Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike -- 1932-2007 -- In Memoriam

John Updike died yesterday at the age of 76.

In 1964, when I was an aspiring writer, a high school English teacher told me about a short story in that week’s issue of The New Yorker magazine. The story was by Updike, and that recommendation led to two passions I have carried with me over the following 45 years. I have nearly every issue of the magazine since about 1970 – when I could, at last, afford a subscription.

More importantly, it instilled in me a reverential admiration for John Updike.

The story, entitled “The Leaves,” gave me a glimpse of what great writing could do. Here is an example from that story:

"…it comes upon me as strange, after the long darkness of self-absorption and fear and shame in which I have been living, that things are beautiful, that independent of our catastrophes, they continue to maintain the casual precision, the effortless abundance of inventive 'effect,' which is the hallmark and specialty of Nature,…which exists without guilt. Our bodies are in Nature; our shoes, their laces, the little plastic tips of the laces – everything around us and about us , and yet something holds us away from it, like the upward push of water which keeps us from touching the sandy bottom, ribbed and glimmering with crescental fragments of oyster shell so clear to our eyes.
A blue jay lights on a twig outside my window." The New Yorker, 11/14/64, pp 52-53.

These days, as I struggle with a short story or a poem, I look out my window and I see a blue jay on my bird feeder, and I remember this passage. I see what is possible with language, and I see the impossibility of my emulating John Updike.

I had the good fortune to meet him on several occasions. Perhaps the most memorable was at The New England Writers Conference held at Simmons College in Boston in 1985. He delivered a lecture on writing, and I was able to ask about his influences. The answer to that question led me to Henry Green, the pen name of the British novelist, Henry Yorke. I have read all of Green's novels, and I understand the effect he had on Updike. I learned from John the importance of reading to a writer.

Updike’s prose remains the best written in the 20th century. He wrote over 800 short stories. He also authored 22 novels, 15 collections of short stories, a play, 7 books of poetry, 9 volumes of essays and criticism, a memoir, and 5 children’s books.

Yet in all that work, he never flagged, he never failed to deliver the best writing anywhere.

Updike was a regal figure – tall, handsome, and distinguished, and he spoke softly and as well as he wrote. With a gracious manner, he always agreed to inscribe a book. On one occasion, he even allowed me to mail him two of my favorites, which he returned with a warm and personal greeting.

My favorite novel by him remains The Centaur. I have a copy on my nightstand, and frequently, when I can’t sleep, I open to a random page and read for a few minutes. The words flow over me like a warm bath. The words relax me, and after a page or two, I can close the book, reflect on what I read, and close my eyes for a restful night.

He recently published his last book – The Widows of Eastwick – a sequel to the 1984 bestseller, The Witches of Eastwick. According to an interview I heard on NPR, he was writing up to his last hour.

Rest in Peace, John, you have given me and countless other millions around the world many hours of pleasure and numerous motes of inspiration. I can only hope that someday, someone may write, he reminds me – just a little – of John Updike.

--Chiron, 1/28/09

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Cinnamon Peeler by Michael Ondaatje

I had no idea Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, wrote poetry. I found this nice little paper back in a fabulous bookstore – The Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado. Any visit to the mile-high city must include a trip to the end of the 16th Street pedestrian mall. A free shuttle runs up and down 16th Street until the wee hours. Tattered Cover opens at 6:30 AM

These poems are not easy to read. I am about finished my second run through them, and some are still a bit difficult to grasp. Another time or two, and all will be well. I will add that the effort is more than worthwhile.

Ondaatje has constructed poems that twist and turn and surprise in every stanza, if not most lines. The poems possess a lyrical beauty that most often reveals itself on reflection. The lines seem almost to consist of stream of consciousness observations. For example, from “Uswetakeitawa,”

“The women surface
bodies the colour of shadow
wet bright cloth
the skin of a mermaid” (64).

The title seems to be a compressed sentence, “Us we take it away.” That is, we take away the images in the poem, the texture of the gleaming bodies, and the surprising language.

