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Mark

Gilead (2004)

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I'm coming to this discussion very late, so pardon me for crashing. I just finished the book last night. But I must say that Gilead was a thrilling book, full of the minor epiphanies that make mundane life extraordinary.

And the writing. Oh my God, the writing. There were passages of such simple lyrical beauty that at times I had to put the book down and simply pace around the room because I was so moved. The language wasn't flowery, but it bloomed. I'll put it this way. If I was younger, I would have attempted cartwheels. I have a depressive personality, and "joy" often seems far removed from my life. But when I find it -- as I do sometimes in music and books -- it seems all the more glorious. And I found it reading Gilead. As much as the book is about blessing the prodigals, that blessing seems to carry over even more into the lives of those who read it. At least that's the way it struck me. More than emerging enlightened or instructed, I emerged blessed. What a rare book this is.

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Mark   

Andy, glad to have you in the discussion. Thanks for posting. I'm nodding my head in agreement with every word you've written. Target date for finishing Gilead was Jan. 20 - it took me exactly one month longer than that, for precisely the reasons you cite. So many thrilling passages made me stop, stand, absorb Robinson's prose; so many times, I'd think, "This could not possibly be the work of a mortal!" So much eternal wisdom and beauty.

(And such is my difficulty these days that the most prolific reading I do is at the gym, on the stationary bike or treadmill ... yet Gilead is NOT a book that is friendly to all the noisy distractions of a cardio room.)

In addition to all the strengths cited by you, Buckeye, et al, it occurs to me that Robinson achieved another rare feat - she so affirmed the beauty of humanity that I found myself identifying with and "loving" every single one at some point or another.

Ames, in his covetousness and ashamed resentfulness of others' happiness; in his disapproval of Jack; and especially in his tender love for his wife and son.

Ames' wife, in feeling so out of place in Ames' educated, enlightened world; and in her Christ-like acceptance of Jack's flaws.

Old Boughton, in his unconditional love for his prodigal son, and his mercy toward Jack's daughter (which could, my cynical self says, be interpreted as protecting his son more than a genuine concern for the girl ... but I believe it was a combination of both). (And which makes me even sadder that Jack felt he couldn't approach his father with news of his "marriage.")

Glory, in her disdain for the theological argument breaking out over predestination in her kitchen.

And even Jack, in his screwed-up-ness, doing stupid, selfish things; half-believing in God when it suits him; and finally affirming his belief (I think) by accepting Ames's blessing.

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I agree with your comments about the sensational prose, Andy. I re-read some paragraphs numerous times just to linger over the elegant beauty of a description or insight. (I especially loved a short paragraph about the prairies near the very end -- I've read it aloud to quite a few people.) I read the book once, but likely much of it 2-3 times.

And while certain scenes are deeply moving, Gilead is a seamless work of beauty and grace in its composite whole, not just in its constituent parts. It's as if Robinson wrote it all in one sitting, fueled by one prolonged flash of insight. You used the word 'bloomed' and I agree; the sheer force of the book comes not like a whirlwind, but like the irresistable warmth of spring. Dare I say, like a still small voice.

BTW, another (very different) book that affected me the same way was Shadow of the Almighty (the writings of Jim Elliot) -- a book that moved me so much that I have begun writing my own book about Elliot. Pacing around the room, cartwheels, you name it... stunning prose.

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We've all flipped for the book, but as I read the recent posts, it occurs to me that someone out there may be less than thrilled by the book, yet hesitant to post because of the unanimous, rapturous praise for it here. I hope any detractors will come forward. It just feels odd to have a thread where we're in such agreement.

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I've been considering reading her essay collection, The Death of Adam. Has anyone taken a stab at Robinson's nonfiction?

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We've all flipped for the book, but as I read the recent posts, it occurs to me that someone out there may be less than thrilled by the book, yet hesitant to post because of the unanimous, rapturous praise for it here. I hope any detractors will come forward. It just feels odd to have a thread where we're in such agreement.

