Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Gilead (#7)

Gilead.

#7: GILEAD, by Marilynne Robinson.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

As I mentioned in my review of The Marriage Plot, 2011 was the year of discovering great new authors, most significantly, Marilynne Robinson. I feel like I was so behind the curve getting to her — a feeling that was compounded after we moved to Charlottesville. It seemed like every other literate person I met was raving about Robinson. Everyone had read her; everyone urged me to. I nodded and shrugged and told myself to get to her eventually. Well. I’m glad I didn’t wait.

Gilead was the first Robinson novel I read, and it stirred up many thoughts. On the surface, Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006, is about three generations of fathers and sons. The novel is written in the form of a long letter from an elderly and dying father, Congregationalist minister John Ames, to his very young son. The action, if you can call it that, takes place in Gilead, Iowa, a small town in the prairie. The language is slow and lyrical and weaves effortlessly through the corridors of Ames’ aging mind. In the hands of the gifted Robinson, Ames is a gentle and sensitive soul, a man tied to the earth and a man rising up to heaven.

Ames is a wise and meditative narrator. His life is not particularly exciting and he is not trying to make it seem so. He just wants to leave some parting thoughts with his young son, the product of his late marriage to a much younger woman from his congregation. He isn’t trying to stir anything up. But then his best friend’s son reappears and stirs things up for him. Jack Ames Boughton, who was named after Ames, is Gilead’s prodigal son and he comes home, to Ames’ chagrin. The introduction of Boughton and his relationship with Ames was a very interesting choice, in my opinion; I didn’t see it coming. The conflict of Boughton’s arrival and the weight of his dark secret introduces an interesting and compelling tension to the novel, which could have otherwise been simply quiet, dreamy, and soft.

The spirit of the book, which is similar to the other Robinson novel I’ve read, is heavily steeped in transcendentalism, but a transcendentalism that trusts God. Ames is not afraid of God and he is not afraid of what bearing God may bring to his ending life. At the end of Gilead, we find a man who is at peace at the end of his life. Despite the fact that things have not ended perfectly, that he is leaving his young son too soon, does not seem to matter much. In Gilead, Robinson leaves us with this simple and profound reminder: The earth is good and the heart is good and God is good and life, well, it is also good. There is not much more one can say in the end.

My favorite morally bankrupt characters

I don’t like overly sunny novels. I can’t stand to read about ridiculously virtuous characters. As a child, I hated Nancy Drew (“Nancy tossed her blond hair over her shoulder and called, ‘Ned! Wait for me,’ as she jumped into his shiny red convertible…”) and flatly rejected those utterly dreadful books for Christian girls, like Elsie Dinsmore and The Basket of Flowers. Barf. Even when I was little, I formed the strong opinion that saints and angels make for really tedious and boring literature.

I like reading books with complex characters, with fictional people who have both virtue AND vice, people whose stories don’t always get that shiny, happy ending. I like to read about real life. This is why I shun most of Dickens, most of the Victorians, and most fantasy literature. I don’t think it’s wrong or terrible; it’s just not my thing.

That being said, I tend to enjoy a lot of books with unhappy endings and messy characters. Here are some of my favorite morally bankrupt characters.

SCARLETT O’HARA
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett is the pretty poster child for morally bankrupt characters. I had seen the movie many years before I got around to reading Mitchell’s novel, and when I did, the full force of Scarlett’s personality hit me even stronger than it did on film. Mitchell managed to make someone wicked and admirable at the same time. Scarlett is selfish, manipulative, and conniving — and yet we are pulling for her the whole time. Regardless of the unpleasant racial controversies of this book, I think it is hard to deny the genius of a writer who can create a character as complex and multifaceted as this one.

BAZAROV
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev

Bazarov is a snob. He’s like those kids who go off to grad school and become unbearably pretentious about… everything. Turgenev uses Bazarov as a standard for the young Nihilists of his Russia, the men of reason and science, rejecting all tradition and forms of authority. Bazarov fits his archetype neatly — he’s absurdly arrogant and vain — and yet, we feel for him. He gets his heart broken, even though he won’t admit it. He has a magnetic effect on people, even though no one wants to admit to actually liking him. Bazarov reminds me that people that I am quick to write off with a certain label are never that simple — and always deserving of more time and mercy.

PATTY BERGLUND
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

Patty Berglund isn’t exactly “morally bankrupt;” rather, she doesn’t seem to know where her morals stand exactly. This might be the hallmark of Franzen’s characters (from what I can glean from the cast of people in The Corrections and Freedom, both of which I unashamedly love). Patty represents, to me, the best of what Franzen can do. She is made so real in the pages of this novel that you finish it feeling that she is your best friend, that well-loved person  In my opinion, she makes the entire novel. She is downcast and confused, but she is painfully honest and reflective about her life and its variegated failures. If we could all be as truthful with ourselves as Patty Berglund, we could learn a tremendous amount about life.

