November 2014

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Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 9.18.32 PMThe Minneapolis Star Tribune posted an updated article on “Holiday Books: Our critics choose their 10 favorite books”— though, not to nit-pick, what the headline writer ought to have said was “Our 10 critics choose their favorite book.” And Malcolm Forbes selected Adam Begley’s biography, Updike, as his:

Updike by Adam Begley (Harper, $29.99) does what all good literary biographies should — shows how life influences art. Through meticulous research into Updike the man and critical readings of Updike the writer, Begley constructs a compelling and intimate portrait of a true American great. We come away with a better understanding of this prolific man of letters but also with the urge to rediscover him. Updike’s star fell somewhat in the years before his death, but this stunning work could be the first sizable step toward rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, in an updated Guardian story, “Writers pick the best books of 2014: part 1,” Blake Morrison named three favorites, among them (what else?) Begley’s bio:

“You wait a century for a major Norwegian writer then two come along at once … In Per Petterson’s novel I Refuse (Harvill Secker), childhood friends Jim and Tommy meet by chance, decades later, at a point of crisis for them both. The familiar Scandinavian tropes are present (snow, skating and depression) but the texture is more Ingmar Bergman than Stieg Larsson: the suspense isn’t in the plot but the prose, with its extraordinary looping sentences. The translator is Don Bartlett, the man responsible for bringing us Karl Ove Knausgaard, the third part of whose life writing epic, Boyhood Island (Vintage), also weighed in here this year: why its seemingly banal episodes should be so compelling remains one of the great mysteries of our time.

The best biography I’ve read in 2014 is Adam Begley’s Updike (HarperCollins), an admiring but not uncritical portrait of a novelist who was merciless in drawing on his own experiences, sexual and otherwise.

And I’m enjoying A Modern Don Juan, edited by Andy Croft and NS Thompson (Five Leaves), in which 15 contemporary poets lend fresh interest to Byron’s cantos, thanks to some ingenious modern rhymes (sequined cap / Gangsta rap, Che poster / pop-up toaster, Minerva’s Owl / Simon Cowell).

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 8.40.57 AMHeraldScotland, the online version of The Herald and Sunday Herald, posted a list of “Books Of The Year 2015: Herald Choices,” book recommendations from their “well-read panel” compiled by Lesley McDowell.

Adam Begley’s biography, Updike, was one of the picks by Richard Holloway, whose books include Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt.

RICHARD HOLLOWAY
AUTHOR AND FORMER BISHOP OF EDINBURGH
Philip Larkin said the instinct to preserve lies at the bottom of all art, and it is certainly the key to his own poetry. People loved his poems but many of them were never sure about him. Fortunately, James Booth’s Philip Larkin: Life, Art And Love (Bloomsbury, £21.55) goes a long way to helping us understand the man better, as well as the poems he wrote.
John Updike was another artist who followed the Larkin line and made the past present in everything he wrote. Now he too has been well served by a biography by Adam Begley (Updike, Harper, £25) that shows just how much his fiction was his own life preserved so that the rest of us could enter it. Of the novels I have read this year, the most memorable was Michel Faber’s The Book Of Strange New Things (Canongate, £18.99). People will categorise it as science-fiction. They’re wrong. It’s a beautiful parable of the human condition.

Meanwhile, across the “pond,” Updike received a mention in the “Gift Books: Biography” section of The Wall Street Journal:

“Elegantly written as well as psychologically acute, both John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton, 765 pages, $39.95) and Adam Begley’s Updike (Harper, 558 pages, $29.99) superbly chronicle the second half of the 20th century from the vantage point of two very different American authors. Tennessee Williams, the consummate outsider, said he wanted to speak the truth as he saw it, but his romance with the theater brought him pleasure as well as self-consuming pain. Copiously drawing on Williams’s stunning letters and journals, Mr. Lahr balances quotation and interpretation, sympathy and criticism, in this searing and unforgettable portrait of the artist who gave voice to the repressed, the reviled and the restless. And in his fond but gimlet-eyed depiction of John Updike, a consummate insider, Adam Begley depicts the celebrated author as professional writer and proficient evader. Mr. Begley’s Updike comes across as vigorously self-confident and tacitly aggressive, as well as frank and furtive. As the author notes, ‘biography ought to give a sense of what its subject was like to shake hands with,’ and he accomplishes just that in this lucid, elegant and not-to-be missed book.”

