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56 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Life of Owen Mackenzie as an American History
John Updike has since the 1950s been the chronicler of the American mind. His twenty-one novels, poems, short stories, and essays have examined the American Dream and its vagaries, the inner and outer lives of the men and women living through the 20th century, the dichotomy between classes, ethics, sexual maturation, big business, politics as seen from both sides of the...
Published on November 4, 2004 by Grady Harp

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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not among Updike's best
I picked up the volume after reading from somewhere that Updike had as his protagonist a programmer looking back to his life. Being an engineer myself, and acquainted with Updike's masterful hand in weaving American history with the lives of his characters, I couldn't but hold high expectations for the novel. I was to be disappointed, and not only for my own, inflated...
Published on December 9, 2004 by S. Park


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56 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Life of Owen Mackenzie as an American History, November 4, 2004
By 
This review is from: Villages (Hardcover)
John Updike has since the 1950s been the chronicler of the American mind. His twenty-one novels, poems, short stories, and essays have examined the American Dream and its vagaries, the inner and outer lives of the men and women living through the 20th century, the dichotomy between classes, ethics, sexual maturation, big business, politics as seen from both sides of the fence - name it and Updike has explored it. But John Updike also happens to be a gifted, eloquent wordsmith who can make small observations in a few words that become instantly branded on the brain as epiphanies. Reading Updike is a complete pleasure.

For those questioning whether this first man of letters has anything new to say, then VILLAGES is a must read. By the literary means of separating chronological 'biography' with evenly interspersed chapters that pause to explore the sexuality of the main character ("Village Sex I - VI") Updike's writing is refreshing and affords a better scrutiny of the life of a man as influenced by his gradual sexual awakening, underlining how those basic needs alter his movement through the stages from childhood through adolescence through adulthood to old age.

Owen Mackenzie was born during the Depression in Willow, Pennsylvania, (the first Village) a child of minimal means whose every discovery becomes a preparation for the Rake's Progress ahead. His introduction to the glories of the female body are bumpily naive and it is this 'frozen adolescence' the propels him through a marriage to a fellow student Phyllis) at MIT whom he marries and has four children, and upon graduation moves to Middle Falls, Connecticut where he slowly becomes a guru in the nascent computer industry. His various acts of adultery/affairs include a cornucopia of women of different types and values, and as his age and company and life in this village progress, he eventually must face his choices. He finally divorces Phyllis and marries another odd type (Julia, recently divorced from the town minister) only to end up in a retirement 'village' of Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts. A fairly simple story, and much in line with Updike's previous works.

The joy of this book is in the asides addressing issues few authors face head-on. "Capitalism...asks only one thing of us: that we consume. The stupider we are, the better consumers we are...You don't need to understand anything to watch television; they want you so stupid you keep staring at the commercials."

"A village is woven of secrets, of truths better left unstated, of houses with less window than opaque wall."

"Not for the rich the scattered wandering, the flight from ill-equipped nuclear family into America's wasteland of tawdry entertainments, of shopping-mall parking lots as large as lakes and seedy roadside bars advertising karaoke on Wednesday nights, of deserted downtowns and razed forests, of roving from job to job and mate to mate, amid such meagre electronic distractions as heist movies featuring car wrecks and fireballs and television comedies that reflect as in a fuzzy, fizzing mirror the awkward comedy of our desperate daily improvisations beyond the ordering principals of church, village, and family hierarchy...Only the rich - and not all of them, for some turn rebellious and others topple through self-neglect into lower castes - can afford the old structures that carry us from cradle to grave, well-fed, well-clothed, and well-respected."

"There are fewer and fewer somewheres in America, and more and more anywheres, strung out along the highways."

"It is a mad thing, to be alive. Villages exist to moderate this madness - to hide it from children, to bottle it for private use, to smooth its imperative into habits, to protect us from the darkness without and the darkness within."

The only summation of this book worthy of the writer is simply to encourage everyone to read it. An extraordinary journey is between these covers. Grady Harp, November 2004
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not among Updike's best, December 9, 2004
By 
S. Park (Bay Area, CA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Villages (Hardcover)
I picked up the volume after reading from somewhere that Updike had as his protagonist a programmer looking back to his life. Being an engineer myself, and acquainted with Updike's masterful hand in weaving American history with the lives of his characters, I couldn't but hold high expectations for the novel. I was to be disappointed, and not only for my own, inflated expectations.

It will be little exaggeration to state that the book is a sequence of sexual conquests made by our protagonist Owen Mackenzie in various "villages" (villages refer to suburbs the north eastern suburbs -- Connecticut, Massachusetts). After receiving his degree in EE from MIT, Owen marries Phyllis, a year older classmate, math major, proud, and a tad bit tepid. Owen in one of many house parties held his neighborhood gets tempted by his hostess, and after the abrupt end of the fling, manages to transform himself into a ladies' man. A dozen or so similar instances pursue. I patiently waited for that distinctively Updikean moment of poignancy. Such moment never arrived.

