I have not read a ton of books so far this year (10 books in 4 months is, um, slow for me). However, of the books I have read, the following two made an impact and I would highly recommend reading!
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
When I was at Regent College, I had a few friends who loved Marilynne Robinson’s writing. I had read Gilead in a past life (as an undergrad, maybe?) and frankly, been unimpressed. I remembered a book that I really had to push through to finish; when people raved about Robinson’s prose, I was like, “overrated? maybe?”
Hahaha, just kidding!
The story: I went for a walk back in March and saw a copy of Gilead in a Little Free Library box. I was in the right kind of mood to take it out, read the first sentence, and immediately knew that this book was not going anywhere – certainly not back to the Little Free Library!
I feel like to describe the book too much is to do it a disservice, so I’ll try to restrain myself. The story: a father writing his life story to his son. The father is an old man, and manages to be neither naive nor cynical - remembering his life and facing his death in a way that holds together both its burdens/sorrows and unfamthomable gifts of grace. And Marilynne Robinson’s writing is indeed beautiful - the father’s voice is simple, profound, and above all, sincere.
Gilead may not be for everyone - clearly, it was not the right book for Christina in her early twenties. But if you don’t like it the first time, it might be worth coming back to.
A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin
I just finished this last night, and, rather like my initial experience with Gilead, I found this a long read. First of all, it is a pretty long book, straight-up. Also, while the language and writing is beautiful, it’s sufficiently literary that you can’t just effortlessly skim along. (Hunger Games, this is not.) Finally, especially at the beginning, it was harder to read because not much was “happening.” However, once I had gotten into the story, it was worth going on.
As the title would suggest, the book is about one Italian man, Alessandro: his youth growing up outside Rome and then his experiences as a soldier during World War I.
It was the kind of book that grew on me. Once I got into it, I realized that I was reading slowly because I was feeling so much empathy for Alessandro and his comrades. The story is not painful to read because of overwhelming bloodshed, graphic depictions of violence, or any historical fact about World War I. Thousands of men dying is treated in a single sentence - what matters more are the particular men that Alessandro knows and loves: their struggles and desperation to stay alive, to see their families again, to return to their beloved homes. Knowing something about these characters, there is almost a terrible artistry in how they die - somehow making what is already painful, the most painful, the most terrible, in the worst way.
And that’s what makes the book worth reading - because it doesn’t go to that dark place without also constantly pursuing why, in fact, life is still worth living, despite everything. I kept reading for the same reason that Alessandro carries on in the story - for the glimpses of beauty, for the bits of goodness that can’t be silenced, for exactly the love that makes it so painful when people die.
Having finished A Soldier of the Great War, I realized that it reminded me of two of my favorite novels:
- The Brothers K, David James Duncan.
- The Brothers K is about family (especially fathers and sons), the broad sweep of life and the impact of war, all themes that appear in A Soldier of the Great War. This is another book I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who loves to read.
- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy.
- Like A Soldier of the Great War, Anna Karenina describes one man’s (Levin’s) and woman’s (Anna’s) struggle to live beautifully and find meaning in the context of their world. Also, like A Soldier of the Great War, is written not so much around plot, as character, and especially world (including some long descriptive passages that may not be 100% necessary).
So I’m thinking that A Soldier of the Great War will definitely be a book I re-read at a later time and there will be more to be mined then.