Adam Begley’s bio continues to get attention more than half a year after its publication. The latest are a couple more inclusions on lists:

The Chicago Tribune‘s Kevin Nance featured Updike as one of their “Fiction, nonfiction books to gift.”

Updike by Adam Begley (Harper, $29.99)

For fans of the great American author of the epochal “Rabbit” books and a groaning shelf of other novels and collections of poems, essays and criticism, this is the biography we’ve been waiting for. Richly reported, appreciative but warts-and-all, Begley’s book connects the dots between John Updike’s work, his contradictory personality and his often turbulent, even scandalous life, which fueled those famous fictional sex scenes. He knew whereof he wrote.

Updike also made the BookPage “Best Books of 2014” list, coming in at #17, with a link to an April 2014 column by Robert Weibezahl that also used the “connect-the-dots” analogy to describe Begley’s “evenhanded portrait of Updike as highly intelligent, diligent in his work habits, impish in humor and general kind, that nonetheless does not whitewash his less admirable traits . . . .”

 

On November 23, 2014, the New Republic posted an article about correspondence titled “Woolf, Updike, and Nabokov: The Best Letters to the Editor in New Republic History,” featuring a postcard from Updike that read, “Dear Mr. Evett—Received my book and your letter—thanks for both. I’ll try to get the review to you in two weeks. It’s a BIG book. Yrs, John Updike.”

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Liam O’Brien, of Melville House, posted a think-piece on his blog about Paul Moran and his epic scrounging of Updike’s trash, responding to a recently published essay on “Finding John Updike” that appeared in Texas Monthly.

“The natural question that Moran’s trash collection begs is of ethics, not legality. The trash was not legally Updike’s after being discarded. But is it right to?” he asks.

“Moran’s essay certainly does him no favors in that regard, as far as I’m concerned. It’s grandiose and unsettling, and contains several straight-up disturbing anecdotes. (It’s also fairly overwritten, though Ian McEwan seems to disagree.) In one story, Moran claims to have found early evidence, in the form of printed emails, that Updike was suffering from the cancer that ultimately killed him.”

O’Brien is not a fan. “The privacy of public figures is a debate that’s flowered in the information age, and Updike’s trash is certainly a part of that debate. But when reading Moran’s essay, it’s hard to escape the idea that while this garbage collection may be interesting, and perhaps culturally significant, it would not exist without a collector whose motivations were colored by obsession, narcissism, and absolute moral certainty” (italics added).

In this last description of motivations, ironically, he describes any number of American writers.

 

The New Statesman posted “Books of the Year: NS friends and contributors choose their favorite reading of 2014,” and Leo Robson, a freelance writer who contributes regularly to the NSFinancial Times, and the Times Literary Supplement,  included Updike in his round-up:

“Books of the year tend to be submitted too early to acknowledge November and December releases, so it’s only right to single out a book from late 2013, Nina Stibbe’s hilarious Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life (Penguin, £8.99). The freshest piece of new fiction I read was the 250-page narrative about a gay bookshop that runs through Philip Hensher’s patchwork novel The Emperor Waltz (Fourth Estate, £18.99). A genuine surprise omission from the recent shortlists, it’s Hensher’s third book on the trot – after King of the Badgers and Scenes from Early Life – that hasn’t had its due. I’m eternally grateful to Adam Begley for his diligent and stylish Updike (Harper, £25), which answered a thousand questions.”

 

 

 

The Washington Post published a list of “50 notable works of nonfiction,” and it’s no surprise that the much-praised biography Updike, by Adam Begley, made the list.

