UPDIKE, by Adam Begley: reviews

9780061896453.jpgThe reviews have started coming in for Adam Begley’s much-anticipated biography of John Updike, titled, simply, Updike. The 576-page book will be published by HarperCollins on April 1, 2014. More reviews will be added as we become aware of them, organized by publication date, so check back.

“UPDIKE by Adam Begley.” Kirkus Reviews. January 20, 2014 (print version February 1, 2014). “A sympathetic, full-meal-deal biography—life, literary works, reputation—of John Updike (1932-2009), who was considered by many to be the most talented of his generation. . . . Thorough, intelligent and respectful, but more bite would have released more of Updike’s blood.”

“Updike.” Goodreads. January 30, 2014. “With a sharp critical sensibility that lends depth and originality to his analysis, Begley probes Updike’s best-loved works—from “Pigeon Feathers” to The Witches of Eastwick to the Rabbit tetralogy—and reveals a surprising and deeply complex character fraught with contradictions: a kind man with a vicious wit, a gregarious charmer who was ruthlessly competitive, a private person compelled to spill his secrets on the printed page. Updike offers an admiring yet balanced look at this national treasure, a master whose writing continues to resonate like no one else’s.”

“Begley: UPDIKE; Random Notes on Adam Begley’s UPDIKE, Part 1.” Peter Quinones. Postmodern Deconstruction Madhouse. February 5, 2014. “Begley devotes one paragraph to the only major Hollywood studio release based on Updike’s fiction, The Witches of Eastwick. What?! No juicy tale of ‘Updike in Hollywood’? He mentions Updike and his wife got to see the picture by sneaking into an afternoon showing at the mall . . . again, what?! What’s the story behind that?”

“Updike.” Publishers Weekly. February 17, 2014. “Without always matching the laborious detail of Jack De Bellis’s John Updike’s Early Years (2013), this comprehensive account from literary critic Begley draws on deep research and interviews with the author and his circle . . . . Begley (whose father was a Harvard classmate of Updike’s) marshals revealing commentary by Updike’s contemporaries, like college roommate and future historian Christopher Lasch, who discuss the hesitations and insecurities hounding him.”

“De Bellis: Updike’s first biographer gets a gold medal.” Jack De Bellis. The John Updike Society. February 20, 2014. “Updike owes its success to Begley’s studious use of the Houghton Library’s trove of Updike material, his tireless leg-work in interviewing relatives, friends, lovers, and writers, and his judicious evaluation of Updike’s oeuvre.”

“Updike by Adam Begley.” Lonnie Weatherby. Library Journal / Bookverdict.com. March 15, 2014. “Updike’s two marriages, his serial adultery, and his relationship with his children are delineated with cautious compliance to interviewed sources. Nevertheless, we discern that Updike’s affable, congenial public persona belied an insecure, slyly derisive, and, as his last will discloses, mean-spirited individual. VERDICT Essential for Updike enthusiasts.”

“Booklist Review: Updike.” Brad Hooper. Booklist. March 15, 2014. “It is Begley’s primary goal to stitch Updike’s writing to the realities of his existence. He does so meaningfully but too often intrusively, at the expense of a smoothly flowing pursuit of the events in Updike’s life. Nevertheless, this is an important view of a giant literary figure.”

“The Bard of Suburbia.” Robert Wilson. The American Scholar. Spring 2014. Subscription required. “On the evidence of this judicious new biography, John Updike recorded in his fiction the most painful events in his life and the lives of those around him with an alacrity and fidelity approaching journalism . . . . I suspect that readers down the years will return to Updike as we do to Balzac, not for the single masterpiece, perhaps, but for the cumulative power of his close attention to his world (‘he was enthralled by the detail of his own experience,’ as Begley gracefully puts it)” and “a hundred years from now, his faultless prose, his glittering intelligence, his mostly affectionate wit, his polymorphous amorousness, and yes, his affection and regret will make him the writer by whom our lives are known.

“Truths, Slightly Arranged: John Updike’s Uninhibited Fiction.” John Freeman. VQR Online. April 3, 2014. “In his biography, Begley gently reduces his discussion of Updike’s sexual mania to two major affairs, the second of which was to be Updike’s last. The Updikes had sold their home to a man and his wife, and it was with her that Updike embarked on his final leave-taking. Begley handles this moment with grace, but it feels even the little information the biography provides is too much.”

“Updike: What kind of biography do you write when you are the closest thing to being John Updike’s son?”  Jeet Heer. The Globe and Mail. April 4, 2014. “John Updike was one of the towering and inescapable patriarchs of American literature, a writer so dauntingly skilled and so impossibly prolific that subsequent generations can only look back at him with resentful awe. . . . Adam Begley’s hefty new biography of Updike belongs to the history of conflicted sonly emotions, an attempt to thread a middle path between [Nicholson] Baker’s abject worship and [David Foster] Wallace’s adolescent rebellion.”

“What Made Rabbit Write.” Leo Robson. The Wall Street Journal (subscription only). April 4, 2014. “John Updike wrote so often and so freely, in fiction and nonfiction, about the events of his own life—the Pennsylvania boyhood, the New York apprenticeship, the Ipswich, Mass., infidelities—that the only thing a biography can hope to reveal, apart from the odd professional detail, is what he was actually like.”

