RECENT READS # MY BROTHER’S BOOK – Jo-Anne Richards


Not being fond of Struggle Literature, I’ve avoided her books. I recall a huge hullabaloo over her novel The Innocence of Roast Chicken, (a best-seller in South Africa in 1996). I remember the PC brigade hated it. Quite why, I never discovered. But she has continued to write and this is her fourth novel . It’s a novel of great depth with an unusual format – quite a large part of the narrative – perhaps just under one-third – consists of letters written by Miranda to both Thomas (her first lover and fellow struggle comrade) and his sister, Lily (unwitting trigger of Tom’s discovery, arrest and 12 year jail sentence). The Book is in three parts : Pt 1 – Lily; Pt 2 – Thomas; Pt 3 – Bert (their father). The catalyst is the book which Thomas writes about The Struggle, which prompts Miranda to start writing letters to the pair of them, so there’s an oblique, third-person view and analysis of events already related by the other characters. It’s a complicated format, but it suits the novel about three complicated characters. Lily’s Pt 1 is about a nomadic childhood spent in the Eastern Cape with wonderful evocative sections on the landscape, the people, life as a child, with the shadow of apartheid restrictions on their friendship with the coloureds in the little towns. She adores her father (a complex mix of conman, drinker, trader & preacher), is brought up by her brother, but is much wilder and spontaneous than him. Ironically, towards the end of the book, their roles are reversed – she becomes the care-giver towards her step-brother Arnold and her father. Thomas’ Pt 2 takes us into his tortured soul – he’s tormented by his mother’s abandonment of their family, the fecklessness of his father, his responsibilities towards his kid sister and then her betrayal; his relationships with women, friends, God; his attempted career as a priest …. everything is deeply felt, unacknowledged, and the struggle has twisted him. How Louise, his girlfriend puts up with him, is a mystery. He’s remote, a workaholic, unforgiving, riven by anger that he claims he has left behind – he hasn’t of course, but can’t see it. And of course, despite his impeccable Struggle credentials, he’s abandoned by the New South Africa, when his life’s raison d’etre, an NGO, is swept from under him when the Board insists he be replaced by a Black. A White man, cannot in these new times, head such an organization …. it’s the ultimate cruel irony. Bart’s Pt 3 was quite difficult to read, he’s got Alzheimers and his view of events/people is all mixed up but it’s a short section only a few pages, from which it appears that Thomas manages to stay with Louise who has now borne his child; Miranda is on a visit from London; and brother and sister appear to have reconciled. I’m filled with admiration at the complex structure of the book, the depth of the characters, the subtlety of the book. I wonder why it hasn’t won a prize ? “Richards has an acute sense of place, in it’s small town and big city guises, and a wonderful ear for South African idiom. … Moving subtly between past and present, it casts a searing light on the way we reveal and conceal our truths in stories.” (Ivan Vladislavic) “Few South African writers can capture the complicated magic and cultural confusion of a constantly changing country like JR can … wry, moving and beautifully observed.” (Peter Godwin)

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Reflections on Relationships – FAMILY


The Grey Family (Judging Amy) Tyne Daly 2nd left front row

The Grey Family (Judging Amy) Tyne Daly 2nd left front row

 

I’m a fan of an old American TV series Judging Amy , I suppose it’s in the  soapie category, charting the family life of the Grey family in Massachusetts. Late thirties, recently divorced Amy is a judge in the local Children’s Court; daughter Lauren is cute and curious; grandma Maxine is a magnificent feisty social worker with the Department of Children and Families, There are three other direct family members, but they’re not so central, nor so interesting, to the stories.

Thinking it over, I watch the series chiefly for the pleasure of seeing the redoubtable Maxine in action. Tyne Daly fills the role to perfection.  She first hit the limelight many years ago in a TV cop show, Cagney and Lacey; languished in obscurity for some years, then made a comeback with the Judging Amy  series and quite recently starred in the feature film about Maria Callas.

In her character as Maxine she is a commanding presence who stands no nonsense from anybody and robustly states her forthright views to children and adults alike. One scene shows a confrontation between Maxine and her daughter-in-law Gillian who – for once – turns on Maxine and gives her an earful, starting off with the declaration “I know you don’t like me …” Maxine replies to the tirade by saying “Yes, it’s true, often I don’t like you, but you’re family, and I love you.”

This statement was a lightbulb moment for me. How many of us, I wonder, have had similar thoughts, but have been too tactful/cowardly/nervous to voice them? Just because people enter our family – usually through marriage – does that mean that we will like them? Or have to like them? Or are able to like them? Perhaps, perhaps … And even if we don’t like them, are we capable of loving them, just because they’re now FAMILY?  It’s a big ask.  It’s a huge stretch.