Entries are alphabetical, so Updike comes near the end, and the annotation is short but sweet:

“Begley not only chronicles Updike’s life but also manages to produce a major work of criticism.”

You have to be a subscriber to access the full story, but The Wall Street Journal also included Updike in a round-up of “Gift Books: Biography.” Here’s what they had to say about Begley’s bio:

“Elegantly written as well as psychologically acute, both John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton, 765 pages, $39.95) and Adam Begley’s Updike (Harper, 558 pages, $29.99) superbly chronicle the second half of the 20th century from the vantage point of two very different American authors. Tennessee Williams, the consummate outsider, said he wanted to speak the truth as he saw it, but his romance with the theater brought him pleasure as well as self-consuming pain. Copiously drawing on Williams’s stunning letters and journals, Mr. Lahr balances quotation and interpretation, sympathy and criticism, in this searing and unforgettable portrait of the artist who gave voice to the repressed, the reviled and the restless. And in his fond but gimlet-eyed depiction of John Updike, a consummate insider, Adam Begley depicts the celebrated author as professional writer and proficient evader. Mr. Begley’s Updike comes across as vigorously self-confident and tacitly aggressive, as well as frank and furtive. As the author notes, “biography ought to give a sense of what its subject was like to shake hands with,” and he accomplishes just that in this lucid, elegant and not-to-be missed book.”

Ed Smith posted a new installment in his New Statesman column, “Ed Smith’s Left Field,” in which he considers Russell Brand in the context of Tom Wolfe in the context of John Updike and other writers who slammed Wolfe for A Man in Full.

Wolfe’s response was to build another bonfire of “the vanities”:  “Bad? Why should I feel bad? Now I’ve got all three . . . Larry, Curly and Moe. Updike, Mailer and Irving. My three stooges.”

Smith writes, “Given Updike’s reputation as the great man of American letters, it was an attack of thrilling bravery. Wolfe is contemptuous of Updike’s suggestion that there aren’t enough intelligent readers to sustain ‘literary’ writing. ‘The novel is dying,’ Wolfe replied, ‘not of obsolescence, but of anorexia. It needs . . . food . . . The revolution of the 21st century, if the arts are to survived, will have a name to which no ism can easily be attached. It will be called ‘content’.”

“Tom Wolfe always cuts through modish nonsense. I wonder what he’d make of Russell Brand?”

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The John Updike Society: Call for Papers

The John Updike Society will sponsor two sessions at the American Literature Association Conference, May 21-24, 2015 at West Copley Place, Boston Mass.

Papers are welcome on any aspect of John Updike’s life and work, including (especially?) comparisons to other authors. Send abstracts to: Peter Quinones, Sessions Coordinator at peterquinones79@hotmail.com.

We also need two moderators, one for each panel. Please contact Peter Quinones if you are interested in being a moderator. The deadline for submission is January 20. Peter will acknowledge receiving your abstract within a day or two of receiving it and notify those selected for participation by January 28. Thank you in advance for your willingness to share your insights on Updike with the greater literary community. Presenters must register for the conference, and more information will be provided later. Presenters should also be members of the Society, but dues are minimal: regular dues are $25/year and dues for grad students and retirees are $20/year. We welcome all who enjoy Updike’s work.

Earlier today, Victoria Zhuang, a Harvard Crimson staffer, posted a tribute to John Updike in the guise of a reading recommendation:  “Staff Rec: ‘Higher Gossip’; Tribute to a Prose Poet.” 

After sharing the emotion she felt upon hearing of Updike’s death, she calls the posthumously published Higher Gossip “a kind of chattering astride the grave” and notes, “The incredible thing about Updike, a quality rarely native to any other contemporary writer, is that his unmistakable prodding touch is discernible in each miscellaneous fragment, however stray. . . .

“Updike was fascinated with everything in the world, a veritable humanist astronaut. He is also a humorous observer, though a supremely self-conscious one whose strains of narcissism and misogyny, present here as elsewhere in his work, are probably only rescued by his being John Updike.”

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