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Simon Schama’s American history

The American Future: A History by Simon Schama

The American Future is a labour of love by the British historian Simon Schama, who clearly admiSimon_schamares America. This is a loving exploration of American history highlighting the dreams and ideals that created the country and continue to animate it.

Schama also notes the darker currents — of racism, for example, that led to segregation, xenophobia and colonial adventures like the occupation of the Philippines during which US forces tortured Filipino freedom fighters with impunity.

But America has never lacked voices condemning prejudice and inhumanity. From the abolitionists fighting against slavery to Mark Twain's condemnation of the Philippines adventure to the Freedom Riders and other civil rights workers, America has never been short of idealism and tolerance.

This is the America that Schama celebrates. The book begins with an eyewitness account of Obama's victory in Iowa.

Schama describes the joyous scene. It did not happen overnight. He describes how a grizzled white farmer who had once supported Kennedy campaigned for Obama – and how a high school senior seeing the big group of Obama supporters on the caucus floor switched his support from Hillary Clinton to Obama. 

Schama catches the wave of American idealism that periodically throws up a Roosevelt, a Kennedy, an Obama.

Civil War

The idealism takes its toll. Schama describes the bitterness and enormous cost of the Civil War.

American Civil WarImage via Wikipedia

The Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC, where more than 300,000 people are buried, is a memorial to fallen heroes.

But it was once home to the Confederate general Robert E Lee. He was the son-in-law of George Washington's adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who built the house.

It was turned into a graveyard by Lee's former friend, Montgomery C Meigs, a fellow West Pointer and engineer who had helped build the Capitol building before the war.

Meigs, who served as the quartermaster-general of the Union army, could not forgive Lee for joining the rebels. Turning it into a graveyard made the house uninhabitable, writes Schama.

Meigs' own son, who died in the war, was buried there – and so was he, long after the war.

Schama also writes about the black churches and black colleges as well as white pastors who took up their cause. We encounter heroic abolitionists who went from town to town, braving mobs and speaking against slavery.

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Books

A writer in the White House

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

Dreams_from_my_father

It was such a pleasure reading Dreams From My Father. It doesn’t read like a book written by a politician at all. Barack Obama has the novelist’s touch. How can you put down a book with passages like this?

Three o’clock in the morning. The moon-washed streets empty, the growl of a car picking up speed down a distant road. The revellers would be tucked away by now, paired off or alone, in deep, beer-heavy sleep, Hassan at his new lady’s place – don’t stay up, he had said with a wink. And now just the two of us to wait for the sunrise, me and Billie Holiday, her voice warbling through the darkened room, reaching toward me like a lover.

I’m a fool… to want you.
Such a fool… to want you.

It’s pure magic, Barack Obama describing the night after a college party makes you feel his loneliness as he listens to the music in his room.

He describes winter in Chicago and how it affected his work as a community organizer:

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Books India

Calcutta hosts world’s biggest book fair

I am surprised the BBC didn’t mention the Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith is in Calcutta (Kolkata) for the Kolkata Book Fair. Maybe the BBC presenter and the Indian correspondent Subir Bhowmik ran out of time discussing the size and scale and the city’s passion for books that has made it the world’s largest retail book fair. Yes, that’s what the BBC said, the Kolkata Book Fair is the world’s largest retail book fair. Attended by millions of people.

The queue to enter the fair could be kilometres long, said the BBC correspondent. That’s why it was moved away from the Maidan. Environmentalists worried the vast crowd was polluting the Maidan, the green belt in the heart of the city.

Book sales in Calcutta are not likely to be hit even by the global downturn, said Subir Bhowmik. Bengalis – that’s people like him and me – can’t do without books and travel, he said.

He has been attending the fair since it started in 1976. I was there too. That’s where I could pick up the Larousse encyclopedias and the Thames and Hudson art books on the cheap. They used to be sold at discounts by booksellers from New Delhi, where apparently there were few buyers for those books.

Here in Singapore I like Borders and Kinokuniya, the Japanese bookshop which is even better and has a larger collection than Borders.

But I enjoyed nothing better than visiting Rupa’s, the old bookshop on College Street. It used to be thick with Penguins – PG Wodehouse, AJP Taylor, John Updike, Gerald Durrell, Alistair Cooke, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Michael Innes, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, every author neatly arranged.

