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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Why no Updike books were in the Top Ten I've Read

Maybe you were surprised - I was surprised, myself - that no book by one of my most-revered authors, John Updike, appeared on the list of Top Ten Books I Read Over the Past Five Years, and there was one reason only: I actually had not read any books by Updike over the past five years. I think his final story collection, My Father's Tears, came out a little more than five years ago and, since then, I've read # of his stories as I've poked around in old anthologies and some Updike collections I had around, notably Museums and Women, and I've posted on those stories but not on any collection as a whole. I've now just about finished reading his posthumous collection Olinger Stories, all of which have appeared in earlier collections from the 50s and 60s but brought together here to form a loose narrative about U's youth in Pennsylvania. I'm sure it would have made the top ten list had I read it a month or two ago. Aside from the beauty of the writing story by story, line by line in fact, the stories taken together capture in a rough sense the coming of age of an intelligent young man born and raised in a small, somewhat backward, very conservative town. The earlier stories in the collection (arranged chronologically by age of narrator or protagonist, not by date of composition) are about the child's or young man's early infatuations and romances and struggle with parents for independence and freedom, and about his chafing intelligence and artistic sensibility. In the later stories, the protagonist is a young adult who comes home to Olinger for various reasons: one on college break, between classes and a planned trip to his girlfriend's family in Chicago; in the Rothlike titled The Persistence of Desire, he's relatively newly wed, comes back to family home for a visit and for an appointment with a local ENT doc, where in the waiting room he meets his high-school crush, and his feelings for her well up and overwhelm him - we see how easily he will throw over his wife for an immediate pleasure, as well as, by glimpses, her weak and sorrowful marriage, and his remorse about their abrupt and cruel break-up years back (probably also depicted in the story Flight). If this is a U. self-portrait, its unflattering and unflinching, as we see him as a bit of a hypochondriac and narcissist, discussing his eye troubles with the abrupt doctor, the top tier of intellectualism in this backwater - he has a tic in his left eye, which we, and the doctor, sense has something to do with his conflicted desires and unpromising, too-young marriage: he's extremely needy and insecure, behind his bluster and pride. But, yes, desire is persistent, and the need to be loved, or at least appreciated, is eternal and continual, and can lead, or draw, people into strange, unforeseen troubles.

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