January 27, 2009
I leave the office for lunch and come back to the news that John Updike has died from lung cancer. Updike (1932-2009) was the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards. In addition to over a dozen short story collections, Updike wrote poetry, essays, criticism, and plays.
Updike’s roughly 50 novels included, amopng other things, ruminations on faith (In the Beauty of the Lilies), Muslim rage (Terrorist), sex (Couples), even Hamlet (Gertrude and Claudius). Though probably best known for The Witches of Eastwick (whose sequel was published in 2008), mainly because of the 1987 film, it is the Rabbit books, chronicling American life in the middle class like few books before or since, that will stand the test of time.
As an undergrad, I discovered Updike’s work through his Rabbit books. At the time, I had never read an author who wrote prose quite like Updike. I stopped reading him several years ago as his books seemed to speak less and less to me. However, I have fond memories of his earlier work and what it meant to those times in my life. Perhaps this is a macabre invitation to revisit old favorites and finally encounter newer and classic works I missed the first time around.
November 2, 2008
I haven’t read an Agatha Christie mystery since my teens or early 20’s. Let’s just say it was many moons ago. Why I picked up one after so many years remains a mystery to me, but I’m glad I did. After plowing through Lincoln’s presidency for a couple of months, Dame Agatha’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was the perfect antidote to cleanse the historical palette.
I certainly appreciated the length (254 pages), the lightweight paperback, and the design of the Pocket edition that I remembered fondly from my younger years. What I had forgotten was how Christie wastes no words in telling her story. Descriptions are kept to a minimum, action often happens offstage, and most of the book is told through dialogue. I don’t remember the humor or the charm of these vedy British characters from past books, but as the song goes, “blame it on my youth.” I remember always having a preference for the Hercule Poirot mysteries and this story served up its tale very well. Murder, suicide, poisons…all the earmarks of a cracking good Agatha Christie mystery.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was an utter delight and has wet my appetite for more. Perhaps a Miss Marple next…
November 1, 2008
Since 1999, aspiring novelists have taken part in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it is more commonly known. The conceit? Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Every November 1, published and unpublished novelists across the globe begin the frustrating, exhilirating process of writing a novel. Characters, plots, subplots, backstory… Ugh! My shoulders hunch over the keyboard in exhaustion at the very thought of them. I only made it to 19,919 words last year before eventually giving up. This year I have no intention of repeating that embarrassing mistake. I’ve already got my word count done for today, Day 1. I’m sure I’ll be writing more later, but for now, time for a little R&R with the dog. 64 degrees in NYC in November is rare and we’re gonna take advantage of a beautiful day at the dog run. Wish me luck over the next month!
October 21, 2008
My copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln has been sitting on my bookshelf since it was first published in 2005. Having read her Pulitzer Prize-winning No Ordinary Time about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, I was most excited to delve in Lincoln. Why did it take me three years to get around to it? I have no valid excuses. But I think reading it amid the political maelstrom surrounding the country only enhanced my enjoyment of the book.
Goodwin knows how to bring history alive. Taking the familiar topics of Lincoln’s presidency and the Civil War, Goodwin brings the reader deep into war-torn and contentious cabinet: the team of rivals. The personalities of the main characters–William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates, and Edwin Stanton–breathe through their own words. And after eight years of a country crumbling around us, there are few places more inspiring than Lincoln’s world.
With so much hanging in the balance of the upcoming election, reading Goodwin’s enthralling history reminds us that politics have always been contentious and, for lack of a better word, “political.” But occasionally one man can make a difference. The 21st century is far different from the one nearly 150 years ago. But we still find hope in our presidential candidates and in the democratic process…hope for a better future and hope for a return to a moral center to our government. Until then, we have historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin to show us the highs and lows of the American political, and how it can occasionally rise above the commonplace.
September 29, 2008
Since 1982, the American Library Association (ALA) has observed Banned Books Week during the last week of September to “remind Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted. On the ALA’s “10 Most Challenged Books of 2007,” the most common themes are “sexually explicit” (7 books), offensive language (5), homosexuality (3), and religious content (2).
In this election year, when vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin brings with her a “rhetorical” history of attempts at banning books, supporting the ALA’s mission is more important than ever.
Whether it’s one of the “2007 Top 10” or one of the perennials, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, or the Harry Potter series, read a banned book so that freedom of expression and freedom of choice remain in our American lexicon.
August 30, 2008
I thought I’d try and get at least ONE post in here during the month of August…
I recently completed my first Dostoevsky novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Having finished War and Peace only a couple of months ago, another long, involved Russian novel seemed risky. Dostoevsky is nowhere as “easy” to read as Tolstoy. Karamazov involves lengthy discussions of religion and philosophy. The impatient, instant gratification American in me wished some of these had been edited out. But then it certainly would not have remained true to Dostoevsky’s vision.
Like War and Peace, Karamazov deals with complex themes. And what could have been a simple murder story turns into something far deeper in Dostoevsky’s hands. Thankfully, the Russian patrinomics were easier this time around. Perhaps I’m just getting used to reading Russian literature.
For me, the novel can be summed up in the Devil’s lecture to Ivan (in his dream):
Precisely because we are of a broad, Karamazovian nature–and this is what I am driving at–capable of containing all possible opposites and of contemplating both abysses at once, the abyss above us, an abyss of lofty ideals, and the abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degredation… Two abysses, two abysses, gentlemen, in one and the same moment–without that we are wretched and dissatisfied, our existence is incomplete.
The Brothers Karamazov was, for me, a difficult read. It’s not the kind of novel that encouraged me to keep reading, breathless to see what happened next. However, it certainly needs no endorsement from me as to its place in classic world literature.
July 24, 2008
From bestselling novel to hit Broadway play to hit Hollywood film, and back again as a hit Broadway musical and finishing as a reviled movie musical, the travels of Auntie Mame from page to stage and everywhere thereafter are exhaustively recounted in Richard Tyler Jordan’s But Darling, I’m Your Auntie Mame!
The book will especially appeal to fans of Rosalind Russell, the play, and its 1966 musical, Mame. However, Jordan skimps on his coverage of the celebrated 1958 film, the one property most of us are familiar with. If Jordan’s writing style isn’t particularly fresh, the book is still an entertaining read, full of just the right dosage of juicy gossip and behind-the-scenes and backstage stories.