Gilead - Review by Carole

I have been working my way through some of the Pulitzer winners, and I came across Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and was intrigued by its premise, a letter of an elderly father to his very young son who he knows he will not live to see grow up. And the title reminded me of the hymn "There is a balm in Gilead...", which continued to run through my head every time I picked up the book.

I always find it fascinating when an author writes as a character who is very different from themselves. I think that it must be very difficult for a female author to write as a man, in this case an elderly man, about something uniquely male, such as fatherhood. This strikes me as ambitious, and I was curious as to whether she could pull it off. But as I read it, I had no trouble believing the voice--it struck me as real.

I found the idea of a father writing to tell his son all of the things that he wants him to know because he won't be there to tell him when he is old enough to hear it very poignant. How sad to know that, and yet, it's been John Ames' reality since his son was born. He feels he was blessed with a wife and child late in life and that blessing is bittersweet to him. He can't believe he really has come to know these types of love after a lifetime of loneliness, but he also knows that it is for all too brief a time. I thought this came across time and again in his writings, and it pulled at my heartstrings.

I've read three books recently--Gilead, The Road, and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox--where the novel is one long piece. No chapters. I find this difficult as I'm an I'll-put-the-book-down-when-I-finish-reading-this-chapter kind of reader. Granted there are breaks in the writing, but it still takes getting used to. But in Gilead it makes sense because it's essentially one long letter, but I wonder if a series of letters would have been more effective. Or maybe it's meant to represent the sermon-style that John, a Calvinist preacher, is used to writing. I can only imagine how difficult it was for Robinson to keep this all organized to tell a cohesive story.

He tells us that every sermon he ever wrote is literally hanging over his head in the attic. I love that image--I think that would feel weighty to anyone! John's humanity rang true for me--he saved his work hoping it would be some sort of a legacy, but he constantly questioned whether any of it really had any lasting value. Even though I feel like Robinson deliberately didn't let us know the wife very well, I like that she seemed to think that John's work was valuable.

Robinson set herself another difficult task--her characters are introduced through a double filter. The characters are introduced to the reader only through the narrator. That's in itself is not so unusual, but John only shares the information that he wants his son to know. So, it is up to the reader to really read between the lines. What was the wife's story? Did she just see John as a means to an end? She seemed to need some stability in her life and she sensed that he was lonely, but I don't feel like that was all there was to it. Maybe she didn't love him at first, but she seems to genuinely care for him and she takes cares of him. At least, John seems satisfied with the relationship and that's what he conveys to his son.

I found several of the characters compelling. John's grandfather had a huge influence on John's life. The experience that John and his father shared as they search for and find the grandfather's grave understandably had a powerful impact on John as a young boy. Even though the emphasis was often on the grandfather, I found John's father a strong, but quiet character in his own right. John's observation of the father/son relationship between his own father and grandfather and between his father and his brother gave him plenty of examples to follow or discard as he determined his approach to fatherhood. Even though the influential men in life left Gilead, John remained. He seems at peace with that, but it seems to have given him plenty of fodder for contemplation.

John's boyhood and lifelong friend, Boughton, named his son after John. This boy, now man, seems to baffle John at every turn. Despite comforting people throughout his entire ministry, he seems perpetually unable to provide any solace for his friend's son. Boughton's son, in his actions and deeds, seem to lead to John questioning his own judgment on everything. It was interesting to me that this one character seem to be able to shake him to the core.

Boughton, also nearing the end of his life, provides John with much companionship through the years and also a view into a life he didn't get to lead. John seems to marvel at the different relationships that Boughton has with his grown children, all the while aware that he will not get to see his son as a grown man.

I thought that John's letter to his son is an act of love and the writing seems infused with feeling. I loved that he didn't preach to his son on how he should live his life. It was much gentler than that. I was particularly touched by this quote:

"But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love--I too will smolder away the time until the great and and general incandescence. I pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I pray that you will find a way to be useful. I'll pray and then I'll sleep."


Where We Buy Our Books, Part Deux

After reading New York Times reporter David Streitfeld's article about the cost of second-hand bookstores, I put some thought into my own practices and encountered another article that helped put things in perspective and made me better understand my ambivalence about the publishing industry — and other industries.

I wondered how much waste and excess is practiced in the publishing world, and I got a hint of it in an article by Motoko Rich ("Puttin' off the Ritz: The New Austerity in Publishing," New York Times, January 4, 2009). A lunch meeting between an author and her/his publisher isn't extravagant, but them having their own tables at The Four Seasons is a little excessive. So are insane advances for unknown authors, conferences that are just an excuse for debauchery and other misuses of funds.

