Friday, December 16, 2005

John Updike Discusses Warhol's Striptease, Leonardo's Materials

John Updike Discusses Warhol's Striptease, Leonardo's Materials

(Interview. Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News.
The opinions expressed are his own.)

By Edward Nawotka

Dec. 16 (Bloomberg) -- In another life, John Updike might
have been a cartoonist instead of the author of 52 books,
including 23 novels.

A Pennsylvania farm boy who went to Harvard, Updike
contributed drawings to the Harvard Lampoon and spent a year
studying art at the Ruskin School of Art and Design in Oxford,
England. It wasn't until he joined the staff of the New Yorker
magazine in 1955 that he committed to just writing.

His latest work is ``Still Looking'' (Knopf, 222 pages,
$40), a collection of 18 essays on American art, from Winslow
Homer to Jackson Pollock. It is a companion volume to 1989's
``Just Looking.''

Now 73, Updike doesn't do extensive book tours. He spoke
with Edward Nawotka by phone from Boston, near to his home in
Beverly Farms, Massachusetts.

Nawotka: It's been 16 years since your previous collection
of art criticism. All this time you've continued going to
exhibits and reviewing various shows for the New York Review of
Books. Is that correct?

Updike: I usually write about two exhibits a year, usually
for the New York Review. Mr. Silvers, the editor, continues to
flatter me with the implication that I'm some kind of an art

Innocent Amateur

Nawotka: All along, you've maintained that you're an

Updike: I don't have any connection with the art world as
such. I don't live in New York. I don't go to the galleries. So
I do come to the shows with a certain innocence, about as much
as an average showgoer.

Nawotka: This book ranges from John Singleton Copley to
Edward Hopper. Do you have a favorite?

Updike: Hopper. Some of the earlier ones, the New York
ones, when you're looking in a window. I like the way he sees

Nawotka: You seem to have a strong relationship to the
Abstract Expressionists. In (1963's) ``The Centaur,'' the main
character is an expressionist painter, and in (2002's) ``Seek My
Face,'' there is a characterization of Lee Krasner, Jackson
Pollock's wife.

Updike: Yes, there was an attempt to imagine what it was
like to be a woman in the Abstract Expressionist scene. I'm
attracted to it because it was the most spectacular and dramatic
group movement in my lifetime. And for the first time, the
American colonies were bringing artistic news to Europe.

Macho Art

Nawotka: It was also quite masculine, macho.

Updike: It was macho, perhaps the last unembarrassed macho
art movement we have.

Nawotka: I understand you had an encounter with Andy
Warhol, of whom you write a short appreciation in this book.

Updike: I met him at some party. He was wearing a tuxedo
and I remarked that I didn't expect to see him in a tuxedo. So,
he unbuttoned his pants to show he was wearing blue jeans
underneath the tuxedo pants. I thought it was quite a Warholean
moment, a 3-D, surreal event.

Nawotka: If there was a particular artist from history that
you could spend some time with, who would that be?

Updike: It would have been nice to been able to advise
Leonardo that his ``Last Supper'' wouldn't last the way he was
painting it.

Reckless Chemistry

Nawotka: You mean you'd advise him to use better materials?

Updike: I don't know what he did wrong, but many painters
I've discovered in my limited self-education have used ruinous
methods. Including some of the Abstract Expressionists. Certain
things by Rothko are deteriorating with great speed. It wasn't
the Abstract Expressionist style to worry about posterity. They
used what materials they could and were quite reckless in their
chemistry, though the Pollocks hold up quite well. He did use
hardware store paints to great effect.

Nawotka: Have you collected art?

Updike: My present collection includes some things I've
been given, a Steinberg, and Andrew Wyeth had given me things
which I framed. By and large, I'm not a collector. I think the
amounts of money people expect to get is alarming.

Nawotka: Too disproportionate to what a writer might get
for a short story?

Updike: Oh, yes, or a poem. You can write quite a wonderful
poem and get just $60 for it, so you tend to harbor your pennies
if you're a writer.

Nawotka: Would it be far out to guess your next project is
a novel?

Updike: It is a novel. It even has a title: ``Terrorist.''
As a writer, you find that the older you get, the more removed
you get from the action. But I'm still trying to take the pulse
of the country.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bored With Xbox 360? Try `Freakonomics' and `Mao' as Gift Books

Bored With Xbox 360? Try `Freakonomics' and `Mao' as Gift Books

(Review. Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The
opinions expressed are his own.)

By Edward Nawotka

Dec. 14 (Bloomberg) -- You might think that a book reviewer
asks Santa for the Complete Penguin Classics Library -- 1,082 books
listed at $13,315.84.

