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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson


by Marilynne Robinson (Author)

Series: Gilead (1)

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Showing 1-5 of 226 (next | show all)
I have to admit I put off reading this for a long time, having had enough of religion and preaching-to to last a life-time. But a recent review got me thinking of it and I gave it a shot. It's just magnificent! An elderly Congregational minister, knowing his death is approaching, writes what can only be described as a father's love letter to his 7-year old son, who will grow up without his council and companionship. Intertwined with the lessons he hopes to pass along are the stories of his life as well as descriptions of his thoughts and feelings for present happenings. This is so beautiful I hated to see it end, and I've recommended to everyone I can. ( )
  auntmarge64 | Feb 27, 2015 |
Ignorance can be bliss! This is a moving and beautiful book I would never have read, had I known who the hero is, and how much of the novel is about religion. Very fortunately, however, I started it without knowing much about it. Like another reviewer, I had heard a lot about "Lila", understood that Ms. Robinson had written two earlier books about the characters in "Lila", and wanted to begin at the beginning. I was immediately caught up in the world of the Reverend John Ames, an elderly Iowa minister with a bad heart. The Reverend wants to explain his life to his young son, and attempts to do so in a letter for the boy to read when he grows up. The book is that letter, and my, but the Reverend wanders far afield!

This book is a triumph on many levels. To begin with, the story is engrossing. It goes back before the Reverend's childhood, into the pasts of his father and grandfather, back to "Bleeding Kansas" and the Civil War and much much more. It shows us the Reverend's childhood and younger days -- in the layered, non-linear way in which memory so often operates. It examines the Reverend's present, which is full of interesting and valuable people, and has some key issues that are not yet resolved. And then the characters! They -- most especially the Reverend himself -- are real people, complicated and lovable and infuriating. Finally the writing -- beautiful and spare, yet poetic and vividly sensual, not sensual in the usual meaning but sensual in terms of the brilliance of light, the sound of rain, the smell of dust and ash.

It is also a book about religion. I almost changed that to "faith", because faith can be simple and glowing, while religion is complicated. At times, the Reverend's words and deeds shine with the pure flame of faith. Ms. Robinson, however, goes way beyond simple faith, from the role of churches in society, to the ambiguities of the Christian life, to the question of evil, to doctrinal issues of predestination and sin. Religion is the Reverend's life, and since this book is about his life, it is inhabited by religion. Had I known that, I would have given it a miss. I'm an agnostic, and when I read about religion, it's about history and social structure and so on -- not religion as it is lived.

But I didn't give it a miss, and I am so glad that I did not. You don't have to share the Reverend's faith to find it fascinating, and very beautiful ( )
1 vote annbury | Feb 19, 2015 |
What a fabulous book. It's a slower paced read, and very thoughtful. John Ames is a minister who is nearing the end of his life. He contemplates what he would like his young child to know and writes it in a long letter to his imagined, but unknown, grown up son. He tells stories of his family, his ministry, his friend and fellow preacher Boughton who is a close neighbor. Through the letter, there is a slow build-up of tension regarding recently returned prodigal son of Boughton who is named after John. This adds some depth and suspense to an otherwise gentle and peaceful narrative. When the reveal finally occurs, it is juxtaposed with personal reflection and a thoughtful sermon on the idea of forgiveness and grace. As a Christian, many of the things John Ames was thinking about and sorting in his head resonated with me, and I think reflect the life of a man truly aiming to live his beliefs and become better, while acknowledging his imperfections. It's a beautiful read and beautifully written and well worth the time.

A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.

"Have I offended you in some way, Reverend?" my father would ask.
And his father would say, "No Reverend, you have not offended me in any way at all. Not at all."
And my mother would say, "Now don't you two get started."

