What I'm Reading (No. 15): Gilead and The Big Ones
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
When I mentioned that our book club was reading Gilead (247 pgs, 2004) this month, I heard from a lot of you, and your praise was lavish. I can add to the chorus, mostly, and say fairly easily that it was one of the most beautifully and lyrically written novels I've ever read.
Set in the fictional small town of Gilead, Iowa, Reverend John Ames (age 76) is writing a series of letters (or perhaps just one long letter?) to his young son (age 7). This letter covers everything from family history, to thoughts on life, to the wrestling of how to handle the perpetual thorn in his side, Jack Boughton — who happens to be the son of his best friend.
Everyone in our book club had slightly different takeaways, and it felt like we could have talked about the book forever. That speaks to Robinson's writing more than just about anything can, in my opinion. My primary takeaway centered on Ames' constant reminding that life is something to be loved, savored, enjoyed, and appreciated. There is beauty all around you, if only you'd notice the miracle of the very fact of existence itself.
It seemed like every few pages (and sometimes more than that), there was some profound, proverb-esque insight about the nature of beauty, forgiveness and grace, what it means to be "saved," etc. My copy is riddled with underlining and marginalia that I'll have to go back to and think through a bit more.
Organizationally, it's a little hard to get through. There aren't any chapters; it's one long letter with frequent line breaks. It was also a little slow at times — there wasn't much plot to carry the reader along. (Though even in those moments, the writing itself was still beautiful.) Really though, these are pretty minor quibbles.
I wondered aloud to our group if you had to be a Midwesterner to fully grasp the cultural context of Gilead, and we never really arrived at an answer (3 of our 8, including me, are originally from the Midwest), though, to some extent, I actually think you do. That said, I really believe anyone and everyone can enjoy both the novel's lyricism and its poignant thoughts on some of life's most foundational themes.
There are two other novels in this series that don't act as prequels or sequels, but rather alternative viewpoints: Home and Lila. Both are definitely on my list. I also just really enjoyed Robinson's writing, so I'd love to dig in to her numerous essays as well.
The Big Ones by Lucy Jones
Recently profiled on NPR's Science Friday, The Big Ones (256 pgs, 2018) is about how various natural disasters throughout history — that is, the big ones — have shaped our societies and our thinking.
From Mt. Vesuvius' destruction of Pompeii in 79, to the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster of 2011, seismologist Lucy Jones takes us on a journey around the world to both little-known events — like the great California flood of 1862 — and world-shaking disasters (like in Japan seven years ago).
The best part of this book is that Jones doesn't just describe the disasters and how they physically came to be. She fascinatingly gets into the human and systemic impacts, and elements of the disasters that aren't necessarily widely known.
In discussing Hurricane Katrina — a chapter titled "A Study in Failure — she doesn't really focus on the hurricane itself, but about the systemic failures at every level of government. It's about how a flawed system that naturally oppressed poor black people made Katrina even worse than it had to be. Systemic failures = greater tolls when natural disasters happen.
Japan handled the fourth largest quake ever recorded surprisingly well. Its infrastructure is built to withstand huge earthquakes. The country even made it through the tsunami that followed — in spite of the 15,000+ deaths. What really set the event over the top was the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which on the international nuclear event scale made it to a 7 out of 7. The only other event ever rated a 7 was Chernobyl. I don't know about you, but I guess I didn't realize that piece of it was that bad. Amongst all this, Jones actually focuses on women in Japan, who especially in rural areas are generally held in lower regard and aren't really to be seen or heard. The disaster, in a paradoxical way, gave them more power and agency. Volunteerism skyrocketed, and women played (and are still playing) a huge role in putting Japan back together.
Indeed, every natural disaster impacts far more than just the people seemingly directly affected.
Every chapter has fascinating stories like that, and it's well worth the read if you're so inclined. Also made me really want to read Ghosts of the Tsunami, named one of the best books of 2017 by a number of outlets.
My article about the benefits of reading to your kids was published this week. Check it out if you'd like.
Over the summer, our book club is taking a break, and we're instead going to discuss the Netflix hit documentary Wild Wild Country. Anyone watched it yet?
The Golden State Killer was caught this week, which by itself is a crazy story. What makes it super interesting for book nerds is that Michelle McNamara's hit title I'll Be Gone in the Dark, about her obsessive, unsuccessful, decade-long hunt for the killer, was posthumously published just last month. (Michelle died about 2 years ago, but it took that long for the book's publication to be finalized.) If only she could have lived to see this moment. Incredible. As husband Patton Oswalt said on Twitter, she "would be laughing her ass off" at the "galactic synchronicity" of it. Marvelous phrasing there, Patton.
Thanks so much for reading — I so appreciate it — and let me know what you've enjoyed reading this week!