John Updike, Chauvinist

Emily Nussbaum doesn’t feel especially compelled to be reverent toward John Updike in her interview with him for New York magazine, which is a nice and unusual thing. Like a lot of critics, she’s not impressed with his sequel to The Witches of Eastwick, the new The Widows of Eastwick, and the interview centers on some of his own personal flaws, from aging to divorce to his perception of women. Part of the fun is that Updike is game for all this, and Nussbaum that gets her jabs in subtly. I tend to get impatient with irrelevant descriptions of somebody’s looks (“she said, tugging the sleeves of her robin’s-egg-blue cashmere sweater”; “he said, removing his horn-rimmed glasses, pondering them owlishly, then putting them back on”). But this bit, where he recalls writing Witches, works beautifully:

“The era in which I wrote it was full of feminism and talk about how women should be in charge of the world,” recalls Updike, waggling the antennae of his eyebrows. “There would be no war. There would be nothing unpleasant, in fact, if women were in charge of the world. So I tried to write this book about women who, in achieving freedom of a sort, acquired power, the power that witches would have if there were witches. And they use it to kill another witch. So they behave no better with their power than men do. That was my chauvinistic thought.”


Housekeeping Note: This blog’s traffic data tell me that a substantial proportion of readers are in the D.C. area, so I’ve gone ahead and added a page of upcoming D.C. author readings and appearances, which at the moment lists events through next spring. This is all hand-built, so there are likely a few things wrong or missing; if you have any suggestions, updates, or corrections, please drop me a line.

Links: Selling Points

A Cape Cod home that was once owned by John Dos Passos and regularly played host to parties featuring the likes of Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, and Arthur Schlesinger is up for sale.

A teach-the-controversy idea worth getting behind: A Chicago-area school had students stage a debate over whether Huckleberry Finn should be taught in schools.

After all, who the hell knows what’s going to get high-schoolers interested in reading these days?

Would Horace Engdahl‘s bloviations have been more acceptable coming from an American?

Richard Russo knows Main Street. Main Street is a friend of his. A Sarah Palin, he says, is no Main Streeter: “”Her view doesn’t work in either small-town world, the nostalgic one or the more realistic one. She just misses both points.”

Didion’s Pre-Electoral Tension

The New York Review of Books‘ Web site has compiled some thoughts and observations from its contributors about the upcoming presidential election. Joan Didion, never much of an optimist when it comes to power-brokers’ ability to affect change, takes that last shred of hope and optimism you might have been feeling and cuts it to tatters. The campaign, she writes, has neglected any serious discussion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, race, intelligent design, the economy, education—and, perhaps least discussed of all, the role of presidential power. Didion’s final blow:

We could forget the 70 percent of American eighth graders who do not now and never will read at eighth-grade levels, meaning they will never qualify to hold one of those jobs we no longer have. We could forget that we ourselves induced the coma, by indulging the government in its fantasy of absolute power, wielded absolutely. So general is this fantasy by now that we approach this election with no clear idea where bottom is: what damage has been done, what alliances have been formed and broken, what concealed reefs lie ahead. Whoever we elect president is about to find some of that out.

9,000 Hours With Salvatore Scibona

I’ve only read one of the fiction finalists for the National Book AwardMarilynne Robinson‘s Home—so I don’t have much to say about the mini-controversy over whether Peter Matthiessen‘s Shadow Country should have been considered. (Back in May, Michael Dirda argued in the New York Review of Books that the novel should be considered distinct from the three previously published novels that feed it.) In confess, though, that Salvatore Scibona‘s The End is news to me completely. The Daily Iowan recently caught up with Scibona, an alum of the Iowa Writers Workshop, who explained what went into making the novel:

His début novel, The End, is the product of 10 years of consistent, dedicated effort during which he committed to writing three hours a day, six days a week. I’ll save you the arithmetic: That amounts to more than 9,000 hours exerted to create a single 300-page novel….

The End describes a community of Italian immigrants living in Ohio in 1953. The novel centers on a baker named Rocco Lagrassa, but also gives voice to five other characters as a single day unfolds in their lives. The effect, as Scibona described it, is a “haunted sense of déjà vu” as the reader’s understanding of Rocco’s world becomes increasingly complex and informed….

“The characters are all made up,” Scibona said. “I’m sure I take little snippets of things people say, and sometimes I’ll borrow a nose or hair from somebody, but in terms of the souls of the characters, I try really hard to let them emerge on their own terms.”

