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If you haven’t already pre-ordered a copy, you can go to Amazon right now and get a copy of John Updike Remembered: Friends, Family and Colleagues Reflect on the Writer and the Man, edited by Jack A. De Bellis.

The Amazon “Look inside” link gives a full rundown on the contents. The book features 19 interviews with Updike’s classmates (from kindergarten through high school), four essays on Updike’s time at Harvard and his early years as a writer, two essays on Updike in Ipswich, 25 personal reminiscences from “writers, fans, friends,” three reminiscences from Updike’s children, and a reprinted transcript of the Updike Family Panel from The John Updike Society’s first conference at Alvernia University in Reading, Pa.

De Bellis (pictured) is best known in Updike studies for writing The John Updike Encyclopedia and for compiling, with Michael Broomfield, the definitive Updike bibliography.

The county alms house was located just a few blocks from The John Updike Childhood Home, and it famously provided the inspiration for Updike’s first published novel. In a review of it, published in Commentary on March 1, 1959, David Fitelson wasted no time in pronouncing it a failure. His review begins,

“John Updike, one of the more talented of the New Yorker‘s resident storytellers, has had a hearty but not very successful try at a first novel. The failure of The Poorhouse Fair lies largely in its adherence to established New Yorker conventions regarded in many quarters as rather OK. One does not mind the OK archness and urbanity that occasionally creeps into Updike’s prose. He has a genuine way with words and usually rises above that. Other OK things, however, are more disturbing: in particular, a rather mannered way of exploring character, and a distaste-for-the-sight-of-blood daintiness that he shares with certain other New Yorker contributors (e.g., John Cheever and Harold Brodkey). Most disturbing is that New Yorker-like critical remoteness which enables one to be awfully aware of, say, the ‘ridiculous’ build-up in nuclear armaments, and then (having exercised one’s social conscience) to go on to chuckle at the ‘ridiculous’ oversight of an Iowa proofreader. In being aware of impending perils, one is relieved of responsibility for heading them off: in being aware of the existence of ideas, one is absolved from thinking about them.”

Here’s the full hatchet job.

In an article titled “In search of the neutrino, ghost particle of the universe,” The Guardian turned to John Updike again.

“Every second,” Robin McKie writes, “billions of neutrinos pass through our bodies. The sun sends trillions streaming across space every minute. Uncountable numbers have been left over from the Big Bang birth of the cosmos 13.8 billion years ago.

“In fact, there are more neutrinos in the universe than any other type of particle of matter, though hardly anything can stop these cosmological lightweights in their paths. And this inability to interact with other matter has made them a source of considerable frustration for scientists who believe neutrinos could bring new understandings to major cosmological problems, including the nature of dark matter and the fate of our expanding universe. Unfortunately, the unbearable lightness of their being makes them very difficult to study.”

The article notes, “Three different forms of the particle are now known to exist: the electron neutrino, the muon neutrino and the tau neutrino and until relatively recently it was thought that none of them had any mass at all. They were the ultimate in ephemeral ghostliness, a bizarre situation that was celebrated by John Updike in his poem, ‘Cosmic Gall.'”

Neutrinos, they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall

A blogger on The Nature of Things posted an entry titled “Houston, we have a World Series champion! in celebration of the team’s (and city’s) first World Series championship.

“Baseball is a game that will break your heart two times out of three,” Dorothy Borders writes. “But, oh, that third time is worth waiting for.

“John Updike knew and loved the game and explained it best of all. Let’s give him the last word and then, let the off-season begin!”

Baseball

by John Updike
It looks easy from a distance,
easy and lazy, even,
until you stand up to the plate
and see the fastball sailing inside,
an inch from your chin,
or circle in the outfield
straining to get a bead
on a small black dot
a city block or more high,
a dark star that could fall
on your head like a leaden meteor.

The grass, the dirt, the deadly hops
between your feet and overeager glove:
football can be learned,
and basketball finessed, but
there is no hiding from baseball
the fact that some are chosen
and some are not—those whose mitts
feel too left-handed,
who are scared at third base
of the pulled line drive,
and at first base are scared
of the shortstop’s wild throw
that stretches you out like a gutted deer.

There is nowhere to hide when the ball’s
spotlight swivels your way,
and the chatter around you falls still,
and the mothers on the sidelines,
your own among them, hold their breaths,
and you whiff on a terrible pitch
or in the infield achieve
something with the ball so
ridiculous you blush for years.
It’s easy to do. Baseball was
invented in America, where beneath
the good cheer and sly jazz the chance
of failure is everybody’s right,
beginning with baseball.

Writers write. And the great ones were often great at correspondence. Like Ernest Hemingway, John Updike wrote for popular publications of his day, and like Hemingway he was a proliferate letter-writer. How MUCH of a letter-writer is now coming to light, as people have begun to respond to scholar James Schiff‘s call for Updike letters.

As Schiff told The Guardian, “While it is hardly surprising that he carried on a correspondence with editors, translators, publicists, critics, journalists and fellow writers, what is remarkable is how often and generously he responded to letters from readers, fans and complete strangers.”

