Friday, January 24, 2014


 Marilynne Robinson  


            I don’t read a lot of literary fiction because I typically find it too slow. I’m all for character-driven plots, but the plot needs to have some motion to keep me going. Beautiful writing alone isn’t enough. That said, a literary novel about an Iowa minister holds no obvious appeal for me, however I had loved her earlier book Housekeeping so I was disposed to read this one. To my shock I read it once and then started over to read it again. I NEVER do that. Gilead completely blew me away as a near-perfect book. It has just as much story as it needs, the driving voice of a man you cannot help but love, and Marilyn Robinson’s signature exquisite writing that, when she nails it, brings tears to your eyes. Or at least it does for me. What especially made this one transcendent for me was the love between the characters. Where Housekeeping is just as gorgeously written, in the end the characters are unconnected, alone and cold. In Gilead, the voice of the humble minister is ennobled by his love and worry for his wife and child, making of him an unlikely but warmly engaging hero. I can’t do any justice to this book in talking of it. It simply must be read.

Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park 

            Voices voices voices. Ms. Rowell does her voices with great facility and I found this one hard to put down. Eleanor and Park are remarkably vivid characters. I thought the plot was maybe a little manipulative but I think I’m splitting hairs…

J.K. Rowling

The Harry Potter series 

            I think these are brilliant, especially for the humor and complex plotting. 

Norman Rush


            Extremely erudite, but clever throughout. Excellent means to double your vocabulary.

Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow 

            I didn’t read a lot of fiction while in graduate school for plant biology, but among what I did read, this was my favorite book. It’s written by another scientist-cum-writer like me, and has a few of the same features, including a highly intricate plot. Perhaps it’s the scientists in us that seek to unravel complexity. I believe you’d categorize this as science fiction, which is not a genre I typically read, but this one is so very good in so many ways that it matters not at all. The characters are fascinating and memorable, the plot is intriguing on many levels, and the resolution to the central mystery is breathtaking. Quite an achievement. Also, it’s fitting but ironic to list this just before the Lymond Chronicles, as I learned of Dorothy Dunnett from Mary Doria Russell, another fan, and the recommendation launched me into a deep and abiding passion for historical fiction (hence the irony). 

Richard Russo

Empire Falls 

            I greatly enjoy Richard Russo’s writing. He has a powerful gift for characters, especially male characters.

Bridge of Sighs 

            This is another of my favorite Russo books. It contains one of his few interesting female characters in the form of Theresa Lynch. 

M.L. Stedman

A Light Between Oceans 

            My husband and I both completely enjoyed this book and I think it’s probably the best book I’ve read in 2013. It surprised us in many ways, and was vivid and compelling throughout. It has a completely unusual setting and an engaging premise—especially for those of us with kids. I have one complaint about the ending but it’s relatively minor and I won’t say anything more for fear of spoilage. 

Wallace Stegner

Angle of Repose

[see post 8.28.14 for the full-length review]
I had begun Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose about ten years ago and I think I wasn't ready to read something so subtle. I hadn't matured enough yet. A friend told me several months ago that she'd had a similar experience of reading it many years apart and finding it a completely different book. She encouraged me to give it another try. 

I think you do have to be a certain age or mind-frame to savor a book that moves at a modulated pace and spends ample time on descriptions of both the outer world of the setting and the inner world of the characters as they grow and change. In the end I was left with two overriding emotions. First was a powerful sadness for both Lyman and Susan, both of whom struggled to find the courage to endure their many disappointments. There was a great beauty in their endurance. The second was a warm glow of appreciation for the fine writing that brought their world to life and allowed me to spend time there. I felt like I'd visited much of the early west and could nearly shake the parched dirt from my shoes. (If I'd been able to reach my shoes at the time. . .)

In the end, then, I recommend this book to anyone who feels they are ready for it. It's a magnificent treat when you can savor it like you would anything slow and deep and finely-wrought.