Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Another Gilead Passage

I have to copy another passage from Gilead because it's such a remarkable book. John Ames, knowing the end of his life is near, finds beauty in nearly everything. Mere existence is beautiful. Here's an example from early in the novel that I loved:

I really can't tell what's beautiful anymore. I passed two young fellows on the street the other day. I know who they are, they work at the garage. They're not churchgoing, either one of them, just decent rascally young fellows who have to be joking all the time, and there they were, propped against the garage wall in the sunshine, lighting up their cigarettes. They're always so black with grease and so strong with gasoline I don't know why they don't catch fire themselves. They were passing remarks back and forth the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me. It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I finished Gilead last night and have to add it with Out Stealing Horses to my list of the best novels I've read in the last couple of years. Maryilynne Robinson created a fascinating character in the Reverend John Ames; a decent man caught at the end of his life with his family just beginning. It's really an epistolary novel addressed to Ames' young son for him to read later in his life. His accounts of growing up in turn of the century Iowa, dealing with the loneliness of bachelorhood and coming to terms with his distrustful feelings toward his namesake, the son of his closest friend, provide more drama and conflict than I would have thought possible.

Ames' Christianity is handled deftly by Robinson. He comes from a line of Congregationalist preachers, but he is far from a zealot. Ames's brother was an atheist, to their father's discontent, and Ames recounts his poring over the texts that his brother recommended, but it only strengthened his faith. Normally, I would be skeptical of such a devout main character, but Robinson has instilled Ames with such intelligence and insightfulness that he's the type of man you want to spend time with. Chalk this up to one that didn't appeal to me on the surface, but turned out to be a favorite. Now I'll have to read Home.

Monday, November 17, 2008

God, the audience

A recitation on God that I hadn't heard before, from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson:

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Another Ketchup - Part Two

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose - I've always been a sucker for these kinds of books that mimic survey courses. This one is particularly good, helped along by the fact that Prose is a top-notch fiction writer. Her chapter on Chekov alone is worth the price of admission (though I must admit that I borrowed this one from the library).

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson - Awful title, decent book. I fell in love with Atkinson's previous novel, One Good Turn and then went after her earlier Case Histories which I enjoyed, but not quite as much. WWTBGN? falls into that same "not quite as much" category. All three feature the same retired detective, Jackson Brodie, finding himself wrapped up in someone else's problems. In this one, the setup seemed to take forever (well over a hundred pages) and was only saved by the fact that Atkinson captured the voice and mindset of a quirky, sixteen-year old girl perfectly.

The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton - I don't buy many books strictly on the advice of cover blurbs, but this one had a blurb from David Sedaris saying that he howled with laughter. I didn't howl, but it was amusing and enough of a plot to keep it interesting. It felt like Flannery O'Connor-lite.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson - This is one of the best books I've read in the last couple of years. A beautiful style (and I guess some of the credit has to go to the translator, Anne Born) and a deceptively simple story of a man who moves to the country to find isolation for the remainder of his life. The novel manages to pull in a story of familial love, betrayal, honor and a bit of WW II intrigue.

How Fiction Works by James Wood - This book almost feels controversial now that I've read so many differing opinions on it. I fall into the camp that appreciates the perceptive insights that Wood contributes. I don't find him nearly as pedantic as some of the reviewers--he tends to affect a lofty diction, but that's just his style. Plus, he's English. I did notice that many of the examples of literature that Wood cites are the same ones that he's cited in other essays (some of the same scenes were used to illustrate points in essays from The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self). Not that there's anything wrong with that. Whether you agree with Wood's championing of "realistic" fiction or not, I think the book is worth the read. His explanation of the "free indirect style" is reason enough.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

It's been over a month, but I have to mention the fantastic Nick Cave show at the 930 Club in D.C. Very likely the loudest show I've ever attended, they played a lot of material from the latest album which lent itself to a high energy show. Cave himself was mesmerizing. José mentioned something about what the two drummers were doing, but I couldn't take my eyes off of Nick Cave the entire time. He was like this shamanistic evangelist, wheeling across the stage on those impossibly long legs and gesturing to the crowd almost constantly. He even took a moment to autograph a book someone passed up to him.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Another Catch-Up

Again, I've been neglecting the roundup of books. So much so that I think I'll have to break this "Catch-up" into multiple parts. Here goes part number one:

The Book Against God by James Wood - After reading a chunk of Wood's essays, I decided to check out his novel. Thomas Bunting is working on his Ph.D. but spends most of his time jotting notes in his "Book Against God" and lamenting his relationships with his wife and his father, a small town priest. As one would expect, Wood's style is lyrical and humorous and is what makes the book worth reading--otherwise it's a standard "my life is falling apart, existential crisis" novel.

The Sea by John Banville - Elegiac is the word most often used to describe this short but dense novel and that's the first that came to mind for me when attempting to describe it. I'm not sure if anyone writing in English today writes a more beautiful sentence than Banville. Sometimes it's almost too much, like a whole dinner of incredibly rich Alfredo sauce. Still, beautiful with the great little twist at the end.

Harry, Revised by Mark Sarvas - I picked this up because I read Sarvas' blog, The Elegant Variation. While I think that the review in the NYTBR was unnecessarily nasty, there were several points made that I have to agree with. Most of the "comedy" scenes played like bad television slapstick (the ball-busting exercise bike ride, the peeing out the window onto someone's head scene) and the humor in general just didn't work for me. Almost all of the character's ploys (Harry goes way out of his way to help a downtrodden waitress in order to impress her coworker) felt like they were contrived solely to advance the plot of the novel, not because they fit with the character's motivation. I wanted to like this one, because I do enjoy Sarvas' blog, but it never took hold with me.

That's it for now. I'll get to the rest later. Today? I don't know--that's kind of stretching it.