“‘Updike’ by Adam Begley.” Scott Stossel. The Boston Globe. April 5, 2014. “I mostly agree with Begley’s assessments: Even in his weakest work, Updike’s lyrical sentences can make life seem somehow more vivid, like a TV screen with the contrast heightened. And I believe his strongest work—’The Centaur,’ some of his short stories, and especially his Rabbit tetralogy . . . ranks among the best fiction any American writer has produced. . . . Begley has produced a book that, in its evocation of a brilliant but flawed personality, conjured via the skillful deployment of just-so details and a subtle hint of haunting existential grace, is in some ways as rewarding as Updike’s best fiction.”

“The Adulterous Society: How John Updike Made Suburban Sex Sexy.” Maria Popova. Brain Pickings. April 6, 2014. “Updike is an irresistibly rich read in its entirety, a rare dimensional glimpse of one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, housed in the interior of an infinitely interesting man.”

“New biography explores the genius of John Updike.” The Associated Press. The Washington Post. April 7, 2014. “Over the decades Begley has remained a fan, yet his affection hasn’t blinded him to Updike’s shortcomings, including the oft-heard complaint that he objectifies women. He sees Updike’s strengths and his weaknesses, and presents the full measure of the man in this engrossing and fair-minded book.” Same review also appears in The Monitor.

“Review: On Adam Begley’s ‘Updike.'” Drew Calvert. The American Reader. April 8, 2014. “The autobiographical impulse is the key to the Updike canon, and Begley does an excellent job of tracing its evolution. Updike’s purpose was never to get at the essence of life through human drama; instead, he tried to ‘transform, with a lively accuracy, some piece of experienced reality to the printed page. . . . As Begley puts it: ‘The more Updike one reads, and the more one learns about his life, the more glaringly obvious it becomes that he was enthralled by the details of his own experience.'”

“A Writerly Life, Beneath the Surface; ‘Updike,’ Adam Begley’s Look at a Novelist’s Career.” Dwight Garner. NYT Now (The New York Times). April 8, 2014. “. . . a sympathetic new biography that’s the first but unlikely to be the last of this great American writer—the great American writer, in many regards. It’s an honorable book but also a slight, frictionless and oddly subdued one, unlikely to jump-start new popular or critical interest in Updike’s vast oeuvre.”

“‘Updike’ and ‘John Updike: The Collected Stories.'” James Schiff. The Christian Science Monitor. April 8, 2014. “Begley, the former books editor for the New York Observer, has composed an insightful, compelling, discreet, and admirable biography. While Updike’s marital infidelities are addressed, Begley discloses few names. Some readers may wish for more details and blood, yet there is surely a difference in how candid a tactful biographer can be about his subject five years—versus, say, a century—after the author’s death.”

“Updike on 43rd Street.” Levi Asher. Literary Kicks: Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations. April 8, 2014. “Everybody associates John Updike with the New Yorker, but Adam Begley’s book allows us to understand how primal a force this magazine was in John Updike’s imagination even when he was a kid, long before he had a chance of being published there. . . . I’m continuing to relish this biography slowly, and looking forward to more surprising moments that will surely follow. My only complaints about Adam Begley’s biography at this point involve a strange number of oversights of detail.”

“Well Read: A true man of letters.” Robert Weibezahl. BookPage. April 8, 2014. “Was John Updike one of America’s great writers or merely, as Harold Bloom famously said, ‘a minor novelist with a major style’? In Updike, his meticulously detailed and highly readable new biography—the first full-fledged life of the writer, who died in 2009—Adam Begley makes a convincing case for the former view while providing a rich account of the events that shaped Updike’s fiction.”

“Review: Updike biography reveals brilliant, complex, flawed man.” Colette Bancroft. Tampa Bay Times. April 8, 2014. “Begley gives us (sorry, Tom Wolfe) the man in full. Updike’s writing was sometimes criticized for being more style than substance; critic Harold Bloom famously called him ‘a minor novelist with a major style.’ But Begley’s biography gives us a richer understanding of the depth of Updike’s work, where always ‘modest doings are imagined with magical intensity.'”

“Biography offers an enlightening view of John Updike’s work.” Ariel Gonzalez. Miami Herald. April 11, 2014. “At heart, however, Begley is a literary critic, and his reading of Updike’s work is enlightening and devoid of academic jargon. He shows the extent to which Updike drew from his life for his fiction, which was attacked as misogynistic and precious. There is some truth to Harold Bloom’s dismissal of Updike as ‘a minor novelist with a major style.’ Beautiful sentences are not enough; the story must also engage. But Begley sides with conventional wisdom on the enduring value of the Rabbit tetralogy. . . .”

“Updike’s Story.” William H. Pritchard. The Weekly Standard. April 11, 2014.   “As one who briefly consulted the archive some years ago, I can testify that to engage fully with this material, and live to tell the tale, is in itself a heroic feat. . . . The boyhood chapter is perhaps the richest in the book.”

“‘Updike,’ by Adam Begley.” Bob Hoover. Dallas Morning News. April 11, 2014. “Adam Begley, the first in what will be a queue of Updike biographers, argues that his subject’s inspiration and motivation were the ordinary moments in his own, what he himself called, ‘ordinary life’ . . . . Begley has done the gumshoe work of a thorough biographer, from close readings of his subject’s works to interviews with family, friends, and neighbors, particularly sessions with Mary and their children.” [Note: A version of this review also appeared in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune]

“‘Updike,’ by Adam Begley.” Kevin Canfield. SFGate. April 11, 2014. “Theoretically, Begley’s birth-to-death chronicle is exactly the sort of book Updike sought to preclude. In reality, the two-time Pulitzer winner couldn’t have hoped for a biography more respectful—or more critically attuned to his work—than this one. . . . What ‘Updike’ tends to lack, though, is any real sense of narrative tension.”

