Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rabbit R.I.P.

As has been reported and commented extensively, John Updike passed away today.

Though I've never been a huge fan and in fact have resented some of Updike's attempts at SF, I felt compelled to comment because Updike's Rabbit novels were very key for me in graduate school, particularly when I wrote my thesis about coming of age and rites of passage in American literature.

Like many modern fictional characters, including Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, Sal Paradise from On the Road, Updike's Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom epitomized the immature adult who is unwilling and unable to articulate or responsibly confront his problems.

Rabbit almost gets it of course and Updike's prose is dead on in demonstrating the failed realization:
"You don't think there's any answer to that but there is. I once did something right. I
played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you're first-rate at something, no
matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate."
Farewell, John Updike.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

I knew I wanted to read Wicked after seeing the entertaining theatical production inspired by the novel last year. Not suprisingly, the novel was far different from the upbeat and funny musical, darker and brooding, with deeper traces and pathways from the source materials.

Maguire's mediation on Elphaba's (the Wicked Witch) formation spans her birth (with green skin that immediately casts her as an outsider) and troubled upbringing, to her headstrong young adulthood when her idealism pits her against the statist propaganda and discriminatory policies of the Wizard, and, finally, to her emergence as the Wicked Witch, when her idealism gives way to cynicism and she becomes no better than those she formerly railed against.

I recommend Wicked for anyone who enjoys well-crafted literary fantasy, and, of course, fans of the movie and original story. That said, fans of the musical who are looking for a novel that reads and feels like the theatical production may want to steer clear of the book.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is lewd, crude, in poor taste, and altogether offensive, but it is also very funny, if I'm being honest. I'd venture that a fair bit of what the author recounted is a stretch or an outright fabrication, but I'm not sure it matters, at least not for the reasons it mattered when James Frey exaggerated events in A Million Little Pieces.

To the extent that the stories and vignettes in I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell are entertaining -- and some readers will argue vociferously that they are anything but -- it is because of the author's constructed but authentic-seeming tone and storytelling voice, not the alleged facts of the events he recalls.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Post Office by Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski is one of those authors who I've been wanting to check out for as long as I can remember (probably since the mid-90s) but hadn't done so until last month. I'm not sure why it's taken so long. I've read most of his contemporaries, and -- thanks to Amazon and other resellers -- his works are now more accessible than ever before. Perhaps I've hesitated to dive in because I'd heard that Bukowski engenders very strong positive and negative reactions, and I was wary of my own expectations influencing my reading.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried and should have got started reading sooner. Post Office is a first-person account of Henry Chinaski, a man who loves racetrack betting, drinking and women above all else, and who works for the U.S. Postal Service in Los Angeles.

What follows is an authentic and funny narrative, in which Chinaski relates his (mostly frustrating and maddening) experiences working for a dull, bureacratic institution and how he attempts to chase his machine workday life with romantic affairs, drinking, and gambling.

As I was reading, I couldn't help but compare the book to some of the other popular Beat novels, particularly Kerouac's On the Road. I think what struck me the most was the flat, even crude, authenticity of Bukowski's prose. Compared to Kerouac, who romanticized the road and crafted a hipster spirituality, Post Office felt more raw, more real, and more enduring.

Bravo. On to more Bukowski.