Sunday, November 27, 2011

If you can't go home, you can always go to Florida and paint!

by Mailynne Robinson
325 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2008

I was kind of disappointed with Home, the follow-up novel to Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer-winning Gilead.  Gilead happens to be my favorite book, so I suppose just about anything after that is going to be downhill somewhat, but I felt like this book was missing a lot of the charm that the first one held, and a lot of that was because of the shift in protagonists. 

Now, before I continue I have to say that this book was very well-received by critics, so it's most likely a case of it not being to my specific taste.  I can tell that the prose is, again, beautiful, and the characters endearing in their own tragic ways, but the overall effect was overwhelmingly melancholy to me for the most part, and I generally put the book down feeling worse than when I'd started reading.  Which is fine sometimes, but I kept hoping for a more hopeful bent like Gilead often offered, only to find the hope in Home was usually shot to pieces pretty quickly. 

Home follows the day-to-day existence of Glory Bouhgton, a minor character from Gilead, and her brother Jack, a fairly major character from the earlier book.  It takes place concurrently with Robinson's earlier novel and occasionally crosses over, covering or referring to scenes from the other book. Glory and Jack are caring for their aged father, the Reverent Robert Boughton, who is in his last days, in their childhood home of Gilead, Iowa.  The house is empty and depressing, and Glory's life has led to a pretty significant amount of disappointment and disappointment.  Jack, the family's black sheep, arrives at home, and it is the first anyone in the family has seen or heard from him in twenty years.  And while the first part of the book is somewhat slow-moving, I actually really liked about the first sixty to seventy percent of the book.  There are some great scenes and a lot of genuinely touching moments.  (I'll say that it helped a lot to have Gilead in the back of my mind throughout; without that foundation, I would likely not have made it through the early stages of this book)  After a while, though, it seemed (to me) like things sort of screeched to a halt, and I felt the story was just going around in fairly dismal circles until it came to the end.  By the time things wound up, I was pretty much ready for everyone to move on, and I felt the book ended with a resounding, "Eh." 

Again, it's probably because I loved the first book so much, and while I wasn't looking for a copy of Gilead I found the more consistently somber tone of Home a bit of a downer.  The book is at its strongest in the relationship between Glory and Jack and (when they occur) the scenes between Jack and the Ames family.  I also thought it really handled Jack's crisis of faith (and Glory's, to a lesser extent) extremely well. Essentially, Jack seems to be an agnostic who really wishes he could believe in God, and it leads to some great dialogue and even better ideological food for thought.  (The porch discussion with the Ames' about predestination, a small moment in Gilead, is a magnificent scene here)  Don't get me wrong, there were a lot of wonderful moments throughout this book.  In the end, however, it just left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

Duma Key
by Stephen King
611 pages
Scribner, New York, 2008

Stephen King is the master of making you either forget or not care that the premise of the entire novel makes absolutely no sense.  Such is the case with Duma Key.  (And The Talisman.  And The Dead Zone.  And many elements of the Dark Tower series. And others, I'm sure!)  I liked Duma Key a lot.  And I acknowledge that, when you sit down and explain the whole story, front to back, it sounds kind of stupid.  But that's why you read the novel and not a silly synopsis. 

Duma Key is a thriller, summer blockbuster style. In a way, it's a variation on the age-old haunted house theme.  It's got some very Stephen King-y moments (like the anger management dolls, sudden horrific apparitions, everyday objects that are for some reason suddenly terrifying), so if you just don't like his other books, you won't like this one.  In a lot of ways, though, it feels different from the other King books I've read.  For one thing, it's written in first person, and you'd be surprised how much of a difference that makes.  For another, it doesn't start out trying to creep you out with supernatural hoodoo.  (Unexpected: hoodoo is a-ok with the spell checker)  Yeah, pretty crazy and supernatural things are happening to the guy, and there's some foraying into the Ominous, but while you know eventually everything will go wrong, it really does look like things are going pretty well for this guy...


Seriously, though, when this story turns on its head, it really turns quickly and completely.  And it's a change from a lot of other King I've read, where things start out creepy and dark and evil and then they pretty much stay that way. 

My friend who recommended this one said it's one of King's better novels, and from what I've read I'd definitely agree.  It's also the first book I've read that got me sorta creeped out.  I actually hesitated before flipping on a light switch in a pitch-black room after reading a few chapters one night, and that doesn't usually happen to me. 


 Now, of these two, Home is obviously the better book.  But Duma Key left me the most satisfied of the two.  Then again, I've always suspected I have bad taste. 

I'm currently reading a John Piper book, and after that it's the Month of Christmas Books!  I didn't get too many suggestions, so I just did a quick catalog search for "Christmas" in the Houston Public Library.  I've got a western, a romantic comedy, a murder mystery, a heartwarming tale, and something with no description whatsoever on the way.  I'm excited.  Let's have some Christmas, folks!

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