“Review: ‘Updike’ by Adam Begley.” Joseph Peschel. Chicago Tribune. April 11, 2014. “Updike distrusted biography and didn’t care for would-be biographers ‘quizzing my ex-wife’ and ‘seeking for Judases among my friends.’ But Begley seeks out those wives, and friend Begley gently rehashes negative reviews Updike surely would rather have consigned to oblivion . . . . But Begley gives new insight into a reflective and often conflicted man, a giddy and guilty lover, and an exuberant, prolific author . . . . Begley concludes with an image of Updike: ‘He was always that little boy on the floor of the Shillington dining room . . . fulfilling the towering ambition of his grandest dreams.'”

“Biography of John Updike a solid analysis of his work, life.” Margaret Quamme. The Columbus Dispatch. April 13, 2014. “The biography doesn’t trudge dutifully through every year or every work of writing. Begley plays particular attention to the novels he regards as most important, including the four-book Rabbit Angstrom series, which won Updike two Pulitzer Prizes; and the scandalous Couples, which broadened the author’s audience out from his New Yorker base. He dismisses others, including several of Updike’s later novels, in a sentence or two.”

“Making It Look Easy: On Updike and the Myth of Difficulty.” Daniel Lefferts. Bookish. April 14, 2014. “Faced with this roundtable of acutely suffering artists, it’s hard to believe that anyone with a good and easy life can operate on an equivalent artistic plane. But that’s exactly what John Updike, one of the great American novelists of the 20th century, did. He had a good life, and he made great art. What’s more, journalist Adam Begley’s new biography of the writer (who passed away in 2009) takes this—Updike’s easy go of it—as a central theme.”

“Book World: ‘Updike’ by Adam Begley.” Michael Dirda. The Washington Post. April 16, 2014. “Recognizing how relentlessly Updike’s fiction draws on its author’s own experiences, Adam Begley structures his book as a kind of double helix with two interlaced narrative strands. In one, he provides the facts of Updike’s 76 years in the world, in the other he shows how this most writerly of writers used his work to probe and reflect on nearly every aspect of his life. At first, Begley’s extensive paraphrases—of dozens of stories and poems, as well as nearly all the novels, except the weak ones of Updike’s last decade—can be slightly troubling. A lot of this biography is taken up with retelling plots, examining characters and commenting on Updike’s artistry. Spoilers abound.”

“‘Updike,’ Adam Begley’s big new biography, captures the energy and imagination of the celebrated novelist.” Daniel Dyer. The Plain Dealer. April 13, 2014. “. . . a massive, engaging and generally admiring work that enlightens, entertains and gently probes the numerous cracks in Updike’s character. We see Updike in all his incarnations—child, student, young phenom, successful author, troubled lover, honored master. Only Begley’s lengthy exegeses of Updike’s works will slow a reader’s eager eyes.”

“Updike by Adam Begley, book review: A biography shows that John Updike’s talent was for fiction, not domestic drama.” Terence Blacker. The Independent. April 17, 2014. “As someone who loves Updike’s best work, I fell on this biography with yelps of glee, but ended up wondering whether sometimes literary biography is not a faintly futile genre. . . . It is when Begley quotes from Updike, and that extraordinary prose brings much-needed light and air to the page, that the problem with this book becomes most obvious. In the end, it is difficult to care too much about those writerly manipulations, and whether their creator was behaving well or badly. The life was a predictable mess of achievement and disappointment. What will live on is the astonishing fiction which emerged from it.”

“The Updike Touch: Making the Mundane Magical.” John Winters. The ARTery. April 17, 2014. “It’s hard to believe the literary reputation of John Updike is still up for debate. At least it feels like it is. . . . When I hear talk like this I want to drop my Everyman’s Library edition of the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy, all 2.8 pounds of it, on them . . . Adam Begley, books editor for the New York Observer and author of the excellent new biography of the man, seems to agree, or at least his book jacket does, calling Updike ‘a national treasure whose writing continues to resonate like no one else’s.'”

“Updike at Rest; Adam Begley’s ‘Updike.'” Orhan Pamuk. Sunday Book Review, The New York Times. April 17, 2014. “The greatest pleasure in reading this biography is in discovering—essay by essay, story by story, novel by novel (and with the help of an index)—the daily vicissitudes that lay behind Updike’s ability to inhabit multiple identities, and the sheer range of his versatile pen.”

“Updike – review; Adam Begley’s fine biography reveals a writer enthralled by the detail of his own experience.” Blake Morrison. The Guardian. April 18, 2014. “Begley’s sense of discretion may disappoint the prurient (those who’d like to know, for example, who exactly it was Updike claimed to have masterbated through her ski pants in the back seat of a moving car while his wife sat in the front) but it’s surely well-judged. . . . Putting names to faces wouldn’t make it any more vivid;”

“‘Updike’, by Adam Begley.” Suzi Feay. The Financial Times (UK). April 18, 2014.”This is a generous tribute to an amusing and brilliant man but, ultimately, there just isn’t much incident. Not all great writers merit a big biography.”

