Category Archives: Books and Authors

Updike and the Witching Hour

Ever since the entire drama surrounding Harry Potter and the Twilight series has somewhat faded, there seems to be an uncanny gap before readers or movie buffs experience any more witching antics. A bit of  googling online brought me to dwell somehow on the almost bookshelved Witches of Eastwick (1984), its filming and its never filmed sequel Widows of Eastwick (1998) written by John Updike.

Updike, whose 3rd death anniversary will fall at the end of this very month of January, was born on 18th March 1932 and succumbed to lung cancer on 27th January 2009. The only child of a mathematician father and a literary minded mother, he had the right atmosphere to bloom into a ‘distinguished Christian person of letters’ according to Jesuit magazine America which gave him its Campion Award in 1997. His initial sickly disposition troubled with psoriasis and stammering led to an interest in writing encouraged by his mother. His father provided the impetus for the ‘sympathetic father figure’ of his early work.

His childhood memories of the towns of Reading and Shillington were the later setting for the fictional Brewer and Olinger of his novels. Egged on by a passion to write, he worked in a local newspaper, graduated in English from Harvard and as an undergraduate at the same, had honed his story writing and drawing skills while working for the oldest humour magazine – The Harvard Lampoon; which had attracted him to Harvard in the first place.

A true son of the earth, Updike drew inspiration from the cluttered life on the margins using the American idiom as his canvas. Perhaps the most illustrative example can be found in his two times Pulitzer Prize winning portions of the “Rabbit” saga comprising of four novels, wherein the circumstances surrounding the life of its main protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom are shown against the backdrop of the social and sexual upheavals of the 1960s and onwards till the final AIDS ridden reflux of the 1980’s in ‘Rabbit’s Rest’.

A frank style of writing which held no room for obliqueness brought both fame and criticism for the content of his works. Redoubtable as he was, “Writers may be disreputable, incorrigible… but they dare to go it alone,” was the only answer he would give to this onslaught. Alone however, he did not remain. The Times, paid him the tribute of a feature story soon after his writing the novel ‘Couples’ in 1968 portraying the complicated liaisons of married suburban couples. On the other hand, all his writing is subtly steeped in theoretical and existentialist yearnings. He was an avid church goer and wherever possible used metaphors and symbols to bring forth philosophical questions.

Updike worked with most genres of prose as well as poetry including sonnets. His poems were light and amusing, characterised by attention to sounds and usage of colloquial language utilizing even brand names and imitating advertising jargon.

Perseverance, hard work and dedication became his personal axioms ever since he left The New Yorker, preferring a secluded existence in Massachusetts and raising his family on the returns of his writing alone. However, during his two year stint at the magazine, whence he had started his career, he had attained a fondness enough for it, to regularly contribute short stories, poems and reviews to it, throughout his life. Early on in his writing career, he initiated and maintained a rigid routine – writing diligently in a rented room for several hours six days a week.

Small wonder then that Updike received so many awards in his lifetime including the rare honour of being the third American to win the Pulitzer for Fiction twice and both the National Medal for Art (1989) and the National Medal for Humanities (2003).

Several of Updike’s works have been adapted for films. The most noteworthy amongst these are the 1960 novel Rabbit, Run as a full length film in 1970, the short story A&P (1961) produced as a 17 minute short in 1996, and Pigeon Feathers (1962) made for TV in 1987. The Witches of Eastwick (1984) produced in 1987 with a stellar cast comprising among others Jack Nicholson and Susan Sarandon, was well received and it remains to be seen if the recently written Widows of Eastwick (2008) has a similar fate in store.  Perhaps it is the lull before the witching hour strikes thirteen.

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Micheal Crichton

Three years ago, the sun of 4th November 2008 brought with it the unwelcome news of yet another author’s demise. This time it was John Michael Crichton – the one time anthropology Professor and author of enlightening and thought provoking novel-turned-films such as Jurassic Park (1993) and The Andromeda Strain (1971). He also wrote under the pseudonyms of John Lange, Jeffery Hudson and Michael Douglas. The last pseudonym was adopted while teaming up with his brother Douglas Crichton to write ‘Dealing…’ (1970).


Born in Chicago on 23rd October 1942, Crichton had a long and fulfilling life. His early leanings were invariably towards English literature even though he abandoned the course it due to disillusionment in the teaching methodology. A stint at HarvardMedicalSchool went the same way. However, till then he had found his forte – films. Westworld (1973) gave him the break he needed and then on, he and his writing flourished.


The popular television series ‘ER’ was his 1970 brainchild called Emergency Ward initially but Steven Spielberg got far more interested in converting Jurassic Park into a film. During the shooting for the latter ‘ER’ also found a solid footing in television.


At the set of 'Coma' in 1977

His writings were kaleidoscopic, each new design permeated with the theme of either technological dangers or medical complications. Mystery novels, his first calling, interspersed the others at intervals. Critics have speculated on the overly dramatic nature of his novels yet none has anything but admiration for his lucid style of writing combined with wry humour and effortless manner of communicating complex scientific phenomena to his readers. He researched his material extensively and brought to life well rounded characters, be it the 10th century Muslim in Eaters of the Dead (1976) or the psychologist in Sphere (1987).


On a personal level, his life was nothing short of tumultuous. Apart from the educational ups and downs his five times married and four times divorced status added to his emotional baggage.  Believing in the occult, he had his own person exorcised in 1986, the year before his fourth marriage.


As complex and fast paced as his novels, Crichton is a difficult person to analyse in a few lines. As he brilliantly though in a rather sordid way, put it in the first line of his autobiography: “It’s not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw.” Poignant, if the head in question is teeming with questions that each have more than one answer… The head of Michael Crichton.

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Its all in the Hat – The Seussian Magic

The Cat in the Hat

Dr Seuss – the name conjures up specifically Seussian images: a cheeky looking cat with a hat, a green Grinch with evil red eyes, and of course, the Lorax. Harnessing a potential inculcated by the rhythmic pie-chants of his mother and inspired by an admiring comment on his ‘doodles’ in his Oxford class by his then classmate and later wife, ‘Ted’ Seuss went on to carve his own niche simultaneously in the art world and children’s literature. His art lies between the surrealist movement of the 20th century and whimsical doodling of a man who claimed that he had never really learnt to draw!


Though Seuss enjoyed writing books that would encourage children to read, his books have symbolic elements meant for adult comprehension – the irresponsibility of ‘once-ler’ in the Lorax in using truffula trees to fuel his ambitiousness, or the controversial butter-battle book with its oblique reference to the growing threat of arms build-up and nuclear war heightened by its highly disconcerting blank page ending. Even his playful change of title in Marvin K. Mooney, will you please go now!,  as Richard M. Nixon in friend Art Buchwald’s column with Nixon resigning the next day aroused much notice.


Dr Seuss

As Dr Seuss wanted and envisaged, his books have been used for several decades as a medium for the teaching of English language, and as a means of encouraging children to read. His dream was realized to a great extent for even at the time of his death on September 24, 1991, his works had been translated into 15 different languages and over 200 million copies sold worldwide with 6 posthumous publications. The cat in the hat – intended as a children’s primer with the inclusion of 220 new-reader vocabulary words remains popular to date both in and out of schools.


He wrote 44 children’s books, over 400 World War II political cartoons and countless advertisements and editorials. Animated renditions of his nearly 30 of his books like the Butter Battle book, Gerald Mcboing-boing (1951), How the Grinch stole Christmas, and Horton hears a Who! (1971) among others, brought him further fame, prestige, one Oscar, two Emmys, a Pulitzer and a Peabody among others.


Dr Seuss enlivened many hearts and minds with his particular brand of fun and infectious optimism – “you’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So . . . Get on your way!” Teaching above all, the message of tolerance to young minds, Dr Seuss gave it all in his swan slogan shortly before his death -: “the best slogan I can think of to leave with the U.S.A. would be: ‘we can . . . And we’ve got to . . . Do better than this.” Needless to say, we agree.

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