Fiction

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Weekend Book Review – Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Rabbit, Run is the first novel in John Updike’s critically acclaimed Rabbit Angstrom series. In the 2006 survey conducted by the New York Times, which asked for the best American novel of the last 25 years, the Rabbit Angstrom novels emerged as one of the runners-up. I’m more interested in the last two installments of the series, but I figure that if I want to read them, I might as well read the first two first.

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was a basketball superstar in high school. Now at mid-twenties, he works as a sales and demo man of kitchen gadgets, and he’s married to Janice, currently pregnant and currently suffering from alcohol issues. They have a two-year-old toddler named Nelson and they all live in the suburban town Mt. Judge.

Rabbit is given this nickname not only because of his leporine face but because he is always running away and trying to escape the imminent judgment of the people. The town’s name is no understatement. There seems to be a pair of giant eyes over the city, an invisible lens that lets the townspeople see and judge him. He runs away from his wife Janice, twice, and he runs away from his mistress Ruth, twice.

He could have been named Rabbit Angst instead because there are parts that subtly deal with his quarter-life crisis. One such part details the first time he runs away. He is supposed to pick up his son from his in-laws. but decides to drive away. He does not have a destination. He just drives on and on, dropping by diners in the towns he visits and switching the radio from one station to the other. This listless driving perfectly captures the state of Rabbit’s mind and therefore sets the general mood of the novel.

The novel offers big themes, such as faith, love, sex, fear, guilt, and death. The minister Eccles befriends Rabbit to help him sort out his issues. During their conversations, one gets the feeling that Eccles is blaspheming the same God that he is leading the townspeople to worship. It’s like his undergoing a crisis like that of Rabbit’s. Are they doing the right things? What is the purpose of the things that they do?

There are extended passages on sex, but there is a gaping absence of love among the characters. The few moments where there could be love are usually tinged with either fear or anxiety. In a novel that is filled with guilt-tripping and blame-slinging, it’s not surprising to find the reader, at the end of the novel, asking whether or not Rabbit is capable of love. Should we care about what he feels? Does he know what he’s doing? Where is he going?

Rabbit comes to the curb but instead of going to his right and around the block he steps down, with as big a feeling as if this is little side street is a wide river, and crosses. He wants to travel to the next patch of snow. Although this block of brick three-stories is just like the one he left, something in it makes him happy; the steps and window sills seem to twitch and shift in the corner of his eye, alive. this illusion trips him. His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.

I didn’t have an easy time finishing this as it tends to meander out of control, but the last quarter delivered. Besides, the writing is very good. I would continue reading the rest of the series.

[Read in February 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]
[284 pages. Mass market paperback.]

Book Report: February 2015

Book Report: February 2015

It’s already the last third of the first quarter of the year. Yeahyeahyeah, I always act amazed when I say that it’s already the beginning of this or that month, that time flies by so fast, but that’s mostly because I feel that I’m always lagging. There’s so much to read! New books bought, books agreed to be read along bookish friends, book club selections, bookish lists and breakthroughs, dares and recommendations, etc. Considering all these, time not only flies by. It zooms, just like that.

For February, I finished my ugh, fifth book. At this pace, I will only finish 30 books by December. That’s 20 books short of my target. I shouldn’t concern myself too much with the numbers. Quality over quantity, huh? However, I really can’t say that the books I’ve read are of that high quality. Quality is relative, I know, so let’s just say I haven’t had a 5-star read yet.

Books Finished:

  • Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos – 1 out of 5 stars. Our book club’s book of the month.
  • Rabbit, Run by John Updike – 3 out of 5 stars. I am still going to push through with the Rabbit series because I know that the last two of this quarter are what the critics are raving about.

Currently Reading:

  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain – On page 172 of 307. The first book that made me write marginalia. I’ve been averse to this habit until Tim Parks convinced me to use a weapon while reading. I’ve always worshipped the book as a physical object. I still do. I still can’t bear to dog-ear the pages or crack the spine. I don’t think I will go into that. Yes, I always say that I will not do this or that but I really do know that for sure (because folding and cracking are destructive as opposed to writing, which I think helps in understanding the ideas in the book). Anyway, I’m hoping that this would be my first 5-star of the year. Actually, it looks like it’s going there.
  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy – On page 118 of 321. It’s our book of the month. I have no idea what this is about. My edition has no blurb, and you might already know that I’m the kind of person who reads everything in the book before reading the actual start of the book. The experience is like finding your way out of a labyrinth of segmented writing filled with juxtaposed metaphors and weird, sometimes icky, imagery.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot – On page 78 of 826. What better time of the year than March should one read this? I’m reading this along with my friends H and Y. We are on a weekend break, according to the reading plan that we devised, but I am aching to read more of it tonight.

