Monday, July 30, 2007

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

I finally understand all the fuss over Updike. My encounters with Updike have been in this order: The Witches of Eastwick, Rabbit is Rich (#3), Rabbit at Rest (#4), the occasional short story, and then finally Rabbit, Run--the novel that generated the fuss in the first place. And that's where I should have started. Maybe it's always best--or most fair--to read the book that made an author famous before you read their later efforts.

Now the things that bothered me about the third and fourth Rabbit novels are still present--there is a misogynism to Rabbit that bleeds over into the narrator that makes me very uncomfortable--but I found myself much more forgiving of the young Rabbit than the older Rabbit, and much more engaged by the plot of this novel, which feels amazingly complete given that it spawned three sequels. This raised the question for me of the likeable-unlikeable protagonist. I liked Rabbit better in this book (I felt I understood his behavior better and could imagine why a decent person might do some of the things he did--running out on pregnant wife, etc) than in the others, and I liked this book better than the others. Does that mean I'll always like a book with a sympathetic protagonist better than I like a book with an unsympathetic protagonist? I know the writerly-artistic answer is no--that unsympathetic protagonists can be quite interesting and that a good writer ought to be able to write a compelling, engaging book despite (because of?) the inherent unlikeablility of the main character. But my honest answer is Yes. I will always like a book with a likeable protagonist better than a book with an unlikeable protagonist. I can't think of one truly great book--a book that I loved--that doesn't have at its heart a character that I feel sympathy for. Which makes me want to keep the unsympathetic to the margins--secondary characters at most--or to not have them all together (to always aim for some sympathy even amongst the wrongdoers--young Rabbit as opposed to middle-aged Rabbit). Convince me I'm wrong.. please.

With that said, Updike always shows a great ability with description: "He is asleep when like a faun in moonlight Ruth, washed, creeps back to his side , holding a glass of water." It's that "Ruth, washed" that really gets me.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Having finished the final Harry Potter novel, I find that most people instead of asking, "did you like it," ask "were you satisfied." Now rarely would anyone evaluating a novel say, "Well, it satisfied me," as opposed to "I liked it," but in this case, it's entirely appropriate. (I was satisfied and I did like it, by the way). Because, at this point, one loves Harry or one doesn't, (presumably if you read the seventh novel already, you're on the side of love) and for that final book readers weren't asking Rowling to increase their love but just hoping that she wouldn't break the spell. To be unsatisfied would mean that Rowling had ended with developments that felt false, contrived--either faking us into tragedy or faking us into happiness--and the whole magic world we've all been living in for the past eight years would have dimmed. But I'll just say I was satisfied. (I also want to say that it gives me great pleasure to have witnessed the Harry Potter phenomenon in real time--having to wait years to bring the story to an end only added to the fun of it--my heart was literally racing as I cracked the cover of Book Seven).

In recent weeks, I spent some time rereading past Harry Potters and more than ever, I admired the way that Rowling brought characters into the series early on and then picked them up and developed them in later books. She's always maintained that she had the whole thing planned from the beginning, but I'm going to guess that it was only the larger strokes that were definite (and those strokes were the points that I was sure of from the start regarding certain characters who shall not be named), but other things she has to have developed as she progressed. And I strongly suspect that rather than always looking forward and planting characters she would need later, she instead looked back and when she needed a character (say a slightly sketchy member of the Order of the Phoenix) she would look back to who she had created in earlier books (ah Mundungus Fletcher will work). But that seems to have been true mainly for smaller characters and smaller points. What seems quite clear in rereading is that she never put a book to press without knowing how the next book would go. So a vital character of Goblet of Fire (Cedric Diggory) is introduced one book earlier (he beats Harry at Quidditch) or the mysterious R.A.B. at the end of Half-Blood Prince is actually introduced in Order of the Phoenix (that one I figured out for myself, so I don't think I'm giving too much away). I've never thought about writing a trilogy let alone a seven book series (I'd be pretty happy to be a one-book-wonder), but if ever I did, it was a useful revelation to understand that you need to plan one book ahead, so that you've put what you need for the next book into the current one... that's how you are able to write an end that will satisfy.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Books I've enjoyed lately: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, Five Skies by Ron Carlson, Absurdistan by Gary Stytengart

Young Adult Books I've enjoyed lately: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the first three in the four Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books by Ann Brashears, Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. Why so many y.a. books, you ask. I have my reasons.

Great Books I've taught lately: Mrs. Dalloway by Virgina Woolf, Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno

Books I've enjoyed recently in anticipation of teaching them in the fall: The Master by Colm Toibin

Sorry, I just haven't had anything to say about 'em. I think I have Blog Ennui. Check back in August.