Updike's ability in associating everything -- animate or inanimate -- with some sort of sentiment is nothing short from astounding. It makes one feel as if those objects have memories of their own. For this very reason I found the novel worthwhile reading. But with little wisdom or insight from Owen to impart on us, these sexual experiences of his reduce to mere elements in a long, parallel sequence. Am I asking too much in expecting more from Updike?
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27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ENJOYABLE READ OF TYPICAL UPDIKE, November 11, 2004
This review is from: Villages (Hardcover)
This was another nice work by Updike. I would be inclined to ignore the few shots Publishers Weekly made, they are usually a bit over the top and I have noted before, that they quite often miss the mark. This was a well constructed work. Character development was excellent. I suppose I enjoyed it more, as Owen, the main character, was close to my age and I could relate quite well to his bewilderment and reactions to different situations. This is a story set to the backdrop of America, during the times of our greatest change, to the early deveopement of computers and the cluelessness with which most men display when it comes to women. Sex is handled, per usual with Updike, quite well. All in all, it is well worth the read and I very much recommend it.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written. Intensely annoying., September 16, 2007
This review is from: Villages (Hardcover)
In Villages, John Updike has two messages for his male readers. 1) Unless you hurry up and start cheating on your wife, you will miss out on some great sex. 2) When you do commit adultery, don't feel too guilty about it; after all, sex is an overpowering force of nature that even the most well-educated and well-raised among us are utterly helpless to resist.

There may have been other messages that didn't leave much of an impression with me.

It took me a while to figure out why I disliked this book so much. There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with doing a character study of a well-educated man whose main concern in life is to get the wives of other men to swallow his semen and who feels a little bit of guilt and quite a lot of pride about the hurt he brings to others. What is so grating about Villages, I think, is the sense--subtle but impossible to shake off even if you try--that Updike is entirely on Owen Mackenzie's side. That the book is, at its core, a paean to the forbidden ecstasy of adultery.

Updike knows perfectly well that readers are going to assume that Owen's values are the author's. So in order to distance himself a bit from his main character he devises a late, rather crude plot twist in which Owen's infidelity has fatal and tragic consequences. Voila, now the book is no longer a celebration of adultery but a moral debate with readers about it. Hmm...

Updike is sometimes accused of misogyny. Based on this book, I can't really agree. One thing seems clear, though: he has little interest in women who have little interest in sex. Don't be surprised, then, when Owen's wife Phyllis virtually disappears from the story for long stretches. Though sympathetically portrayed, she doesn't have the raw sex drive that would allow her to hold on to Updike's attention. It's a shame, really. I found her to be the most intriguing character in the book.

Updike's fascination with the mysteries of the female sex drive repeatedly distorts his judgment, at best driving him to paint a warped picture of womanhood, at worst causing him to stray into cheap pornographic fantasy made all the more jarring by the brilliant realism he achieves in his depiction of environments and settings.

[...]

I guess the key to reading Updike is to accept that he will not inspire you to become a better or happier person or give you any kind of fresh hope or appreciation for life. If you just focus on enjoying the lush, refined prose you might be all right.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Computers and the Man-Woman Relationship., November 4, 2004
This review is from: Villages (Hardcover)
A tale of computers and the sexes. Owen Mackenzie is retired from founding a successful computer company, and is living the past, reflecting on the women of his life and on women in general. Somewhat perplexed by the whole thing, he reflects that "perhaps it was a simple question of electrical engineering: in a world full of plugs, nature must provide sockets." As a computer type, I would have thought he would have seen it as programming. Giving two completely different programs, putting in the same data on a spreadsheet and a word processor yields entirely different results.

