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Book 8

  1. Grossmith, George & Weedon — The Diary of a Nobody (166 pages)
  2. McCarthy, Cormac — Blood Meridian (334 pages)
  3. Moore, Alan & Dave Gibbons — Watchmen (399 pages)
  4. Moore, Christopher — Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal (507 pages)
  5. Murger, Henri — The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter (381 pages)
  6. Walk with Me: A Lenten Journey of Prayer for 2009 (98 pages)
  7. Douglas, Lloyd C. — The Robe (438 pages)
  8. Robinson, Marilynne — Gilead (281 pages)

Page count: 2604.

Gilead is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.

As tempted as I am to leave it at that, this book deserves more. I had been browsing through the Willesden Green Library Bookstore when I spotted this. I had absolutely no intention to buy anything at all; I was just curious about what I thought (erroneously) might be a used-book store that I so often ride by in a bus at night. But then I saw a novel by the popular Iain Banks that takes place in Panamá and a new, interesting-sounding treatise on twentieth-century classical music, and suddenly I lost my resolve and was in book-buying mode.

When I spotted Gilead, the name and the attractive, understated cover made me curious. Robinson's name sounded familiar, and after a few moments skimming through my mental archives I remembered why. She had written a first novel in the early '80s, Housekeeping, that was broadly proclaimed as one of the great books of the twentieth century but had written no other. I hadn't been too interested in Housekeeping, I remembered, because it's subject matter (a mother-daughter relationship in or on the way to Seattle, if I recall correctly) didn't greatly interest me.

I read the commentary on the back cover of Gilead and cracked it open to skim through the prefatory material. I noted that the book had something to do with Protestant ministers in the American midwest. Having just been promoted to the role of Reverend Blitch in Susannah, I felt reading this might help me prepare the role. (I also read the story of Susannah in the Bible and watched YouTube videos of American evangelical preachers, especially Jimmy Swaggart.) The purchase thus justified, I added Gilead to my modest pile.

The premise is simple: Reverend John Ames married and had a child very late in life. Now in his seventies, he knows he won't be around to raise his now-seven-year-old boy. He seeks to write a long letter to his son, setting down everything one might normally spread over the length of a normal father-son relationship in these pages. He talks extensively about his father and grandfather; stories of their involvement in the abolitionist movement and the Civil War; about his childhood; what life was like during the Great War, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, the Second World War; his first wife, who died in childbirth, and the young daughter who died shortly thereafter; the town of Gilead in Iowa; his church (Congregationalist, I think, determined by process of elimination) and other church communities in Gilead; friends, acquaintances, and other characters that drifted in and out of his life; religion, philosophy, and his sermons; his current wife; and himself. There's no real plot, or only the suggestion of an outline of a plot; rather, it's more a meditation on life and everything in it.

The beauty of Robinson's prose alone is enough to recommend this novel. Her words bring scenes vividly to life and touched me to the quick. But if that weren't enough, the power and depth of her thoughts are staggering. Above all, Gilead's humanity is palpable. I felt as though I were spending time with a dear old friend, one who easily moved me to laughter or tears, not reading a novel.

Marilynne Robinson has since published a third novel, Home. The central character of Home is one of the main characters of Gilead. I don't know, though, if Home is a sequel or meant to give another perspective on events recounted in Gilead. I'll find out soon enough, as I had to buy it when I saw it in a bookstore recently. If it's anywhere near as well-written as Housekeeping (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize) or Gilead (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award), it will be a joy to read.

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