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The Afterlife

The first semester of college was a disaster.  Dorms were auctioned off in a lottery, and my number was so high, there was no hope I would get one, so I lived in a seedy motel for the first two weeks of classes.  I finally found an apartment in the basement of an old Victorian house in the hills on the north side of town, a little over a mile from campus.  It was a nice place, but I was isolated, an 18-year-old who didn’t know what he was doing or why he was doing it.  Complicating all of this was my major: I had enrolled as a mechanical engineering major, but I wanted to switch to English as soon as I could.  In the meantime, I was barely enduring the engineering courses.

My landlord had been a comparative literature major, and he had a huge collection of old paperback books, many of which he kept in a closet in my apartment.  He seemed to like mid-century modernism, and the closet overflowed with Cheever, Barth, and Updike.  I had read “A&P” in high school, and I liked that story a lot, so I pulled out Rabbit, Run one day when I did not want to do any more homework for my engineering graphics class.  I went on to read several other Updike novels, including The Centaur, and there was something I couldn’t quite define that captivated me.

The books saved me, though, from despair.  I was alone and lonely.  I didn’t have any friends in the engineering program.  I was 250 miles away from my girlfriend.  I once went two entire weeks without having any occasion to speak to another human being.  It is not stretching the truth to say that Updike soon became something more than another author to me.  He became a family member.

A year or so later, I was safely enrolled in English classes, one of which was a creative writing class.  We had an assignment where we all came up with an opening line for a short story.  We voted to select one of the lines, and then we all had to craft a short story around that opening line.  The was this: “People get the darkest tan right around their armpits.”  I wrote my story and was very pleased with the results.  The professor made copies (mimeographs, even) and the whole class read it.  One of the girls in the class said it reminded her of Updike’s “A&P.”  This remains the highlight of my writing career–a comparison to Updike’s short story!

I have continued to read Updike since then, and some novels–Roger’s Version, the Rabbit novels, and The Witches of Eastwick–have demanded multiple readings.  The strange thing about my relationship with Updike’s writing is I have never met another person who likes his writing.  Not one.  “Stuffy.”  “Effeminate.”  “Rambling.”  “Prissy.”  I’ve heard many words of condemnation, and they have left me feeling hot and scratchy with indignation and frustrated outrage.  I never could seem to muster up the courage to defend my author in the face of such implacable, insistent, and smugly positive criticism.

For me, Updike’s prose has always been crystalline, sharp and hard-edged.  He managed to induce fits of jealousy in me with his keen ability to find precisely the perfect phrase to capture a moment, an idea, a picture.  The things that we see every day but do not know quite how to describe unless we ramble on incoherently for pages Updike can nail in one well-turned phrase.  Some critics hated his attention to mundane details, and torched him for wasting his elegant, eloquent phrases on things like the irritation of a rough spot on your thumbnail, but the poetry of the minutia always made me smile.

When I heard today that Updike had died in hospice of lung cancer, I felt blindsided.  I was expecting to read his new novels for another decade at least.  I lost an old friend.

EDIT:  Here is a great essay in Salon by David Lipsky that says what I was trying to say but says it better.  He says this about David Foster Wallace’s charge that Updike is a narcissist:  “But to call Updike a narcissist (and this charge has gotten around) misses the point, since the impulse behind his self-examination is so basically generous:  Our smallest encounters and realignments of feeling are worthy of inspection; if Updike’s life is a story, everybody’s is.”   Exactly.

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It has been very cold around here lately. Yesterday I saw the lowest reading I have ever seen on my front porch thermometer: -0.6F. If you’re in Minnesota, that’s not very cold, but I’m a transplanted Californian living in New England, so that’s plenty cold. The larger problem for me is the road conditions. We have been receiving snow storms every third day or so, and the plows do not seem to worry all that much about actually, you know, plowing. Many of the back roads, the roads I usually ride on, have a lot of ice on them, making riding very hazardous.

