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Gilead Questions July 5, 2007

Posted by Danielle in Uncategorized.
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I just thought I’d take the initiative to post a few questions about this month’s book, Gilead. These questions are mostly general format/structure questions.

* What are your first impressions of the narrator, John Ames?

* What are your thoughts about how the books is structured with no chapters, and written as a letter in a very journal-like style to the narrator’s son? Do you like the approach or not? Why?

That’s all I have time for right now. The beginning is slow but stick with it. I finished it a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it.

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1. Sara Zoe - July 11, 2007

I like the journal style, it makes it seem personal or real. What a neat idea to write a journal to his son…sad too. How neat it would be to have personal stories/history of your family. I love him telling about the Grandfather and the adventures he took with his Dad to the grave. Other then that I haven’t really connected to the book…kind of just trudging through.

2. Heather - July 11, 2007

Sara, I’m kinda trudging, too, but I haven’t made it very far! (I’m about 30 pages into it). I think the format makes it a bit more difficult to concentrate on, and I’ve been trying to read it at night, which probably isn’t my best time!

Do you find he rambles? It really does remind me of conversations I’ve had with my grandma (before she got Alzheimer’s) — I think our older citizens are so full of so many memories, it is easy for them to jump from one thought to the next, as different memories are reawakened.

I admire those who journal; I’ve never been good or consistent at it. What an amazing gift to pass on to your children.

I’m hoping after my daughter’s birthday party tomorrow I’ll be able to really jump into this and get some more reading done. Sorry I’ve been so lamo on this book!

3. Sara Zoe - July 23, 2007

Stick a fork in me cuz I am done! I am abandoning mission on this book. I have only advanced 3 pages in over a week. Seems like there is little interest in this book anyhow.

4. bethany3boys - July 28, 2007

Sorry i dropped the ball on this one. i have heared it is good once you get into it. Just had my hands full this month as you all know. Sorry

5. Danielle - July 30, 2007

Bethany, you were a LITTLE BUSY the past month, so no need to apologize. If I’d been more organized I could of led it, but I wasn’t.

6. Heather - July 31, 2007

I apologize at the outset that this comment is so long! Feel free to skip it, except for the “made me chuckle” quotes at the end of my comment. I grew up going to church potlucks, and these church food quotes brought back lots of memories and laughs!!! I’d hate for you to miss out!

I must admit I picked up Gilead with a big chunk of ambivalence already sitting on my shoulder. Some friends of mine had just had that as their book club choice the month before, and neither one of them could get into it, with both of them abandoning it before finishing. So when I started this book I already had formed the opinion that I wasn’t going to like it, and the meandering randomness of the first 50 pages or so really didn’t help! I took it on my trip to California, thinking that if I was forced to read it because I had nothing else to read, then maybe I would finally get into it! I think I was probably a hundred pages in, or thereabouts, before I finally was drawn into the story. The quote from the New York Times Book Review (which is a great article, by the way) on the back of my copy sums it up well: “Gradually, Robinson’s novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details.” Robinson’s writing is full of beautiful language and she successfully uses her voice, the Reverend John Ames, to make her readers think about things like heaven, grace, and forgiveness.

Those of you who read or tried to read this book know all about the cons, most of which center around the structure of the novel. What starts out as a letter to his young son turns into more of a personal journal which touches on family history, personal fears and struggles, musings about eternity, and lots of insights into both the nature of man and of God. Throughout the novel Ames jumps back and forth into letter mode, giving advice and sharing hopes with his son. This jumping around really does make the novel harder to read, as does the lack of chapters or other divisions. Once I was drawn into Ames’ personal story, though, the structure of the book bothered me less and less.