Not so. What I really want for Christmas is an Xbox 360 game
console from Microsoft Corp. hooked up to a wall-sized plasma
television screen. And I don't feel guilty for asking, thanks to
Steven Johnson's ``Everything Bad Is Good for You'' (Riverhead, 256
pages, $23.95; Allen Lane, 10 pounds). Playing video games improves
our ability to decode complex puzzles, Johnson argues. Eureka! Pass
the controller so I can hone my critical faculties.

After all that mental exertion, I'll crave something less
taxing -- like a book explaining why the world is flat. Luckily,
publishers provided several top-shelf nonfiction titles to choose
from this year.

Start with Malcolm Gladwell's look at cognition, ``Blink''
(Little, Brown, 288 pages, $25.95; Allen Lane, 16.99 pounds). As in
``The Tipping Point,'' Gladwell marshals scientific research and
anecdotal evidence to challenge conventional thinking. This time,
he argues that gathering more data doesn't necessarily help you
make a better decision, be it choosing a mate or plotting a war
game. Sometimes following your instinct is best.

Freaky Economics

Counterintuitive thinking also informs Steven D. Levitt and
Stephen J. Dubner's ``Freakonomics'' (HarperCollins, 256 pages,
$25.95; Allen Lane, 20 pounds). This book gives serious
consideration to such questions as whether it's more dangerous for
kids to have a gun -- or a swimming pool -- in the house.

If you're among the multitudes who've read Thomas Friedman's
``The World Is Flat'' (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 488 pages,
$27.95; Allen Lane, 20 pounds), skip ahead. If not, you'll want to
know that the New York Times columnist says globalization has
become a greater threat to U.S. economic dominance than it was when
he published ``The Lexus and the Olive Tree'' six years ago.

Speaking of American hubris, don't forget the boys at Enron
Corp. Sure, you think you've heard enough about Ken Lay, Jeff
Skilling and Andy Fastow. Yet Kurt Eichenwald's ``Conspiracy of
Fools'' (Broadway, 784 pages, $26) invests the tale with enough
drama to trump most thrillers.

Another title that aspires to be a definitive account is ``102
Minutes'' by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn (Henry Holt, 322 pages, $26;
Arrow, 7.99 pounds). The authors recovered e-mail traffic and phone
transcripts to create a harrowing narrative of what happened inside
the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Vikings Fade Away

With Hurricane Katrina and all the other weather-induced
misery of 2005, my nominee for book of the year is Jared Diamond's
``Collapse'' (Viking, 592 pages, $25.95; Allen Lane, 25 pounds).
Diamond explains why some civilizations thrive and others, like the
Viking empire, fade away. He focuses on the environment, arguing
that how well we nurture nature may determine our fate.

Joan Didion made a comeback with her book ``The Year of
Magical Thinking'' (Knopf, 228 pages, $23.95; Fourth Estate, 12.99
pounds). In this painfully honest chronicle, Didion describes her
life following her husband's sudden death from a heart attack a
month before their 40th wedding anniversary.

Two other memoirs -- ``Oh the Glory of It All'' by Sean Wilsey
(Penguin Press, 496 pages, $25.95; Viking, 14.99 pounds) and ``The
Tender Bar'' by J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion, 384 pages, $23.95;
Hodder and Stoughton, 16.99 pounds) -- show that a misspent youth
can be redeemed.

Wealth and Barflies

Wilsey, who was raised by rich, crazy parents in San
Francisco, has written a laugh-out-loud chronicle of his absurd
childhood. Moehringer, who spent much of his Long Island youth
listening to barflies discuss the wisdom of Sinatra, delivers a
moving tribute to male camaraderie.

Plenty of noteworthy biographies came out this year, from
Doris Kearns Goodwin's look at Lincoln and his circle, ``Team of
Rivals'' (Simon and Schuster, 934 pages, $35), to Ron Powers's
superb ``Mark Twain,'' (Free Press, 726 pages, $35; Scribner, 25
pounds). One broke more new ground than the others: ``Mao'' by Jung
Chang and Jon Halliday (Knopf, 815 pages, $35; Cape, 25 pounds). It
highlights Mao Zedong's murderous legacy. The book is banned in

Lastly, I recommend Temple Grandin's ``Animals in
Translation'' (Scribner, 368 pages, $25; Bloomsbury, 16.99 pounds).
The author, an autistic professor, uses her illness to decode
animal behavior. Did you know that pigeons have been trained to
distinguish between a Picasso and a Monet? Or that prairie dogs
have a language with sounds resembling nouns, verbs and adjectives?
You'll never see your pets the same way again.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

McCourt's School Days, Moehringer's Boozer, War Doctor: Memoirs

(Review. Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The
opinions expressed are his own.)