“The happiest swinger in town: John Updike was at his most content on a golf course. So for sex and scandal, read his novels . . .” Craig Brown. Mail Online (Daily Mail, UK). April 19, 2014. “If the books contain the life, then why separate the life from the books? It is never quite enough to simply itemize and summarize each passing book until you get to the end. Where is the alcohol? Where are the feuds? Where are the secrets, the guilt, the resentment, the self-pity? Where are the big events? Mailer stabbed his second wife at a party in which he planned to announce his candidacy for Mayor of New York. That brief sentence contains more raw drama than can be found in the entire life of John Updike.”

“Updike by Adam Begley.” John Sutherland. The Times. April 19, 2014 (subscription required). “The problem for Adam Begley is that there is so little raw meat for the biographer to chew on. John Updike’s voyage through life, Begley sighs, was one of ‘unrelieved smoothness.’ All Updike did that makes him special was write.”

“John Updike’s unparalleled streak of success.” John Broening. The Denver Post. April 20, 2014. “For those who prefer their literary types on the tortured side—dogged by penury, obscurity, writer’s block, alcoholism, envy, and closet homosexuality (more like Updike’s frenemy John Cheever, in other words)—Begley’s biography will be a disappointment. . . . Updike’s prime not only coincided with the apogee of American power and influence but with its high noon of literary culture.”

“Tracing Updike’s roots.” Frank Fitzpatrick. Philly.com. April 20, 2014. “The Updike who emerges is far more complex than the gracious egghead his photos and interviews revealed. . . . In a sense, Begley notes, Updike’s entire career was a longing to return [to Shillington, Pa.].”

“‘Updike’ explores how reality inspires fiction.” Bob Minzesheimer. USA Today. April 20, 2014. “Not once but twice did John Updike make the cover of Time, back when that was a big deal for anyone, much less a novelist. . . . Now, five years after Updike’s death at 76 comes Adam Begley’s sympathetic and thorough biography, Updike, in which Begley acknowledges he’s rooting for a surge in Updike’s ‘posthumous reputation.’ . . . Ultimately, Updike’s own life is not as interesting—or knowable—as the inner life of many of his characters. The more I read about Updike, the more I wanted to go back and read Updike. As Begley writes, ‘The great stack of books Updike left behind is the monument that matters most.'”

“Updike’s Story.” William H. Pritchard. “The Magazine,” The Weekly Standard. April 21, 2014 (Vol. 19, No. 30). “Surprisingly to me, Begley judges Rabbit Redux (1971), second of the developing tetralogy, to be Updike’s most powerful novel, and he is unambiguously sympathetic to the long ‘teach in’ in which Harry Angstrom is educated by the demonic black prophet, Skeeter.”

“Adam Begley’s ‘Updike’ is first-rate literary biography.” Dan Cryer. Newsday. April 23, 2014. “Though Adam Begley’s biography, ‘Updike,’ is the first on the writer, it’s hard to see how it will be bettered. Thoroughly researched, written with intelligence, sympathy and grace, it is a model of first-rate literary biography. . . . It’s disappointing, though, that he has nothing like the revelatory diaries of a John Cheever, a man as addicted to sexual escapades as Updike was.”

“Book Review: Updike by Adam Begley.” Sam Tanenhaus. Prospect. April 24, 2014. “Begley, so much in command of his subject, might have given us what Updike now most needs, an argument. The close-range psychological portrait and thoughtful close readings don’t crack the code of Updike’s authentic and original vision.”

“‘Updike’ By Adam Begley.” Joe Donahue (The Roundtable). WAMC: Northeast Public Radio (audio).  April 24, 2014. “In this magisterial biography, Adam Begley offers an illuminating portrait of John Updike, the acclaimed novelist, poet, short-story writer, and critic who saw himself as a literary spy in small-town and suburban America, who dedicated himself to the task of transcribing ‘middleness with all its grits, bumps and anonymities.'”

“Editor’s Choice.” The New York Times. April 25, 2014. “The strength of this biography lies in Begley’s efforts to place everything John Updike wrote—and he wrote a lot—firmly within the context of his life.”

“Up close and personal.” Philip Hensher. The Spectator. April 26, 2014. “Adam Begley’s biography is largely an act of piety, but it may in the end contribute to the case for the prosecution. It begins with a truly startling example of Updike’s habitual creative process. A journalist came to interview him in 1983, and published the resulting article in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 12 June. Less than a month later, Updike published a short story in the New Yorker efficiently translating the routine experience of being subjected to a provincial newspaper’s inquiries into well-turned fiction. It was not a one-off.”

“Book picks for the weekend.” Jocelyn McClurg. USA Today. April 26, 2014. “A sympathetic yet thorough biography.”

Sifting fact and fiction in Updike’s life and work.” Nicholas Lezard. London Evening Standard. April 25, 2014. “It could be argued—and there’s a point early on in this rich, judicious biography when the author raises the argument himself—that we hardly need a life of John Updike: the novelist has supplied us with all the details himself. . . . But the case for his reputation here is both honestly and intelligently made.”

