Thursday, December 01, 2005

I HAVE BEEN MEANING to write about my prodigious recent reading spree (that Philip Roth miscue notwithstanding), and last night's "D'oh!" moment provides as good an excuse as any.

I'll get to last night, but let me start with two novels by Richard Ford, "The Sportswriter" and its sequel, "Independence Day." I'm told the sequel was the only novel ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award. I read Ford and I can't help but observe that he packs a couple of years' worth of "Man, I'd better write that down!" observations into every paragraph. You know how you'll occasionally hear an ad boasting that it took an ungodly number of pounds of, say, tomatoes to make one can of, say, tomato sauce? Well, my someday-I'll-write-that-novel journal of cogent observations would work out to maybe a sentence or two of Richard Ford.

And just when I was feeling that depressed about ever writing something other than a usage scold, I belatedly discovered John Updike. The idea of Updike as somebody worth reading, frankly, had never really occurred to me until recently. I considered him not quite on the Grisham level, but along those lines. All that success, all those sequels. But for some reason I got a yen for relatively recent fiction this year, and his name came up. I just started "Rabbit, Run," and I just have to say this: I have nothing to say that's worth saying. Take everything I said about Ford and multiply by 10. It took Updike to really make me think about a depressing truth for writers: Every great line makes the job of future writers that much more difficult. This is a different kind of greatness from, say, greatness in sports. If Federer conjures a new way to put away a forehand and I somehow duplicate that, I can claim a tiny slice of greatness. But if Updike describes a chalkboard as "a milky black" and I duplicate that, I'm a thief.

The other Updike line that stays with me is about how all women look like brides in their slips. Wow.

But it wasn't until last night, when I read a relatively mediocre "Rabbit" line about water dripping off a swimming woman in "grape-bunches," that it occurred to me: Nicholson Baker! Years ago, after I fell in love with "The Mezzanine," I read all the Baker I could get my hands on, including "U & I," Baker's unabashed valentine to Updike. The grape-bunches reference (mainly the hyphen) screamed Baker. I had made a halfhearted attempt to get into Updike after reading that book, but I had shunned the "Rabbit" series and was never particularly drawn in. Still, I can't believe the Baker book hadn't occurred to me earlier as I "discovered" Updike.

In quite a different vein, I loved Julie Powell's "Julie and Julia," a Queens secretary's account of her quest to cook all the recipes in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in the space of a year. It's a well-written and entertaining book, but even more notable is the story behind the story -- perhaps the greatest success story in the short history of blogging. Powell's "Julie/Julia Project" Web site propelled her from a dead-end job to a well-compensated writer's life.

Another good one on the memoir side: "Made in Detroit," an account of growing up white in a city where almost all the white people fled long ago. I was one of the suburbanites, but I found a lot of familiar ground -- and there's plenty in the book even if you have no Detroit connection.

I believe I've mentioned these two before, but the greatness of Richard Yates's novel "Revolutionary Road" and Jeannette Walls's memoir "The Glass Castle" bears repeating.

Just so you don't think I fall in love with everything I read, a strong "eh" for "How to Cook Your Daughter," Jessica Hendra's memoir alleging sexual abuse by her semi-famous father, Tony Hendra.

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