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VILLAGES

Prototypical Updike: made new here and there by his ever-enviable novelistic skills, but marred by its more than passing...

A graceful panoramic depiction of individuals and their communities, which simultaneously echoes Updike’s 1968 novel, Couples, and may be as autobiographical a fiction as any he’s written.

The protagonist and viewpoint character is 70-year-old retiree Owen Mackenzie, who is stimulated by recurring, troubling dreams to recall experiences in the three “villages” where he’s spent most of his life: Willow, Pennsylvania, where Owen, sheltered and indulged by cautious parents, develops “his charmed, only-child sense of life”; Middle Falls, Connecticut, where Owen and his first wife Phyllis produce their four children while he builds the innovative computer software business that will make him rich; and Haskells Crossing in eastern Massachusetts (read: Updike’s longtime hometown of Ipswich), where he resides with second wife Julia, a former clergyman’s spouse acquired during the last of Owen’s numerous courses of adultery. The best parts of Villages are its early chapters, packed with delicately detailed observations of landscapes, interiors, and emotional states and felicitous sentences. By the time Owen undertakes his “practical scientific education” at M.I.T. and becomes involved with brainy, beautiful fellow student Phyllis Goodhue, Updike—ever the assiduous master of information pertaining to his characters’ livelihoods—has provided a really rather impressive crash course in the history and programming of computers. But then Owen begins his serial dalliances with (mostly married) neighbors and acquaintances, and the novel segues into the vigorous clinical sexual specificity that Updike (a) does better than almost anybody else now writing and (b) overdoes to an extent that blemishes even his best fiction. The story recovers somewhat toward its end, as Owen’s approaching death bestows a needed gravitas upon his compulsive egotism (about which, to be fair, Updike is unsparingly frank).

Prototypical Updike: made new here and there by his ever-enviable novelistic skills, but marred by its more than passing resemblance to books that he’s written too many times already.

Pub Date: Oct. 24, 2004

ISBN: 1-4000-4290-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2004

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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OF MICE AND MEN

Steinbeck is a genius and an original.

Steinbeck refuses to allow himself to be pigeonholed.

This is as completely different from Tortilla Flat and In Dubious Battle as they are from each other. Only in his complete understanding of the proletarian mentality does he sustain a connecting link though this is assuredly not a "proletarian novel." It is oddly absorbing this picture of the strange friendship between the strong man and the giant with the mind of a not-quite-bright child. Driven from job to job by the failure of the giant child to fit into the social pattern, they finally find in a ranch what they feel their chance to achieve a homely dream they have built. But once again, society defeats them. There's a simplicity, a directness, a poignancy in the story that gives it a singular power, difficult to define.  Steinbeck is a genius and an original.

Pub Date: Feb. 26, 1936

ISBN: 0140177396

Page Count: 83

Publisher: Covici, Friede

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1936

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