“Updike by Adam Begley, review.” Duncan White. The Telegraph. April 26, 2014. “The self-absorption is the most complex issue. Begley’s biography shows just how closely and relentlessly Updike mined his own life for fiction: the stuff about being a writer went into the Henry Bech stories, the stuff about marriage and infidelity into the Richard Maple stories. His relationship with his father became The Centaur, his relationship with his mother became Of the Farm. The stuff about his shagging his way around the housewives of Ipswich, Massachusetts, well, that went into Couples (a big bestseller).”

“Updike review—Adam Begley has written an ‘exemplary biography.'” Nicholas Clee. The Observer. April 26, 2014. “This respectful and sympathetic biography of John Updike (1932-2009) arrives just at the time, about five years after his death, when Updike may be most in need of championing. An immediate posthumous decline in revered authors’ reputations, once they are no longer around to command reverence, is common . . . . Begley has approached his task with the conscientiousness of an admirer of the man and of his work and, while not uncritical, has completed the book in the same spirit. But as for what he calls ‘a surge in [Updike’s] posthumous reputation’: it may fall to others to bring that about.”

“Review: ‘Updike’ biography an intelligent accounting of a literary life.” Catherine Holmes. The Post and Courier. April 27, 2014. “Begley loses the trail a bit with the arrival of Martha Bernhard Updike. Mary and the children of his first marriage cooperated with the biographer, but Martha, who controls Updike’s copyrights, notably did not. Still, ‘Updike’ is a warm and illuminating book that honors its subject with the kind of truthful accounting he prized.”

“Imitation of Life; John Updike’s cultural project.” Louis Menand. The New Yorker. April 28, 2014. “Begley is an intelligent writer and he avoids most of the traps. His book is therefore much more than a file cabinet of facts and dates. He saw that the day-by-day, who-the-subject-met-for-drinks approach was, in Updike’s case, a waste of time. So, he thought, was an attempt to probe beneath the mask. ‘He cultivated none of the professional deformations that habitually plague American writers,’ Begley says. ‘Even his neuroses were tame.’ Writing was what the man was about, and the writing is why Begley focusses on. ‘Updike’ is a highly literate illumination of a supremely literate human being.”

“Let’s call this Updike biography definitive—for now.” Jeff Simon. The Buffalo News. April 28, 2014. “Begley, I’m afraid, may be a wee bit too eager to accept Updike’s modest, mannerly, Harvard-boy self-assessment as one ‘who made up with diligence what he might have lacked in brilliance’. . . . For all its occasional paucity of acid, Begley’s biography of Updike does what one very good biography of Updike needs to do and does it energetically, impeccably and wittily. For the moment, it will do very nicely.”

“Updike: A Life in Motion.” Scott Dill. Books & Culture: A Christian Review (Christianity Today). Spring 2014 (subscription required). “Updike relished the mirror’s arbitrary details. He once summed up a strain of American painting that depicted, in a phrase lifted from Jonathan Edwards, ‘the clarity of things.’ The clarity of things certainly inspires Updike’s own painterly flair for embellished description. Yet it is not merely the blameless exactitude of Stendhal’s mirror that distinguishes Updike’s realism: he carries his mirror down the road. It moves. Motion characterizes Updike’s prose as much as mimicry.”

“John Updike – A Review of a Biography.” Robert Warren Cromey. Cromey Online. May 2, 2014. “Adam Begley’s biography brings Updike alive and human to our immediate attention. Updike’s great talent as a writer is presented in a way that makes us want to read the novelist. . . . The book is also a wonderful introduction and advanced way to enjoy the work of John Updike.”

The Book Reader: ‘Updike.'” Daniel D’Addario (Salon), Staten Island NY1. May 2, 2014. “As Begley shows through sharp reporting, Updike led a tumultuous personal life, dithering over whether or not to leave his first wife and eventually taking up with the neighbor who became his second wife. This isn’t a tabloid takedown, though. Updike’s personal life is used to illustrate just how much inspiration he took from his life.”

“Judging John Updike: Suburban legend.” David Baddiel. New Statesman. May 2, 2014. “Let’s begin by making one thing clear. John Updike was the greatest writer in English of the last century. Unquestionably, he was the best short story writer; I would argue the best novelist, certainly of the postwar years; one of the very best essayists and in the top 20 poets. . . . The issue of Updike’s greatness hangs over this new biography by Adam Begley, who tries in his introduction to dismiss any anxiety that the subject of this long, insightful and meticulously researched book may be a second-rank talent by asserting: ‘Predicting his eventual place in the pantheon of American literature is . . . no more useful than playing pin-the-tail with the genius label.'”

“Judging John Updike: A narcissist with a thesaurus.” Jeffrey Meyers. New Statesman. May 2, 2014. “Begley calls Updike ‘America’s pre-eminent man of letters,’ ‘a great American writer’ and ‘the best novelist-critic of his day.’ He praises his ‘monumental erudition,’ though Updike confessed that he ‘never liked intellectuals’ and admitted, ‘I can read anything in English and muster up an opinion about it.’ However, the evidence that Begley adduces for the greatness of his hero does not substantiate his inflated claims.”

