Monday, January 31, 2011

Life and Death

Read two books over the last week with very different takes on both death and life.  An unusual pairing, these two.  I think I was going for contrast, and I certainly got it.  Back when I was a kid in high school making mix tapes every month or so, I'd usually try to follow up two slow, pretty, contemplative songs with something that started shockingly loud.  For some reason, the fact that the contrast was violently abrupt made the whole thing work, to my ear. 

It would seem my reading sensitivities don't necessarily function the same way.

by Marilynne Robinson
247 pages
Picador publshing, 1st paperback edition (2006)
Originally published 2004
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fictions (2005)
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award (2005)

Is that a circle of national book critics?  Or is the award itself a circle? 

I first read this book something like four years ago.  I remember it was early in Kim's first pregnancy, because I was reading it while waiting with her for the doctor once and I read her the part about baptizing the kittens.  (That's a fantastic passage, by the way)  Interesting to read it again as a father with a young child (and another on the way, of course) since it's written from the perspective of a father with a young child.  Granted, Reverend Ames is much older than I am, and he's dying, so it's not like we have similar circumstances at all.  Still, there were several portions of the book that spoke much more loudly this time through. 

Gilead is a journal (or just a really long letter) written by the protagonist, 76-year-old Reverend John Ames, to his six-year-old son.  Ames and the boy's mother met late in his life, and she's quite a bit younger than he is, thus the young child with the old father.  Ames knows he's not much longer for the world, so he writes this love letter to the boy he knows he'll never get to see grow up. 

It's really just a beautiful book.  I can't find another word that fits any better.  It's well written, it's entertaining, it's thoughtful, it's uplifting, it's honest, and it has definite personality.  I'm fairly surprised that it won a Pulitzer because it's also a very Christian book.  Long passages relate to past sermons Ames has preached, scriptures he's meditated on, or theological discussions he's had over the course of his life.  The believer and the cynic are both represented fairly, and the book honestly deals with the reality that some questions have no easy answers.  Ames is a man who struggles with a lot of the things that many of us struggle with.  His faith and his family are foremost on every page. 

Now, because the book is structured like the somewhat-rambling memoirs of a kindly elderly gentlemen, I can see how it might lose some readers.  Flashbacks are mingled with current events with life lessons and anecdotes about the young boy and his cat.  If you can handle that, however, this is a book I'd recommend to just about anybody. 

A Long Way Down
by Nick Hornby
352 pages
Riverhead Hardcover, 2005

I don't think Nick Hornby and I are going to get along.  This is the second of his books that I've read  (High Fidelity being the other) and I just haven't really gotten into either of them.  Long Way Down is a very dark comedy that centers around four miserable folks who meet on New Years Eve at the top of a building where each intended to commit suicide.  They all get sort of weirded out, though, and decide not to do it just yet.  They continue to meet and compare notes on their wretched lives throughout the next three months as they become some sort of twisted support group where nobody really likes one another all that much. 

As in High Fidelity, my biggest issue with this book was the characters themselves.  These people were just pathetic, which I know was the point.  They were self-centered and immature and, for most of the book, incapable of really changing.  So while it made for some interesting episodes over the course of these 352 pages, it rarely felt like the story was going anywhere. 

The language is strong, of course, as the characters themselves admit, and there's a lot of crudity to go around, so a lot of the folks I know wouldn't be able to stomach this book based on those factors alone.  The writing style is very sharp, however, and each of the characters has a strong voice (the book is constantly switching perspective from the four).  I'm not saying the book is bad, because it's not.  It really just isn't my cup of tea.  If you're looking for much of a rewarding story, you're likely to be disappointed.  Which, again, is one of the book's points: there's no such thing as a nice and tidy ending.  Must be one of Nick Hornby's "things." 

That, and pathetic people as protagonists. 

Ooh, alliteration!

Anyway, apparently Johnny Depp loved loved loved this novel, so there's that. 

1 comment:

  1. It really is his motif, isn't it--immature, selfish people who refuse to grow up. It's there in About a Boy, it's sorta there in How to Be Good, it's there in Slam! (though that's about a teenager who finds out his gf is pregnant and tries to cope with the idea of being a father).

    Why did I love Hornby's books so much after college? Wait, don't answer that.