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

It seems to me people tend to forget that we are to love our enemies, not to satisfy some standard of righteousness, but because God their Father loves them.
( )
2 vote nittnut | Jan 30, 2015 |
Beautifully written with compelling characters and effectively placed in a time and place easy to envision, Gilead still felt very ephemeral for me. By the end I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to have gotten from it, or what the author was trying to get across. The book is an epistolary, essentially a series of interconnected letters, written by John Ames, a 77 year old preacher in the fictional small town of Gilead, IA, to his 7 year old son. Ames has a weak heart and doesn’t expect to live long, so he decided to write to his son with ruminations on his family including his abolitionist grandfather and atheist brother, his second marriage to a much younger woman, his view of life, death, religion, his ministry, and about the family of his best friend, another preacher named Boughton and his son John Ames Boughton who reappears after being away for many years.

The most compelling part of this book for me were the sections dealing with Rev. Ames’s family history. His grandfather, also a preacher, was a rabid abolitionist and collaborator with John Brown and others during the time before the Civil War when the fight over whether Kansas would be a slave or free state was occurring. Known as “bleeding Kansas” this time saw a number of atrocities committed by both sides trying to assert control in the state. The implication in this story is that Ames’s grandfather was involved in these atrocities.

Setting the book in the Midwest during the 1950s had some resonance for me as well. Much of the book is devoted to the history of the town of Gilead. Having grown up in Minnesota much of it reminded me of the small towns I have visited tracking down my own family’s history. Descriptions of the people, the geography, and what daily life was like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries felt familiar to me.

The major issue I had with the book was its overall theological theme. I think the author was trying to explore the deeper questions of existence, life after death, the nature of grace and forgiveness and the notion that our senses cannot possibly comprehend all that exists. The natural conclusion implicated in the novel therefore, is that one has to have faith that an eventual revelation of this wonder would be revealed by a higher power (God). Put into modern day terms Ames would be considered a relatively liberal Christian, willing to take seriously the opinions of atheists and others who did not subscribe to his beliefs. I did appreciate this. However, I have always believed that religion, no matter how deeply felt, cannot help but limit ones world view. No matter how one tries to interpret it, the documents and traditions of religious belief will always put a limit on the scope of knowledge…and limit the interpretation of discovery. Freeing ones mind from religious restrictions for me opens up many more possibilities for comprehending the universe than any belief system can possibly provoke. As Carl Sagan famously said, “We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it…you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.”

So, as Ames tried to wend his way toward finding the answers to questions he was asking through the use of scripture and the interpretive work of others, it seemed like he was looking for gaps that might let him expand his view, when to me freeing himself of those texts would have enabled him to do so more quickly and more effectively. By the end I was not really sure if he had elevated his understanding or not. I found this frustrating.

I can see why this novel has received so much praise, it really is compelling writing. So despite the let down I felt at the end I would still recommend it very highly! ( )
1 vote mybucketlistofbooks | Jan 10, 2015 |
I think this will need a second go-through to really distill what I think. I just got caught up in the gentle pull of its current the first time through.

The protagonist (An elderly congregationalist minister writing a letter to his very young son) describes himself as just the kind of minister I wanted to be when I still thought I could believe in things. It reminds me that my problems with religion and the way I frame religion is not what religion is.

Of course, it doesn't make me want to become a Christian again. It does make me nostalgic for a way I once thought it was possible to live. I still kind of wish it was possible, but even if it were I wouldn't choose a life like that. It is nice to visit that world again.

There is a lot more to Marilynne Robinson's masterful novel than just this aspect, but this was the book for me. It felt like a visit to a familiar but long forgotten place. I liked spending time with the Reverend John Ames and I'm grateful to Robinson for writing him. ( )
1 vote nnschiller | Sep 18, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 226 (next | show all)
A book about the damaged heart of America, it is part vibrant and part timeworn, a slow burn of a read with its "crepuscular" narrator, its repetitions, its careful languidity.
added by melmore | editThe Guardian, Ali Smith (Apr 15, 2005)
It detracts not at all, I hope, from the grave loveliness of Robinson's prose and the lucid profundity of John Ames' reflections, religious and secular, to say that the novel is suffused with emotional suspense that makes a reader's heart say, as the Rev. Ames hears his ailing one thump, "Again, again, again."
added by melmore | editSlate, Ann Hulbert (Dec 6, 2004)
''Gilead'' is a beautiful work -- demanding, grave and lucid -- and is, if anything, more out of time than Robinson's book of essays, suffused as it is with a Protestant bareness that sometimes recalls George Herbert (who is alluded to several times, along with John Donne) and sometimes the American religious spirit that produced Congregationalism and 19th-century Transcendentalism and those bareback religious riders Emerson, Thoreau and Melville.
added by melmore | editNew York Times, James Wood (Nov 28, 2004)
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For John and Ellen Summers, my dear father and mother.
First words
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old.
It all means more than I can tell you. So you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.
But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning.
For me, writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you're only a little fellow now and when you're a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you for any number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there's an intimacy in it. That's the truth.
I'm writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.
A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine.
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Book description
Twenty-four years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with a story about father and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage in America's heart. In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human conditions and "manages to convey the miracle of existence itself." (0-312-42440-X)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 031242440X, Paperback)

In 1981, Marilynne Robinson wrote Housekeeping, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and became a modern classic. Since then, she has written two pieces of nonfiction: Mother Country and The Death of Adam. With Gilead, we have, at last, another work of fiction. As with The Great Fire, Shirley Hazzards's return, 22 years after The Transit of Venus, it was worth the long wait. Books such as these take time, and thought, and a certain kind of genius. There are no invidious comparisons to be made. Robinson's books are unalike in every way but one: the same incisive thought and careful prose illuminate both.

The narrator, John Ames, is 76, a preacher who has lived almost all of his life in Gilead, Iowa. He is writing a letter to his almost seven-year-old son, the blessing of his second marriage. It is a summing-up, an apologia, a consideration of his life. Robinson takes the story away from being simply the reminiscences of one man and moves it into the realm of a meditation on fathers and children, particularly sons, on faith, and on the imperfectability of man.

The reason for the letter is Ames's failing health. He wants to leave an account of himself for this son who will never really know him. His greatest regret is that he hasn't much to leave them, in worldly terms. "Your mother told you I'm writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you?" In the course of the narrative, John Ames records himself, inside and out, in a meditative style. Robinson's prose asks the reader to slow down to the pace of an old man in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956. Ames writes of his father and grandfather, estranged over his grandfather's departure for Kansas to march for abolition and his father's lifelong pacifism. The tension between them, their love for each other and their inability to bridge the chasm of their beliefs is a constant source of rumination for John Ames. Fathers and sons.

The other constant in the book is Ames's friendship since childhood with "old Boughton," a Presbyterian minister. Boughton, father of many children, favors his son, named John Ames Boughton, above all others. Ames must constantly monitor his tendency to be envious of Boughton's bounteous family; his first wife died in childbirth and the baby died almost immediately after her. Jack Boughton is a ne'er-do-well, Ames knows it and strives to love him as he knows he should. Jack arrives in Gilead after a long absence, full of charm and mischief, causing Ames to wonder what influence he might have on Ames's young wife and son when Ames dies.

These are the things that Ames tells his son about: his ancestors, the nature of love and friendship, the part that faith and prayer play in every life and an awareness of one's own culpability. There is also reconciliation without resignation, self-awareness without deprecation, abundant good humor, philosophical queries--Jack asks, "'Do you ever wonder why American Christianity seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?'"--and an ongoing sense of childlike wonder at the beauty and variety of God's world.

In Marilynne Robinson's hands, there is a balm in Gilead, as the old spiritual tells us. --Valerie Ryan

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:22:11 -0400)

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As the Reverend John Ames approaches the hour of his own death, he writes a letter to his son chronicling three previous generations of his family, a story that stretches back to the Civil War and reveals uncomfortable family secrets.

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