If you are familiar with John Updike's work, some fifty books that have won just about every award there is, you'll find that he hasn't lost his touch. If you are not familiar with him, this is a book of our time, and it's a good place to get hooked.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If Rabbit Angstrom were a software engineer ..., November 4, 2004
This review is from: Villages (Hardcover)
... he might have had an MIT education, a stint at IBM, and a successful startup company that was then sold to Apple, allowing him to live the quiet and prosperous Connecticut existence that Owen Mackenzie is able to live between the covers of "Villages", with no concerns other than sexual education. But he wasn't, and he didn't, and the economically-tenuous but historically-rich world of the Rabbit novels is infinitely more rewarding than this clinical discussion of one man's sex life. The women in Owen's life, his two wives as well as his playmates and one-night-stands, are paper-thin caricatures, even when their body parts are described in clinical detail. I hope the lack of imagination is Owen's and not the author's. After Rabbit's saga, I'm willing to give Updike the benefit of the doubt and accept that the women and the airless world of this book are a picture of the engineer's analytical but unreflective mind, a man who tries to come to grips with the eternal question of what women want with the reductive, "Perhaps it was a simple question of electrical engineering: in a world full of plugs, nature must provide sockets." If you love John Updike, then read "Villages"; you'll recognize the voice and feel comfortable in these pages (except for the occasional familiar squirm during the "good parts"). If you are NOT acquainted with John Updike, do not start here. Read "Rabbit, Run" and its sequels, immediately.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Updike at the height of his powers, July 9, 2005
By 
M. Consol (Livermore, CA, United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Villages (Hardcover)
This novel is a true masterpiece, full gorgeous phrasings and extraordinarily keen observations. No writer is a greater virtuoso of the English language than Updike, but many of his books are plagued by scenes and storylines that dawdle and beat around the bush. Not this one. This book has a strong and well paced storyline, so you not only get Updike's immaculate writing skills but also the kind of forward momentum that keeps readers feeling a genuine sense of destination.

It's also has a flamboyant cast of characters, lead by Owen Mackenzie, who Updike takes from boyhood to the grave in a whirlwind expedition through childhood hi-jinx, courtship, marriage, fatherhood, numerous extra-marital affairs, business relationships and a career as a computer engineer and entrepreneur. You get a surprisingly well-informed and entertaining history of the computer industry's evolution. Updike makes extraordinary observations about digital devices and their analogies to the humanity.

It's also a very sexy book, built around male/female relationships, some sanctioned, some illicit. Nobody writes sex and love scenes like Updike, and this book is loaded with them. They're not so much descriptions of the act as they are beautifully and incisively crafted explorations of human geography and emotion. Some of these scenes are so literary even Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson would have difficulty quibbling with them.

What a treat that John Updike, though advanced in years, is still turning out such powerhouse novels.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not My Favorite, January 11, 2005
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This review is from: Villages (Hardcover)
I read every novel by John Updike and am always bowled over by his lovely and evocative language and his brilliantly nuanced exploration of circumstance, if not character.

But "Villages" delivered less pleasure to me, since it seems to employ Updike's amazing gifts only to explore a series of increasingly debauched extramarital experiences. While these are rendered masterfully, they don't seem to convey much more than a sad and decadent progression, which, ironically, comes to an end when the protagonist, Owen Mackenzie, meets his life's true love. In his final chapter, Updike summons his genius to create a moving context for this tale. But it's a brilliant ending to what I experienced as an uninspired tale.

Updike fans may also quibble with his treatment of Owen's first wife, who communicates her point of view only in a poignant argument with Owen after they have separated. Of course, this argument reads well. But, shouldn't her point of view come across throughout the book, not just to tie things up in a late chapter?

Updike fans should read this book. But the Master can (and will, I'm sure) give us more next time, when his brilliance will focus on more than just a man who married too young.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More Updikia, January 21, 2005
This review is from: Villages (Hardcover)
This is a bit disappointing from John Updike, who writes consistently beautiful prose here as elsewhere.

I guess the thing that's increasingly putting me off his stories is his habit of learning some stuff and shoving it into his work so that we can see he learned some stuff. I'm thinking particularly of a short story he did a few years ago about a banjo player touring Russia. The story is sprinkled liberally (whenever something is sprinkled, I guess it's "liberally") with supposedly insider opinions about banjo styles and other bluegrass arcana.

I'm a bluegrass banjo player, and I found it a bit tiresome to have someone appropriate superficial tidbits for gratuituous inclusion in a story; I didn't think the detail added anything, and found it distracting. I wonder if serious math people might react similarly to this novel.

Apart from that, this novel seems to be working in old, possibly depleted soil for someone of John Updike's greatness as a writer.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Book about Aging, Sexuality, Life, December 30, 2004
By 
Doug "dcb" (Holladay, Ut United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Villages (Hardcover)
Updike has an amazing ability to explain feelings, emotions, cause and effect in a person's growth from childhood to adulthood. We watch Owen grow into adulthood through his sexual relationships with various women including his two wives. The best work in the book is his description of mental fuzziness and oncoming senility; preference of sleep over sex, wandering through the house looking for his wife to tell her about a dream, fooling with the internet and forgetting the name of the guy he played golf with yesterday. It is real, touching, and yet, there is a lack of warmth, love and human emotion throughout. We don't leave the book loving and admiring Owen. We leave feeling sad and empty: here's the story of an emotionally immature and selfish engineer who lets sex and women rule his life.

But the writing is, on its own, poetic and beautiful.
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Villages
Villages by John Updike (Paperback - May 1, 2010)
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