July 2015

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Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 7.33.00 AMBlogger Patrick Kurp, of Houston, posted an entry today titled “As Big, Perhaps, as Four Oxen” on his site, Anecdotal Evidence: A blog about the intersection of books and life.

“Handicapping literary reputations is a mug’s game,” he writes, “but if I were calculating John Updike’s odds, I’d bet on a handful of his stories, reviews and poems—especially the poems. Leave the novels alone, as readers and critics seldom did during his lifetime.”

Kurp calls Updike’s “a poetry of wit” and cites “The Menagerie at Versailles in 1775” as a prime example.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 11.25.12 AMThey say it’s impolite to speak ill of the dead, and the often decorous John Updike probably wouldn’t have had anything negative to say about the recent death of E.L. Doctorow. But Updike is no longer among us and Bruce Weber, writing for The New York Times, quoted Updike’s comparatively nasty assessment of Doctorow’s historical novels in the obituary “E.L. Doctorow Dies at 84; Literary Time Traveler Stirred Past Into Fiction”:

“Perhaps the most telling review came from John Updike, who was prominent among a noisy minority of critics who generally found Mr. Doctorow’s tinkering with history misleading if not an outright violation of the tenets of narrative literature. Updike held Ragtime in especial disdain.

“’It smacked of playing with helpless dead puppets, and turned the historical novel into a gravity-free, faintly sadistic game,’ he wrote in The New Yorker, going on to dismiss several other Doctorow books before granting their author a reprieve.

“’His splendid new novel, The March, pretty well cures my Doctorow problem,’ Updike wrote, adding, ‘The novel shares with Ragtime a texture of terse episodes and dialogue shorn, in avant-garde fashion, of quotation marks, but has little of the older book’s distancing jazz, its impudent, mocking shuffle of facts; it celebrates its epic war with the stirring music of a brass marching band heard from afar, then loud and up close, and finally receding over the horizon.

“’Reading historical fiction,’ Updike went on, ‘we often itch, our curiosity piqued, to consult a book of straight history, to get to the facts without the fiction. But The March stimulates little such itch; it offers an illumination, fitful and flickering, of a historic upheaval that only fiction could provide. Doctorow here appears not so much a reconstructor of history as a visionary who seeks in time past occasions for poetry.'”


. . . somewhere in Europe.

The board of directors voted to put out a call for proposals to host the Fifth Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Europe. At minimum the proposal should list a host institution (which will provide meeting rooms, water, registration table, signage, and any necessary transportation to lodging, if not close enough for members to walk), along with proposed site and program directors (must join, if not already a member), lodging options, closest major airport and airport transport options, details of any Updike connections, possible reception sponsors, and possible side trips—both for bus tours and for individuals to venture off on their own.

Since most members will consider this a vacation, a conference abroad typically tacks on a few additional days, and of course members can add more on their own.

So maybe by 2018 we’ll need a name change:  the Fifth International John Updike Society Conference. The society has 280+ members from 17 different countries, and we’ve had an international flavor from the very first conference. Why not?

Updike traveled frequently, and we know he spent a year at Oxford studying art and a year in London following the publication of Couples. He also golfed in Ireland, traveled through eastern Europe as part of a cultural exchange program between the U.S. and Soviet Union, and visited other European countries.

Members interested in submitting a proposal can contact society president Jim Plath (jplath@iwu.edu) with any questions.

The John Updike Society board has approved the hiring of R.J. Doerr Co., an Easton, Pennsylvania-based contractor that specializes in historic restorations and home museums. As the Reading Eagle reported, Doerr has “a 25-year history of restoring historic properties for nonprofits, including the home of George Taylor, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 8.14.31 PMThis past Thursday Robert Doerr did a walk-through with society president James Plath at The John Updike Childhood Home at 117 Philadelphia Ave. in Shillington, and the two agreed to a three-phase restoration. Phase 1, which is projected to be completed by the end of summer 2016, will include all the rooms that have been “deconstructed”—the dining room, living room, parlor, foyer, and all upstairs bedrooms. During this phase, the entire house needs to be rewired and the radiators need to be removed so that a more archivally-friendly forced air system of heating and cooling can be installed. Phase 2 will include the restoration of the front, side, and second-floor porches. Phase 3 involves the addition of a grape arbor that was there prior to 1945 when the Updikes moved to Plowville, and the addition of decorative exterior corbels that had been removed to make repainting cheaper/easier. The kitchen and second-floor bathroom will also be upgraded to be period, but functional, during this phase. The total for the three-phase restoration is expected to be around $300,00 to $350,000, and Plath said he is “currently and always” looking for additional corporate, foundation and individual benefactors. Those who donate $500 or more will have their names on a donor wall inside the house.

Work will begin the end of summer, after Habitat for Humanity of Berks County finishes “tear-out.” Plath estimates that Habitat volunteers saved the society an estimated $20-30,000 by scraping wallpaper and removing everything that was added to the house after 1945.

The Reading Eagle has the story.



Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 6.59.26 PMIn the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times, Jim Holt considers In Search of Sir Thomas Browne by English science writer Hugh Aldersey-Williams, and along the way discusses a “kind of skeptically based faith, known as fideism, [that] was shared by Montaigne (in a perhaps more ironic vein), and also by John Updike.”

Here’s the full review.


In today’s online Chronicle of Higher Education J.C. Hallman contributes an essay on “Book Reviewing’s Grunt Squads,” a confession from one of those grad students who served on the squads, and an indictment of sorts, exposing of a system that is full of “irrational contradiction.”

Exhibit B is “the original Kirkus review of Nicholson Baker’s U and I,” which is “nasty right from the start.” 

“What’s notable here, for anyone who’s read U and I, is just how far the review seems from the book it purports to consider”: “Surely nearly 200 pages of dreams, digressions, puns, self-ridicule, and self-congratulation would please the world, or Updike, or someone.”

Here’s the complete article.

The society belatedly learned that member Ann Karnovsky, Ph.D., of Cambridge, Mass., died on Monday, June 23, 2014. Members who attended the 2nd Biennial John Updike Society Conference may recall meeting her, as she attended the event at the Houghton Library and left an impression on a number of us because of how passionate she was about books and manuscripts and Updike in particular. We will miss her. No photo is available.

Here is her obituary, as published in The Boston Globe on June 29, 2014.

AllegraGoodmanAllegra Goodman, author of such novels as The Cookbook Collector, The Other Side of the Island, and Intuition, is featured in a New Yorker: Fiction podcast. Each month a fiction writer whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker selects a story to read and discuss, and Goodman picked Updike’s “A&P,” which she said had special meaning for her because she grew up in Hawaii and had her share of experiences with people in bathing suits in supermarkets, and she said she and her sister had names that began with “A” and “P” and began calling themselves that.

Here’s the link to the podcast.

BiljanaJohn Updike Society board member Biljana Dojčinović was featured on RTS (Radio Television of Serbia) in a program of culture titled “Metropolis,” about Sylvia Plath.

In it, around the 28-minute mark, she reads (in her Serbian translation) the beginning and end of Updike’s poem, “Upon Looking into Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home.”

Here are the YouTube link and some screen grabs.