The author also has some funny moments. In a related collection of images, “Pure Memory/Chris Dewdney,” he writes,

“5. When he was a kid and his parents had guests and he was eventually told to get to bed he liked to embarrass them by running under a table and screaming out Don’t hit me Don’t hit me.” (73)

Not for the casual poetry reader, but certainly for anyone who seeks a challenge in the world of poetry, and most certainly for the serious student of verse. 5 stars

--Chiron, 1/27/09

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Long Silence of Mario Salviati by Etienne Van Heerden

This book has a rating of three, four, or five stars. To say this reader is conflicted is a massive understatement. The story is interesting – five stars. The characters are mildly interesting – four stars. The story is confusing, along with unexplained and unconnected shifts in time – three stars. The structure of some sentences – three stars; others rate four, and a few, very few, rate at five.

A member of my book club selected Long Silence, so I had a certain obligation to continue reading. Something did keep me going – so many mysteries were buried in the rumors and gossip that constituted the life-blood of Yearsonend, I had to keep going to figure them out. A couple of quotes helped me do just that.

The story mixes past and present, reality and magical realism, and the “…tangled relationships, the married couples and families who shared so many branches it was difficult to separate one family from another, or the present from the past” (213). Fortunately, a helpful family tree showing all these tangled webs is at the beginning of the book. I would have liked a map, and some indication of when the main members of the family lived. I frequently referred to the tree, but it really only made complete sense after I finished the novel.

One of the most ironic lines occurs in Chapter Two of Part Three, “Mannequin’s Plume.” The narrator explains that Big Karl Berg, aka Karl Thin Air knew “While he was still in his mother’s womb,…that keeping your head afloat in this country depends on what you have in your hand” (258). Numerous references to hands – and what is in them – permeate the book.

I guess I will give The Long Silence of Mario Salviati four-and-one-half stars simply because of these minor flaws, including the numerous names and nicknames some of the characters had.

All in all, it was a good story and a good read. Like Big Karl’s rushing water, I raced to the end gathering speed and enthusiasm. Unlike his water, I could not “refuse” and give up the ghost. 4 & 1/2 stars

--Chiron, 1/20/09

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Defining Moment by Jonathan Alter

This story of the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his first hundred days in office beginning in March 1933 seems more than appropriate as an historic inauguration occurs in about ten days.

Many pundits have compared Obama to Lincoln, but Alter draws many more parallels to FDR. First of all, he succeeded an unpopular president as the country was on the edge of a serious downturn, which would come to be known as “The Great Depression.” FDR was unlike any previous president in many ways. Some called him a traitor to his class because of all the social programs he started.

Hoover raised taxes and cut spending, which helped propel the nation deeper into the economic morass. FDR brought a message of hope and change to desperately poor and hungry people. He was also the first to address the nation in a casual, conversational manner in his “Fireside Chats” beginning almost immediately after his inauguration. The text of that chat, as well as his first inaugural address, are in appendices. The often quoted line, “the only thing we have nothing to fear, is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” (339). Considering the fear we have lived under for the last eight years, I can only hope the Obama administration will have the same attitude.

Also like Obama, FDR was “always willing to listen to someone smarter than he was tell him why his ideas were no good” (249). A president that does not hide his opinions and policies decisions will be a breath of fresh air after the smog of Bush 43. FDR also said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something” (92-93). Refreshing when compared to a president unable to think of any mistakes, and who counts his greatest achievement as a failed attempt to privatize Social Security!

Alter’s style is smooth and eminently readable. His extensive quotes really bring FDR to life. One of my favorites is “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement” (219).

FDR was the first to travel extensively by plane. Maybe Obama’s Blackberry is a close analogy.

Anyone who thinks the current economic crises is bad, should read this book and get a glimpse of what life was like in the US during the Depression. Today’s crisis doesn’t seem quite so bad, and not quite so hard to fix. Five stars.

--Chiron, 1/19/08