Maybe – With Middlemarch consuming my reading life in March, I don’t think there’s time to squeeze in some maybe books. But let’s make room for miracles.

  • Inverted World by Christopher Priest
  • October Light by John Gardner

New Books – This is the Singapore edition of this post’s segment. I wish I could say that I bought something from every book store that I visited there (I went to three last February 5), but I did all my shopping at Books Kinokuniya – Orchard Road. This is because 1.) the books at Books Actually are rather expensive (I let go of the Heinrich Böll and François Mauriac books with a heavy heart) and 2.) the staff at Littered with Books were so busy chatting with each other that I could have walked out of the store with a cart of books in tow without raising an alarm. Besides these, Books Kinokuniya has the lowest price range among the three. The selections fit my taste: the right amount of literariness but not too obscure.

  • A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard – Joining the bandwagon! (SGD 19.94)
  • Iceland’s Bell by Halldór Laxness – Of course I have to have this. (SGD 25.13)
  • Missing Person by Patrick Modiano – Supposedly the new Nobel laureate’s best work. (SGD 26.95)
  • The Notebook by José Saramago – Of course I have to have this, too. (SGD22.63)

Some of the books that I let go are Under the Glacier by Halldór Laxness, The Lives of Others by José Saramago, The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Redeployment by Phil Klay, and How to be Both by Ali Smith (I was following the budget plan that I made). I would have bought When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson and Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks, but they are not available.

Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams by Alexander McCall Smith

Weekend Book Review – Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams by Alexander McCall Smith

Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams is a retelling of the myth of the eponymous god. This is part of the Canongate Myth series, an ambitious project where many writers, such as Margaret Atwood, Ali Smith, Michel Faber, A. S. Byatt, and more, contribute their modern takes on various myths. Most of the entries are short novels. If you do not have any mythological background, in this case Angus’s, you will not get lost and you’d appreciate the melding of the myths into the modern setting.

The book is composed of ten chapters that alternate between the story of Angus and his interventions in the lives of modern characters. The anecdotal modern inserts have two intrinsic themes: the role of dreams in our lives and love in its many forms. If one has the notion of high and mighty language owing to the fact that this is work based on Celtic myths, squash that one.

The chapters about Angus are general information about his story. Instead of the academic tone that one can get from reference books, the reader is treated to Angus’s stories rendered in a folklorist voice. However, it doesn’t go that deep, so one cannot use this as further reference if you want to find extensive information on the god’s history.

The chapters about the modern humans can be a little jarring. It feels like you are dropped in the middle of nowhere and now have to find your way around the terrain. It’s easy to navigate though since the prose is simple and easy to get into. There’s nothing impressive about it but it’s neat.

In That Was Then; This Is Now, a newly married woman is visited by Angus as she tries to settle, or not, in the married life. My Brother, a coming-of-age story of two tightly bonded brothers, is a parallel to Angus’s childhood. Another Boy Finds Out That His Father Is Not His Father, also a parallel, begins as a domestic tragedy but deftly ends in a humorous note. The last two, Is There a Place for Pigs There? and I Dream of You, are stories of romantic love.

There’s a poem that acts as an epilogue after the last story. Reading it makes me think that the Irish and the Scots, in at least a part of their lives, waited for Angus to give them the dreams that they desire.

Will he bring me some sort of quietus,
Some form of understanding; will he break my heart;
Will he show me my love; will he give
Me heart’s contentment, the end of sorrow,
Will he do that for me; will he do that?

Dream Angus will do that, my dear,
He will do that; you may sleep,
For Dream Angus leaps light across the heather,
And the name upon his lips is our name,
And the gifts that he bears are gifts for you;
That is true, my dear, it is all true.

[Read in January 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]
[173 pages. Hardcover. A gift from Doc Ranee.]

Book Report: January 2015

Book Report: January 2015

It’s February. Already? Since we’ve just finished the first month of the year, let’s take a quick look at my progress of the reading and blogging goals that I set for this year:

  • Finish 50 books – I’m on to a slow start. I should be on my fifth book now if I want to meet this goal without rushing at the last quarter of the year, but I’ve been distracted by films. This distraction would not go away unless I finish all those Oscar nominees. But I’m not that behind. I’m halfway through my fourth book.
  • Read NBCC winners – I’m going to start this next month. One of my Goodreads groups will be discussing so I might as well join. I’ve originally intended to read my unread NBCC winners chronologically, but since I like discussing books with others, I’m ditching that rule.
  • Use Goodreads – I’ve started rating books on Goodreads again. One goal achieved.
  • Review ASAP – Blame it on the awards circuit. But hey, I wrote a review a few weeks back. I’ll consider this as another slow start.
  • Read and review more short stories –  I read the selections for The Short Story Station but I failed to review them on time. However, I managed to sneak in a review of a short story that I listened to via The New Yorker Fiction podcast. Uh, slow start?

I’ll check on this again in April. That’s a few more months away. Let’s get back to the present, shall we?

Books Finished:

  • Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams by Alexander McCall Smith – 3 out of 5 stars. I’ve wanted to read this for so long because hey, I have a Celtic god namesake!
  • Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman – 4 out of 5 stars. Click link for my review.
  • Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool – 3 out of 5 stars. Our book club’s book of the month.

Currently Reading:

  • Rabbit, Run by John Updike – On page 160 of 284. Quite slow for a quartet that begins with running away but I don’t really mind. The descriptions can test your patience but they are quite wonderful.

Maybe:

  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
  • Inverted World by Christopher Priest
  • Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos
  • October Light by John Gardner

New Books:

Argh. I knew it. I’m glad that I didn’t decide to lessen my book buying because I would have pulled my hair now for not following my resolutions. Anyway, I need subcategories for this month’s haul.

  • The Nobel laureates
    • Auto-da-fé by Elias Canetti – (Php 449.00, Chapter IX Books, January 13)
    • The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo José Cela – (Php 250.00, Undertow Books, January 12)
    • A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul – (Php 189.00, Chapter IX Books, January 30)
    • The Plague Column by Jaroslav Seifert – (Php 300.00, Undertow Books, January 12)
    • Small Memories by José Saramago – A second copy (a different edition, actually) wouldn’t hurt. Thank you! (from H, January 20)
  • The NYRB Classics
    • Inverted World by Christopher Priest – (Php 797.50, Solidaridad Book Shop, January 24)
    • Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang – (Php 200.00, Undertow Books, January 12)
    • The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott – (Php 250.00, Undertow Books, January 12)
    • The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier – (Php 225.00, Undertow Books, January 12)
  • James Salter Mania – I haven’t read this guy yet but my intuition tells me that I might like him. In fact, I’m so liking the title and cover of theTPB edition of All That Is. Heh.
    • All That Is – (Php 319.00, Fully Booked – BGC, January 15)
    • Solo Faces – (Php 225.00, Undertow Books, January 12)
    • A Sport and a Pastime – (Php 250.00, Undertow Books, January 12)
  • The Mass Market Paperbacks
    • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – (Php 379.00, Fully Booked – BGC, January 15)
    • A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov – (Php 149.00, Chapter IX Books, January 13)
    • Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac – (Php 99.00, Chapter IX Books, January 13)
    • Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm – (Php 79.00, Chapter IX Books, January 13)
  • A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers – A pretty book. I’m not really into HBs but I can’t resist this one. I forced a friend to buy it for me. Thank you! (from Kim, January 16)
14 out of 20.

The 21st century’s 12 greatest novels (so far)

The BBC Culture section asked several book critics to list the best novels that were published since the first day of this century. It has been 15 years since, and look at the books at the top of a list of over 150 novels.

