➯ Gilead Read ➸ Author Marilynne Robinson – Horse-zine.co.uk

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10 thoughts on “Gilead

  1. says:

    It often feels as if the contemporary literary scene has internalized Anna Karenina’s dictum on the nature of happiness—that it is not idiosyncratic, with the implication that it is not worth the kind of careful attention that literature applies to its subjects. We need look no further than our own lives to recognize the problem we’ll encounter if we preoccupy ourselves with the Tolstoyan “unhappy family” at the expense of the happy ones. Asked about our defining or most enlightening moments, most of us are as likely to recount happy memories as we are moments of despair. Yet too often, contemporary literature ignores this. Authors able to give the lie to Tolstoy by rendering joy as a complex substance are few and far between: think Ron Carlson, Laurie Colwin, Ellen Gilchrist, Richard Russo.

    In this context, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead comes not just as a breath of fresh air, but as a ray of light, quietly penetrating to the heart of mysteries regarding joy and love, life and death. Because it’s written as a series of missives from the aged narrator to his young son, meant not to be read until long after the narrator’s death, Gilead is largely plotless—a conflict of sorts between the narrator and a friend’s child does eventually develop, but it is a quiet conflict, and one that doesn’t become clear until nearly halfway through the novel. The narrative is never as important as the meditations that surround it.

    This is a novel that celebrates life, that variegated communion between inner and outer worlds, between ego and experience. But Robinson is also concerned with death, not only as the inevitable end of that communion but also as its thematic counterpoint. If Robinson’s territory here is the spiritual life of one man in particular, her thematic concern is how we in general can face the ends of our lives without despair or resort to existential reframings of the problem—how we can face the prospect of death, in fact, with quiet gratitude and even joy. Robinson’s portrayal of religion is especially deft; instead of opiate or panacea, her narrator’s Christianity serves as a lens, providing a stasis and a vocabulary through which the novel can wrestle with its concerns.

    Ultimately, the quiet conclusions that Gilead seems to favor—that the experience of existence is one that we should treasure as a gift, that we too often lose sight of the immense beauty of the world amidst our quotidian bustle, that love and charity have the power to remake lives—are neither religious nor secular. Rather, they are humanist; they all concern a belief in the fundamental dignity of human lives. Is it melodramatic to say that these are the kind of quiet encouragements that we could usefully carry in our minds into the shadows of our own personal Gethsemanes? Regardless, Gilead offers us, in its portrait of a long life reflected upon with some degree of contentment, a reminder of just how deep, enthralling, and abidingly strange happiness can be.

    Perhaps the problem is not that happiness is not idiosyncratic enough to be worth investigating. The problem may be instead that happiness is simply too big for most writers to write convincingly about, that perhaps joy, like God, is too capacious to fully describe. Yet here is the rare novel that suggests insights into the natures of both.


  2. says:

    This book is amazing. I can't believe those frikkin twits didn't give Marilynne Robinson the Pulitzer for this..... oh wait, they did. Well, I can't believe they didn't give her two!

    Seriously, you are probably thinking, "I've heard this book takes the form of an elderly, angina-stricken preacher in Iowa's long, Lord-laden letter to his young son about how beautiful the world is. I'm sure it's all very nice for some people, but I am way too big of a jerk to enjoy something like that."

    Well, let me tell you something, friend: I am a pretty big jerk myself, and I loved it. This is one of the better books I have read. If this novel doesn't make you weep at some point, there is probably something seriously wrong with you.

    I'll admit that, like *Valley of the Dolls*, this book is probably not for everyone. But I really do recommend it to people who (like me) are not religious, and find others' faith difficult to understand. If you're able to respond empathically to characters in extremely well-written literature, this might be the best chance you get at entering this kind of experience. That was the way I felt about it, anyway. You only need to suspend some judgment you hold about religion, and take the protagonist's faith the way you would another belief or experience a fictional character might have that's diffferent from your own. I don't want to get carried away characterizing what the result of that was like for me, but I do recommend giving this book a try.