The money isn't sitting in the safes, though — it's in the hands of the fastest dreg producers in the West, so to speak. If it's hot, there's a hardback book in the store awaiting your purchase. I'm all for pop culture, but readers shouldn't have to sacrifice quality for speed. Bake while the oven is hot, by all means, but let the dough rise first or you'll wind up with matzoh (which, truth be told, tastes like the box in which it is packaged).

Should there be fewer books published, then? Maybe — though that increases the chances of winding up with matzoh instead of beignets. (The Last Templar comes to mind.) I know reducing the number of titles published may create a dearth of O'Nan- and Gaiman-quality writers. I also know my Gaiman could be your Khoury (shudder). However, publishers found Gaiman and Pratchett before, and they will again — as they will the next Jacques or Evanovich.

And so will I, in the great world of books of any hands. In most industries, the original seller is the only one who provides a "cut" to the originator of the goods (publisher, designer, etc.). Resellers, a long tradition in every culture, never have had a responsibility to the originator for any item: clothing, shoes, music, dishes, electronics, movies. To throw away a book just because it's been read is as insensible as shredding a Van Gogh because the original owner died. Until the system changes, I will choose when to purchase something by when the urge strikes. New or used, full-price or discounted, library or bookstore — unless it's Jasper Fforde, Ariana Franklin or Sara Gruen, who will be purchased hot off the press because I just can't wait.


Horizon for Books in 2009

I've had a deuce of a time finding a list of books to be published in 2009. Usually my local newspaper's book section spends a centerfold on it, but not this year. And I have a theory for the silence: it's fear. And I'm getting really tired of it.

At Christmas, stores came up short on many goods. While retailers are lamenting the dip in sales, I contend it's the stores keeping little stock on hand "just in case it doesn't sell." I purchased more books last year than the previous year, and plan to buy even more books this year. So I beg publishers to go ahead and decrease the frequency of lunches at the Ritz, but allow this year's catalog to be robust.

But enough of trying to write on this wobbly soapbox. Let's get to the matter at hand: books! We have some favorites who are publishing this year, and we will be at the front of the line when their books come to the shelves.

While I'd like to address these in order of publication date, I must blurt: Jasper Fforde! Okay, I feel better, now that I can herald the publication of his new book, Shades of Grey, which is scheduled to be ready just in time for Carole's birthday. (Isn't he thoughtful with his timing?)

Other books of interest are set for publication this year. (Thanks to an article or two in Wikipedia — and Carole, the real Wikipedia — for this information!)

Christopher Moore has a book due to be published in February: Fool. Let me have the author describe the book himself:
This is a bawdy tale. Herein you will find gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity, as well as nontraditional grammar, split infinitives, and the odd wank . . . If that's the sort of thing you think you might enjoy, then you have happened upon the perfect story!
He had me at bawdy.

Find out how to Escape from Hell with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in February. This sequel to their clever 1976 novel Inferno will envision a science fiction writer as a modern-day Christ breaking the boundaries of Hell — with some help from Sylvia Plath. Talk about a conversation-starter!

Also in February, check out SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. This selection of vignettes about various afterlives offers what sounds like bizarre but oddly interesting ideas of what happens after we die.

Ariana Franklin has a new novel coming out in March, Grave Goods, third in her Mistress of the Art of Death series. I enjoyed her first novel, and her second novel, The Serpent's Tale, is on my nightstand (so look for a review soon!).

Joyce Carol Oates has a collection of short stories scheduled for release in March: Dear Husband, a series of stories centered on families and relationships. Carole named another Oates novel, We Were the Mulvaneys, as one of her favorites of 2008.

Sara Gruen, of Water for Elephants fame, is publishing a new novel in April: Ape House. This book features the bonobo ape, one of the species of apes with whom she spent time in 2007 at The Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa.

Another April release is Turn Coat, 11th in The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. I recently discovered the wizard of Chicago, Harry Dresden, thanks to my brother-in-law's help and his DVDs of the single season of "The Dresden Files" on the SciFi Channel. I'm intrigued.

Brian Jacques will publish his 21st novel this autumn. The Sable Quean is proof positive that the author is keeping his promise: as long as people keep reading his novels, he will keep writing them. According to Jacques, quean is Old English for "wicked lady." I hope he tours with this novel so I can hear him read again — it's a great treat.

Margaret Atwood's novel A Year in the Flood is due for release in September. From what I can tell, it's an apocalyptic story about Earth in the future. I have thrilled at some of her other less conventional novels, so this one sounds like it might be right up my alley.