The Top 12:

  1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (2007)
  2. The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003)
  3. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)
  4. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
  5. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
  6. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
  7. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)
  8. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (2012)
  9. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
  10. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
  11. White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
  12. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

The Runners-up:

  1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
  2. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (2001)
  3. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011)
  4. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
  5. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
  6. NW by Zadie Smith (2012)
  7. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (2004)
  8. The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (2003)

Among the novels that I’ve read, ten from the Top 12 and four from The Runners-up, I cannot find one that I would rather not see. Sure, I’d like to reorder them but I love them all. In fact, I’ve rated all these ten + four novels with either four or five stars. Three of the novels are on my reading lists (Ben Fountain, W.G. Sebald, Shirley Hazzard), and there’s only one that I’m only slightly familiar with. That would be Elena Ferrante. I say slightly familiar because before this list came out, I listened to the recent episode of a podcast that I’m subscribed to, and yes, My Brilliant Friend was the topic.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith truly deserve to be on the Top 12. It amazes me that each of them has an extra novel in the runners-up list. Just wow! However, I feel that other writers could have taken their spots, mostly for the sake of diversity. Besides, there are so many books published every year, what more in the last 15 years?

This list is a great one, but it also seems a little too populist. That’s only because I’ve read 70% of these novels. It makes me feel that the list didn’t make room for discoveries. This may not be the main point of the list, but it matters to readers to have something to look forward to, to have something to discover. Aren’t literary lists, at their core, recommendations by themselves?

So what if I take out the books I haven’t read yet and replace them with the ones I have read? First, let’s separate the unread ones from the list. These are the following:

  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (2012)
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
  • Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (2001)
  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011)
  • NW by Zadie Smith (2012)
  • The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (2003)

What novels will I replace them with? I am tempted to add short story collections but BBC Culture is specific about the form (The 21st century’s greatest novels). Also, it would be tougher to compile a list of the greats if we had everything to choose from. Anyway, here are my replacement novels:

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2005)
  • Death at Intervals by José Saramago (2005)
  • The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (2005)
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)
  • Tinkers by Paul Harding (2008)

Coincidentally, I’ve chosen novels from years that are not represented, namely 2005 and 2008. And why isn’t there a single novel here published in 2014? I wish I could say something about it, but I’m a sucker at reading recently published books. Anyway, how will I reorder them? What’s my version going to look like? Here it is:

My Top 12:

  1. The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003) – up by 1. My snobbery is kicking in, but this is definitely the best novel of the last 15 years. It has great prose, unforgettable characters, overarching themes, social relevance, literary techniques, drama, everything. So why aren’t people reading it? Sigh.
  2. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2004) – up by 2. This may not be The Great American Novel but it’s the kind of novel that one would want to come home to. It’s worth waiting two decades for Robinson to finish this.
  3. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001) – up by 6. It’s just amazing how a four-letter word could change the lives of people and how a single lie could stretch a lifetime. McEwan also gives us an insight on the process of writing, which is, at its center, a human activity.
  4. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2005) – new entry. The biggest snub. Did they forget that Cloud Atlas totally rocked 2005?
  5. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (2007) – down by 4. A rather big slip for the greatest book. It’s still great, but I feel iffy about it being on the top spot with all the competition going on.
  6. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009) – down by 3. I’m just glad that I gave this book another chance. The pronouns just go haywire, and so will your wits after finishing it.
  7. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001) – down by 2. This feels like The Great Modern American Novel and one has to give credit to Franzen, despite his irascible temper, for creating this funny and sprawling drama on a modern family’s relationships.
  8. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011) – new entry. The readability of this book is a trick because at the end, one is not sure if he or she has read it right.
  9. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005) – new entry. Another snub. Ishiguro’s heydays may be the early 90s, but this book, considering its emotional appeal, poses big moral and existential questions.
  10. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (2004) – up by 10. The best millenial translation, so far. It didn’t deserve to be a runner-up. It’s a shoo-in for a Top 12 spot with its daring storytelling. This book is an evidence that postmodernism is not yet dead.
  11. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010) – down by 4. This gets better with every visit. Perhaps that’s the point of it. A book about time taking its toll on the characters? It’s a classic theme done with sheer bravado and inventiveness.
  12. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (2005) – new entry. This might come as a surprise. It might also feel like it is only targeting a very narrow slice of the reading populace. Sure, the characters might look too poor for the Western reader, but aren’t loneliness and alienation things that affect everyone?

My Runners-up:

  1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) – no movement.
  2. Tinkers by Paul Harding (2008) – new entry.
  3. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004) – up by 1.
  4. Death at Intervals by José Saramago (2005) – new entry.
  5. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002) – down by 5.
  6. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000) – down by 12.
  7. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006) – down by 2.
  8. White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000) – down by 9.

How about you? What do you think of BBC Culture’s list? What novels do you think should or should not be on the list? What are your greatest novels of this century so far?