Posted in Fiction

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

The knowledge of good. That half of the primal catastrophe received too little attention. Guilt and grace met together in the phrase despite all that. He could think of himself as a thief sneaking off with an inestimable wealth of meaning and trust, all of it offended and damaged beyond use, except to remind him of the nature of the crime. Or he could consider the sweet marriage that made her a conspirator with him in it, the loyalty that always restored them both, just like grace.

In a word, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Jack is beautiful. It’s proof that not only can she create warm, true, complicated characters of pastors who have been at their vocation for decades, she can also put the same complications, warmth and truth into the “rebel atheist” character.

This is the fourth Gilead novel and Jack Boughton has been a significant side character in the others. Now the reader gets to see more of Jack as he develops a bi-racial relationship with Della Miles. While the town of Gilead, Iowa is as close as the thoughts in Jack’s head, this novel is interesting in that it is physically set in St. Louis with a brief sojourn to Memphis.

The illegal romance between Jack and Della is so slow and subtle. The first roughly eighty pages of the novel is a conversation between the two set in a St. Louis cemetery in the middle of the night (where no one can see them). The contrast between the gravestones in the darkness and their conversation about what might be hope and goodness and life made it fine with me, as the reader, if this was simply the entire novel. With no demands, Della simply loves Jack to the point that Jack, on his own, wants to become a better person which might not be the type of love Jack receives from his father.

Both characters have to deal with their fathers. Both of whom are ministers and, as many fathers of any vocation might, put many expectations on their children. Della has a college degree and teaches high school at a prominent black school in St. Louis. She has been set up by her father, family and church as a model black woman exemplifying what can be accomplished when the black community comes together. Della isn’t always comfortable being this example but until meeting Jack, she goes along with it. Jack, on the other hand, has never fit in with what his father expects of him back in his home town of Gilead.

Their relationship carries with it real dangers from the 1950’s American society in which they live and real disappointments to Della’s family. At this point in the greater Gilead narrative, I don’t think Jack’s family and community are aware of Della. Until now, as readers, we only knew that Della exists because of a picture Jack carries with him. I admit that specifically in the novels Gilead and Home, it seemed that Jack could be interested in the Reverend John Ames’ wife, Lila – the subject of the third Gilead novel titled appropriately Lila. After reading Jack, I think it’s more likely that Jack is simply wondering who in Gilead might be accepting of Della and the relationship they have and Lila, being an outsider herself, could be that person.

In my understanding, Marilynne Robinson has not said how many Gilead novels she plans to write but I hope there’s more.

Posted in Fiction

Brideshead Revisited


Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem.  It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited has everything that fascinates me in a story.  It takes place in post-World War I England (one of my favorite time periods in history and literature) and tells the story of Charles Ryder’s spiritual journey as he encounters the wealthy Flyte family.  Waugh’s writing, which is both beautiful and hilarious, makes this one of the more memorable novels I’ve read.

At Oxford, Charles becomes infatuated with Sebastian Flyte, the eccentric and quirky black sheep son of the Lord and Lady of Marchmain.  When Charles visits Sebastian’s family at their mansion, Brideshead, he begins relationships that will continue to affect and change him for decades to come.  Lady Marchmain is devoutly Catholic and struggles to instill her faith in her four children.  Of the four, Sebastian and Julia prove to be the less compliant to their mother’s hopes but have the biggest impact on Charles’ agnosticism.

The specifics of Charles’ and Sebastian’s relationship seem to be left purposefully vague and while it serves as the catalyst for Charles’ journey, it’s only one aspect of the story.  As a result of his own journey, Sebastian slowly and eventually fades into the background of the novel.  Charles’ point of conversion also has very little detail and occurs mysteriously at the end of the novel; however, it is completely realistic and gives me the impression that Charles’ journey (as opposed to his conversion) is what Waugh found most intriguing and most important and what he really wanted to write about.

I can now include Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen as novels that effectively weave faith into stories that remain profoundly human.  I don’t consider any of these novels to be “religious” novels in the sense that their purpose is not to promote a specific religious belief or to provide entertainment only to those within that belief set.  Instead, they happen to beautifully and realistically illustrate the human condition with characters that happen to have varying degrees of faith.

While this may seem like a very serious novel, Waugh’s wit shines through to make this story just about perfect for me.  I found one scene, in which a very long debate occurs as to whether to give last rites to a lapsed Catholic, both incredibly serious and irreverently funny. Julia’s politician suitor gives her a birthday present in the form of a live tortoise with diamonds etched into it’s shell.  Waugh’s description of the gift and the family’s reaction is priceless.  And finally, I found it hysterical when Charles attempts to assign a degree of excitement to an aristocratic get-together by counting the number of water droplets falling off the beak of the ice sculptured swan.

This novel became a groundbreaking PBS mini-series in the early 1980’s starring Jeremy Irons.  It was also made into a film a few years ago with Emma Thompson.  I haven’t seen either of them, but it would just be my hunch that the mini-series would be the better option.

Posted in Fiction

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Ever since reading Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead in 2004 and then it’s companion novel Home a few years later, I’ve been hoping she would one day write Lila Ames’ story.  Lila is a significant but secondary character in these two novels.  She’s the rough-around-the-edges, other-side-of-the tracks, uneducated outsider who wanders into Gilead, Iowa sometime in the 1940’s, marries the aging Reverend John Ames, thirty-five years her senior, and has his child.  At the end of September, I received an email from telling me about an upcoming interview with Robinson in time for the release of her new book – the title of the book: Lila.