And it was at Oxford Bookshop on Park Street that I first saw the USA Today.

I also remember the bookshops in New Market, which used to keep neatly pressed copies of The Times and other British newspapers for delivery to the clubs in Calcutta.

Alexander McCall Smith tribute to RK Narayan

Alexander McCall Smith has been praising Indian writers such as RK Narayan, Vikram Seth and Vikram Chandra. The Hindu reports he said:

“The works of R.K. Narayan have steered my writing to a certain direction… The Man-Eater of Malgudi was the first of Narayan’s books that I read, and the effect was profound.”

Allen Ginsberg and Calcutta

But of all the writers who have visited Calcutta, the one who made the deepest impression was the poet, Allen Ginsberg.

He made friends with famous Bengali writers, poets and journalists when he visited the city in the early 60s. They did things I better not write about in Singapore. But here’s a report.

Calcutta is non-conformist, anti-establishment, said the BBC correspondent Subir Bhowmik. But the younger generation is more career-oriented, he added. Still, there’s hope…

Barack Obama is the biggest sensation this year. The Times of India reports:

Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My Father are out of stock in most bookstores. Distributors have placed huge orders for these two books, expecting a rush for them during the Kolkata Book Fair.

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Books

Updike, the most sensuous writer in English

The most sensuous writer in the English language is dead. No one wrote more sensuous prose than John Updike. He carried his lyricism into his 70s. He was 76 when he died yesterday. The cause was lung cancer, according to his publisher, Alfred A Knopf.

John_updike_telegraph

He was – for his style and views perhaps – overlooked for the Nobel Prize. But he did bestow it upon one of his fictional characters, Henry Bech, the womanizing, egotistical Jewish novelist who collected the literature prize in 1999, recalls the Associated Press. It adds:

His literary home was the American suburb. Born in 1932, Updike spoke for millions of Depression-era readers raised by "penny-pinching parents," united by "the patriotic cohesion of World War II" and blessed by a "disproportionate share of the world's resources," the postwar, suburban boom of "idealistic careers and early marriages."

He captured, and sometimes embodied, a generation's confusion over the civil rights and women's movements, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Updike was called a misogynist, a racist and an apologist for the establishment. On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing.

But more often he was praised for his flowing, poetic writing style.

Updike is as famous for his graphic approach to sex as his elegantly crafted dissections of the human condition, says The Telegraph.

The Wall Street Journal writes:

Mr. Updike, who lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts., chronicled all of America's many anxieties about sex, work, and death. Perhaps his best-known works are the four "Rabbit" novels that feature Harry "Rabbit Angstrom," a middle-class American who struggled to find his place in society.

The author was awarded the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for the third novel in the series, "Rabbit is Rich," and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for the fourth, "Rabbit at Rest."

Less flashy than Tom Wolfe, Mr. Updike's nuanced, supple prose caused many to regard him as the most talented wordsmith of his generation.

Obama supporter

Whatever his earlier views, he died an admirer of President Barack Obama. 

His most celebrated character, Rabbit Angstrom, was a Humphrey Democrat who became a Reagan Democrat. What would Rabbit make of the present election, he was asked in a New York Times video interview in October 2008. Updike replied:

“I am so much for Obama it would be hard for me to cook up a character who was for McCain. Rabbit would see, I think, the good of McCain… But luckily I am not writing about Rabbit any more.”

His last novel was The Widows of Eastwick, published late last year as a sequel to the successful The Witches of Eastwick.

He was quite perplexed to learn that both Obama and McCain included his books among their favourites, says the Guardian.

The New Yorker website features his last story to appear in the magazine, The Full Glass, published in May 2008.

The Atlantic magazine also showcases his stories, poems and essays which appeared in it.

Master of sentence, professor of desire

Troy Patterson writes in Slate:

Updike's most enduring legacy exists at the level of the sentence. Updike is, line for line, without peer, the finest American prose stylist of the postwar era. The precision is painterly in the way of photorealism, except when it's cinematic. Martin Amis, Updike's only rival as a post-Nabokov virtuoso, wrote that "having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes."

It also must be said that, on the subject of sex, Updike could be the worst writer his publisher Knopf has ever known. Last month, Updike justly earned a lifetime-achievement prize in the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. He clinched it with a passage in the new Widows of Eastwick that includes — avert your eyes, children — the following sentence: "Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea."

This is a very rare kind of dreck, the sort that can be secreted only by a brilliant professor of desire.

Updike's burden

The Guardian writes:

Undeniably white, heterosexual and a Protestant, during his lifetime Updike carried the burden of being a writer who was not black, not female, not gay, not Jewish – decidedly not multicultural. He had a gift for being on the "wrong" side of issues about which there was a liberal consensus. Updike supported the American intervention in Vietnam, and doubted the wisdom of government support for the arts. He wrote with passionate grace about the love of women, but found even elegant depictions of homosexuality not to his taste. Gay writers queued up to express their annoyance. With so much about him of the upper class Wasp, the reality of Updike's modest origins was forgotten.

He was born in Shillington, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania near the larger city of Reading. Updike's father Wesley, after periods of unemployment in the 1930s, found work as a poorly paid maths teacher in the local junior high school. Updike's mother, Linda Hoyer, worked as a saleswoman in a local store. Linda had a masters' degree in English from Cornell, and wanted to be a writer. (She later published two collections of stories, Enchantment, 1971, and The Predator, 1990.) When asked in later years about her son's great fame, she coolly remarked: "I'd rather it had been me."

'I'm a vanished man'

Updike achieved fame and celebrity when writers were idolized but now they play a less conspicuous role in our culture, writes Joel Achenbach  in the Washington Post:

Updike knew better than anyone that things had changed. Or at least, it had changed for him, as he told The Post's David Streitfeld back in 1998:

"I go to a college to speak and am treated like a little king, get applauded at the end — you'd be applauded no matter what you did up there. You get a lot o
f love that way, people line up with the used paperbacks to be signed. But you go into an airport bookstore on the way back and there's no Updike there. There's no Updike at all. I'm a vanished man, a nonentity as far as mass readership goes. I didn't used to always be."

Swinging Couples, Rabbit and Bech

The Telegraph says:

Updike became famous – and infamous – with his fourth novel, Couples, a sexually-explicit tale of New England suburbia in which jaded thirtysomethings stave off marital boredom by drinking, "frugging", coupling and uncoupling in an account which captured the mood of souring Sixties optimism. Published in 1968, it was to the ageing trendies of the era what Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was to its teenagers.

In his two series of novels – the "Bech" and the "Rabbit" books – he created two engagingly flawed heroes, versions of himself which somehow seemed to symbolise the American everyman: Bech, a hairy, self-scrutinising American-Jewish writer, and Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a former basketball champion turned second-hand car dealer trapped in a tedious marriage from which he seeks refuge in extra-marital affairs.

Updike gave his own opinion of Rabbit in an interview with the Telegraph last year:

In Rabbit, Run Harry is not somebody to emulate, although in later novels I think he becomes more middle-class and loveable. My idea in Rabbit, Run is that if everybody follows their dream there'd be a lot of damage – damaged children and spouses, wrecked cars, who knows what else.

'But you have these inner imperatives and the sense of yourself as the centre of the universe; after all, you are you, and you don't want to botch the assignment. So there is inevitably a conflict between selfishness and niceness. Philip Roth was always writing about people who want to be nice, but then they can't quite be nice because they have these terrible sexual urges.'

"Wasted" beauty?

The New York Times considers his place in the literary pantheon:

The kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels highlighted so vast and protean a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism as to earn him comparisons with Henry James and Edmund Wilson among American men of letters.

Where James and Wilson focused largely on elite Americans in a European context, Mr. Updike wrote of ordinary citizens in small-town and urban settings.

“My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class,” Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

Mr. Updike sought the clash of extremes in everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce. The only wealth he bestowed on his subjects lay in the richness of his descriptive language, the detailed fineness of which won him comparisons with painters like Vermeer and Andrew Wyeth.

This detail was often so rich that it inspired two schools of thought on Mr. Updike’s fiction — those who responded to his descriptive prose as to a kind of poetry, a sensuous engagement with the world, and those who argued that he wasted beautiful language on nothing.

The Times possibly sums him up best: