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Rabbit at Rest is perfect vacation reading

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Rabbit at Rest John Updike book cover

Books taken:

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
John Updike, Rabbit at Rest
Emma Donaghue, Slammerkin
Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects
Don Winslow, The Winter of Frankie Machine

The selection of vacation reading material is a task that this reader takes seriously. When planning for my first Momcation (just me and my mom, at a resort in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic), I knew I wanted some light reading (for around the pool) as well as some heavier stuff.

Falling in the “light” category, Gillian Flynn‘s Sharp Objects was the first book I started reading, on the plane trip south.

What a piece of crap.

I know Flynn is currently a critical darling for Gone Girl, which I’d read one chapter of and kind of liked but not enough to buy. However I decided to check out this earlier effort. After about 50 or 60 pages, when I realized what Flynn was up to – that Sharp Objects would basically be about 200 pages of red herrings and development of uninteresting (to me) characters, I decided to just skim it for the plot points and to see how the author resolves the tale of two dead girls. I’m glad I didn’t spend any more time on Sharp Objects than I did; this is one of those psychological thrillers where the psychology is all just a bunch of scenery-chewing thrown in to stall for time before the resolution.

I couldn’t even get through 50 pages of Don Winslow‘s The Winter of Frankie Machine. I liked Winslow’s Savages (which Oliver Stone turned into a movie last year) but this one did absolutely nothing for me. Winslow spends the first part of the book describing the main character’s near-perfect life to the point where I just wanted someone to shoot the son of a bitch.  When this didn’t happen – when, in fact, nothing really happened for the first 40 pages, which is definitely a no-no in a crime thriller unless you’re Patricia Highsmith (and Winslow is no Highsmith) – I was jonesing for some Elmore Leonard.

Then again, not too many crime thrillers could compete with Rabbit at Rest. I’d read all of Updike’s Rabbit series way back in the ’80s, when I was a mere lad, and loved them. I had a hankering to go back and the one I chose was the last in the series (although, in 2000, Updike published short story that picks up some of the series’ characters).

This was one of those great reading experiences – the perfect book at the perfect time in the perfect place. I started it on the plane and read 590-page tome every day of my vacation, usually around the pool, from late morning to mid-afternoon, by which time the rum had usually kicked in.

In Rabbit at Rest, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is 55 and retired, spending part of the year in Florida when he’s not back home in Pennsylvania. There is so much to love about this book I don’t know where to begin, but a few things struck me. One was how concerned Rabbit – and Updike – is about his (American) diet.

Rabbit at Rest was published in 1990, and though fast and processed food was already being blamed for health issues back then, it wasn’t nearly the topic of conversation that it is today, especially with the recent publication of Michael Moss‘s Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. But it’s on nearly every page of this book as Rabbit grapples with his increasingly poor health.

Another of Rabbit’s concerns is terrorism. The 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 Lockerbie air tragedy took place while Updike was writing the book and his protagonist spends a lot of time thinking and worrying about terrorism. Not exactly prescient, perhaps, since it was on a lot of people’s minds because of Lockerbie, but still a little eerie in light of what was to come.

One other thing I want to mention before going onto the next book: there is a scene in the first chunk of Rabbit at Rest that, for nail-biting suspense, is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Which just goes to show, I guess, that sometimes you find what you’re looking for – page-turning suspence, in this case – in unexpected places.

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