Schiff said Updike even responded to “a stranger who asked him to write a note of encouragement to his nine-year-old son who suffered from psoriasis,” a condition Updike shared and wrote about in his essay “At War with My Skin.” Schiff speculates that Updike’s experience as a teenager requesting samples of work from his favorite cartoonists might help to explain his own “pay it forward” attitude toward correspondence.

“Though some of his letters and postcards are perfunctory and mundane, the large majority reveal his attempt to say something witty, funny, or clever,” The Guardian article notes.

Schiff is still gathering letters for a volume of collected letters to be published in 2021. If you have any, send a scan or photocopy to updikeletters@gmail.com.

On Tuesday, October 24, Penguin Random House Audio Publishing will release downloadable three-hour audio books of John Updike’s short story collection Trust Me and his writings on golf, Golf Dreams—both volumes digitalized versions of analog cassette packages first issued by Random House Audiobooks in 1987 and 1996, respectively.

Both Trust Me and Golf Dreams are abridged, adapted, and narrated by John Updike.

Trust Me track list

  1. Trust Me
  2. Deaths of Distant Friends
  3. Pygmalion
  4. The Lovely Troubled Daughters
  5. Still of Some Use
  6. Poker Night
  7. The City
  8. Getting into the Set
  9. Learn a Trade

Golf Dreams track list

  1. Preface
  2. Golf Dreams
  3. Tips on a Trip
  4. The Pro (short story)
  5. Swing Thoughts
  6. Intercession (short story)
  7. Golf as a Game of the People
  8. Golfers (poem)
  9. Upon Winning One’s Flight in the Senior Four-Ball (poem)
  10. The Trouble with a Caddie
  11. The Big Bad Boom
  12. The Camaraderie of Golf (I)
  13. The Camaraderie of Golf (II)
  14. The Bliss of Golf
  15. Moral Exercise
  16. Television Golf
  17. Is Life Too Short for Golf?
  18. December Golf

Here is the link.

Other audiobooks currently available from Penguin Random House Audio Publishing are The Afterlife and Other Stories and Selected Stories—both of them also abridged, adapted, and narrated by John Updike.

 

 

On March 17, 2017, Larsen Halleck shared his thoughts about John Updike’s satirical novel, The Coup, for The Liberty Conservative—another political consideration of an author who, in his lifetime, was often criticized for not being political enough.

“In his life,” Halleck begins, “John Updike was considered to be one of, if not the, premier American novelists of the 20th century—his Rabbit Angstrom books are still considered to be one of the best satires of the archetypal downtrodden American husband and father (the genre arguably started by Sinclair Lewis’ Babbit), full of broken dreams and mediocrity as he struggles against the changes of the world around him.

“But that’s not what I’ve come here to discuss:

“My favorite of his works is the 1978 best seller The Coup, an excellent read in its own right, but so much more than that: For The Coup is quite possibly the only satire of post-colonial Africa (or at least, the only one I’m aware of). More to the point, in satirizing latter 20th-century Marxist states, The Coup shines a light on some aspects of modern leftist ideology that confuse and infuriate us today, and shows that even back then there were competing camps in the leftist ‘big tent.’ And of course, there is an implicit message of ‘Imperialism will hurt the empire in the long run,’ which is most relevant to America in its current decline.”

Read the full article.

Scholars and would-be writers just got a resource that’s so fascinating they might not be able to get past the data to formulate a thesis of their own. In Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, Ben Blatt combines statistical analysis and literature to produce a study that quantifies writers’ tendencies. As an article from Publisher’s Weekly notes, “Using a database of thousands of books and hundreds of millions of words, Blatt answers everything from what are our favorite authors’ favorite words to which contemporary writer uses the most clichés to the controversial topic of adverb usage.”

The article “Danielle Steel Loves the Weather and Elmore Leonard Hates Exclamation Points: Literature by the Numbers” shares some of his findings, and of course Updike turns up on the lists.

Which three writers use the least amount of exclamation points per 100,000 words? That would be Elmore Leonard with 49 in 45 novels, followed by Ernest Hemingway with 59 in 10 novels and John Updike with 88 in 26 novels. Who uses the most exclamation points? James Joyce with 1105 in 3 novels, followed by Tom Wolfe (929 in 4 novels) and Sinclair Lewis (844 in 19 novels).

Which three writers use the least number of clichés per 100,000 words? Jane Austen (45 in 6 novels), Edith Wharton (62 in 22 novels) and Virginia Woolf (62 in 9 novels). Purveyors of the most clichés in their writing? James Patterson (160 in 22 Alex Cross books), Tom Wolfe (143 in 4 novels), and Kurt Vonnegut (140 in 14 novels). Updike was rated as producing 96 per 100,000 words over the course of 26 novels, which was one better than Toni Morrison did over 10 novels and six better than Twain did over the course of 13 novels.