So with those negatives out of the way, here are some of the quotes I enjoyed:

*Regarding fathers and sons/parents and children:

“Well, see and see but do not perceive, hear and hear but do not understand, as the Lord says. I can’t claim to understand that saying, as many times as I’ve heard it, and even preached on it. It simply states a deeply mysterious fact. You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” P. 7

“I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. 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.” P. 52

“There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They’re in the petals of flowers, and they’re on a child’s skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly.” 52

“Old Boughton is so eager to see him [his son]. Perhaps anxious as well as eager. He has some fine children, yet it always seemed this was the one on whom he truly set his heart. The lost sheep, the lost coin. The prodigal son, not to put too fine a point on it. I have said at least once a week my whole adult life that there is an absolute disjunction between our Father’s love and our deserving. Still, when I see this same disjunction between human parents and children, it always irritates me a little. (I know you will be and I hope you are an excellent man, and I will love you absolutely if you are not.)” p. 73

“The story of Hagar and Ishmael came to mind while I was praying this morning, and I found a great assurance in it. The story says that it is not only the father of a child who cares for its life, who protects its mother, and it says that even if the mother can’t find a way to provide for it, or herself, provision will be made. At that level it is a story full of comfort. That is how life goes – we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s. I need to bear this in mind.” P. 118

“It was truly a dreadful thing he was doing, leaving his father to die without him. It was the kind of thing only his father would forgive him for.” P. 240

*Regarding joy and beauty in this life:

“I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping in the air, our insouciant Soapy! Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.” P. 9

“Thank God for them [books] all, of course, and for that strange interval, which was most of my life, when I read out of loneliness, and when bad company was much better than no company. You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have. ‘The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.’ There are pleasures to be found where you would never look for them. That’s a bit of fatherly wisdom, but it’s also the Lord’s truth, and a thing I know from my own long experience.” P. 39

“I was struck by the way the light felt that afternoon. I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There was the feeling of a weight of light – pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening even the trees a little as a late snow would do. I was the kind of light that rests on your shoulders the way a cat lies on your lap. So familiar.” P. 51

“You are standing up on the seat of your swing and sailing higher than you really ought to, with that bold, planted stance of a sailor on a billowy sea. The ropes are long and you are light and the ropes bow like cobwebs, laggardly, indolent. Your shirt is red – it is your favorite shirt – and you fly into the sunlight and pause there brilliantly for a second and then fall back into the shadows again. You appear to be altogether happy. I remember those first experiments with fundamental things, gravity and light, and what an absolute pleasure they were.” P. 112

*Regarding human nature and sin:

“I don’t know why solitude would be a balm for loneliness, but that is how it always was for me in those days…” P. 19

“All this seems preposterous. But in fact one lapse of judgment can quickly create a situation in which only foolish choices are possible.” P. 60

“Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay. There are some I dearly wish might be spared.” P. 100

“I have always liked the phrase ‘nursing a grudge,’ because many people are tender of their resentments, as of the thing nearest their hearts.” P. 117

“This is an important thing, which I have told many people and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in his moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.” P. 124

“I believe the sin of covetise is that pang of resentment you may feel when even the people you love best have what you want and don’t have. From the point of view of loving your neighbor as yourself, there is nothing that makes a person’s fallenness more undeniable than covetise – you feel it right in your heart, in your bones.” P. 134

“I conceal my motives from myself pretty effectively sometimes.” P. 147

“As we were walking home, your mother said, ‘He was only asking a question,’ which was almost a rebuke, coming from her. Than, after we’d walked a little farther, she said, ‘Maybe some people aren’t so comfortable with themselves.’ Now, that was a rebuke. And she was quite right. What need had an old soldier like me to defend himself even from mockery, if that was what he was up to? There was no question of need, there was only habit.” P. 154

“I don’t know exactly what covetise is, but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue or happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it.” P. 188

“The thoughtlessness of any individual, when it is seen to be in service to the mindfulness of the Lord, cannot justify anger. I have used this line of reasoning any number of times myself, when I have felt the need and found the occasion. And the fact is, it is seldom indeed that any wrong one suffers is not thoroughly foreshadowed by wrongs one has done.” P. 194

*Regarding suffering:

“When my father found his father at Mount Pleasant after the war ended, he was shocked at first to see how he had been wounded. In fact, he was speechless. So my grandfather’s first words to his son were ‘I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.’ And that is what he said about everything that happened to him for the rest of his life, all of which tended to be more or less drastic.” P. 36

“As you read this, I hope you will understand that when I speak of the long night that preceded these days of my happiness, I do not remember grief and loneliness so much as I do peace and comfort – grief, but never without comfort; loneliness, but never without peace. Almost never.” P. 71

“He lost his Greek Testament in a frantic retreat across a river, as I have said. I always felt there was a metaphor in that. The waters never parted for him, not once in his life, so far as I know. There was just no end to difficulty, and no mitigation of it. Then again, he always sought it out.” P. 90

“Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannot be true. I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.” P. 104

“I heard a man say once that Christians worship sorrow. That is by no means true. But we do believe there is a sacred mystery in it, it’s fair to say that…I believe there is a dignity in sorrow simply because it is God’s good pleasure that there should be. He is forever raising up those who are brought low. This does not mean that it is ever right to cause suffering or to seek it out when it can be avoided, and serves no good, practical purpose. To value suffering in itself can be dangerous and strange, so I want to be very clear about this. It simply means that God takes the side of sufferers against those who afflict them. (I hope you are familiar with the prophets, particularly Isaiah.)” p. 137

*Regarding God’s nature and character:

“The parents of these young soldiers would come to me and ask me how the Lord could allow such a thing. I felt like asking them what the Lord would have to do to tell us He didn’t allow something.” P. 41

“Their [Hagar and Ishmael] time in the wilderness seems like a specific moment of divine Providence within the whole providential regime of Creation.” P. 119

“And I felt, as I have often felt, that my failing the truth could have no bearing at all on the Truth itself, which could never conceivably be in any sense dependent on me or on anyone.” P. 172

“I fell to thinking about the passage in the “Institutes” where it says the image of the Lord in anyone is much more than reason enough to love him, and that the Lord stands waiting to take our enemies’ sins upon Himself. So it is a rejection of the reality of grace to hold our enemy at fault. Those things can only be true. 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.” P. 189

“Love is holy because it is like grace – the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” P. 209

*Regarding heaven and eternity:

“This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. I don’t know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around in it. People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives. That’s clearer to me every day.” P. 66

“Boughton says he has more ideas about heaven every day. He said, ‘Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two. I’d multiply by ten or twelve if I had the energy. But two is much more than sufficient for my purposes.’ So, he’s just sitting there multiplying the feel of the wind by two, multiplying the smell of the grass by two.” P. 147

*Just made me chuckle:

“Since supper was three kinds of casserole with two kinds of fruit salad, with cake and pie for dessert, I gathered that my flock, who lambaste life’s problems with food items of just this kind, had heard an alarm. There was even a bean salad, which to me looked distinctly Presbyterian, so anxiety had overspilled its denominational vessel. You’d have thought I’d died. We saved it for lunch.” P. 127

“We agreed it [an article on religion in America] must have been fairly widely read in both our congregations, because on one page there’s a recipe for that molded salad of orange gelatin with stuffed green olives and shredded cabbage and anchovies that has dogged my ministerial life these last years, and which appears at his house whenever he so much as catches cold. There should be a law to prevent recipes for molded salad from appearing within twenty pages of any article having to do with religion.” P. 145

7. bethany3boys - August 3, 2007

Heather thanks for all the quotes….they make the books sound like it probably is really good once you get into it.

And yes the made you chuckle ones are funny.

I do plan on picking up this book again soon.

8. Danielle - August 3, 2007

I had a tough time getting into it too, but pressed on because the writing was so beautiful. At some point I was hooked and looked forward to discovering how it would end. I really loved John Ames and am really glad I read it. By the way, I read her other novel “Housekeeping” but didn’t care for it so much, despite the fact it’s written how you’d expect a novel to be.


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