Dec. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Before Frank McCourt won the Pulitzer
Prize for ``Angela's Ashes,'' he taught a creative-writing class in
a public high school in New York.

The course was so popular that one desperate mother offered to
spend a weekend with him -- sharing a bed at the resort of his
choice -- just to get her daughter admitted.

McCourt recounts this and other episodes from his 30 years as
an educator in New York in his latest memoir, ``Teacher Man''
(Scribner, 258 pages, $26; HarperCollins UK, 18.99 pounds).
On his first day at a Staten Island vocational school in 1958,
McCourt confronted ``a vista of breasts and biceps'' --the hostile
children of working-class dads who had fought in World War II. Five
schools, one community college and 33,000 classes later, he teaches
brainiacs at Manhattan's elite Stuyvesant High School how to get
into the Ivy League.

The classroom was good to McCourt. It's where he found the
irreverent, self-deprecating voice that he employs here, as in
``Angela's Ashes'' and ``'Tis.'' That charming blarney, along with
his knack for creating offbeat homework assignments -- he once
asked students to write an excuse note from Adam and Eve to God --
won over pupils and uptight school administrators alike.

Some scenes smack of every inspirational school movie ever
made. Yet McCourt regenerates the genre with his keen eye and
unfailing ear for New York argot. (``Youse don't lissena teacher,''
says one father.) Ignore the echoes of ``Goodbye, Mr. Chips.'' This
book is worth reading in its own right.

`The Tender Bar'

Like McCourt, who sought succor from school-induced stress in
the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, J.R. Moehringer has
spent plenty of time on bar stools. In fact, he wasn't old enough
to drink when he first landed on one.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times,
Moehringer grew up as the child of a single mother. He sought a
surrogate father among the denizens of Dickens, a tavern where his
Uncle Charlie tended the bar in Manhasset, Long Island. He recalls
his search in ``The Tender Bar'' (Hyperion, 368 pages, $23.95; to
be published in the U.K. next month by Hodder and Stoughton, 16.99

Dickens was a place filled with cigarette smoke and Sinatra on
the jukebox. It was the 1970s, and the customers were mostly men
who drove Cadillacs, wore Foster Grant sunglasses and spent their
days half-lit on Vodka Gimlets.

Drinking and Carousing

While Moehringer's mother and her extended family provided
food and shelter, the tavern offered education. There, Uncle
Charlie and his sidekicks -- Colt, Bobo and Joey D -- schooled him
in the arts of drinking, carousing and skirt chasing.

The memoir follows a classic coming-of-age trajectory, tracing
Moehringer's flight out of Long Island, first to Yale and on to the
New York Times. As the book closes, he returns to the bar after the
Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to report on the funerals of
almost 50 Manhasset dead. You'll grow so fond of the tavern that
you'll ache for the fathers Moehringer outgrew.

Jonathan Kaplan is a triage surgeon who admits to reading
``the war news like job-vacancy ads.'' He honed his skills on
battlefields in Angola, Eritrea and Mozambique. He recounts his
evolution as a doctor in his latest book, ``Contact Wounds: A War
Surgeon's Education'' (Grove, $25, 278 pages; to be published in
the U.K. this February by Picador, 17.99 pounds).

A white South African born in 1954, Kaplan was inspired by his
father, an orthopedic surgeon who served with the British army
during World War II and defied apartheid to operate on blacks back

Severed Nerves

The author's wanderlust set in early. Before becoming a
doctor, he worked on a kibbutz in Israel and lived in the
Seychelles among witch doctors. As soon as he qualified to practice
medicine, he went off to a war in Angola, where 100,000 land-mine
victims offered him plenty of practice.

Though Kaplan's depictions of suffering feel uncomfortably
voyeuristic at times, his descriptions of surgical techniques are
vivid. When preparing a limb for amputation, he severed nerves so
cleanly that they ``retracted up into the flesh,'' he writes.

Kaplan's previous memoir, ``The Dressing Station,'' offered
even greater medical detail. This account is more reflective,
delving into his motives. Far from thinking he's God, Kaplan voices
doubts about his professional ``suitability.''

War gave him a sense of purpose, he says: In battle, his doubt
``vanished in the immediacy of survival.''

Monday, December 12, 2005

Gift Guide for Guys: Christmas Books for Those Grumpy Old Men

Gift Guide for Guys: Christmas Books for Those Grumpy Old Men

(Review. Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The
opinions expressed are his own.)