What about the weather? Danielle Steel mentioned the weather in the first sentence of her 92 novels a whopping 46 percent of the time, followed by John Steinbeck (26 percent), Nicholas Sparks (22 percent), Willa Cather (21 percent), Stephen King (17 percent), Nora Roberts (16 percent), Tom Clancy (15 percent), Edith Wharton (14 percent), Janet Evanovich (10 percent), Charles Dickens (10 percent), D.H. Lawrence (8 percent), John Updike (8 percent), and Mark Twain (8 percent).

Amazon link-hardcover

Amazon link-paparback

 

The New Yorker has posted a full article by John Updike titled “The Future of Faith; Confessions of a churchgoer,” which was originally published in the Nov. 29, 1999 issue.

More than a reflection, the essay illustrates the research that Updike did for his articles. As a think piece, it’s superb, but it’s also excellent reporting. In his opening paragraph, Updike situates his remarks in a broader cultural context and notes the irony of a 1999 study by a sociologist at the University of Arizona:  “belief in the afterlife is going up, even as church attendance drops,” and as part of a “do-it-yourself trend, the sales of religious books have risen spectacularly, by fifty percent” from 1990-2000.

Updike goes through a catalogue of examples and concludes, “The welter of religious phenomena is not necessarily comforting to the professor of a specific faith; the very multiplicity and variety suggest that none of it is true, other than manifesting an undoubted human tendency. A Protestant Christian on the eve of the third millennium must struggle with the sensation that his sect is, like the universe itself in the latest cosmological news, winding down, growing thinner and thinner.”

Updike talks about his religious experiences on a trip to Italy and the journalist in him cites additional examples before concluding, “Faith is not so much a binary pole as a quantum state, which tends to indeterminacy when closely examined. In the several New England suburbs where I have lived my adult life, there was no easy telling, from other signs, who was and who was not a churchgoer,” Updike remarks, adding, “I have been struck by the number of unaccompanied men who show up in church, sitting, standing, and kneeling their way through this errand of habit or ancestral homage. A differentiating factor of intelligence is not conspicuous. At the end of the millennium, and of a century that has the Holocaust at its center, the reasons for doubt in God’s existence are so easily come by—His invisibility, His apparent indifference to the torrents of pain and cruelty that history books and the news media report, the persuasive explanations that science offers for almost all phenomena once thought mysterious—that church attendance must be taken, at least in the American Northeast, as a willful decision to evade what G.K. Chesterton called “atheist respectability.”

Updike the journalist cites the health benefits of churchgoing:  “a 1999 Duke University study shows that regular churchgoers were twenty-eight percent less likely to die in a given seven-year period that non-churchgoers. But a church will not last long as merely a health club; other health clubs exist, and other, less demanding means for generating togetherness. The pith and poignance of a church lies in its being a company of believers.”

Updike muses, “Perhaps the religion of the future lies all about us, in the proliferating escapism and induced hysteria of ‘entertainment,’ with all the intimidating, mind-blowing enlargement that electronic media have made possible. We are surrounded by entertainment more completely than medieval man was by the church and its propaganda. Feeling despondent and lonely? Turn on the television set,” Updike writes.

But, he cautions, “The future is not just an extension of the past; like a particle being measured, it eludes prediction. . . . Something might happen in faith’s future. Science might come up with a surprise—a loophole among the quarks or a reinstatement of the cosmological constant. Or the dynamic of human nature, as Earth’s population rolls past six billion, might produce a qualitative change in the frame of faith, or the world’s tired, grotesque, irreplaceable faiths. What occurs won’t be easily intelligible—the Gospels took most of a century to get written—but the hearing, the insistence that there be, to again quote William James, ‘something more,’ will persist. Our concepts of art and virtue, purpose and justification are so tied up with the supernatural that it is hard to foresee doing altogether without it.”

Read the full article.

Today John Updike (1932-2009) would have celebrated his 85th birthday, and notable among the remembrances published in commemoration is one by Steve King, written, fittingly, for a books site:  Barnes & Noble.

In “Something Intricate and Fierce,” King begins with a quote from Updike and follows with this quote from reviewer Jonathan Raban:  “Rabbit at Rest is one of the very few modern novels in English . . . that one can set beside the work of Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Joyce and not feel the draft.”

Birthday tributes are a testament to Updike’s cultural importance, but King’s post illustrates something that would make Updike smile if he were still around to blow out the candles:  that he has political relevance, something that in his lifetime, ironically, critics never appreciated.

“Whatever Updike’s own politics—biographer Begley notes that Updike on his deathbed rejoiced at President Obama’s inauguration—some commentators say that Updike lives on as spokesman for embattled Middle Americans, whose current angst and anger he saw coming.” And King concludes with a quote from Charles McElwee, written for The American Conservative magazine:  “‘Revisiting Updike’s Rabbit novels is a rendezvous with prescience, for no collection of postwar fiction could help us better understand how working-class populism—in the form of Donald Trump—prevailed on Election Day 2016.”

Updike—and irony—are still very much alive.

Happy 85th, Mr. Updike!

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