July 2014

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Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 11.36.32 AMJohn Updike has made another list, but this time it’s a worst, rather than a best list.

His piece on “A Desert Encounter” was rated #5 on “The 10 Worst New Yorker #Longreads.” 

5. “A Desert Encounter,” John Updike

The New Yorker is a magazine for writers, writerly writers of wonderful words. These writers write with pens, using their hands to move the pens and their brains to control what their hands and thus the pens do. They are the Great Chroniclers of Life and Letters. Their names will hang weighty on the pages of the New Yorker long after they are buried beneath this dusky earth of ours, as long as there is anything article-shaped of theirs left to publish. Thus this twilight dispatch from John Updike, in which the literary colossus loses his hat.

“My sense of triumph when my wife and I agreed that the job had been completed was marred by a mysterious circumstance: my hat had disappeared.”

Updike fans can take some comfort in the fact that one of the author’s more vocal critics, Jonathan Franzen, placed #2 on the list with “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude.” 

Financial Review (Australia) published a letter to the editor on July 18 in response to a July 11 review of Adam Begley’s Updike:

John Updike in good company

John Updike joins a long line of celebrated authors who have written novels thinly based on their personal relationships with others (“A life well read”, Review, July 11).

The much-travelled Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene developed fictional characters partly drawn from their accommodating hosts and thus easily recognisable in small towns in remote and exotic locations. However, it would be hard to beat one of the lurid plotlines in Edmund Schiddell’s The Devil in Bucks County. The embarrassed people of Doylestown have never forgiven Schiddell for that public indiscretion. Updike also scandalised his native Pennsylvania.

There must be something weird in the water in that state.

Mike Fogarty
Weston, ACT

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 6.56.36 AMKaren Heller, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, posted a piece titled “Send us your nominees for great Pennsylvanians” in response to a Harper poll that placed Ben Franklin at the top of the list, followed by Bill Cosby.

“The list goes downhill from there,” Heller writes, adding that Cosby is “the sole choice who isn’t long dead.

“But Pennsylvania has offered the country so much since the time of Penn and Ben. In the arts, we have Thomas Eakins, Andy Warhol, Mary Cassatt, Frank Furness, James Stewart, Will Smith, three Barrymores, and two splendid Kellys, Gene and Grace.

“In music, Pennsylvania produced Marian Anderson, Oscar Hammerstein, John Coltrane, Stephen Foster, Stan Getz, Sun Ra, Hall and Oates, Gamble and Huff, Pink and Taylor Swift. The state produces terrific writers: John Updike, August Wilson, John O’Hara, muckraking Ida Tarbell, Rachel Carson, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Mead. The commonwealth can do funny: W.C. Fields, Tina Fey, and the tonsorially challenged third of the Stooges, Larry Fine.”

She asked readers to move “Toward a better list of great Pennsylvanians.”

Robert M. Detman, who maintains a blog on The Literary, recently explored what could only be termed his ambivalence toward John Updike and his writing in a post titled “The Li(n)e Between Truth and Invention in Fiction.”

“In the recent biography Updike by Adam Begley, we learn that the celebrated writer ransacked his entire life for story material. He did it religiously, assiduously. In fact, he didn’t invent anything, he merely mined his own life,” he writes. “I found this both a surprise and a letdown. To read Updike’s stories however, the remarkable observation and acuity with detail perhaps make up for a deficiency in inventiveness.

“What I’ve learned from reading Updike is that a fiction writer needs to have a painter’s eye for detail, and this can (or used to) be enough to carry a short story. Maybe my disappointment with Updike is that he hadn’t done more than this—he made fiction look so easy just using the basic tools of life experience—admittedly not a very exciting life, at that.”

Of course, Updike isn’t the first major author to write highly autobiographical fiction. Ernest Hemingway quickly comes to mind, as does F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 7.23.16 AMThe Independent asked 100 “leading figures of British literature to name the characters who give them the most reading pleasure.”

Author and critic John Sutherland (A Little History of Literature) picked Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.

“Harry (“Rabbit”) Angstrom, the serial hero of John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, is the only protagonist I’ve grown old with—doomed, but indomitable and lovable,” he writes.

If you’re wondering what other American literary fictional characters made the list, Rhett Butler (Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind) was chosen, as was Raymond Chandler’s private detective Philip Marlowe, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s flawed hero Dick Diver (Tender Is the Night), Humbert Humbert (Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita), Patrick Bateman (Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho), and Herman Melville’s white whale (Moby-Dick).

Two of Philip Roth’s characters (Alexander Portnoy, Mickey Sabbath) made the list, but Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 scored the most, with literary figures choosing three characters from that comic war novel: Yossarian, Dunbar, and Milo.

“Best fictional characters from Sherlock Holmes to Jane Eyre as chosen by 100 literary figures”

Today Whispering Gums, a blog devoted to books and such, posted a review of John Updike’s short story, “The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd.”

“I love the complexity of this,” the blogger writes, “the fact that Updike has chosen to tell this story through decidedly subjective eyes, and yet has managed to leave the interpretation surprisingly open. It’s a story, I suspect, that can be read very differently depending on each reader’s experience and point of view, despite some givens in the text.”

“John Updike, The lovely troubled daughters of our old crowd (Review)”


Raghupati Bhatt’s essay on “John Updike’s Indian Connection” appeared in Vol. 4, No. 7 (July 2014) of The International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications. In writing about S., Bhatt concludes, “It becomes very clear after reading the novel that the author has made a careful study of some books on Yoga and oriental mythology.”

“And what follows is fit to be in any porno book. It is not meant to. The description is fitting to the part of the story. Updike goes on giving such things because his themes are related to them. Why does S give description? She and through her Updike wants to point out the difference between her past and present.

“The difference between her husband’s lovemaking and Arhat’s is that Arhat’s Lovemaking makes him an equal partner. His is a religious affair. His constant talking and quoting Sanskrit texts gives her a sense of satisfaction calling her his eternal shakti gives her a feeling of elevation. Her husband loved her as his wife but Arhat loved her as ‘Vishesha Rati’ or as an extraordinary female.'”

Here is the full text.

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 7.44.43 PMThe John Updike Society has appreciated the involvement of Updike family members, with the first conference featuring a panel consisting of Mary, Updike’s first wife, and three of the four Updike siblings—Liz, Michael, and Miranda. And the second conference in Boston offered a special exhibit mounted by Michael, with Liz helping him to discuss the objects their father mentioned in his fiction and prose. For the upcoming Third Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Reading, David Updike will offer a plenary session.

David, a writer whose most recent collection of short stories is titled Old Girlfriends, will speak on “Family Archaeology: pictures, objects, words.” He is currently the Updike Scholar in Residence at Alvernia University.

Members (and new members) can still register for the conference (3rd Conference registration form) and still submit an abstract for a paper presentation: Call for Papers extended.

The conference, hosted by Alvernia University, features additional plenary sessions by Don Greiner on the “Chatterbox and the Young JU,” Ward Briggs and Biljana Dojcinovic on the real romance that inspired Updike’s “The Bulgarian Poetess,” and a panel of Updike classmates interviewed by Jack De Bellis (John Updike’s Early Years).

The two keynote speakers should be equally memorable. Legendary graphic artist Chip Kidd, who designed many an Updike cover and worked closely with the author, will deliver the opening keynote speech on Thursday, October 2. And Adam Begley, whose biography of Updike has been widely acclaimed, will deliver the closing keynote speech at the Saturday evening banquet at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel, a historic building at which many famous people have stayed, and where composer John Philip Sousa famously died while on tour.

Speaking of tours, there are two planned: One is a walking tour of Updike’s Shillington and a picnic at The John Updike Childhood Home, where you can see how the restoration is coming along; the other is a local flavor bus tour that will drive past historic covered bridges and hex barns, tour a small local pretzel factory, and stop at such Updike sites as Plow Cemetery and the Pagoda. If you went on the bus tour for the first conference, you’ll still want to come along, because there are new things mixed in with the old.