“Looking into an Updike mirror.” Mary Ann Gwinn. Seattle Times. May 2, 2014. “[Updike] appeared with Seattle novelist David Guterson, who said later: ‘I did have an impression of somebody who, after so many years of being a literary superstar, had learned to protect his privacy and not reveal himself.’ I thought of those words as I read Adam Begley’s new biography, ‘Updike.’ Who was the man behind the genial mask, the seething genius veiled by the persona of a twinkly eyed, white-haired senior statesman of American letters? Begley, son of the novelist Louis Begley (a Harvard classmate of Updike’s), says that his goal is to tell Updike’s story by gazing into a mirror world—Updike’s fiction. Was there ever a novelist who made more complete and effective use of his own life?”

“He Gave ‘the Mundane Its Beautiful Due.'” Hermione Lee. The New York Review of Books. May 8, 2014 issue (subscription only). “The recipe box [Updike wrote about in Self-Consciousness] and the Tastykake don’t figure in Adam Begley’s admirable biography, but not every tiny fragment of Updike’s stuff can be cited: there’s enough of it for a hundred biographies.”

“Updike Redux: Portrait Of The Artist As A Workaholic.” D. Quentin Miller. Cognoscenti (WBUR, Boston). May 14, 2014. “Begley’s biography is worth reading for a few reasons. Once, it harkens back to a golden era of American literature . . . when reading was still central to our cultural scene. . . . Two, it’s an innovative biography, especially given the fact that it’s Begley’s first. I was impressed by his confidence in moving back-and-forth in time, flouting the convention of traveling year-by-year through a subject’s life. Third, and most importantly, Begley’s book revives Updike in such a way that readers will hopefully want to visit or revisit whisk works, but also to seek out new voices on the literary scene.”

“Adam Begley – ‘Updike.'” Mark Stevens. Don’t Need a Diagram (blog). May 15, 2014. “If you like the prose of John Updike, you’ll enjoy this biography. I suppose my job is to answer the question for non-believers: why should I read this? The answer is simple. Begley’s fine portrait helps us see the combination of family forces and innate personality traits that produced one of the finest writers of the 20th Century. Updike is entertaining and deliciously detailed. And most of all, reading Updike gives us the chance to watch an artist develop and get to work.”

“Updike Revealed.” Bob. Lacunae Musing (blog). May 16, 2014. “Begley’s biography is superb, treating Updike with both reverence and objectivity. In facet, my rose colored glasses of Updike were somewhat removed by the biography. To my surprise, Updike was less than a perfect human being! And he indeed lived the life he described in the novel so often associated with him, Couples. I don’t make this observation as a moral criticism, but more as an abandonment of a certain naiveté I’ve had about Updike. It doesn’t change my love of his work or my assessment of his importance to the world of American literature. In fact, I think Begley’s biography will go a long way in assuring his place as one of the most important American writers, period.”

“Book review: An insightful glimpse between the lines of John Updike’s life.” Phyllis Méras. Providence Journal. May 18, 2014. “Begley’s book gets off to a slow start and ends rather abruptly. Less is written about that the end of Updike’s life than the reader who has read the 500-odd pages that have preceded it might have liked. But, overall, it is a painstakingly researched and warm account of the life and work of one of America’s most prolific and outstanding contemporary writers.”

“Agreeable Angstrom; John Updike, Yes-Man.” Jonathan Dee. Harper’s Magazine. June 2014 (Vol. 328 No. 1969, pp. 86-90) (subscription only). “Begley (though he does begin the opening chapter with an epigraph from Freud) lays out the evidence of maternal obsession without indulging in a lot of boilerplate psychology; but some future biographer will, you can count on it, and he or she won’t be wrong. . . . Begley does an impressive, conscientious job of marshaling evidence of Updike’s many contradictions without ever being the least bit prosecutorial about it. His attitude in general seems proper for a biographer, especially a first one: dutifully skeptical at times, but supportive overall.”

“Up on Updike; Biography about the work as much as the life.” Michael Chevy Castranova. The Gazette. June 1, 2014. “Adam Begley, one-time New York Observer books editor and author of the new biography Updike, also has got caught up in Updike’s eye for seemingly real-life details—what Updike himself would call a ‘tremor of actuality’ as he strived ‘to give the mundane its beautiful due.’ So much so that this book isn’t a traditional biography that starts with the subjects birth and follows through to his death, in 2009, in a chronological march, heralding the high points of his life. Instead, Begley—much as Justin Kaplan did in his 1966 Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain—draws parallels among Updike’s real life, the experiences of his fictional characters and of the celebrated author’s public persona.”

“Updike: a review by Richard Kostelanetz.” Richard Kostelanetz. New English Review. June 2014. “Indeed, one implicit theme of Updike is that his subject was less a fabricator in the greater tradition of imaginative literature than a kind of highfalutin reporter. His voluminous art and book reviews are likewise essentially reportorial, rather than significantly evaluative, theoretical, or generally influential. As essentially a magazine writer, Updike knew how to fill space. . . . Indeed, a neater Updike biography appears in Christopher Carduff’s appendices to the Library of America’s two-volume Collected Stories (2013), which also documents how many Updike texts did not originally appear in TNY. May I venture that any critic studying these closely would come to some valuable conclusions?”

“A study that fails to do justice to a great writer: Updike.” Eileen Battersby. The Irish Times. June 3, 2014. “Readers of Updike will be familiar with much of Begley’s material, and very little of the flat-footed connections and cross-references which he makes with a righteousness which quickly overpowers his book, will surprise them. Instead as the narrative proceeds, a devoted Updike reader will become aware of a mounting irritation caused by Begley’s moralizing tone and his labored speculations about Updike’s inner motives. . . . Updike the man is rarely visible in this book because Begley is too committed to playing match the fiction with the real life event. Begley interviewed Updike, as did I, and Updike was very funny, courtly, politely outrageous and astute. But Begley is mainly concerned with Updike the home industry pumping out words. He also takes sides; Updike’s first wife Mary did speak with Begley while Martha, her successor, refused to cooperate and emerges as the territorial presence she was known to be.”

“Book Review: UPDIKE by Adam Begley.” Barrie Summy. Pattinase. June 4, 2014. “I doubt anyone who didn’t like Updike’s books would find this book interesting. But if you’re a fan or even an off and on fan, you will enjoy this. Not quite up to the standard of Scott Berg’s biography of Maxwell Perkins, but some lives are more interesting than others.”

“All he does is write his novel.” Christian Lorentzen. London Review of Books. June 5, 2014 (Vol. 36, No. 11, pp. 11-12) (subscription only). “‘I had this foresight,’ John Updike’s mother, Linda, once told a journalist, ‘that if I married his father the results would be amazing.’ Was Updike amazing? In the most simple terms, which were the ones he favored, he was an exemplary American success story: a child of the Depression who passed from a hardscrabble youth through the halls of the meritocracy to become a rich man on the earnings of his fiction.”

“Down the Rabbit hole.” Carl Rollyson. The New Criterion Vol. 32, No. 10 (June 2014): 82-84 (PDF link: Down the Rabbit hole). “Reading Adam Begley’s book on John Updike confirms my beliefs that biography matters and that first biographies of major writers invariably leave more to be explored. Begley shows that while it may have seemed effortless for Updike to write sixty-odd books, this production took a lot of effort. Updike was more disciplined than almost all of his contemporaries, except for the likes of Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates. And like these two, he suffered at the hands of undiscerning critics, who think a major novel cannot be produced in less than five years.”

“Updike—Adam Begley—Book Review.” Dan O’Neill. No More Workhorse (UK blog). June 9, 2014. “Begley has written a wonderful book, a cross between biography and literary criticism that brings Updike’s personality alive. John Updike passed away in 2009, aged 76, and he leaves behind a voluminous literary legacy that will surely stand the test of time. Begley has done a great service to the man and his work.”

“Updike by Adam Begley.” John F. Glass. Drama Urge (blog). June 12, 2014. “As much as you think you have read or know about the author, you’ll learn more, so thoroughly does Mr. Begley cover the ground, in particular his active, writing life of 6-plus decades. So why, you may wonder, didn’t Updike take home the big one, the Nobel Prize? Jealousy, political correctness, lack of an agent (a big omission, in my estimation), prodigious output along with sexual mores (which now seem everyday) and overexposure quickly come to mind, as well as the timing. Either he got there with the best before everyone else (including Alice Munro, last year’s winner) or else they were saving the honor before his sudden death in 2009 at 76 took it away.”

“‘Updike’ shows how the writer’s life and work intersect.” Gordon Houser. The Wichita Eagle. June 14, 2014. “Begley includes critical assessment of Updike’s work, as well as the charge of misogyny and the trouble he encountered for not opposing the Vietnam War. He provides information gleaned from prodigious research.”

“Updike at large.” James Campbell. TLS (The Times Literary Supplement). June 16, 2014. “Begley becomes defensive when discussing the criticism of Frederick Crews, who disdained Updike’s theological anxiety as ‘me-first Salvationism,’ or John Aldridge—’he has nothing to say’—or Harold Bloom: ‘a minor novelist with a major style’; all in their different ways pertinent remarks. Begley declines to argue, deflecting their comments as ‘gratuitously insulting,’ ‘mean-spirited,’ reeking of ‘personal animus,’ for which views he offers little evidence.”

“Updike, by Adam Begley.” Jon M. Sweeney. The Christian Century. June 17, 2014. “It must be tempting to pursue these angles in order to understand the author of Couples, Updike’s sensational 1968 novel about the adulterous pursuits of ten couples in a small town outside of Boston (the novel landed Updike on the cover of Time), but Begley focuses way too much on decoding Updike’s first-person, present-tense fiction, treating it as though it is biography.”

“Style and the Man: On Adam Begley’s Updike.” Jonathan Clarke. The Millions. June 20, 2014. “Remarkably, he says far too little about Updike’s prose style, assuring us only that it is brilliant. This is a crucial omission. Updike’s style is one of the most singular in postwar American fiction, an instrument both powerful and subtle, and the experience of reading Updike is defined by the contours of that style. If you are going to make major claims for Updike as a writer, as Begley wishes to do, you must show how Updike’s style and his cosmology correspond, and you must give an account of the effects that style produces.”

“Book Review: Updike by Adam Begley.” Kevin Rabalais. The Age. June 21, 2014. “Updike captures a time in publishing and the comfortable life of a writer that, from today’s perspective, appears idyllic. Begley’s biography proves more engaging than a dozen of his subject’s books.”

“‘Exemplary’ Biography of Updike.” Anna Trafford. Oundle Chronicle (UK). June 23, 2014. “Begley accepted the offer to write the biography not just because he ‘found it difficult to say no.’ He is also an admirer of Updike’s work. ‘Updike isn’t straining for wild effects or unusual situations . . . he can find meaning in the everyday.’ As for what can be learned from Updike, Begley does not hesitate. ‘How to write really good prose,’ he replied. ‘He was a wonderful writer of English sentences.”

