Nanny McPhee Returns, Psychobitches, and a very funny performance as Queen Elizabeth I on the U.K. version of Drunk History. Readers know her for her recently released I Carried a Watermelon: Dirty Dancing and Me, described as “a warm, witty and accessible look at how Katy Brand’s life-long obsession with the film has influenced her own attitudes on sex, love, romance, rights, and responsibilities.” And she’s also at least somewhat obsessed with John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy.

Brand—who told The Daily Mail that she just finished reading The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (she prefers The Handmaid’s Tale), confessed that she finds Charles Dickens “too perfectly realized and described–it feels as if there’s no room for me,” and finds Virginia Woolf “difficult to get along with”—named the full Rabbit collection by Updike as the book she would take to a desert island. “The first one is Rabbit, Run, then there are several more. I love the way he creates that mood of the American Dream without fully endorsing it.

“If I were allowed a couple more, I’d take Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth, which is funny and filthy and I love it, and also a couple by Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper, to cheer me up.

“They are two authors who always improve my mood if I’m feeling a little bleak. And maybe I’d sneak in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4, by the comic genius Sue Townsend.”

Read the full interview

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Is John Updike a ‘Malfunctioning Sex Robot’?

That’s the charge Patricia Lockwood levels after she’s charged with reading and reviewing Novels, 1959-65: The Poorhouse Fair; Rabbit, Run; The Centaur; Of the Farm, by John Updike for the London Review of Books. And she skewers Updike with the kind of zest the likes of which haven’t been seen since David Foster Wallace (quoted here) used to pillory Updike (“a penis with a thesaurus”) and other “Great White Male Narcissists.” It’s almost as if she’s hoping one of her own derogatory turns-of-phrase will be likewise immortalized.

See “Malfunctioning Sex Robot” for an entertaining, fascinating, mostly negative but partly positive take on Updike from someone who approaches the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner as a dog walker stoops with a plastic bag to complete her civic obligation.

She confesses her bias openly, in the first paragraph:  “I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.” She writes, “In a 1997 review for the New York Observer, the recently kinged David Foster Wallace diagnosed how far Updike had fallen in the esteem of a younger generation. ‘Penis with a thesaurus’ is the phrase that lives on. . . . Today, he has fallen even further, still, in the pantheon but marked by an embarrassed asterisk: DIED OF PUSSY-HOUNDING. No one can seem to agree on his surviving merits. He wrote like an angel, the consensus goes, except when he was writing like a malfunctioning sex robot attempting to administer cunnilingus to his typewriter. Offensive criticism of him is often reductive, while defensive criticism has a strong flavour of people-are-being-mean-to-my-dad. There’s so much of him, spread over so much time, that perhaps everyone has read a different John Updike. . . . The more I read of him the more there was, like a fable.”

“When he is in flight you are glad to be alive. When he comes down wrong—which is often—you feel the sickening turn of an ankle, a real nausea. All the flaws that will become fatal later are present in the beginning. He has a three-panel cartoonist’s sense of plot. The dialogue is a weakness: in terms of pitch, it’s half a step sharp, too nervily and jumpily tuned to the tics and italics and slang of the era. And yes, there are his women. Janice is a grotesquerie with a watery drink in one hand and a face full of television static; her emotional needs are presented as a gaping, hungry and above all unseemly hole, surrounded by well-described hair. He paints and paints them but the proportions are wrong. He is like a God who spends four hours on the shading on Eve’s upper lip, forgets to give her a clitoris, and then decides to rest on Tuesday. In the scene where Janice drunkenly drowns the baby, it wasn’t the character I felt pity for but Updike, fumbling so clumsily to get inside her that in the end it’s his hands that get slippery, drop the baby.”

Patricia Lockwood is a poet whose memoir, Priestdaddy, was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2017 by The New York Times. Her full review—in the London Review of Books Vol. 41 No. 19, 10 October 2019, the Anniversary Issue: Part One—isn’t just a hatchet job. It’s a thorough and thoughtful reconsideration of Updike then through the eyes of a woman now, and that’s fascinating.  The #metoo movement has claimed a number of casualties, most of them deserved. But it has to leave today’s male writers wondering if any of them can ever be as completely honest as Updike was about  sex and relations with women, or if that ship has sailed . . . and long ago sunk.



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Interview with Michael Updike spotlights Plowville gravestone

If you haven’t been to Plow Church cemetery to see John Updike’s gravestone carved by son Michael, there’s a large photo of it accompanying a Northshore Magazine story about how Updike’s sculptor son changed his artistic course after that gravestone.

In “Artist Michael Updike Creates Works of Art in Stone,” Robert G. Pushkar (who also took the photos) writes, “After the death of his father, writer John Updike, in 2009, Michael experienced a tectonic shift in his artistic awareness. He set out to commemorate his father’s life in a meaningful and also aesthetically unique way. But first he had to learn the intricacies of gravestone art. Already he had experience carving in granite and marble, but slate required another skill set. He explains, ‘You have to carve in a totally different way.'”

Michael told Pushkar, “In my art I do make death heads and winged skulls as a nod and recognition to the early folk artists of New England . . . . I can tell a carver’s style and feel. We won the American Revolution but looked back toward the neoclassical influence in creating gravestones, instead of the pagan skulls and wings with so much personality. Now you have urns and weeping willows, which are stagnant.”

Since the one he carved for his father, Michael has done a number of gravestones.

“It’s very exciting to me. . . . It takes me to a wide-range gamut of emotion, because I can suddenly be working with a parent who lost a child, or I can be working with very ironic people who want to do their own gravestone before they die. A lot of jokes and humor could be built into it. . . . The journey of getting the stone is what helps them recover and heal. . . . Not completely, but to a certain level where they can move on. There’s a little bit of being a psychoanalyst, a little bit of being a pastor or minister, or just sometimes being a friend realizing their vision.”

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Updike Society well represented at New Orleans short story conference

In September, 2019, four members of The John Updike Society presented papers at a New Orleans symposium sponsored by the Society for the Study of the American Short Story and the American Literature Association.

Robert Luscher, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, formed the panel, which also included Professor Laurence W. Mazzeno, President Emeritus of Alvernia University, Reading, PA; Takashi Nakatani, Associate Professor of English, American Literature, and Literary Criticism of Yokohama City University, Japan; and Dr. Sue Norton, Lecturer of English at Technological University Dublin.

Their papers focused on John Updike’s “Divorcing,” selections from My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, selections from The Olinger Stories, and “Separating.”  The session was chaired by Associate Professor of English Leslie Petty of Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee.

John Updike’s Short Fiction
Chair: Leslie Petty, Rhodes College
1.  “Writing and Well Being: Story as Salve in the Work of Two Updikes,” Susan Norton, Technological University, Dublin
2.  “Outside the Grand Narrative: The Personal in John Updike’s Olinger Stories,”  Takashi Nakatani, Okohama City University
3.  “My Father’s Tears and Other Stories as (Literary) Last Will and Testament,” Laurence W. Mazzeno, Alvernia University
4.  “John Updike’s ‘Divorcing: A Fragment’ and the Question of Genre: Shoring Stories against the Ruins in Too Far to Go,” Robert M. Luscher, University of Nebraska at Kearney

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