New members and first-time attendees are most welcome! And members who attended one of the first conferences know that these start to feel like reunions, where you can gather with like-minded friends. You’ll have plenty of opportunities for that, including a welcoming reception hosted by Alvernia University, and a tour of the Reading Public Museum and reception hosted by Albright College.

Yesterday a blogger responded to Heather Havrilesky’s New York Times Magazine piece on “794 Ways in Which BuzzFeed Reminds us of Impending Death” on PottedReads, “a blog about reading and writing.”

He begins, “Having rediscovered John Updike, never having deeply read his work, until now, my late middle age, after reading Adam Begley’s new biography, Updike, I don’t seem to be able to get enough of reading his work. I can’t say for certain why. Maybe it’s the way Begley wrote Updike by braiding his work with his life that made me interested in reading him again. Maybe because Updike was a writer, first and foremost, something I’ve always wanted, which must have made his loved ones suffer. My curiosity was renewed. Updike wrote about his experience without hardly any boundaries between his life and his fiction. That’s quite a feat that some think was a trick of style, and not art, which it truly is. It also occurred to me that I wasn’t ready to read Updike until now. I probably avoided him not unlike I avoid myself by usually doing what I have to do without doing what I need to do. Updike’s not a  chore, but a pleasure with a price, not unlike most good things. Yes, he created a crisis of confidence that’s anxious and distracting by making us focus on what’s important. Not pleasing others at the expense of ourselves, knowing the difference between fantasy and reality, and moving forward accordingly.”

He adds, “The beauty of Havrilesky’s essay lies not only in making me understand BuzzFeed, using Updike to do it, but by incorporating Updike’s fiction into herself so that she could tell us about how they’re connected and why. By writing this essay she made Updike hers, and translated her appreciation of his work to mine. I can’t tell where Updike finished, and Havrilesky starts. I envy her that feat. It’s Eucharistic, and what reading’s all about. Changing you from leading an everyday life into a liturgical one.

“Updike knew that about reading, and writing. That’s why he could write hard about his life. If he wrote soft, his fiction would be faithless. Instead, it’s not. Updike’s stories and novels are a modern-day spiritual reckoning. His readers don’t know where his life ends and his fiction begins. It’s intimidating because he writes so well, and painful because it’s true. It takes a mature personality to understand what Updike’s saying in such a unifying way, that you want to deny it, dismiss him, and turn away. If we don’t like it then that’s tough, and probably another reason why some critics have mistakenly judged Updike as a self-absorbed show off. He’s not. Updike aimed for transubstantiation . . . His mystery isn’t that he could turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, but that he could turn our everyday lives into invincible prose, that we could own for ourselves.”

Read the full article, “Oh, what a feeling, Toyota!”

Screen Shot 2014-07-13 at 9.43.03 AMIf you’re following Adam Begley on Twitter you already saw this, but today the Updike biographer tweeted his recently unearthed mini-review of Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius from Vol. 53, No. 14 (April 10, 2000) titled “Picks and Pans Review: Gertrude and Claudius”:

“It is winter in Denmark, in the soon-to-be-haunted castle of Elsinore, which, we are told, sits in a “foggy hinterland, where the sheep look like rocks and the rocks look like sheep.

“To Bleat or not to bleat? In this ingenious prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, National Book Award winner John Updike dazzles with plenty of wordplay before the swordplay. Instead of fussing with a clever plot that dovetails with the Bard’s, Updike tells a simple love story and offers brilliantly nuanced portraits of two characters Shakespeare merely sketched—Queen Gertrude (Prince Hamlet’s mom) and King Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle turned wicked stepfather). This is a new perspective—that of a middle-aged queen falling for her husband’s darkly mysterious younger brother. Tragedy broods in the wings, of course. But for the space of this short, sly novel, the guilty couple share sweet romance. (Knopf, $23)

Bottom Line: Rich remaining of classic characters

Contributors: Paula Chin, Kim Hubbard, Adam Begley, Ralph Novak, Mike Neill, Kyle Smith, Debbie Seaman.


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