Gladwell on Fountain

As I’ve noted a few times before here, I’m a great fan of Ben Fountain’s 2006 short-story collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. So is Malcolm Gladwell—or, rather, he’s greatly interested in Fountain’s rise as a fiction writer, which wasn’t nearly as “overnight” as some of his press implied. In a piece in the New Yorker on the nature of genius, Gladwell describes Fountain’s long path to publication:

But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.

The hard work shows in the writing. Here’s what I wrote about the book for Kirkus Reviews:

Eight powerful stories, most of them set in the world’s grimmest corners.

Well-traveled American writers can be hard to come by these days, and fewer still would go to the places where many of Fountain’s characters languish. In “Asian Tiger,” a golf pro who blew his shot at the big time gets work the only place he can—a resort in Myanmar, where he helps toxically corrupt military leaders work on their swings while they strike deals with equally immoral foreign profiteers; in “The Lion’s Mouth,” a charity worker in Sierra Leone struggles to make her relationship with a diamond smuggler jibe with her altruistic efforts to help the women who are victimized by that very trade. It would be easy enough to turn these plots into pat lectures about the injustices of globalization in general or Ugly Americans in particular, but Fountain’s smarter than that; much like Graham Greene, he has a nuanced understanding of how these circumstances affect both native and visitor, and like Greene, he can approach this kind of material with a light touch, even humor. In the title story, the narrator learns that one of his coworkers at a moving company claims to have killed the famous Cuban revolutionary, and in “The Good Ones Are Already Taken,” a special-ops soldier returns from Haiti to his wife in Fayetteville, N.C., where he tells her he’s now married to a lwa, or voodoo goddess, to whom he’ll now have to devote himself on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The closing story, “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” initially seems to be the outlier: It’s the story of Anna Kuhl, an Austrian Jewish piano prodigy with 11 fingers who becomes a phenomenon in the classical-music world. But the author’s main theme is alienation, and the story’s conclusion proves its effects can be as savage in a German concert hall as in the Colombian jungle.

An impeccable debut collection; if Fountain can keep it up, he’s an heir to Paul Theroux.

Still Life With Matt Bondurant

Something will have gone seriously wrong if the second half of Matt Bondurant‘s second novel, The Wettest County in the World, turns out to be a flop—I’m halfway through it, and it’s making a serious argument for being one of my favorite novels of the year. The story focuses on a generation of moonshiners in southern Virginia, with some perspective offered by Sherwood Anderson, who in 1934 visited the region to work on a story about the trade. A brief passage captures the the emotional detail of Bondurant’s writing, and how he anthropomorphizes the homebrew whiskey’s spectral power:

Hell, Anderson thought, that seems to be an appropriate thing to drink to, and he raised the glass to his lips and downed the last sip. When he closed his eyes for a moment he saw a great shape in a dark field, above him in the indeterminate emptiness. Its force and mass were terrifying, its slow, descending sway. By the time he got his shoes off and lay back down the whiskey crept up his brain stem and took him, dead asleep before he laid his head down.

No recent interviews with Bondurant are making the rounds that I’ve noticed, but his recent appearance on Apostrophe Cast’s reading series is worth checking out—the author reads four poems, three of which are about Peanuts characters.

Levine’s Last Stand

Vanity Fair intermittently winds up running an engaging story amid its celebrity coverage and overwritten Sebastian Junger dispatches, and David Margolick‘s profile of longtime New York Review of Books illustrator David Levine is a must-read. Levine, now in his 80s, is losing his eyesight; the NYRB hasn’t quite fired him, but they’ve stopped using his work, and Margolick argues that Levine ought to fight for better treatment, given his role in defining the look and attitude of the publication. (Go to its Web site—which, by the way, has very good new pieces by Joyce Carol Oates on Annie Proulx and Colm Toibin on the similarities between James Baldwin and Barack Obama—and you’ll see that the homepage is big on pushing Levine calendars. The tab icon for the Web site, at least in Firefox, is a Levine caricature of Shakespeare.) Margolick’s glum summation:

Levine is proud, even hypersensitive—when the Review recently sent him a wristwatch featuring one of his Shakespeare caricatures, he misconstrued it as a parting gift—and refuses to send in anything on spec. And the magazine, which continues to sell David Levine mouse pads, David Levine postcards, and David Levine reproductions—from which Levine derives only token royalties—is too timid or too pragmatic or maybe too considerate to ask. So the awkward pas de deux continues. Such is combat between habitual noncombatants.

The magazine also includes a slideshow of Levine illustrations, emphasizing his renderings of politicians and power brokers. The NYRB site has its own very deep gallery, including one for American writers.

