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Archive for January 2009

Late night thoughts about late period John Updike

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In recent years, it became fashionable to trash John Updike, usually for being too white, too moderate, too old, too prolific, not progressive enough. Even the most energetic and successful of those takedowns, David Foster Wallace’s 1998 essay “Certainly the End of Something or Other,” later collected in Consider the Lobster, sometimes seems more concerned with political correctness and the likability of a protagonist than any literary or story failings.

It’s true that Updike’s later works are not the ones he’ll be remembered for (although I’ll argue that In the Beauty of the Lilies, from 1996, stands among his most ambitious and deeply felt). The last Updike story I loved was “Natural Color,” published in 1998 and collected in Licks of Love. It’s the pick of many later stories in which older men looked back on earlier romances, this time with withering results. To make sure I got the year right, I just looked up the story on a New Yorker DVD. The story is accompanied by the keywords “divorce,” “New England,” “sex,” “husbands,” “old age,” “winter,” “love affairs,” “redheads,” “hair color.” I tend to distrust algorithms when it comes to fiction, but that list sure offers a neat encapsulation of Updike’s interests.

The last novel Updike published while he was alive, Terrorist (2006), doesn’t work particularly well. The characters are unusually flat, speaking in topic sentences, Updike sometimes confuses his audience with that of his characters, and the climax hinges on at least two unbelievable coincidences. But it is by John Updike, so if you give it your attention you are privy to one brilliant section. Roughly two-thirds of the way through, pretty much out of nowhere, someone who I thought was a minor character, one Charlie Chehab, launches into a lengthy, hilarious, insane, and occasionally persuasive argument that the soldiers of the American Revolution were the Al-Qaeda of their time. I won’t quote an excerpt; it must be read in its entirety and it gains more weight later in the novel when we learn something new about Chehab. It’s a thrilling riff unimaginable from any other author. Even when he was allegedly past his prime, Updike could deliver something surprising, unprecedented, and unmistakably his. We should all age that way.

Written by guterman

January 28, 2009 at 10:32 pm

Posted in reading, writing

Inauguration Day

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Good morning, friends. We made it. Eight years of lies, disregard for the Constitution, and world-wrecking incompetence are behind us, although I suspect we’ll all be living with the damage, direct and collateral, for decades. It is amazing, though: A man who two generations ago would have had problems being allowed to even vote for President in a large swath of this country is now taking the office. Obama appears to be thoughtful and interested in facts, which already places him far beyond the outgoing administration. The U.S. needs a little good news, and today, for a change, we have some.

Obama assumes responsibility for a unique collection of environmental, military, political, and social catastrophes. No human can reverse all that in a mere four or eight years. He can turn the country in the right direction, though, no matter how far behind course we are, no matter how far this country has to go to live up to its ideals. Better to be in the first few feet of a marathon in the right direction than to continue stubbornly limping in the wrong direction. Remember: If the election had gone the other way, even the committed atheists among us would have been going to sleep tonight praying desperately for four years of good health for John McCain so his vice president doesn’t take over. I am thrilled that Obama is being sworn in as President, particularly considering the alternative. And I’m thrilled even without that: the word “unimaginable” is overused in our culture, often used to mean “not very common.” But his ascendance, until very recently, was unimaginable. Nice to have an unimaginable positive surprise, for a change.

Obama is not leading us into Paradise. He is a conventional middle-of-the-road Democrat in many ways, and he has already begun backpedaling from some of his more progressive campaign positions. Despite his reading a good book about the last American president who was in a similar mess, it appears that Obama’s economic turnaround plan may be too timid for today’s emergency.

Timid for whom, though? I think for the country, but I probably mean too timid for those of us on the left side of most arguments. (I’ll be happy to see Gene Robinson up there today, but don’t get me started on Obama’s refusal to support marriage equality.) We on the left represent, at best, maybe half the country. Obama’s job is to rescue the whole damn country, not just approved-by-committed-lefties issues. If we on the left were not criticizing him for being too timid, he would not be doing his job leading the whole country.

Where does that leave me/us? With one foot inside and one outside. Is that enough? No. But it’s a tremendous improvement over trying to overcome an administration that built its legacy around torture, misdirection, and failure. The country tonight will be a better place than it was last night. Enjoy it. Throw a party. Sleep well. And tomorrow morning, come out fighting.


Written by guterman

January 20, 2009 at 5:52 am

Posted in politics

“What are you doing in Birmingham, opening for Foghat?”

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It’s the quote of the day.

Written by guterman

January 16, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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Headline of the day [Because pessimism wasn’t working?]

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Ad Will Employ Optimism to Sell Coke (WSJ)

Update: They’ve changed the headline to the bland “Coca-Cola to Uncap ‘Open Happiness’ Campaign”

Written by guterman

January 14, 2009 at 11:29 am

Posted in headlines

How does Apple get away with it?

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After five years of selling DRM-crippled music, Apple is trying to get out of that business — except Steve Jobs and Associates want their customers to pay for the company’s strategic mistake. Even worse: it used to be that you could repair your broken files one at a time for 30 cents each. Now, as that imposing, solitary “BUY” button makes clear, regular customers of the iTunes Music Store can make up for five years of Apple’s music-selling mistake only in one expensive swoop. Wouldn’t Apple gain more goodwill (and, in the long term, more money) if it simply liberated files that its loyal customers had paid for already?

I know many Apple products have astonishingly good hardware and software design. But does that make up for the company treating its customers this way?

Written by guterman

January 10, 2009 at 10:45 am

Posted in music, web 2.0