Robinson writes Lila with the same beauty of Gilead and Home; however, it has a sharpness to which the other novels only allude.  A sharpness that is just like the knife Lila brings to Gilead and continues to keep through her marriage and pregnancy.  Much of Lila’s backstory revolves around this knife that is more than just a keepsake.

The romance between Lila and John Ames involves fear and uncertainty more than the stereotypical feelings associated with falling in love.  Neither of them expects Lila to stick around.  In one poignant scene, Ames requests that if Lila leaves, she wouldn’t do it by running away but she would let him buy her a train ticket.

Though uneducated, Lila has learned to read and write and continues to teach herself by copying parts of the Bible given to her by “the old man”, as Lila sometimes refers to Reverend Ames.   For me, the fascination of Lila and Ames’ relationship lies in her ability to shake his faith to the absolute core, yet never demolish it.  Their conversations go directly to what kind of meaning can be found in life, what kind of meaning can be found in suffering and poverty, are any answers found in this “existence”, a word used frequently in the novel.  If any answers are found, they are by no means easy ones.

I’ve often said (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that I think Catholics write better stories than Protestants.  Sometime I might go into more detail as to why I think that, but for now, I’ll just say that Marilynne Robinson is a major exception to my theory.

Posted in Books in General

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Make Me Think

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  This week’s topic is books that make me think.  In some cases, it’s easier to come up with an author that makes me think as opposed to one book, but here goes in no particular order other than when they popped into my head:

1.  The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

2.  Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

3.  Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard

4.  The Stranger by Albert Camus

5.  Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

6.  Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

7.  The Chosen by Chaim Potok

8.  We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

9.  When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

10.  The Sea Wolf by Jack London

Posted in Essays

“Relevance was precisely not an issue…”

In 2011, I read Marilynne Robinson’s three novels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, Home, and Housekeeping.  Since reading Richard B. Gunderman’s collection of essays on philanthropy, We Make A Life By What We Give, I’ve been fascinated by essays.  I guess essays are to non-fiction what short stories are to fiction.  As much as I enjoyed Robinson’s fiction, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that she has several collections of essays.  I picked up When I Was A Child I Read Books and read the title essay “When I Was A Child”.

Her essay starts out with “When I was a child, I read books…Surprising as it may seem, I had friends, some of whom read more than I did.”  She goes on to talk about her childhood out west in Idaho.  I love the way she states that “[r]elevance was precisely not an issue for me” in choosing what to read.  In other words, she didn’t care about the perception by the world around her of what she chose to read.  It seemed she found relevance for her in whatever she as an individual happened to read regardless of what others thought.

She continues to expound on this idea of “individualism” in discussing the culture of the West (meaning the western United States).  She relays an incident when a man from Alabama asked her what the difference was between the West, the East and the South.  Her response was “that in the West ‘lonesome’ is a word with strongly positive connotations”.  From reading her works, my guess is that Robinson isn’t promoting reclusiveness or hermitage, but simply pointing out the thought that “lonesomeness” is a part of any new frontier.  Being alone isn’t a sign that something is wrong.  “Alone”can have strengthening benefits.

Myself being a voracious reader of things that are not always perceived as “relevant” by the world around me, I found Robinson’s essay both insightful and comforting.  I thoroughly enjoyed her statement about people in saying “when I see a man or a woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.”

Another essay in this collection is called “Imagination and Community”.  After reading about being “lonesome”, I’m curious what she might have to say about community.  That will probably be the next essay on my list to read.

Do any other voracious readers out there feel “lonesome” – in a positive way?


Posted in Books in General

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Favorite Quotations from Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish.  It’s a fun way to share thoughts about books and get to know other bloggers.  This week’s topic is favorite quotations from books.  It was easier than I thought to come up with these.

The first two are fairly well-known as famous final lines (1) and first lines (2) from novels, maybe even a little cliché, but I like them so I included them:

1.        “So we beat on, boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

2.        “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”  From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

I’m still amazed at how much mileage Hemingway could get out of this line:

3.       “Brett was damned good looking.”  From The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

On a personal note, I was going through somewhat of a “down” time in 2009 when I read this and thought “Someone actually knows how I feel!”:

4.       “Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led – make of that what you will.”  From Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

One of the more powerful lines from one of the more powerful novels I read in 2011:

5.        “I pray you will grow to be a strong man in a strong country.”   From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

You have to read the whole short story to fully appreciate this line – one of the funniest lines I’ve read in a long time:

6.       “My days are peaceful now, and my nights sleep deep.”   From “Moon-Face” by Jack London

Since I’ve never sat down and talked to Stephen King, I don’t know for sure, but it seems like this line from one of his more recent novels sums up his view on life:

7.        “…where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.”  From 11/22/63 by Stephen King

I loved this variation on Lao Tse’s proverb from this brilliant book of essays on philanthropy:

8.       “Give a person a fish, and we feed him for a day. Teach a person to fish, and we feed him for a lifetime. Share with a person the joy of helping others learn to fish, and we enable him to participate in a goodness that transcends any particular lifetime.”   From We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

A great quote I’ve been carrying around with me for years from one of my favorite authors:

9.        “…it is as important to learn the important questions as it is the important answers.  It is especially important to learn the questions to which there may not be good answers.  We have to learn to live with questions…”  From In The Beginning by Chaim Potok

And the last one is from The Bible:

10.  For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.  From New American Standard Verision, 1 Corinthians 13:12


I read this novel in both high school and college and this line always stuck with me, as well as everyone else in the classes:

11.  “Mother died today. Or, maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.”  From The Stranger by Albert Camus

And since my wife and daughter are huge Jane Austen fans, I’ll include this one:

12.   It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.  From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen