Dave Wood's Book Report, March 11, 2009
Last month the U.S. lost one of the great writers in the pantheon of 20th century literature, John Updike, the kid from Skillington, Pa., who wanted to grow up and be a satirist for the New Yorker.
Updike succeeded at that and then some. Eatablishing himself at the New Yorker in 1954 at age 22, he went on to write a series of novels about Rabbit Angstrom, the lower middle-class kid Updike followed through his entire life.
He wrote non-fiction books about disparate topics, including golf, and 500 articles for the New Yorker!
He also wrote novels about a novelist named Bech, and even tossed Yours Truly into "Bech is Back," when he made reference to "That nice old books editor at the Minneapolis Tribune who always reviews your novels."
I always did, even novels that didn't meet with universal approval, including "Roger's Version," Updikes modern take on Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," whose main characters are the chair of he religion department at Harvard, his wide and her paramour, a grad student attempting to use the computer to prove the existence of God.
Delicious, but not a favorite of my feminist friends, many of whom mistook Updike for one of his characters. But even the naysayers admit that Updike was a masterful prose stylist who enlivened his elegant sentences with aken talent for observation.
Last month, the New Yorker published a swath of excerpts from the Great Man's contributions to the magazine. The following appeared in 1962, under the heading "Football Seasons" and illustrates the appellation he richly deserves,
"The Great Observer"
"Do you remember a fragrance girls acquire in autumn? As you walk beside them after school, they tighten their arms about their books and bend their heads forward to give a more flattering attention to your words, and in the little intimate area thus formed, carved into the clean air by an implicit crescent, there is a complex fragrance woven of tobacco , powder, lipstick, rinsed hair, and that perhaps imaginary and certainly elusive scent that wool, whether in the lapels of a jacket or the nap of a sweater, seems to yield when the cloudless fall sky like the blue bell of a vacuum lifts toward itself the glad exhalations of all things. This fragrance, so faint and flirtatious on those afternoon walks through the dry leaves, would be banked a thousandfold and lie heavy as the perfume of a flower shop on the dark slope of the stadium when, Friday nights, we played football in the city."
On the regional front, we have two books, refreshing because they're a cut above what we normally find in their respective sub-genres.
The first is "John Beargrease," by David Lancaster (Holy Cow! Press, $14.95), a local history book with a national appeal.
Most of us have heard of the sled dog race named after the famous Ojibway who served as mailman in northern Minnesota. But what do we know of Mr. Beargrease and his neighbors in Beaver Bay?
Not much and some of it untrue. Lancaster sets out to set the record straight.
He comes up with a fascinating profile of John Beargrease and his large family. Beargrease was a handsome if sad-faced man, who worked hard as a mailman, sailor and ore worker, who liked his whiskey but never shirked his responsibilities.
Lancaster makes good use of the sketchy primary sources acailale to him. Many of the white settlers were from Germany and new little of woodlore, hunting and fishing. But in documents left by the Wieland family it's clear tha Ojibway neighbors who lived side-by-side with them shared fish and game through the long winters and taught newcomers the ways of the woods.
The second is "Stradivari Don't Grow on Trees," by Agnes Maria Trifontaine (Xlibris, www.xlibris.com, $15.99).
Trifontaine lives in Welch, Minn., but not before living all over the world, including her birthplace, Aachen, Germany.
She intends to write for children set in various places where she has lived. Her first is set in Aachen, where the young heroine's grandfather is an antique dealer whose antique violin is stolen by thieves.
The book is full of geographical references, slang and customs native to Aachen. This a book designed for kids from 8 to 12. I'm slightly older (72), but I learned a lot by reading this charming book.
Dave Wood is a past vice president of The National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He can be reached at 715.426.9554.