Stop me if you've heard this one: Stephen King is coming out with a long novel. This time it's about 1,000 pages and expected to hit bookstores in September. Under the Dome is about what happens when people are cut off from their society — and, King states, is more "allegorical" than The Stand. He's been hit and miss for me for a while, but I'm willing to give him another shot, as always. After all, he is Stephen King.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is getting a new installation to the, er, trilogy in October: And Another Thing.... written by Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer. It will be the sixth book in the series, and Colfer was given permission to write this book by Jane Belson, the widow of Douglas Adams. Should this give me less qualms about the book? I'm not sure. However, I'll give it a shot.

Another novel due in October is The Wild Things by Dave Eggers, who re-tells the Maurice Sendak tale in novel form. Look for the Spike Jonze movie this year, too.

Have we missed your most anticipated read? Let us know!


Songs for the Missing — Review by Chris

Stewart O'Nan has a gift for introducing the everyday, the basic, even the so-called mundane, into a poignant story. He does that very thing in Songs for the Missing, his latest novel.

The question O'Nan addresses in this novel is, what happens next? His answer provides a tender, far-reaching, complex and incredible character sketch of tragedy and survival.

Kim is a teenager, barely 18 years old, who is about to leave the nest, so to speak, and begin college. She's not a bad kid, but she's not the best kid, either. She has relationships that are strained and prickly, fraught with change and peril. She yearns for freedom and adulthood, neither of which she will receive willingly from her family. It's not that she doesn't like them, but she has outgrown them in their current form. Change will occur, and soon — at the end of the summer — and she is anxious for that to begin.

We meet Kim right off the bat, which is good, because we need to know whom we will miss for the duration of the story.

What happens in this story is the anatomy of this family, though it perhaps mirrors many other families. It is painful to watch, ordinary yet profound, beautiful yet plain.

The story was simply told, yet magnificent. Readers were permitted into the inner sanctum of pain and confusion, in bed with the characters (so to speak), yet not once did I feel voyeuristic. Readers were kept in that inner sanctum and thus witnessed little of what police and others knew about the case. That was fitting and seemed a lot more realistic than a more traditional omnipotent storyteller. I liked that readers were not led by a narrator who could introduce them to the outsiders with the same level of intimacy as they were introduced to Kim's inner circle.

In this story, we see how each member of the family relates to each other, to others around them, to themselves in such a situation. In turn, I favored each member of the family: Fran, the mother whose loss matched her unflagging determination and memory; Ed, the father who found himself re-adjusting his definition of "caring" for his family; Lindsay, the younger sister left behind to face the aftermath.

Each character was realistic. I have watched families lose children, watched them learn a new dance around the gaping hole. I have heard their conversations, their grievances against authorities, life, their surviving family members. O'Nan captured them with grace and respect, reverence and unforgiving clarity. No one in these situations is a saint, nor are they sinners, and O'Nan allows each of them very human foibles and virtues.

Every time I tried to claim one character as my favorite, I changed my mind. I liked Nina, Kim's closest friend, who kept her secret as best she could but in the end was puzzled by the growth away from the place she and Kim shared. I liked J.P., who seemed to understand his role and how it evolved as the parents (inevitably) learned Kim's secrets, including the ones she shared with him. I sympathized with Lindsay, who saw her sister more clearly than anyone and whose wry observations were priceless. I worried about Fran, how her role changed as the situation changed.

The realism of the story unsettled to me, though I should have expected it from O'Nan. If you read it, and I hope you do, please let me know if it struck you the same way.


The Shack — Review by Chris

I'm not a fan of "philosophy" books that pass themselves off as fiction. Usually they're books with political or religious liens that try to be general fiction, as though someone wouldn't notice the pink elephant in the middle of the story. The Alchemist comes to mind, using what I considered New Age-like terms to reveal religious philosophy. A lot of people read Paolo Coelho's novel — it was on the bestseller list for ages — so perhaps I'm in the minority as to perceiving a certain shallowness to the novel.

Thankfully, The Shack did not have that problem. Author William P. Young very clearly discussed concepts of Christianity using familiar terms. And he did a clever job. He used situations and characters that allowed a full discussion of the subject, and threw in some unexpected characters and conversations.

For those who wish to challenge their ideas of faith and religion regarding Christianity, this is an excellent book to read. It's a tad heretical, but I like that kind of thing: challenges either reaffirm my ideas or change them, and I don't mind "being wrong." This is the kind of book you'll share with someone just to get the conversation started.

For those who do not wish to have that conversation, read it anyway, just to see if it makes you think. You don't even have to share the faith of the writer. If you have any religious ideology at all, this will engage you. The writer clearly meant to do just that, and in that, he succeeded.