“Adam Begley’s Updike biography focuses more on its subject than his work.” Alex Sorondo. Miami Contemporary Literature Examiner. June 29, 2014. “Begley walks, for several hundred pages (and with great pacing, erudition and sympathy), a tightrope of omission. What to mention, what not to mention—he balances it well, touching not strictly upon the most popular works, but, in deference to his true subject, dwells on the books, the stories and poems and essays, that revealed or mattered most to Updike himself. . . . We know, at the end of Begley’s assessment, as much as we need to, surely, but there isn’t any sense of a curtain being pulled back.”

“Updike.” Brian Morton. The Tablet. July 3, 2014. “Updike has claims on greatness if only for Rabbit Redux. The second novel of four about Angstrom is a bleakly comic view of America in the Vietnam, Chappaquiddick, Black Power, moonshot period, America at its most dissentious and most romantically confident. It’s a book into which Updike poured all his cross-grained ambivalence about his country and its culture. And yet, behind all the autobiographical and a clef fiction, there was, after all, such a person as John Updike. And a contrary fellow he was: defiantly pro-American when it was virtually de rigueur to be anti, fearing those beautiful young as much as celebrating them, preferring the old colonial frontier to the New Frontier, oddly prudish, or at best philosophical about the sex he wrote about in such detail.”

“Updike, the middle class hero.” Financial Review (Australia). July 11, 2014. “Adam Begley’s new book Updike reveals an author who wasn’t afraid to rejoice in his earnings and had a habit of borrowing the lives of his neighbors to inform his racy fiction.”

“Dear John.” Geordie Williamson. The Australian. July 12, 2014 (subscription only). “Begley creditably lards his account with quotations from Updike’s poems, stories, novels, essays and reviews, never letting us forget it is the uniqueness of the author’s instrument of perception, a magical filter applied to a distinctly mundane American reality, that justifies our interest in the man. The biographer wins our respect by a modesty in approach — an awareness that his earnest aggregation of fact will always seem prosaic beside Updike’s rhapsodic reality.”

“Updike.” Nancy Burns. Ipsofactodotme. July 27, 2014. “I did not want this book to end. Having discovered John Updike for the first time, I did not want to lose him in the final chapter. . . . This is my choice to win the Pulitzer Prize for Biography 2014!”

“Updike by Adam Begley.” Wally Wood. Getting Oriented: A Novel about Japan. August 3, 2014. “Certainly anyone who enjoys Updike’s writings should read this biography. Anyone who is serious about his or her own writing should also read it. (I found Begley’s chapters roiling my own memories and made notes for half a dozen new stories.) And finally anyone who enjoys a masterful biography of an interesting life should read it.”

“The Examined Life . . .”  Back Towards the Locus. August 13, 2014. “Updike’s greatest subject . . . was himself. At some point he must have read the famous quote about the unexamined life for he subjected himself and his experiences to intense analysis throughout his novels, short stories and poems. Begley is wise to the fact that his characters are not straight adaptations, and that one cannot assume that their thoughts and feelings were his own, but looking back across his oeuvre—well, they often were.”

“‘A Great Symphony of American Junk’: What David Foster Wallace misunderstood about John Updike.” William Deresiewicz. The New Republic. September 8, 2014. “Only time will tell if Begley’s book becomes a final send-off or the start of its subject’s rehabilitation. Neither I suspect. . . . But Updike strikes me as the kind of writer who is going to be rediscovered, and who is going to keep being rediscovered. . . . Updike’s style owes nothing to abstruse vocabulary. Its resources are beyond enumeration, but its essence . . . is his gift for simile and metaphor, a running counterpoint of figurative commentary, charging every line with wit, that delivers us the heart of things.”

“Updike’s Affair With America.” Randy Boyagoda. The American Conservative. September 10, 2014. “Whether Rabbit’s dealing with marriage, affairs, the death of parents and children, war, Japanese imports, home renovations, Reaganomics, a drug-addicted black radical, or a drug-addicted dumbass sun, the overall effects are hilarious, scouring, scandalous, melancholic, outraged, despairing, and above all else penetrating about one American’s life and American life itself, both of which come across in Updike’s most lasting achievement, as somehow at once exceptional and mundane. You wouldn’t appreciate this a fully as you should based on Begley’s own ‘nonjudgmental’ approach to this author’s life and works, an approach that will be entirely welcomed by Updike devotees and the many literary insiders dutifully name-checked in these pages, though it will feel indulgent and dull to others. But fortunately, this well-intentioned biography won’t prevent the Rabbit novels from taking their earned place as national classics and remaining there long after the author’s sundry back-issue writings and beloved mailboxes are themselves inevitable remnants of the American past.

One thought on “UPDIKE, by Adam Begley: reviews

  1. I have the Rabbit series on my list of books to read but never have and now I don’t know that I will! They’ve alawys been highly recommended by older folks and my aunt tried to lend this one to me when I was in high school but my mother wouldn’t let me red it the sex scenes etc. (There were many tv shows & movies I wasn’t allowed to watch or see, too!). Rabbit Run would probably have been a better book if I read it 10 or so years ago, but it sounds dated and I have problems with characters who lack any redeeming qualities!I’m very glad I read your review which is terrific! Thanks!

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