Yesterday, instead of going for a long ride in the deep freeze, Dorothy and I headed down to New Haven, where we met the Suitcases of Courage at the Beinecke Rare Book Library on the Yale campus. If you have not seen the Beinecke, it is an architectural wonder. Built in the early 1960s, it has that sort of self-satisfied, clean almost to austerity look of modern architecture, but, like the best of modernism, it really transcends its time period. From the outside, it is a very severe looking rectangular box, a pale sepulcher with large pale panels of marble forming the facade. As you approach, no windows are visible. The five-story main part of the building floats in a sunken plaza above a ground floor faced with dark glass. Inside, a glass enclosed column rises the entire height of the building; this houses the main stacks, and you can see shelves upon shelves of old, leather-bound volumes. A reception desk is flanked by twin stairways that rise to the main exhibition area.

Once you walk up these stairs, the full effect of the building’s design hits. The marble panels on the facade are translucent, and, on a sunny day, they glow with a dark, creamy, textured light. The architect who designed the building, Gordon Bunshaft, wanted the structure to be plain and even harsh on the outside but a jewel inside. He compared it to a cathedral that has a forbidding appearance but a bright, welcoming interior. It truly is an amazing building, and well worth the trip.

Even better than the architecture were the treasures inside. The library is about to open an exhibit called “Book of Secrets,” an installation featuring important works on alchemy from the early modern period to the present. The books were fascinating, with illustrations of the strange mixture of occult speculation and rudimentary attempts to unlock the mysteries of chemistry. Drawings of dragons covered with emblems representing salt, mercury, and sulphur appeared next to diagrams of laboratory apparatus.

After browsing the collection, we headed for the Book Trader Cafe, a used book story on Chapel Street. Dorothy and I had been here once before, and I remembered finding many good books on the shelves. A used book store in a college town in a great thing, and I found dozens of books I could take home, but I limited myself to just a few. After this, Dorothy and Mrs. Suitcase went to Atticus Book Store and Cafe, while Mr. Suitcase and I went to College Street Cycles, the local bike shop.

The bike shop is a tiny storefront with room for a workshop area and a couple of bikes. The walls and ceiling fairly drip with bike things–tires, saddles, tubes, locks, and on and on. Basso, a large black Labrador, takes his job of greeting customers seriously, with a solemnity not often found in a Lab. He took a great liking to me, partly because I seemed to know just what parts of the Labrador ear to rub. We chatted with the guys in the shop for a while–we knew a lot of the same racers–before heading back to Atticus. After buying a couple more books, we were hungry and walked back across campus to Wall Street Pizza, where the battered, graffiti-carved booths fail to hint at the great pizza that comes out of the ovens.

Here are the books I ended up with:

  • The Tortilla Curtain, by T.C. Boyle
  • Sisters of the Earth, edited by Lorraine Anderson
  • Turn, Magic Wheel, by Dawn Powell
  • The Naming of the Dead, by Ian Rankin
  • The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith (the UK edition, no less)
  • An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke
  • Ghost, by Alan Lightman

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Two things about Tana French’s masterful debut novel, In the Woods, bother me, and the main reason for the bother is because I can’t decide if these things are weaknesses or strengths. I’m leaning heavily toward strengths, though, which says a lot about why this novel works so well. The first bother is something I can’t really talk about because it might spoil a small part of the ending. Let me just say this: There are really two mysteries in this complex novel, and the way in which the two mysteries do or do not intertwine left me alternately hoping for a more overt connection and very happy that the fog of ambiguity remained dense and dark. I’ll get to my other bother later.

French begins with a terrifying story of three children who mysteriously vanished in the woods near a housing development outside of Dublin in the 1980s. One of the children was found, desperately clinging to a tree, his t-shirt shredded and his shoes filled with blood not his own. He has no memory of what happened, and he grows up to be a police detective. Armchair psychology would indicate that he became a detective to deal with the unsolved mystery of his friends’ disappearance and his equally mysterious deliverance, but French is too deft an author to let us indulge in such characterization. Ryan’s motives are much more complex, and as dark and muddled as any mystery he has faced in the line of duty.

Now, 20 years later, Rob Ryan, who carries himself with the mildly alcoholic swagger of thousands of tough, jaded detectives from Philip Marlowe to John Rebus, is assigned a murder case. The young girl, a promising ballerina ecstatic about her upcoming move to the national ballet school, is found in the same woods, her skull bashed in with a rock. Ryan soon starts to relive the days leading up to his friends’ disappearance and begins to think there may be a connection between the two cases. His partner, Cassie Maddox, thinks he might be right, and she acts–or tries to act–as a stable point for him to follow his unconscious fears as the clues lead in a number of terrifying directions.