Well, let me help you out and offer a slightly dissenting take on Housekeeping, Robinson's earlier novel. :)

I read it years ago. And I would say that I appreciated it more than liked it. There's no question that Robinson is a brilliant stylist. But I found the eccentric characters a little too eccentric, and I had the same reaction that I often have to John Irving's characters. They were inordinately entertaining and clever, but I could never quite see them as real people. I did not have that problem with Gilead, which I found entirely believable.

I also think that Robinson pared back her style in the twenty years between Housekeeping and Gilead. There are many beautifully lyrical passages in Housekeeping as well, but I sometimes had the impression that Robinson was showing off. The many long, sometimes interminable passages about water, ice, and light struck me that way. They were beautiful. But sometimes they felt like nature set pieces, exquisite essays about the natural world stuck in the middle of the novel, and in that sense they detracted from the overall power of the work.

But I'm quibbling. I think Gilead just entered the pantheon of one of the greatest books I've ever read, and those criticisms should be read in that context.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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More than emerging enlightened or instructed, I emerged blessed. What a rare book this is.

Good stuff.

There are many beautifully lyrical passages in Housekeeping as well, but I sometimes had the impression that Robinson was showing off

A couple of passages in Gilead made me feel that way too, but far too few to cause me any concerns. I'd have to search really hard to find which ones they were. Christian's comment about opposing views is intriguing--after I read the book I went to metacritic to look for negative reviews. There were only a few, none very compelling.

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Darren H   

Sixty pages in, I haven't yet learned enough about any of Housekeeping's characters to decide whether they're Irving-like eccentric. (And I hope I end up disagreeing with you, Andy, because I have a low tolerance for Irving eccentricity.) But I know what you mean about the paring down of Robinson's prose. The sentences are noticeably longer, and more than once already I've found myself at the end of a long line unsure of what the subject and verb were, exactly. So far, at least, rereading lines has proven worthy of the effort.

Here's a question (I'm asking because I haven't yet answered it for myself): Is Robinson's writing nostalgic? And, if so, is this a good or bad thing? I was actually a bit disappointed to discover that Housekeeping is also set in small-town, early-20th century America. Maybe another way to ask the question is, Is Robinson's prose style appropriate for a contemporary American story?

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Andrew   

I started to read The Death of Adam and came away mostly unimpressed (although I appreciated the essay on Bonhoeffer). Surprisingly, after the lightness and grace of Gilead, I thought her tone came off as unpleasantly critical and sniping in some places, while overly defensive and hagiographic in others. I'm planning to trade it in at the local secondhand bookshop.

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The current issue of The Christian Century has an inteview with Robinson. Alas, it didn;t make it to the online articles.

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ruthie   

As we haven't started up the new Book Club discussion, I thought I may add my $0.02 here quickly. I cannot believe that the title of Gilead was lightly chosen; it has too many connotations. I haven't heard that mentioned here yet, perhaps it is too conventional, but it is quite beautiful.

There in a balm in Gilead

To make the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead

To heal the sin sick soul.

Some times I feel discouraged,

And think my work’s in vain,

But then the Holy Spirit

Revives my soul again.

There in a balm in Gilead

To make the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead

To heal the sin sick soul.

If you can’t preach like Peter,

If you can’t pray like Paul,

Just tell the love of Jesus,

And say He died for all.

I found this book to be about the lifelong process of finding that healing balm in this little town of Gilead, in several different sets of fathers and prodigals the fathers just cannot leave behind.

The main definition of prodigal is recklessly excessive; it isn't the boy who strays.

I liked how both the fathers and the sons could be considered prodigals. Ames' grandfather, for example, for whom his father is compelled to travel to Kansas in search.

Anyhow, I need to go...there are some thoughts...

Edited by ruthie

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Thanks for pointing that out, Ruthie. Ya know, I'd never heard that song until The Spitfire Grill, but my dad, who's a Christian, remembered it fondly and loved Spitfire largely because of it's use of that song.

Edited by Christian

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ruthie   

I am contemplating if Ames is in someway playing the balm in his Gilead for each of the lives he addresses as he writes before he dies.

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Oh, Ruthie -- that's good! I believe you are right -- though it may be that he is the one who is administering the balm (grace?).

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A signed first edition of Gilead sold today on Ebay for almost $160. It was around $40 until the very end when the price shot up.

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