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Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism by…
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Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism

by John Updike

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“What art offers is space – a certain breathing room for the spirit.” - John Updike

Similar to classical violinists taking a master class with Itzhak Perlman, similar to generations of painters sitting at their easel before a Leonardo da Vinci, those of us reading and writing book reviews can likewise learn a great deal from an accomplished master of the craft. Hugging the Shore – Essays and Criticism by John Updike contains dozens and dozens of provocative, extraordinarily well-written essays, enough examples to keep any student of book reviewing going for many years. As a way of sampling this book’s rasa, here are three quotes from John Updike’s Forward where he specifically addresses the art of book reviewing. I’ve also included my modest comments on his quotes.

"Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea." --------- Well, certainly, if you write a novel or a collection of poems, you are opening yourself, your feelings and emotions, your ideas and values, your sense of language and character and relationships to yourself in the process of creation and also to the public via publication. However, I have seen many book reviewers taking strong stands on controversial subjects. Opening oneself to criticism, especially in an on-line format like Goodreads, is very much part of the agenda. Hugging the shore can have some pretty rough, choppy water to navigate.

"My own experience of authorship urges me to heed the author’s exact expressions and to condemn him, if he must be condemned, out of his own mouth." --------- Excellent point. This is why incorporating direct quotes from the book can be so helpful to readers, such quotes can serve as evidence to underscore a reviewer’s judgment. Also, of course, direct quotes provide a sample of the tone and quality of the author’s writing.

"Whereas book reviews perform a clear and desired social service: they excuse us from reading the books themselves. They give us literary sensations in concentrated form. They are gossip of a higher sort. They are as intense as a television commercials and as jolly as candy bars." --------- Ha! Love your language, sir. And as jolly as candy bars, here are a few of my very favorite reviews, each a one sentence review:

Nightmare of an Ether Drinker, by Jean Lorrain
“Almost too good to be true.”

The Book of Monelle by Marcel Schwob
“What the fuck did I just read?”

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
“It was funny, but I can't remember why.”

When it comes to book reviews, the first few lines can serve as a hook to prompt a reader to continue reading. Again, by way of example, here are a few hooks written by Mr. John, ever the virtuoso wordsmith, combining vivid master sentences by artfully orchestrating colorful vocabulary and turn of phrase, telling detail, and an ear for the rhythms of language:

Searching For Caleb by Anne Tyler
"Out of her fascination with families – with brotherly men and aunty women, with weak sisters and mama’s boys, with stay-at-homes and runaways – Anne Tyler has fashioned, in Searching for Caleb, a dandy novel, funny and lyric and true-seeming, exquisite in its details and ambitious in its design. She here constructs the family as a vessel of Time."

The Pornographer by John McGahern
"Surely one of the novel’s habitual aims is to articulate morality, to sharpen the reader’s sense of vice and virtue. Yet, in a time of triumphant relativism, speckled with surreal outbursts of violence on both the public and private level, light and shadow are so bafflingly intermixed that fiction exerts its own spell best in pockets of underdevelopment where the divisive ghosts of religious orthodoxy still linger. Out of a contemporary Ireland where the production of pornography is still a matter of, if not prosecution, self-reproach, and where a woman can still be concerned for her virginity and a man for his honor, and where the notion can persist in intelligent heads that “things were run on lines of good and bad, according to some vague law or other,” and where erotic adventure is still enough freighted with guilt and pain to seem a mode of inner pilgrimage."

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
"Like Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino dreams perfect dreams for us; the fantasy of these three Latins ranges beyond the egoism that truncates and anguishingly turns inward the fables of Kafka and that limits the kaleidoscopic visions of Nabokov. Of the three, Calvino is the sunniest, the most variously and benignly curious about the human truth as it comes embedded in its animal, vegetable, historical, and cosmic contexts: all his investigations spiral in upon the central question of “How shall we live?” In Invisible Cities he has produced a consummate book, both crystalline and limpid, adamant and airy, playful yet “worked” with a monkish care." ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |

Similar to classical violinists taking a master class with Itzhak Perlman, similar to generations of painters sitting at their easel before a Leonardo da Vinci, those of us reading and writing book reviews can likewise learn a great deal from an accomplished master of the craft. ‘Hugging the Shore – Essays and Criticism by John Updike’ contains dozens and dozens of provocative, extraordinarily well-written essays, enough examples to keep any student of book reviewing going for many years. As a way of sampling this book’s rasa, here are three quotes from John Updike’s Forward where he specifically addresses the art of book reviewing. I’ve also included my modest comments on his quotes.

"Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea." --------- Well, certainly, if you write a novel or a collection of poems, you are opening yourself, your feelings and emotions, your ideas and values, your sense of language and character and relationships to yourself in the process of creation and also to the public via publication. However, I have seen many book reviewers taking strong stands on controversial subjects. Opening oneself to criticism, especially in an on-line format like Goodreads, is very much part of the agenda. Hugging the shore can have some pretty rough, choppy water to navigate.

"My own experience of authorship urges me to heed the author’s exact expressions and to condemn him, if he must be condemned, out of his own mouth." --------- Excellent point. This is why incorporating direct quotes from the book can be so helpful to readers, such quotes can serve as evidence to underscore a reviewer’s judgment. Also, of course, direct quotes provide a sample of the tone and quality of the author’s writing.

"Whereas book reviews perform a clear and desired social service: they excuse us from reading the books themselves. They give us literary sensations in concentrated form. They are gossip of a higher sort. They are as intense as a television commercials and as jolly as candy bars." --------- Ha! Love your language, sir. And as jolly as candy bars, here are a few of my very favorite reviews, each a one sentence review:

Nightmare of an Ether Drinker, by Jean Lorrain
“Almost too good to be true.”

The Book of Monelle, by Marcel Schwob
“What the fuck did I just read?”

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera
“It was funny, but I can't remember why.”

When it comes to book reviews, the first few lines can serve as a hook to prompt a reader to continue reading. Again, by way of example, here are a few hooks written by Mr. John, ever the virtuoso wordsmith, combining vivid master sentences by artfully orchestrating colorful vocabulary and turn of phrase, telling detail, and an ear for the rhythms of language:

Searching For Caleb, by Anne Tyler
"Out of her fascination with families – with brotherly men and aunty women, with weak sisters and mama’s boys, with stay-at-homes and runaways – Anne Tyler has fashioned, in “Searching for Caleb”, a dandy novel, funny and lyric and true-seeming, exquisite in its details and ambitious in its design. She here constructs the family as a vessel of Time."

The Pornographer, by John McGahern
"Surely one of the novel’s habitual aims is to articulate morality, to sharpen the reader’s sense of vice and virtue. Yet, in a time of triumphant relativism, speckled with surreal outbursts of violence on both the public and private level, light and shadow are so bafflingly intermixed that fiction exerts its own spell best in pockets of underdevelopment where the divisive ghosts of religious orthodoxy still linger. Out of a contemporary Ireland where the production of pornography is still a matter of, if not prosecution, self-reproach, and where a woman can still be concerned for her virginity and a man for his honor, and where the notion can persist in intelligent heads that “things were run on lines of good and bad, according to some vague law or other,” and where erotic adventure is still enough freighted with guilt and pain to seem a mode of inner pilgrimage."

Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino
"Like Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino dreams perfect dreams for us; the fantasy of these three Latins ranges beyond the egoism that truncates and anguishingly turns inward the fables of Kafka and that limits the kaleidoscopic visions of Nabokov. Of the three, Calvino is the sunniest, the most variously and benignly curious about the human truth as it comes embedded in its animal, vegetable, historical, and cosmic contexts: all his investigations spiral in upon the central question of “How shall we live?” In “Invisible Cities” he has produced a consummate book, both crystalline and limpid, adamant and airy, playful yet “worked” with a monkish care." ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
Updike is one of the most important men of letters on the scene today. Was. His range was astounding. Art. World Literature. Poetry. Golf. Religion. The man was tireless. ( )
  Porius | Oct 10, 2008 |
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For Edith Oliver who proposes and Susan Moritz who disposes.
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Being naked approaches being revolutionary; going barefoot is mere populism.
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A collection of short pieces, including book reviews done for the New Yorker since about 1975.

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