The mystery is complicated, with leads taking us to the corrupt world of Dublin politics and the conflict between memories of the old, poverty-stricken Ireland and the new realities of the “Celtic Tiger.” At the same time, Ryan and Maddox must face the stomach-churning implications of pedophilia, possible serial killers, and the disturbing sense that even the police themselves might not understand their motives in attempting to solve the crime. Does Ryan want to find Katharine Devlin’s murderer because it’s his job, or is he really searching for his own deeply hidden tormentors? Does the case really lead to the highest levels of local politics, land deals, and community groups, or is the truth closer to home? Is there really a connection between the two cases, or is Ryan slowly losing his grip on reality?

French describes the summer Ryan and his friends had their adventure as unnaturally hot, with seemingly endless days of bright sunshine a mocking contrast to the terror the children faced. Despite this, however, the novel has a dark, damp, foggy feel to it. The few scenes in the woods (and this is my other very minor complaint–I sort of wanted a little more of the story set in the actual woods) are claustrophobic, with half-heard noises and briefly glimpsed shadows convincing the reader that something is waiting right over there, in the darkness behind that tree–is it really a tree?–is something unspeakable ready to pounce. In other words, she sets up something that at times read like the most terrifying horror story, some sort of frightening child’s story grown larger, with longer, nastier, pointier teeth.

Eventually, as in all good mystery novels, the truth more or less comes out. This is, however, a modern mystery, which means there is no comfortable unmasking of the mystery in the parlor, no pipe-smoking savant arrogantly explaining that any idiot should have seen the truth all along. Instead, the mystery is revealed in such a devastating way that nearly everyone connected to it–including the police–fall into a deep, stinking pit of anguish. French neatly deconstructs the main purpose of detective fiction. Instead of seeing the social order primly restored at the end, with Good triumphing and Evil perishing, we see the lines blurred, and Good does not necessarily win it all, while Evil (and is the evil in the book ever deserving of proper noun status) manages to survive.

Go out an read it. Leave the light on, though.

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Home Again

We returned today from visiting Dorothy’s parents in the frozen wasteland of western New York. Actually, it was not all that frozen, though there was a lot of snow, and it may have been even warmer up there today than it is down here in southern Connecticut. The drive was mind-numbingly long, with about three hours of the trip on the New York State Thruway. I get along very well with my in-laws, who are some of the sweetest and kindest people you could meet. Even so, it is very nice to be back home in my own house, with my fast internet connection, and Muttboy’s familiar haunts.

It was, as usual, a very bookish Christmas. Here is what I received:

Campagnolo: 75 Years of Cycling Passion. This is a great big coffee-table book, an illustrated history of Campagnolo, the bicycle component manufacturer. It has some great pictures of Tullio, the company founder, the company’s products through the years, and some of the racers who won the biggest European races with Campagnolo-equipped bicycles. It is also very up-to-date, with a final chapter about the new 11 speed group. It is a lot of fun to browse through this book.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson. This is a huge brick of a book, and I am sure you must pay extra to have it shipped. This novel is his first since the masterful Baroque Cycle trilogy (if you have not read the Baroque Cycle, stop reading this and go buy all three books right now and read them), and it is set on a distant, earth-like planet. Stephenson created a new lexicon for the book, and many of the new terms sound somewhat familiar but point in new directions as dictated by the story. I’m looking forward to tackling this beast.

The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike. I have been a follower of John Updike since the dusty paperbacks stored by my landlord in my basement apartment got me through a difficult semester of unwanted engineering courses. I know a lot of people can’t stand his dryly precise, somewhat pompous prose and supercilious distance, but I am always caught up in his stories. This novel is a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick, and it picks up the story over 30 years after the first one ended and all three of the witches are now widowed (as the title suggests) and reunite in Eastwick. I just started it tonight, and I don’t think it will take that long to read.

While we were on our trip, I read Tana French’s In the Woods. I’ll write more about it later, but I will now take the time to recommend it very highly. It is astonishingly well-written, especially considering it is a first novel (like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, it does not display its debut status), and the storytelling is first rate. This is another to rush out and read.

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Buy This Book

Go here and buy three or four copies.

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More Naked Book Lust

Yesterday we again met the Suitcases of Courage and the Sprinters della Casa for an excursion.  Last week it was sheep and this week it was Edith Wharton.  When Mrs SoC saw Dorothy reading an Edith Wharton book at one of the races this past summer, she mentioned that she was very interested in seeing Wharton’s house in Lenox before it was too late; the foundation that runs the site is hurting financially and they are worried about their future ability to keep the place going.  Because we are always interested in making pilgrimages to authors’ homes, we enthusiastically agreed to take the trip to Massachusetts.

Before we made it to The Mount, though, we had to stop at another used bookstore.  New England, bibliophiles should know, is absolutely filled with small, odd, hidden bookstores.  Some of them have more atmosphere than merchandise, while others fill the shelves with so much merchandise that the atmosphere is thinned considerably.  Some cater to special interests while other seem to have a little bit of everything.  The Berkshire Book Company in Sheffield is one of my new favorites.

The BBC fills a small red barn next to a white clapboard house on Route 7 in Sheffield.  When we arrived, the bespectacled lady sitting behind the desk told us that most of the books were on sale, with different rooms offering different discounts.  Then she warned us that the upstairs room was filled with books not alphabetized; these books were in some sort of numeric order to make internet order processing easier.  If we felt like browsing, we could have some fun upstairs, she said.

At this, I felt a little disappointed.  I didn’t think we really had the time to dig into the treasures, especially treasures arranged in some haphazard scheme.  However, I needn’t have worried.  I was in the presence of fellow book geeks, and we soon fell into our separate trances as we grazed through the aisles.

The rows of books immediately sucked me into that zone where I dreamily focus on the books, and any interruption becomes an almost unbearable intrusion.  I don’t care about the awesome first edition you just found–I’m eagerly digging through the ancient, dusty nineteenth century tomes.  What’s this?  An 1879 illustrated edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer?  And it’s only twenty bucks?  Wait!  All of the books in this room are thirty percent off!  I manfully fight the urge to dance a happy little jig right there in front of the shelves.

As we drove up to Sheffield, we passed a sign that made me laugh.  It said “You are Entering The Berkshires, America’s Cultured Resort.”  As opposed to America’s philistine resort?  I could laugh, but the Berkshire bookstores certainly carry some cultured volumes.  Where else would I find two facsimile reprints of nineteenth-century books?  One is a copy of Lydia Maria Child’s The American Frugal Housewife ($8.50, but it’s 50% off!), and the other is the 1852 gift book, The Home Book of the Picturesque, featuring an essay by Susan Fenimore Cooper.  I also came away with a paperback copy of John Lanchester’s novel, The Debt to Pleasure.  I know nothing about this book or the author, but it looks intriguing.  One of the cover blurbs says “If Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert had shown as much appetite for culinary adventures as he did for a certain nymphet, The Debt to Pleasure is the book he might have written.”  Who can resist that?

Now, finally, we get to The Mount.  I won’t go into great detail about Edith Wharton’s magnificent home, except to say that it is a lovely house on lovely grounds.  Check out the link I posted above for more information, and, while you’re there, think about making a donation to help preserve the place.  It is worth it.  We took a guided tour led by a guide who really seemed to know the architectural heritage as well as the philosophy guiding Wharton’s house design.  The lower floors are well-restored, but without any of the Wharton’s furniture, which has been lost or sold in the many years since the Whartons moved out.  The upper floor, though, shows the ravages of time and neglect.  There the paint is chipping and the ceiling shows water damage that occurred when a water pipe burst in the winter.  The plaster is falling away, leaving a gap-toothed view of the lath beneath.  The gardens, however, are in beautiful condition, even in the autumn, inspiring me to ponder the hours and hours of labor involved in keeping the hedges trimmed, the flower beds weeded, and the lawns immaculately mowed.  The southern wing and the large stables on the north side of the property attest to the number of servants needed to keep such a home running smoothly.  I’m sure Wharton had no use at all for a book like Lydia Child’s Frugal Housewife.

After our tour of the house, we of course browsed the gift store, where I did not restrain the urge to buy more books.  I came away with an anthology of Wharton’s ghost stories and The Writing of Fiction.  We then strolled over the grounds and contemplated the possibility of creating a commune, where we could collectively, afford to live in a grand estate that, individually, we could never, ever manage.  It sounds like a great idea, but I am haunted by images of Brook Farm, the Transcendentalists’ failed experiment in communal artistic living.  Interestingly, coincidentally, when we met earlier in the day at a diner in Canaan (the promised land–can the symbolism pile up any higher?), I noticed a truck in the parking lot with “Brook Farm” stencilled across the door.  Was fate trying to send a message?

Afterward, with thoughts of magnificent estates and communes that ironically undermine the very principles of individual wealth that produced the magnificent estates still swirling in our brains, we departed for Great Barrington, another one of those ridiculously charming New England towns.  Dinner, long conversations that ranged from books to bikes (and bikes, and bikes, and bikes) and then, finally, homeward.

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Last week I read my treasured find–the first edition hardcover of Ralph Hurne’s novel, The Yellow Jersey.  It is a very quick read, and I found myself racing to finish it before I had to run off for an appointment.  Despite its significant flaws, it is entertaining, and the racing scenes make it worth reading for any fan of bike racing who is looking at the lack of TV coverage in despair and is considering watching Breaking Away for the hundredth time.

The novel was published in 1973, and I have to say again, for Mr. SOC’s benefit, that my edition says “First Printing” right there on the copyright page.  First printing.  Hardcover.

But, in my shameless gloating, I digress.  The novel is certainly dated, and while that is usually an unequivocally bad thing, this novel sometimes shows how “dated” can be a benefit.  The narrator, Terry Davenport, is a 37 year old former pro racer who now spends his time coaching an up and coming cycling star, working in his fiancee’s antiques shop in Ghent, and have surreptitious sex with his future step-daughter.  The bad sort of dated shows in that small plot summary.  Terry is a sort of Austin Powers on two wheels, a swinging late-60s, early-70s bachelor who says things like “When I bought this model, I made sure it was a station wagon with a fold-down seat.”  All the better for his conquests.  And he does go on about the various “birds” he has conquered, in a completely open, unenlightened manner that is almost but not quite charming in its utter candor and ingenuousness.

The good sort of dated, though, is found in the descriptions of the racing scene.  Terry’s experiences in the tough Belgian race scene are worth getting through his antediluvian sexual attitudes.  He talks about the tough Belgian pros who race several days a week, hoping to earn enough in prize money–a few francs here, a few there–to earn a meager living.  The races are local affairs far from the hype of the Tour and the big classics, but they are contested just as fiercely as any of the name venues.  Hundreds of local townspeople line the streets in the rain to watch the race, and they cheer on the local heroes and the big pros.  It is a tough, gritty, damp, and tiring world that is seemingly far removed from the weekend warrior outings I see all summer long.  The men racing in Belgium are not dentists and attorneys and college professors who want to have some fun on their bikes but bicycle racers who race because they have to.

Once the action of the novel moves forward and leaves Terry’s dalliance with a 19 year old tourist from New Zealand more or less behind, it grows in appeal, at least to me.  Although he had retired, he entered a local race to impress the girl and, as a result of this and some other events, finds himself slated to help his young protegee in the opening weeks of the Tour de France.  Terry figures that he will ride the opening flat stages to help Romain, who is an awesome climber but timid in the rough and tumble of a pack sprint finish, and drop out once the race hits the big mountains.

The plan works well at first, with Romain sitting well when the Pyrenees rear up.  However, when a fortuitous accident and a doping scandal thrust Terry into the yellow jersey with a fifteen minute lead, the plan disintegrates.  The team owners are furious that this old man is threatening the status of their young star.  The young star, meanwhile, agrees to help his mentor win the whole race, further infuriating the big brass.  The last several chapters are detailed descriptions of the race stages unfolding, with Terry’s lead slipping every day, and more and more pain and trauma at every rise in the road.  Not only must Terry battle his main rival on the raod, but he must also fight off attempts by his team’s sponsors to sabotage his chances.  I found my palms sweating as I read about the attacks, counter-attacks, and team strategies being played out.  I could feel the tension of the race, and Hurne’s account made me think of my own race reports.

However, Hurne seems to get as tired as his hero, or he decides to toss in the proverbial towel.  The last chapter is a frustrating, opaque, and rushed mess, where he wraps up everything too neatly and too quickly for any satisfaction.  Still, I have to recommend the novel for the great race scenes.  Anyone who has seriously watched a race unfold or has tried to strategize in the middle of the peloton will appreciate and see the grace and excitement of racing in Hurne’s workmanlike prose.

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