Archive for January, 2009

A Wake for Updike

I held a small wake for John Updike who passed away the other day. I did so by spending time with his 703-page compendium of essays and criticism, “Due Considerations,” to recall the pleasure I’d received in his presence.

Finding my way through the list of contents, I started with “A Case for Books.” This is a brief piece, a lament for the traditional book, its design, heft and companionableness — quite apart from its content — in the face of an enveloping siege from e-books and other electronic delivery reading systems.

The thought was, whatever the outcome, books will always be welcome, in a number of ways.

The book as furniture. “Shelved rows of books warm and brighten the starkest room.” A sentiment with which one readily agrees and which echoes the title of Anthony Powell’s “Books do Furnish a Room,” the 10th novel in his long and fascinating series, “Dance to the Music of Time.”

The book as souvenir. And here I turn to a gift from a daughter, now the mother of four young adults, and who gave me a Hallmark book of Walden in 1974.  The volume, still in service, inspired me to visit the site of Thoreau’s self-imposed, semi-exile at the lake where he went “to transact some private business.”

And “Old Man and the Sea,” still a souvenir, although pinched by a good friend, and no longer in my possession. That book inspired me to find my way to the Ile de France out in the stream in Port of Spain, so many years ago, to rouse Ernest Hemingway from sick bay for a chat and his autograph: this so gratified me, him calling me “friend,” and later, going to his simple roadside memorial in Ketchum, Idaho.

The book as sensual pleasure. “Even an indifferently designed book feels like a better companion in bed than a humming, wire-humming laptop.” This sense of pleasure led me to acquire a new copy of Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” my original having grown old and brown and brittle, so that picking it up was less pleasure than before.

Overall, despite some of the jibes that found their way into obituaries, Updike was quite an extraordinary fellow. Sam Anderson, in a New York Times opinion piece talked about how he could “take the fruits of high culture — obscure philosophy, art history, sociological scraps — and translate it, for a wide audience, into little miracles of focused thought, all written in an elegant verbal music.”

It was that verbal music, though, that offended some, for what they considered compulsive and overweening elegance: that, and what others saw as an almost prurient over-preoccupation with sex, leading one wit to liken Updike to “a penis with a thesaurus.”

But you couldn’t help being beguiled by the music, and the massive amount of work, almost all of it worthy of deep emulation, and deserving of the pleasure he gave you, and to which you were happy to return, time and time again.

What a shock to see him go, leaving so soon, particularly since he was only my age.


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Hail to the Chief

Enter President Barack Hussein Obama.

Spent the day mostly in front the TV amid the emotion and the tears, mine included.

What is it that, even now, makes it seem this couldn’t, didn’t, happen? It is so worlds-shattering that the mind doesn’t seem capable of entirely talking  it in, of wrapping itself around the fact.

The idea that someone like him, standing on the steps in Illinois saying he was running for president, and here, today, the same young man, a black young man, is sworn in as, in fact, the President of the United States!

It will have to work out itself in the thrust and parry that will follow to allow this idea, as monument, to finally settle in and take root.

What is easier to grasp in the end of an era, or end of an “error,” as one TV personality said it, is an end to willfulness on a cosmic scale, and a species of thuggery masquerading as national interest.

And strangely, one felt sorry for the departed, watching him sitting there, a few feet from the clean, new president spelling out the new road to be taken, the redirected energies to be engaged.  You felt that this new dispensation was expelling from the body politic something inimical, a foreign  object healthfully to be spat out.

And yet, darkness is still with us: withess Rush Limbaugh wishing Obama would come to no good.

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Sometimes your loves can become so overwhelming they end up being, frankly, a royal nuisance. Annie Dillard reminds us of this in the case of starlings.

There was once, she recalls in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, none of these darling birds in this country. And a bird-loving, bard-loving New York businessman sought to introduce into the country all  the birds mentioned in  Shakespeare.

“Starlings came to this country,” wrote Dillard, “in a passenger liner.”

And did they thrive and prosper! Dillard recalls watching a flock of starlings swifting overhead in such numbers their passing took half an hour. Besides, in numbers they smlled, are noisy, and apart from the whitewash of their guano, generally are an all-round nuisance.

Eugene Schieffelin, their well-meaning sponsor, might well have been aghast at the outcome.

The starlings in Tinker Creek is just one of the nuggets I am reliving with relish in a new copy, bought since my old stand-by has grown old and feeble: a happy, and affordable attempt at renewal, which, for me, is a continuing topic under discussion.

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Works that work

Thoughts collide and ideas come together. For instance, Roosevelt, Obama, the Works Projects Administration, and this new book, State by State.

Put them all together and what do you get? You get a notion that, apart from public works to revive the fortunes of the nation, a huge emotional quotient can be put into the mix to help encourage national pride.

Obama is mooting a New infrastructure Deal, as Roosevelt once did, to create jobs and restart paychecks flowing. But interestingly Obama also sees the White House as a House of the People, to which he wants to invite artists, scholars and wisemen to validate certain impulses in the life of the nation.

Yes, part Camelot, but also part New Deal, if we are to consider some of  what the WPA did in the 1930s.

The WPA sought, through writers, to validate aspects of national life. The Preface to State by State tells us that the WPA, as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, put “more than six thousand American writers, archivists and researchers back to work, creating  vivid, detailed, and lasting portrait of America at the time.”

Apparently the project produced hundreds of books and pamphlets, including guides to dozens of major cities. “The project also gathered oral histories, slave narratives, recordings of folk songs, and collections of folklore and social history.

“But the crowning  achievement of the Federal Writers’ Project was the creation of the State guides. These books documented the forty-eight states of the time in unprecedented detail and with great charm.”

This was an effort, the Preface felt, to help inspire “a reinvigorated sense of national pride, even at the depths of the Depression.” Is something similar needed also in these depressed days?

The editors of State by State, by commissioning 50 writers to talk about their 50 states, sought to replicate in this book, and more modestly, what the writers of another era managed, successfully, to achieve.

As we face a Depression of own, I think about that first New Deal effort to reconstruct lives through infrastructure, and cultural means: will it have a present-day reprise, starting with artists and writers in Obama’s White House of the People?

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200 years

It was nothing as formal as a toast though there was a measure of  champagne in our glasses when Barry brought it to our attention that we, the eight of us, represented more than 200 years of marriage. And so it was. Two couples had celebrated their 50th last year, another was pushing for 60 and we, the tyros, were holding up our end with a contribution of 41 years.

We had come together in the snow to warm ourselves over goulash and wine, the meal a reprise of recipes enjoyed on Barry’s own celebration of their 50th, a trip down the Rhine.

It must have been the wine, for there was no thoughtful silence following, no hallelujahs, just the snow falling, the gentle badinage continuing, and the cosyness of four couples quietly growing to resemble each other.

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