MR. HENRY WILCOX
Howards End, E.M. Forster

Mr. Wilcox is a crueler version of Jack Donaghy: He’s rich, controlling silver fox who lives by conservative business morals and generally gets whatever he wants. Including the novel’s heroine, Margaret Schlegel. Margaret is not so easily bought, however, and her goodness eventually softens Mr. Wilcox — but not before he has been brutal, demanding, and insensitive toward practically every character. Still. You like him. He doesn’t back down. And even this crusty old miser has a soft spot.

RASKOLNIKOV
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

He murdered his old landlady with an axe for no good reason! Pinnacle of morally bankrupt. But the novel is about his SOUL. And it’s a great one. So, this book is always worth reading. (My father, by the way, still has not fulfilled his end of our challenge. He sent me a text that said: “I used to love naps. Now I hate them. Because I have to read Crime and Punishment.”)

MRS. RAMSAY
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

OK, so “morally bankrupt” is also far too strong a description for Mrs. Ramsay, but she’s no angel. The central character of my all-time favorite novel, Mrs. Ramsay is usually an overbearing, controlling matriarch. She sets up people who don’t necessarily want to be set up. She insists on domestic tranquility, even when emotions may need to be forcibly expressed. But I will always love Mrs. Ramsay, mainly because she is one of the deepest and most intricately drawn characters I have ever met. She chooses to live by the way of grace–and she lives well, in spite of herself.

How about you? Any quasi-villains or just ignoble characters you love reading about?

Monday Snax

All bears. All blood. All the time. We enjoyed a wonderful weekend visit with the Watson-Ormonds!

We had the perfect, fresh, spring weekend with Rose and Kemp. Rose and I spent our time on Saturday walking all around town and talking about Life and Other Issues while the boys brewed. We ate tons of good food together and just generally lazed around, too. It was just ideal and we hated to see them go.

Snax on a bed of eggs benedict, whatever that is:

Nettles to Play March 28 with The Welcome Wagon! Yes, that’s right, kids: my brilliant husband and his band will be opening for The Welcome Wagon on March 28 at The Haven in Charlottesville. If you’re around, do come; it’s going to be an awesome show. (Nettles)

In Which These Are the Hundred Greatest Novels. The folks at This Recording have made their definitive list of the 100 all-time greatest novels. This list contains dozens of books I’ve never even heard of, much less read. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t derive deep satisfaction that they ranked To the Lighthouse as the #8 best novel and Lolita, wow, as the #1 best novel of all time. That’s saying something. (And Ulysses was #12! How Woolf must be laughing in her grave right now.) At the very least, the list has certainly given me lots of great titles to add to my ever-growing reading list.  (This Recording)

Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar. This analysis by Rob Goodman claims that great authors–he cites examples from Milton and Dickens, and closes with a few lines from Psalm 8–are responsible for the first true “cinematic jump-cuts.” The article is very well-written and fascinating. I like the notion of a “visual grammar,” of the keen and yet oft-unnoticed importance that grammar and syntax possess over our visual understanding of a narrative.  (The Millions)

A Ravishing Knockout of a Book. Novelist Gary Shteyngart talks about his favorite novel, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, in this 2006 review from NPR. I love Shteyngart AND Turgenev, so I was naturally delighted to find this piece, which I stumbled upon while doing some preliminary research on the novel for book club. If you haven’t read it yet, let Shteyngart convince you that you need to. (NPR, All Things Considered)

Real-Life House from Up. I loved that movie; first animated film to make me sob since Bambi, and this is just great. Well done, people at National Geographic. I wonder where the house came from and who was brave enough to actually take a ride in it? Enjoy, even though this has already been around the Interwebs a few times now. This should brighten anyone’s day. (Vulture via National Geographic)

Best Rare Bird Pictures of 2010. In my experience, birds make somewhat terrible pets, but they are such beautiful creatures to watch. National Geographic has released its awards for the best photographs of rare birds from last year. The whooping crane in the air? Amazing. And the tail feathers of the last bird? Gimme a break! That’s crazy. (National Geographic)

Van Gogh Paintings as Pie Charts. I’m all about your color palette, Vincent. (WXTCHOU)

See You Never Again In My Life. One of the best notes from a runaway I’ve ever read. (Passive-Aggressive Notes)

Newt Gingrich Cheated On His Wives for America. The most hilariously absurd explanation for infidelity, maybe ever. No one takes this man seriously, right? (Daily Intel)

First Lady Michelle Obama. I really, really hope this story is true. Go Michelle! (Got a Girl Crush On)

Where Are All the Daring Women’s Heroines? The Guardian’s book blog attempts to address the discrepancy between a plethora of heroines in children’s fiction and a positive dearth of them by the time one gets to adult literature. (The Guardian Book Blog)

Trend Watch: Houses with Slides. I assume these are the homes of multi-millionaires with young children, but, hey, I kind of want a slide in my house. (Flavorwire)

Blue Eyes Are Not Actually Blue. Well. I learned something new today. I can’t tell if I feel downcast because my irises are just an optical illusion or extra cool. (Broken Secrets)