  3. says:

    This novel reminds me—with its beautifully spare prose and the bleak stoicism of its characters—of three books: Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, Willa Cather's My Ántonia and Martin Amis's House of Meetings. This is not meant as a statement of influence, but simply one of kinship. The writing in all of these novels is conversational in tone and beautifully compressed, which is enormously hard to do, though it appears easy.

    Gilead is the story of a Protestant pastor, the Reverent Ames, who, in the midwestern town of Gilead of about 1950 or so, writes to his then seven-year-old son. The pastor is dying and the letter is intended to be read when his son has reached adulthood.

    In it the pastor speaks of his grandfather and his father, and the long tradition of Christian ministry in the family, that, the writer assumes, will not continue with the recipient of the document which we, a little guiltily perhaps, hold in our hands. For the sense is very strong here of the reader as interloper, gazing at personal documents not meant for his eyes.

    And just as we surely know that what we read can only resolve itself in death and dissolution, and we brace ourselves for that end--we've been given fair warning--yet despite this we find that there is no way to steel ourselves for the conclusion. We know vaguely the shape it may take, and yet it still moves us indescribably. This to my mind is great writing and no merely clever metafictional trickery can ever supplant it.

    Christianity is not entirely the point of the story. Though the pastor has been driven by it the whole of his life and it's integral to his concern for family and flock, and the natural world, which he sees as pervaded by spirit at every level. Faith here is the means by which Marilynne Robinson shows us her characters' humanity, the tenuousness of their existence, their lives of suffering and loss, impermanence and fleetingness.

    It has been wonderful for this agnostic to see how the old school, middle-American Christianity used to work in a good man. That is to say, how it drives him to ecstasis, to open-heartedness and love and an almost unbearable joy. It's pretty heady stuff. No doubt those so inclined will find the novel a powerful affirmation of faith, which is a fine thing. My point is that it would be a mistake to read it solely as a Christian novel. Masters like Naguib Mahfouz and Isaac Bashevis Singer have produced similarly powerful fictions using far different religious contexts. And Ms. Robinson's excellent work, like theirs, transcends its religiosity to bring us something deeply universal.

    V.S Naipaul wrote in one of his books on Islam that the great gift of religious people is their confidence. How lovely, I've always felt, to be able to take solace in such belief. The Reverend Ames never wavers in his faith, but it is only by constant self-questioning that he's able to sustain it. Life is suffering. I have been wrong when I've thought of faith as an opiate. For the thinking person it is as challenging as any other form of mindful living.


  4. says:

    Utterly absorbing...just finished it!!!
    Unbearably moving!
    At the beginning- I fantasized such a letter from my own father.
    As a child I use to look up at the sky and wonder where he was - and yes-- talk to him
    - and imagine him talking to me.
    There are sentences that I read several times - the ones I thought about when walking - between reading sessions.
    "I saw a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palatable currents of light passing back-and-forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them".

    "For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel as if you are with someone. I feel I am with you now".

    LUMINOUS BEAUTY... and a darn good story to the very last page!!!!


  5. says:

    A beautiful book of great wisdom and tenderness. Melancholy, but hopeful. It well-deserved the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2005, and surprisingly Marilynne's second book written 24 years after her first, Housekeeping (which I have also reviewed here on GR).
    In Gilead, Iowa, Rev John Ames is a 76yo preacher married to a much younger woman with whom he has a 7yo son. The time is the 50s and Rev writes this book to his son regretting that he will soon be dead while his son is still a child, so he wanted to leave something concrete about himself for his son to read when he is older. So, the book talks about Rev Ames relationships to his own father and grandfather (both also parsons) who are both long since passed away, as well as other anecdotes about how he met his wife and some of the philosophical and spiritual questions with which he struggles.
    In these musings, he speaks of his grandfather who lost an eye in the Civil War and fled Iowa at one point across the border into Kansas. When Ames is a boy, he and his father seek out the tomb of the grandfather and this adventure marks the boy forever. They find the grave and tidy it up and and as they finish they "saw a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them." (P. 16) Ames memories of his grandfather are "like a man everlastingly struck by lightning, so that there was an ashiness about his clothes and his hair never settled and his eye had a look of tragic alarm when he wasn't actually sleeping." (P. 57) This symbol of ash also appears when the original church of Ames' father burns down and the folks of the village are rummaging through the remains as rain breaks out. Times being quite poor due to the Depression, his father shelters himself with Ames under a wagon and they share an ash-flavored biscuit that the father had in his jacket pocket, "it was truly the bread of affliction, because everyone wad poor then." (P. 117)
    Ames loves his son and dotes on him but feels an immense gulf of age between them. His descriptions of the boy and his mother playing are priceless like this one: "There's a shimmer on a child's hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes." (P. 60) Or, "You appear to be altogether happy. I remember those first experiments with fundamental things, gravity and light, and what an absolute pleasure they were. And there is your mother. 'Don't go so high,' she says. You'll mind. You're a good fellow." (P.127)
    On of the themes that the latter part of the book focuses on increasingly towards the end is the rather ambiguous character, John Ames "Jack" Boughton, the son of Ames' best friend, Rev Boughton, who Ames had baptized as a baby. Jack spends a lot of time with Ames's wife and son and has some theological arguments with Ames. For a while, he is portrayed kind of like Ivan Karamazov, the eternal doubter and manipulator, and I even thought he might have aims on the Rev's family should he pass away. Without giving away any spoilers, let us just say that Robison masterfully portrays this character as astonishingly human.
    In summary, it is an extraordinary book and deserves to be read again and again. I'll close with this beautiful passage from towards the end of the book which, I think, sums up what Ames really is saying throughout:
    "Though I must say all this has given me a new glimpse of the ongoingness of the world. We fly forgotten as a dream, certainly, leaving the forgetful world behind us to trample and mar and misplace everything we ever cared for. That is just the way of it, and it is remarkable." (P. 218)


  6. says:

    Reading Road Trip 2020

    Current location: Iowa

    My reread of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead had me squirming the past two weeks like a child in church, enduring a boring sermon.

    Boring? No, not boring. Deep, profound, and, at the time, very unwanted.

    I've been feeling edgy and petulant these last two weeks. I actually pulled my mask off in a grocery store the other day, panting with claustrophobia. I've been agitated; and I certainly haven't been in the mood to listen to some dying man drone on and on about the good and bad old days.

    I wanted to be shipwrecked on an island where the only residents are Viggo Mortensen clones. I've wanted sweaty cave sex, I've wanted Tarzan, Treasure Island, The Blue Lagoon.

    But instead I got a dying old man, the Reverend Ames, and his painfully slow story.

    My reading experience of these past two weeks has reminded me that sometimes a good book lands in the right hands, at the wrong time.

    I tripped all over this read, and I could only chew forlornly at it for 10 pages at a time. I wanted to shout at the Reverend Ames: THIS JACK BOUGHTON GUY WANTS TO BONE YOUR WOMAN, OLD MAN!! STOP TALKING ABOUT FUCKING FORGIVENESS AND MAKE A TESTOSTERONE SMOOTHIE!!

    I wanted to corner his much younger wife in the hallways of their little home and whisper: you know you want to fuck this Jack Boughton guy. . . so just take the shitty old Buick and drive out of town to the cemetery and ride him like it's your last will and testament. It won't be long before you can't drive stick anymore.

    It was almost like the more the old minister talked about purification through fire and water, the darker my thoughts became. I wanted to burn all of our face masks in a bonfire, skinny-dip in the frigid waters of our white trash, pandemic plastic pool and savagely swat every damned devilish mosquito to death in our yard.

    I was so relieved when I arrived at this particular passage of the minister's incessant rant:

    If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions, then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional beside the exquisite primary fact of existence. Of course the Lord would wipe them away, just as I wipe dirt from your face, or tears. After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation?

    Whew! Okay, he's saying God understands that this pandemic is making me lose my mind.

    The truth is, Marilynne Robinson's writing is so damned inspired, my entire copy is filled with post-it notes now, in addition to all of the original pages I dog-eared back in 2004, when I read it the first time.

    It's a five star novel that deserved the Pulitzer, but. . .
    I don't recommend reading it during a pandemic.


  7. says:

    Dear Son:
    The Too-Little-Too-Late Dilemma of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

    It’s deceptively tempting to approach a book like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and see only the main character’s theological musings. After all, in a novel about an old man reminiscing about faith and family, there’s a plethora of weighty spiritual content; everything from careful exegesis of Genesis 22 to references to Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans. Needless to say, this is no simple “I remember when…” fable of love and loss. Issues are being grappled with, weighed and eschewed. However, to review the novel from a theological stance cannot merely mean discussing old John Ames’ opinions on war, forgiveness or predestination. That job belongs primarily to his congregants and family within the narrative. The question I, the reader, encountered was of the theology of a book wherein the entire premise is of a man wishing to leave a testament of his “better self” (p. 202) for his seven year old, but spends his final days journaling, instead of spending time with his son. This is the battle I fought with John Ames and Marilynne Robinson throughout my reading.
    It began when I realized that about every four pages I found myelf drowsing off to sleep, or thinking of topics far beyond the narrator’s journal entries. As I had approached the novel with great enthusiasm (fiction at last!) I wondered what could be sending my mind off into orbit. Why the dissociation? From the frustration with not being able to stay focused from page to page, paragraph to paragraph, soon emerged actual anger. I found myself choosing to put the book down and find other activities, almost as if to spite the narrator. Something was wrong. I was refusing to sit passively and listen.
    With a little reflection, this is what I discovered. I was incredibly angry that John Ames was writing on and on about how much he loved his son and his wife and how he wished he wasn't about to die, and there he was, “reflecting” instead of living! Enter the transference. I realized how little tolerance I had for the “nobility” of a strong, silent-type preacher man finally unloading the deepest parts of his heart and soul onto paper, instead of through interaction. The drowsiness coming over me was of not wanting to listen to this man write. I wanted to see him take action. I didn’t want to honor him by reading his last testament, because I do not respect the idea that somehow, as long as you say what you feel before you die, it doesn’t matter how little you expressed to those around you until that point. The book brought up anger with my father, his father, and the generations of quiet, long-suffering, missionary-type men I am descended from. Though I am not a man, nor very quiet, I know about long-suffering, and I could not suffer the boredom or veiled anger that lay between the lines of John Ames’ memoirs. I wanted to rip the journal from his hands, and essentially, tell Marilynne Robinson that I refuse to applaud her character’s poetry, theology or self-reflection, when he is in essence, taking the easy way out of sharing himself.
    I’ll admit, there are plenty of passages in the novel that show Ames’ growth and interaction with others. Even the fact that he married late in life reveals that he was unsatisfied persisting in the loneliness of listening to baseball games on the radio, writing sermons and hiding from neighbors when they knocked on his door. However, all his loving descriptions of sunsets, children’s laughter and the smell of raindrops, appear hollow the moment he starts describing his son playing outside as he writes. In that the entire purpose of the novel is for this aging father to express his heart to his son, for all the descriptions of moments of communion, (p. 103), I gained no sense whatsoever of how this father related to his son. Every human interaction Ames (Robinson) writes is marked by constraint, weariness and shy civility. The aching lack of intimacy in this novel made every page a grueling ordeal to wade through. “Take action!” I shouted. “Stop writing!”
    I’m left to wonder what Robinson feels about her main character. I sense that she adores his humble (though never naïve) faith, and the grace he tries to offer others. But the portrait she paints, or at least the format she has chosen to use, counteracts any message I might derive from the old preacher’s wisdom and experience. By writing the story as a last testament in-progress, Robinson has created an utterly passive character, a true bystander of the life he is narrating. I don’t believe this was her goal. We are clearly supposed to revel in the homely and kindly spiritual reflections of a faithful old coot that is continually surprised by beauty. But for this passive bystander, I felt mostly pity, and quite a bit of anger.
    Another perspective, however, is that Robinson has rightly captured the unfortunate experience of so many pastors, especially of Ames’ (and my grandfather’s) generation: that of distance and objectivity. My grandfather once spoke of a minister he served under who believed it was un-Christian for a minister to befriend his congregants because it would cloud his ability to pastor. Can we even imagine a pastor who would not eat supper at a parishioner’s home? Does Ames’ loner quality, his reticence to become entangled, simply reflect the expectations put on a country preacher? This was the time (and the concept persists in some realms) where the pastor was expected to run every aspect of the church. Ames’ statement that everyday felt essentially like Sunday because once one sermon was over, it was already time to work on the next (p. 232-233), reflects the overburdened lifestyle of one who is expected to shepherd whole congregations by sheer determination and will power- with no rest or support system other than other local pastors (Boughton). This symptomatic lone wolf quality made it difficult for me to believe Ames’ speculations on relationships, because I could hear his strained resentment trying to come out. (It finally emerges somewhat in regards to being given a godson without his consent, and over Jack Boughton’s flagrant disrespect for others).
    I have not written much of Ames and Jack Boughton, mostly because the character was introduced far too late in the novel to bear the climactic significance it was clearly supposed to have. The real story should have been how Ames chooses to reveal himself and be present with his young son, not his struggle to give grace to his black sheep of a godson. That is indeed significant, but is again, un-served by the journal format of the book. The developing story of Jack Boughton’s struggles have no place in Ames’ letters to his son. Confined by Robinson’s poorly chosen device, the last fourth of the book (despite being the most readable) breaks the rules set in the beginning of Ames writing to his son. Instead, the reader encounters Robinson’s clunky exposition about the life of a character we have not been effectively convinced to care about. Overall, this is my greatest criticism for the novel, both artistically and theologically: it’s nearly impossible to care for these characters when they are introduced as part of an avoidant old man’s journal entry. The richer story to be told here is that of an old man opening his heart through action and engagement with his community, after a long life of loneliness. In order to experience this part of the story, Robinson needed to give us voices other than Ames to listen to. Ames’ emotional distance in interpersonal relationships makes his spiritual and poetic ruminations fall short of the impact Robinson so clearly intended. This novel made my heart ache; wanting the silent men in my life to get up from their journals, and actually say what they’re thinking. And this, perhaps, is too much to require of a novel. Is it too much to require of these old men as well? Isn’t the real point of a last testament the admittance that too much has gone unsaid? Should we celebrate a theology that waits too long to speak?


  8. says:

    This is not a review. I wrote something that aspired to be a review but fell short. In the end all you really need to know is that I loved it. I finished it standing in line at the grocery with tears running down my face because it was that beautiful. It’s the ruminations of a man at the end of his life, it’s confession, it’s revelation, it’s a parable in a parable. It’s hopeful. Read it.

    I found this quote written on a scrap of something in my purse. "I know more than I know and must learn it from myself."


  9. says:

    My 4 year old son is going to die...sometime in the future, like me--wishfully long after me--and we'll have no more time to talk. We should hopefully grow old together, but we'll grow old together as men. Yes, we'll always be father and son, but for the most part when we talk and share, he will be a man. What should I tell him now, as a boy? He's too young to remember, but I have so many things I want to say, to teach, to protect... There are things I want to tell him that are important now, that are things he will need to know when he becomes a man.

    What if I die unexpectedly, and soon. What will I tell my son then? Nothing. He'll only have short, gauzy, incomplete memories of me doing something random with him. Teaching him to brush his teeth, buckling his car seat, throwing him into the air, comforting him when the thunder cracks; a dreamlike sequence of me passing through his thoughts, being present during an action, laughing at something he's done, somewhere. That's not enough. If that had happened with my father, I would have the slimmest perception of who he was and from what human stock I was beget. I wouldn't know my father.

    It's like this with my maternal grandfather. He and I were never men together. I was a boy, he was a man, and then he died. My memories of him are far too narrow--Christmas vacation in out-county Kentucky, a family reunion in a church basement, him sitting with unknown relatives under a tree drinking lemonade during a summer so humid I remember perspiration under his arms and old man breasts and him calling black people 'the colored.' Whenever he left the house he wore a wool hat, respectable, perfunctory, polished, like men in the 1950s, and a cane was hooked over his knee when he sat under that shade tree calling people 'the colored.' I so desperately want to know that man, my grandfather.

    I still have my father. I knew him when I was young; I knew him as my superhero father; I know him as a man. Thank God. I hope it pans out this way with my son. But, again, if it doesn't, then what do I tell him, now, that will guide and foster him into adulthood?

    The answer is a journal. Capture my thoughts now, so that he can read them as a man, whenever he's ready. Pass my wisdom to him now, my thoughts, my lessons, my umbrage. Exactly that is the story of Gilead.

    The father is in his mid-70s in poor health, nearing the end. His son is 7. The father is a minister like his father and grandfather before. The time is 1956 Kansas. The entire book is a journal entry for his son, not to be read until he grows up and becomes a man, and maybe not even then if the son decides against reading it. That's his prerogative. But, at least the father makes it available to the son. The entire book is a beautiful confessional of short thoughts on life, entries almost like one of his thousands of hand-written sermons bundled up with twine in the attic. He uses the written space to reveal family history, personal passions, his philosophy, his love, the guiding influences of his life. The book starts:

    "I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life...It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you're a grown man when you read this--it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then--I'll have been gone a long time. I'll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to myself."(p. 3)

    What a beautiful idea. Thoughtful, responsible, loving, timeless. My son will be a man longer than he will be a child. Childhood and adolescence are critical for human development and building basic personality traits, but reason, judgment, and wisdom wait to arrive until adulthood. That's when I need to talk to my son. So, unless I can promise my son I'll always be there, I need to sit down, collect my thoughts, and start writing a long letter to him. It will tell him how I grew up and learned about myself; it will tell him my joys and my strengths and my fears; it will tell him how I would do it all over again exactly the same way, and not to be so hard on himself; I'll tell him how I met his mother, and how our lives turned out so differently from the plans we made, but still so wonderfully; I'll tell him how I watched him grow up and rolled his ghostly thin and white belly skin between my fingers; I'll tell him how carefully he tottered over uneven ground; tell him how he always woke up with the same crazy bed hair, no matter the season or the length of hair or where he slept--always splayed out in the back and ruffled on the left; I'll tell him how I loved him in so many ways and know he'll be a great man and brother and father; I'll tell him people are mean, but not always; I'll tell him I loved rain to any other kind of weather; tell him to read more often; tell him to write to his kids. And when I write my journal, I'll have moments like this, I'm sure:

    "I have been looking through these pages, and I realize that for some time I have mainly been worrying to myself, when my intention from the beginning was to speak to you. I meant to leave you a reasonably candid testament to my better self, and it seems to me now that what you must see here is just an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what it is he's struggling with." (p. 202)

    Gilead is unique because of the subtle power of its narrative. It's a short book with simple writing, yet the father wrestles with the complexities of his faith, the enormity of life, and the profundity of culture and social values. Hidden beneath the plangent chords of his testimonial are approaches to deep chambers of religious philosophy and human nature. Marilynne Robinson achieves an awkward--but successful--balance in the book between, on one hand, a laser-focus on spirituality and, on the other, a broad, comprehensive account of one family's history and nature. It works, and it won the Pulitzer.

    However, for me, the book would have been better if the father wasn't a minister, and instead something more general like a farmer, entrepreneur, or laborer. Why? Because a minister lives his profession, always, unable to filter his thoughts and experiences through any other than a spiritual sieve. Everything a minister does is guided by religious precedent, biblical law and morality, and Godly intent. This minister--the father--was a good Christian, so there was only minor human infraction to reveal, and never scandal or salaciousness to confess. Instead, that kind of debauch was revealed in the confessions of a few members of his congregation. The minister led a life that was both very human but also very sterile. Compassionate but not very intriguing. Every man sins, yet there was very little confession from the minister. When I write to my son, I will reveal from my life the embarrassments, the pejoratives, the vice, and the shortcomings that make me whole. I think that's more realistic.

    Another great comment:

    "Why do I love the thought of you old? That first twinge of arthritis in your knee is a thing I imagine with all the tenderness I felt when you showed my your loose tooth. Be diligent in your prayers, old man. I hope you will have seen more of the world than I ever got around to seeing--only myself to blame. And I hope you will have read some of my books. And God bless your eyes, and your hearing also, and of course your heart. I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction." (p. 210)

    And so, 4 year old son of mine, if this review happens to be one of the written items you use to piece together a picture of your father, let me tell you this: I love you. I love your smell when you cry, the color on your cheeks in the summer, your early sense of humor, the spitting laugh you hold back when I tickle you, and the lines on the bottoms of your soft, pink feet. You don't necessarily have to be religious, but I think the secret to the world is to is to love one another. Be nice. Always take care of your siblings--even if they take a wrong turn here or there. That happens. Take your time, find the right spouse, and please have kids. Your dad gave Gilead 4 stars; give it a try. Maybe therein you'll see something of me.

    New words: susurrus, lour, fungo, mutatis mutandis, irrefragable, swain, miscegenation,




  10. says:

    paul schrader called his book on the films of bresson, ozu, and dreyer transcendental style in film. sorry, mr. schrader, for reducing your book and theory to a one-liner, but the transcendental style goes something like this: the intentional evenness and flatness (both visually and dramatically) of these films work to create a ‘lifting’ or revelation at the end, such as one may receive after hours of intense prayer, study, or meditation.

    as much as a book can fit within this category, i think Gilead does. traditional narrative is replaced by the writings of one John Ames, a dying 77 yr old congregationalist minister – future readings intended for his young son in the form of warnings, anecdotes, memories, lessons, and personal thoughts mostly on god, existence, belief, morality, and family. (not nearly as heavy as it sounds. the tone's actually mellow and melancholy and conversational)

    i have the same problems that other atheists/agnostics/skeptics have with religion and its adherents, but, unlike many of them, i see no inherent problem in belief without proof. in fact, i see something beautiful, almost, in deeply held religious belief. a confession: remember when that tom cruise scientology video was leaked a while back? the one in which he was universally ridiculed and parodied by all non-scientologists? well, a part of me was envious of him. envious of the focus and intensity and aggression and passion he felt for this thing that seems so wildly ridiculous to me. belief is something we all crave. we crave it so bad it hurts. and it makes us crazy. it turns us into self-righteous assholes or hateful fundamentalist evangelicals or bitter fundamental atheists or suicide bombers or pacifists etc…

    but i can’t believe. not in that sense anyway. i’m just not built that way. i’m scared shitless of an indifferent universe and a lack of absolute morality and the certainty that i will die and that every single person i know and love will die and that all of us, me and you and martin luther king and hitler, every one of us are just slabs of meat in a casket after we’re gone. but even that can’t make me believe without proof. and i waver between priding myself on adhering to the sad noble truth rather than the feel-good lie and between desperately wishing i could lighten the horrible burden of existence with the belief that we're all part of something larger than any of us can even fathom.

    and Gilead offers the best understanding i’ve ever read concerning all of this stuff from the POV of one who holds a deep, unwavering belief in god and prescribed morality. totally unexpected from a contemporary author in the days of falwell, robertson, warren vs. hitchens, dennet, dawkins. Gilead is a gift for the lover of literature and for the religious person and perhaps, more than anyone, for the open minded skeptic.

    John Ames writes:

    I have always wondered what relationship this present reality bears to an ultimate reality… Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannot be true. I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.

    if that last line doesn't do something to you, you ain't human.


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