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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Books Read Lately: Updike, Bellow, and Mann

In the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike

Four generations of the Wilmots begins with Clarence, a minister who one day — and quite suddenly — realizes that there is no God. He finds refuge of a sort from his lost vocation in movie houses during the early years of Hollywood silents. Thus begins a family’s connection to motion pictures in various forms, and ends in 1980’s America disaster, fitting for the times. Updike writes with clarity for his characters’ struggles to find, and once found, to hold, their individuality amid society’s pressures to conform. His prose is often subdued, a marked contrast to the Rabbit Angstrom novels.

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

This is a big book of ideas, American style. The narrative technique will be familiar to the contemporary reader, but in 1953 Bellow’s character brings a particular voice to the prose that is juxtaposed smartly with the literary style of the day. Basically, you get the meld of the street voice with high literature narrative. But that’s all Lit-Crit stuff. The book is a true adventure; the title does not underestimate what’s between the covers. You’ll find Chicago pool hall life, low-brow gangsters, a trip to Mexico, teaching an eagle to hunt iguanas (big ones; and they bite!), fucking and dancing and marriage and infidelity and Prohibition and success and failure.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Mann is a wonderful dialogue stylist who gets as much out of his characters’ personality through conversation as any writer of his time. And while the story of the Magic Mountain has at its core a particular humanity and mystery to it, Mann’s prose were too repetitive and long-winded. I fired the book at page 251. Technically this is not my fault but wholly Mann’s, and by his own suggestion, too. In the appendix, the author advised that life was too short to get bogged down in long narratives if the story hadn’t grabbed you: “Find something else to read.” I did. Thanks, TM.

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