By Edward Nawotka
Dec. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Books remain an ideal holiday gift.

They're not too pricey, yet reflect the thoughtfulness of the
giver. So why's it so hard to find a good book for a guy?

Blame it partly on packaging. Publishers wrap even macho
titles in dust jackets meant to attract women, who buy more books
than men do. Take James Frey's ``My Friend Leonard,'' a gritty
memoir about suicide and the Chicago mob: It comes dressed in a
pale pink cover and girly cursive type.

To help cut through the camouflage, here's a list of guy
books, sorted by personality types. You might find what you need
for that man who never wants anything (except a vintage Ferrari).

For the Alpha Males among us, there's ``Ultramarathon Man'' by
Dean Karnazes (Tarcher Penguin, 280 pages, $19.95). Karnazes has run
226 miles (364 kilometers) nonstop without sleep and raced 130 miles
through Death Valley, where his shoes melted. His autobiography shows
how much pain it takes to become an elite athlete.

For the man who has almost everything, consider ``The Complete
New Yorker'' (Random House, 125-page book and eight DVDs, $100), a
handsome set that collects all 4,109 issues in the 80-year run of
the New Yorker magazine through January 2004. You can browse on
your computer and print what you like.

Mr. Know-It-All might enjoy ``The Areas of My Expertise'' by
John Hodgeman (Riverhead, 235 pages, $22). This ``almanac'' of fake
history, oddball lists and absurd advice includes such things as
``short words used on a submarine to save oxygen.'' Also included
are ``jokes that have never produced laughter'' and ``brief lives
of some notable hoboes.''

`Smooth, Shiny Girls'

Dog lovers will fall for ``Marley & Me'' by John Grogan
(Morrow, 292 pages, $21.95), the story of how a young couple's
marriage profoundly changed after an irrepressible yellow Labrador
weighing 97 pounds (44 kilograms) joined the family.

For the fellow who fantasizes about becoming a private eye, try
``Philip Marlowe's Guide to Life'' by Raymond Chandler (Knopf, 83
pages, $14.95). This anthology of quotes from Chandler's noir novels
is made for wannabe tough guys who can appreciate a line like this:
``I like smooth, shiny girls, hardboiled and loaded with sin.''

Does the man like a laugh? He'll cachinnate over ``Don't Point
That Thing at Me'' by Kyril Bonfiglioli (Overlook, 174 pages,
$13.95; Penguin, 9.99 pounds). First published in the U.K. in the
1970s, this comedy detective novel stars Charlie Mortdecai, an
aristocratic art dealer/thief, and his manservant, Jock Strapp.

Plimpton on Golf

For the sports nut, look no further than ``Coach,'' edited by
Andrew Blauner (Warner Books, 283 pages, $25.95). An anthology of
25 stories about coaches, this book includes contributions from Pat
Conroy (about his basketball coach at the Citadel) and Jonathan
Ames (on the French commando who taught him to fence at Princeton).
George Plimpton discusses golf.

For adults who like comics, consider ``Absolute Watchmen'' by
Alan Moore (DC Comics, 484 pages, $75; Titan Books, 75 pounds).
This graphic novel, first published in 1986 and repackaged in a
gorgeous slipcase edition, is the original anti-hero superhero
comic and a classic.

Know a guy who plays air guitar? He might groove on ``Music
Lust'' by Nic Harcourt (Sasquatch Books, 285 pages, $16.95).
Harcourt is the Los Angeles DJ who gave artists like Norah Jones
their first spins on U.S. radio. His book recommends music for
``every mood, moment and reason.''

Cinematic Snobs

Movie snobs will appreciate ``Never Coming to a Theater Near
You'' by Kenneth Turan (Public Affairs, 401 pages, $14). A Los
Angeles Times film critic, Turan reminds you of ``all those great
movies you promised you'd see once they came out on video'' but
have probably forgotten about.

For the would-be world traveler, there's ``Honeymoon With My
Brother'' by Franz Wisner (St. Martin's Press, 275 pages, $23.95).
Wisner, a former Republican publicist and real-estate consultant,
was ditched at the altar. He consoled himself by selling his house
and taking a yearlong trip around the world with his kid brother.

Lastly, any family man should take a look at ``Why Do I Love
These People?'' by Po Bronson (Random House, 385 pages, $24.95; to
be published in the U.K. next month by Harvill Secker, 12.99
pounds). The self-help guru interviewed hundreds of families,
seeking to decode their secrets. He concludes that a happy family
life requires far more than love, though love is a good start.