My issue with it was the presentation. Very few people can pull off the "fake real" story. I'm sorry that Young is not one of those people. I know it is labeled very clearly as "fiction" on the back cover of the book, so one should not get too confused. However, the author attempted to mix a little reality in there, just happening to name one of the main characters after himself — then happened to have that character play an important role. Coupled with "this happened to a friend of mine" in the introduction, the author created a false premise that, as a reader, I found annoying.

The story is simple: Mack has a tragedy in his life. The author is kind enough to write it out in lurid detail, which was compelling and very disturbing. It was the best written part of the book, and thinking that made me feel ghastly and dirty. It felt inappropriate for me, in context. Give me innuendo, gloss over the tough parts and leave me with a modicum of peace. (I suppose the author should feel good about eliciting this kind of response from a reader about his storytelling, but I assure you, this is not a compliment. Write a thriller next time, Young.)

After his tragedy, he receives something unexpected that elicits an unexpected response: it gets his attention and gets him moving. He follows his instincts and finds himself in — the most likely place, alas. Throughout the book, Young mixes pleasant surprises with the obvious.

However, once the story gets going, it's enjoyable. I found it easy to invoke my willful suspension of disbelief and go for the ride. Unfortunately, once the story cascaded toward conclusion, the same niggling flaws from the beginning dislodged me from my reading "happy place" and made me read more critically than I would have preferred to do. It was not a deal-breaker, but it was a bit distracting.

Another issue I had was with the last few pages of the book. After the story ended, the coda lists all of the ways people can help promote the book. While ingenious from a marketing standpoint, it really ruined the book's finale for me. Right after reading a good ending, the next page is a commercial capitalizing on the story's power. Ouch.

A final warning: do not read the book jacket or back cover if you want the story to unfold with a modicum of mystery.


A Quiet Adjustment — Review by Chris

A Quiet Adjustment sounds, acts and feels like a 19th century novel. (Other reviewers identified it as a Henry James novel, and I would agree.) It is, for all intents and purposes, a 19th century novel. The language, the rhythm, dialogue, descriptions — it remains two centuries in the past. As an English student, I didn't appreciate this style of writing, and I don't harbor any more fondness in my advanced years.

The story was obscured by innuendo and suggestion, and I found it difficult to follow and not very enjoyable.

In this novel by Benjamin Markovits, 19-year-old Annabella Millbanke is visiting a family friend when she is invited to a dance party, where she encounters Lord Byron, author of the newly published Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. He was rumored to be conducting an affair with a mutual friend — but it was his sister with whom he danced.

Annabella sets her sights on Byron for her husband and, despite proposals from other suitors, she will take only him.

Why I couldn't tell you.

It's not the fault of any of the main characters: Byron, a self-absorbed, unlikeable character, nor that of his equally unlikable, petulant wife or drearily accommodating, bloated-feeling half-sister Augusta. Rather, the story rippled under a murky and ever-changing surface. I would not have understood the "indecencies" between characters had it not been for the book jacket that flat-out stated the focal point of the book.

While the story was murky, the characters were clear. Byron was not likable and Annabella was foolish and vain. Lady Milbanke was a lush and her husband a soft, pliable man (but apparently a loving one). Augusta was impermeable and born to be a victim.

This is the second of a proposed trilogy; the first book, Imposture, is told from the perspective of John Polidori, Byron's private physician. I'm not inclined to seek out the first book, nor will I read the final book.

Perhaps Markovits' other writing would suit me better, but this one did not entertain me at all. If you have read it, please tell me if you agree — or not — and why that is.


Where We Buy Our Books Matters — Chris and Carole Respond

This conversation is in response to the recent news story story "Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It" (New York Times, December 27, 2008), in which David Streitfeld asserts, "What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers" who increasingly rely on "resellers" for their book buying needs.

Chris Said....

As I read New York Times reporter David Streitfeld's excellent article, I cringed. So far this week, all of my book purchases have been from what can generously be called "alternative resources." I frequent two local thrift shops with great book selections and great prices. Both support the community — proceeds benefit local welfare organizations — so I feel my $12 has been well-spent.

Now, that's not where I get my current bestsellers. For that, I go to my local Borders — where I will pick up the latest Stephen King short story collection as soon as I obtain a 40 percent off coupon. (Many books are automatically discounted, and other require coupons for discount purchases. Just After Sunset is not discounted at Borders as I type.)

I do not begrudge the manufacturers or sellers their cut of the sale. I want to support authors. I prefer to purchase a book from Borders (though receiving a package at work from Amazon has its appeal). I will pay the price for what I wish to purchase. However, I seek the lowest prices for everything I purchase, including groceries.

I am sure I share my late father's Depression-era shock at the cost of — well, nearly everything. I know there's no such thing as a free lunch, and I am sure many of the "sale" prices are not the deal they purport to be. However, when I spend money, I choose carefully.

I attend only select concerts or movies because ticket prices are so high. I purchase only compact discs or movies I know I want and only when they are on sale; I'm wont to risk $20-$30 (or more) on a lark. I do not attend most "major league" sporting events because exorbitant cost of these activities. The sticker shock is not just for tickets: when a soda costs $5 because they can charge that much, I have to rethink the intelligence of the purchase.

Recent financial news has spotlighted the salaries and bonuses of upper management, company presidents, celebrities and company owners — and has soured consumers on the "cost of doing business." Do I want to spend $10 for a movie ticket or $100 to watch a ballgame when the money is going toward Dan Snyder's private jet, Angelina Jolie's new French mansion or Bill Gates' coffers? People deserve to make a living, but at what cost to me? I don't know enough about the publishing industry to make a direct accusation, but it makes me wonder.

So, when it comes to books, I am loathe to spend $25 or more on a novel I might not like. (The Somnambulist was a recent full-price purchase, and quite a disappointment.) I turn to those who can provide quality books at affordable prices. I want my neighborhood bookstores, but I also want to afford the books I wish to buy.

Perhaps I should stand on my principles and purchase only the books I can afford from a brick and mortar bookseller. And maybe that will be my 2009 resolution. However, I assure you, the number of books I would purchase from said booksellers would not increase — not at today's retail prices.

Carole Said....
I found this New York Times article quite interesting. I'm fascinated by unintended consequences. In pursuit of thrift, most people feel virtuous — they are not spending to excess, they have that penny saved-penny earned thing going on, and they feel like they've scored a victory somehow in buying something for less. But I bet they generally don't think, "Who am I hurting by doing this?"

After reading the article, I see that there are unintended consequences for my book-buying actions. My intent for pursuing a bargain is not to take money out of anyone's pocket, but rather to leave some in mine. Chris makes the point that she would rather not make the rich richer, but I don't present a coupon for a book thinking that I've really stuck it to the CEO of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I've never really given it a thought.

I decided to look at my book-buying habits as represented by the books I read in 2008. I read 62 books; I paid full price for 33 of them. The remaining 29 books were loaned to me or were purchased used. None that I purchased were ordered from Amazon. I have no idea whether slightly more than half is a good percentage or not. I've never looked at my list in this manner before.

The NYT article doesn't give us any guidelines for what kind of behavior we should pursue if we want to avoid the lack of any brick-and-mortar bookstores in the future. Chris' 2009 resolution to buy onsite has merit. Or does it? For instance, I keep hearing that Borders is on the ropes, a very distant second to the behemoth Barnes & Noble. So, when Chris buys her books at Borders, that's a good thing, right? But if she uses a 40 percent off coupon, is that another nail in Borders' coffin? I mean a reduced-price sale is better than no sale, right?

The article raised other questions for me. For instance, what about libraries? I can get the books I want for free there. Who does that hurt? I've never heard about authors hating libraries, but how is one of their books being loaned out again and again good for them? Other than exposing new readers to their work, how does it profit them? Or the publisher? While I'm sure that authors are thrilled to know that readers are discovering their works, the bloom has to come off the rose when it is consistently done for free, right?

I don't sell my books when I get rid of them. I give them away. Is that a bad thing? So I'm not taking money out of the author/publisher's pocket and putting it into mine, but I'm not helping them make any money either. In that sense, I'm sort of like the public library, only you don't ever have to give it back, there are no late fees, and the selection is limited to what I happen to be getting rid of at the time.

I've worked in a niche part of publishing for most of my career, and this article pointed out to me that I have NO idea how much of this stuff works. What I do know is that I have a finite amount of money to spend on fun things. Books are a big part of my fun. After reading the article, I do feel sheepish about shopping for some bargains, but I'm not sure why or what I should do instead.

The book business is in trouble because the book-selling model is changing. Publishers used to make their money by having healthy backlists from which to sell. The online ordering world means that they can't make their money that way anymore; that means that they'll have to figure out new ways to make book selling profitable or go under. The NYT article suggests that maybe that means no real bookstores to browse or fewer authors being published. I find it hard to believe that either of those is really the solution.

In the meantime, I'm going to take my sheepish self home to finish my book club book, for which I paid top dollar, so that I can start on the next Pulitzer book on my list, which Chris loaned me. A break-even scenario. In the grand scheme of things, maybe that is as good as it gets.