Monthly Archives: October 2014

‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson

Gileadstarstarstarstarstar‘Gilead’ appears on Barack Obama’s favourite books list. Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, took up the challenge in 2007 of recommending books to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 101 books over the course of 4 years. Every two weeks he politely sent a book and wrote a letter with it, giving reasons for his recommendation. ‘Gilead’ is one of those 101 books. Martel says he hoped that Obama and Harper would discuss the book after Harper had read it, a sort of impromptu book club!

Pulitzer Prize winner in 2005, ‘Gilead’ does deserve the kind of attention that world leaders could give it. But it is surprising because even though it is a carefully constructed novel, it reads like a gentle ambling story offering glimpses of truth, love, grace, humility, and forgiveness. Story does so many things for us. It makes us more humane and more human and even the simplest story can be skillful at communicating profound and complex themes.

‘Gilead’ is a beautiful example of how a good story should be more about finding the right questions, rather than having all of the answers. This is what some Christian fiction suffers from, in my opinion – too many pat answers which tend to trivialize, moralize, and sentimentalize. In contrast, Robinson’s prose is refreshingly quiet and deep, a celebration of life in all its fullness. And yet, it also honestly conveys the tensions in ordinary relationships and personalities. We certainly are not perfect, but God loves us, and we can still be a joy to Him and to others even so. Wisdom is hard-won and grief and sorrow will always be a part of it.

Rev. John Ames is old and dying. He has a very young wife who has been a delight to him in his latter years and she has borne him a son. He starts a letter to this young son, who he knows will have to grow up without him. The whole book is the letter, without chapter headings or breaks. Written in a meditative style, Ames humbly and with good humour, tells his son about his ancestors, about the nature of love and friendship, and about the part that faith and prayer played in his life. He tells stories where the richest lessons are not so much taught, as caught. This is a devotional book but is approachable and captivating for any audience; one reviewer said, “even the faithless reader can feel the possibility of transcendent order.”

‘Gilead’ has to receive full marks, but having said that, I also recognize that not everyone will enjoy it. As a novel, there is not much plot and as a book about lifelong learning (Ames is still trying to figure things out in his seventies), easy summaries or generalities cannot be gleaned from it. This book is an experience. If you already read ‘Gilead’ years ago, I would recommend a re-read (it might speak differently to you now) or else pick up one of Robinson’s companion novels, Home, or the most recent Lila, both of which expand on other characters in ‘Gilead’ and do not need to be read in any order.

‘The Silkworm’ by Robert Galbraith

The SilkwormstarstarstarJ.K. Rowling has a sense of humour. After it became public that Robert Galbraith was a pseudonym for her new crime novel series, she came to the Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival dressed in a suit and tie! Rowling has implied that the new series which started with ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, will go the distance as long or longer than the Harry Potter series, with at least six or seven instalments. This second in the series was, in my opinion, way better than the first, so I think she is finding her stride in this genre, and with the characters of Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin. Although I don’t think this series holds any of the genius that she displayed with Harry Potter, I am looking forward to what is coming next. The series definitely now ‘has legs’, a pun in poor taste if you know that the protagonist is a war veteran with a debilitating injury.

‘The Silkworm’ is set in the literary world of authors and publishers and editors, perhaps because the author knows the publishing industry. When Owen Quine goes missing after writing a despicable controversial book, his wife calls Cormoran Strike to investigate. Quine has gone off before, but when it becomes clear that there are several people who are angry about the poisonous portraits he has written into the new book, and when his body is discovered in brutally bizarre circumstances, the investigator realizes there might be several people who wanted Quine silenced. I love how Cormoran gathers all of the suspects into one room near the end and flushes out the culprit – reminds me of the old classic whodunits. Cormoran as a character, in my mind’s eye, kind of reminds me of a younger, more handsome version of Fitz from Cracker (Robbie Coltrane).

JK Rowling in SuitRobert Galbraith even has his own website! (Robert Galbraith Website) I especially enjoyed the FAQs there.

Libraricating

“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage  and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?” Annie Dillard

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.With the explosion of social media and technology, we are reading all the time. And that is a good thing! Attached to our screens we are processing and interacting like never before. We love the little “ping” our brains get when we have new information, either in a tweet, an email, or with a piece of breaking news.

Books are brain foodBut what about the type of reading that has more depth, something sustained, something more than a snatch or a byte… something that we can become absorbed in, lost in. Our brains need that kind of deep engaging as well.

I know… I am probably preaching to the choir but I think we readers need to remind ourselves that what we are doing is really very, very good. It doesn’t matter if we prefer the printed page or a Kindle screen. It doesn’t matter if it’s a novel, a work of non-fiction, an essay, a short story, or a magazine article.

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we areUninterrupted sustained reading may seem like a gift if we can manage it, but actually it is vital to our health. Reading stimulates the brain, reduces stress, expands vocabulary, improves writing skills, sharpens memory, and causes stronger analytical thinking.

What is libraricating? Getting something from the library (or bookstore) that will lubricate your brain! 🙂

‘My Dear, I wanted to tell you’ by Louisa Young

My Dear, I wanted to tell youstarstarstarThis work of historical fiction is a highly readable, earthy, unique love story set in the midst of the First World War. It has a very “real” feel to it and I realized halfway through that much of the novel is true! The characters are well developed and memorable. There is some fascinating medical stuff in it that was new to me. I struggle with how much to reveal about the book, because much of the pleasure of reading it is in discovering how the story unfolds. So I won’t say much, except that parts of it may not be for the feint of heart.

Louisa Young has not included much about the battle details of the war itself, but rather has focussed on how people coped personally. She deals with relationships and what it was like when your loved ones went “over there”. And the myriad of reasons why they went. So many personal battles were fought in the living rooms and towns where no shrapnel flew, and the medical people who were ministering to the dead and dying were as affected as the soldiers in uniform. Young captures the longings and loss of war so well, and how a generation could never be the same again.

Included here are two links about medical advancements that you will find fascinating to read after you have finished the book if you don’t want any spoilers.

BBC iWonder
Guardian Article

‘Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life’ by Nina Stibbe

Love, Ninastarstar‘Love, Nina’ is comprised completely of letters written to her sister by Nina Stibbe who was a nanny to Mary-Kay Wilmers, a prominent literary figure in London during the 80’s. Famous friends would randomly drop by or regularly join for dinner, as did Alan Bennett. All of the name dropping may not have had the desired effect on me because I didn’t know too many of the people besides Bennett (despite the helpful Who’s Who list at the beginning of the book).  The letters and descriptions of Nina’s life as a nanny are witty and depict a very interesting and unusual family, but I expected to like this book more than I actually did.  Though quite amusing, it was not as funny as I’d hoped because it often felt like “insider’s humour” and much of it felt lost on me.

What is charming in the book, is that Nina is from rural Leicestershire and was also unaware of who all of these people were when she started as a young 20 year old in this well connected London household. “Being a nanny is great. Not like  a job really, just like living in someone else’s life.” Nina tends to the slovenly and has to learn how to cook, but gets on great with the children, Sam and Will. I did enjoy the dialogue around the dinner table which made me feel deliciously like a fly on the wall.

Here is an example. Nina has recently seen a bowl of dried lemons at Bennett’s house that she thinks looks like an old painting and she’s trying some decorating of her own in Mary-Kay’s house.

MK: Do we want all these old lemons?
Me: I’m drying them.
MK: What for?
Me: They just look nice.
MK: Do they?
Me: Well, once they’re dry, they will.
MK: If you say so.