Links: Home and Abroad

A museum dedicated to the life and work of Pearl S. Buck is set to open in her hometown of Zhenjiang, China. Among the papers that will be presented there for an upcoming conference on Buck: One written by Black Eyed Peas’ (his Wikipedia page notes that the Pearl S. Buck Foundation found him a home after his father abandoned him).

Massachusetts now has an official state novel.

If you’re going to Don DeLillo‘s reading at Skidmore College on Tuesday, could you please ask him about his weird statement to the New Yorker‘s book blog about his blogging for the Onion?

Joseph O’Neill
on the cratering of the financial markets, one of the subjects he takes on in his novel Netherland:

“There’s no visible sign of national disaster here. But I think there is this state of complete disorientation about what the future holds among ordinary people, and that disorientation seems to penetrate the expert sectors too. The same happened after 9/11 – the Government didn’t know what it was doing, and again it seems to have no idea. It’s an alarming state of affairs. As for the bailout? I have a friend who is a day trader, fantastic with numbers, and he thinks the necessary figure is more like $4 trillion (£2.27 trillion).”

Gratuitous Ward Just Post

There’s not much to the Washington Times‘ blurbicle about the top five journalists-turned-novelists in Washington D.C.—you can come up with a top 25 in this burg without thinking too hard, and outgoing Washington Post editor Len Downie is about to add to the pile. (Here, retired journos run to writing novels the way failed politicians run to lobbying firms.) I’m calling attention to it only because it wisely puts Ward Just at the top of the list; I’ve been at this blog for the better part of a year now and haven’t had an opportunity to write about somebody who’s on my short list of best living American writers. I’ll accept any lecture about how this year’s selection for the Nobel Prize in literature speaks to a need for everybody to be a little more intellectually broad-minded; all I ask is that if folks want to spitball lists of American candidates for the prize next year, toss in Just’s name along with Roth, Oates, and DeLillo.

Just hasn’t published a novel this year, which in part explains why he’s off the radar—his most recent novel, 2006’s Forgetfulness, didn’t get much more than perfunctory notices, but it’s a striking emotional portrait of the very intimate effects that geopolitical changes can have. Its predecessor, 2004’s An Unfinished Season, is simply one of the best novels ever written about Chicago; 1997’s Echo House is as close as anybody’s gotten to the great D.C. novel I carped about months ago; A Dangerous Friend and The Weather in Berlin are both deep and engrossing portraits of Vietnam and Germany, respectively. If I have any complaint about being in the reading-for-pay racket, it’s that I have little time to drill into my favorite writers’ older novels, and I’m hoping a new Just novel is coming down the line, if only to give me an excuse.

Below is the first paragraph of An Unfinished Season; it manages to cram a decade’s worth of Mike Royko column themes into a handful of lines. Can I make a sale?

The winter of the year my father carried a gun for his own protection was the coldest on record in Chicago. The winter went on and on, blizzard following blizzard, each day gray with a fierce arctic wind. The canyons of the Loop were deserted, empty as any wasteland, the lake an unquiet pile of ice beyond. Trains failed, water pipes cracked, all northern Illinois was locked in, the air as brittle as a razorblade. The newspaper story that had everyone talking was the account of a young colored woman found frozen solid in an alley on the South Side and taken at once to the city morgue, where an alert doctor discovered the faintest of heartbeats. She was revived, thawed as you would thaw a frozen piece of meat, and in the course of the subsequent examination was found to have so much gin in her veins that—“Jeez, it was like she had swallowed antifreeze,” the doctor said. Religious leaders, ignoring the lurid details in the papers, declared her survival a miracle. She was a young woman touched by the hand of God. Jesus had visited Chicago and saved the humblest and most destitute of his creatures, praise the Lord.

Burning Steinbeck

The Kansas City Star has an interview with Rick Wartzman, author of Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. As I’ve noted before, Steinbeck currently has a reputation as a ideologue and crowd-pleaser—though despite his insularity and ignorance, he won the Nobel Prize in literature 1962—but Wartzman points out that there was a point where Steinbeck was considered a real threat to the establishment:

“Steinbeck didn’t quite call for revolution, but he came really close,” [says Wartzman]. And (the novel) was so popular, I think there was a general measure of fear by the establishment that this could set things off, be the match at the tinderbox. It’s a novel that’s still incredibly powerful, not only on the level of censorship, but some of its economic messages are resonating today louder than ever.

“You look at those passages where Steinbeck is talking about how, when people are hungry and in need, they’re going to take what they want by force. Those were upsetting words in the late 1930s. The Russian Revolution was still very fresh in people’s minds and, in fact, for many intellectuals in this country it was still a model for where they wanted to go, and the prospect of some form of socialism was very, very real. It was a scary book.”