I’m still thinking about this question. It remains unresolved.

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Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki – Haruki Murakami


 

I’m so glad I picked up a brand new copy of his latest novel in Books Galore for only R140 as opposed to the retail price of R360.I’d been  very tempted by pre-release offers from my favourite bookstore,  but had resisted them, and tripped over a bargain instead.  And I will have no trouble in taking this one back to the BG shop & claiming my one-third back on it. It’s not a book I want to keep and re-read.

This said, I have to report that the book has a stunning cover design : vibrant orange, red, indigo, black and white discs – anything but colourless! Plus a large pull-out sheet of small stickers which seem to be related to the story, but are confusing – usually its pre-teen girls who are sticker mad, not adults reading Japanese novels. I don’t know – visualize me shaking my head, shrugging my shoulders, at this point. It’s a mystery, but then this is Murakami.

Suddenly I’m over my Murakami madness. Having now read some of his other novels, I can see how he returns to the same themes over and over again. TT is yet another of Haruki Murakami’s self-sufficient 30-something young men who cook, clean and iron their shirts and lead quiet, modest, regulated lives, apart from a dramatic incident in his early 20s which nearly kills him, but leaves him stronger and even more self-sufficient.

And of course, Music plays a role – a piano piece by Franz List, Le Mal du Pays  seems to be important but somehow isn’t. And there’s the ghostly jazz pianist Midorikawa, who features in Haida’s story, with a maddening clue about a mystery object in a cloth bag, reverently placed atop the piano, prior to playing. Yet another fascinating clue which evaporates  into ..? what? I don’t know: I’m baffled! This is either the charm or the irritation of Murakami’s writing, depending on the reader’s mood.

However, in this book, there are no cats! Often these are a feature of his novels, particularly in Kafka on the Shore.   Also much less of magic realism, or surrealism, or just plain magic, whatever you want to call it. There’s only one magical section where a long story is told to the main protagonist (TT) which – at one point – I thought might be a clue, or a suggestion as to the how & why of  the  murder in the NOVEL; but he never develops this suggestion and the story stands alone – a strange almost ghost story – it’s difficult to pin it down. And the murder is never solved.

Another strange element is the introduction of polydactylism – people who are born with six fingers. Very late in the book there’s a short section about lost property on the Tokyo Metro, and one of the bizarre things in the Lost Property is a mayonnaise jar containing two neatly severed fingers in formaldehyde.  Which may or may not be connected to the jazz pianist and the ghost story.

Despite all my grumbles, I  read on, quite intrigued, and continued to the end of the novel. One of the things I like about Murakami is his intense Japanese-ness. There’s a sort of stark minimalism about his work. Despite the oddness of his plots/story-lines, I keep on reading.

My friend Anita thinks his short stories are better than the novels and she may well be correct. I need to read them.

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GATHER YE ROSEBUDS etc, but in my case:SNAILS


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where’s the Escape Route?

I wonder how you start your day?

I’ll lay you a small bet you’re not out in your garden, poking around in the undergrowth with your trusty braai-tongs, SNAIL HUNTING in the cool, early morning hours. Let me tell you that snails emerge from their shelly homes while the dew is still on the leaf, and they come out brandishing their knives and forks, starving for greenery …. my greenery, my plants – what’s left of them, that is. Those snaily jaws are munching manically every morning and not only on the plants, but on the paintwork on the walls and patio. If my entire house disappears,  it will be due to the ravenous molluscs. So out I go, cursing steadily while bending my aching back, but its Woman versus Garden Pests, and the war is on. My daily harvest fills up an empty 500ml yoghurt carton. Daily, mind you. The reproductive power of the snail is truly terrifying. Sometimes I wonder if my garden isn’t infected with a genus of super-snail that will eventually munch the rest of us out of existence. Forget about changing climate, Fukushima, political mayhem and the rest of it. It’s the snails that have got me worried!

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THE X-GENERATION v.s. PROUST


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I’m supposed to be  reading Proust, but I’m not. I’m  playing hooky.  Instead of slogging through Proust I’m giggling my way through the cult classic by Douglas Coupland The X-Generation.

 During yet another of my tidy-outs in preparation for the annual Cavendish Centre Charity Book Sale, I found the battered little paperback, its screaming pink cover only a little faded, and I thought : must read this again before I turf it into the Donations Box.  And believe me, the escapades of the Silicon Valley ‘90s generation make a welcome escape hatch from Proust’s rural village life, in Combray, France.

I can hear you thinking:”Why on earth is this woman reading Proust?”

Good question. The blame falls squarely on the Norwegian novelist, Karl Ove Knausgaard, he of recent fame – see my blog post titled Making Soup & Contemplating Life. Having finished Vol I of his family saga and reading lit crits of his novel/memoir, whatever it is, I kept finding comparisons between KOK and Proust. My curiosity was piqued.  I’d never read Proust. Which was hardly surprising, given the fact that the 1950s Rhodesian education system did not venture into the dangerous waters of European culture. The closest we came was a route march through a Shakespeare play and Keats’ poetry. I suppose I might have encountered Proust had I studied Literature at University, but my life took a different direction, namely towards earning a living, and not the quiet groves of academia.

So at this late stage of my life, I’m dipping my toes into European cultural waters and I’m not sure I’m a happy bather. Proust is so long-winded! Verbose would be an understatement. One sentence can colonise an entire page. At this stage of my life, I’m definitely a citizen of the blogosphere, a traveller thru the World Wide Web, where short sound-bytes do the trick. Even Wikipaedia has short entries.

So picking up Generation X  and taking a breather was pure relief. And a great deal more entertaining, I should add. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour and do so – it’s fresh, even though it was first published in 1991. Apparently Coupland was tasked to write a non-fiction account of the birth cohort that followed the wave of baby-boomers, but he wrote a novel instead, and voila! Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture hit the shelves. The book follows the lives of three disillusioned and alienated twenty-somethings, living in LA. It sounds grim, but it isn’t.  Slowly it became a cult novel, and one of his catchphrases McJob *  became part of late 20th century language;  *(indicative of a boring, regimented, lowly-paid occupation – do I need to spell out the analogy between this and the famous American food chain? No? Good! I don’t want to be sued by an American mega-food-corp).

As for finishing Vol 1 of Proust’s In Search of  ….   well … umm … maybe. Fortunately a kindly librarian gave me an extended two month loan period on the book. I’m going to need it. And possibly an extension on that. On the other hand, I could also say ‘fuggedaboutit’ and return it to the Library. Time will tell.

And yes, I can see why others have compared KOK to Proust – they both share a passion for trivial detail, but at least Knausgaard looks like a rock star. Weary readers can always rest their eyes on his pic inside the book jacket for light relief!

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WHERE DOES THE TIME GO ? 


 

It’s really quite ridiculous. Here I am, retired, and finding myself without a second to even sneeze. Busy, busy, busy.

Friends phone me up to arrange a coffee date, and we find ourselves one or two weeks hence  into our diaries … because its ten days before I have a free slot – crazy! Anybody would think I was a top flight executive. Any day now I’ll need a Social Secretary to manage my diary.

People often say “You keep yourself so busy!” either in tones of admiration or condemnation (delete inapplicable).  Not so. I’m not deliberately  trying to keep busy.  It’s just that there are so many interesting things to do or see. Plus there are my weekly addictive sessions with Mah Jongg and Scrabble. Not giving those up!

And then there’s the theory that as you age, time speeds up in an inverse ration to your age – or something – I’ve never grasped that. I know I should, but I haven’t.  I remember, when I was about 5 or 6 years old, how it took FOREVER for Christmas and your birthday to come around again, whereas nowadays I’m clutching my forehead and gasping, only another 62 days until Christmas – where did the year go??   Never mind the Christmas juggernaut rolling towards us – lately I wake up in the morning, and find that its Friday again,! Dammit, we just had  Friday! Where on earth did the week get to?

I’m definitely running out of time.

Recently a psychic told me I have another 20 years left to me before I depart this mortal plane. Yes, well, no fine … On the one hand I was immensely cheered because it means I now have time to finish my Fantasy novels. And it may take that long. I felt as if I’d been given a gift: another twenty years! Wow!  But on the bad days, it doesn’t seem like such a bonanza.

There’s an old saying “Man proposes, God disposes”. Perhaps the best thing to do is live each day as best we can. An old song had the line  yesterday is history, tomorrow still a mystery  and all we really have is NOW, just this moment, as the Buddhists would say. And this moment. And this moment.  That old American hippie, Ram Dass, once wrote a book titled “Be Here Now”. Pretty good advice.

 

 

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24 HOUR QUARANTINE FOR MY TIME-TRAP


 

I can hear your response: Huh? What’s a Time-trap?

Here is a brief guide to  help identify the pests:

  • They’re generally rectangular
  • The casing is usually black, grey or silver; but they also come in funky colours, much loved by the young
  • The small traps house their own power supply, but the larger ones require connections to the mains
  • Their tribal names may include Nokia, Blackberry, Sony, HP, Apple, Samsung, Dell, Lenovo – do I need to go on?

Who wouldn’t rather be watching TV, or playing games on their i-phone/tablet, or surfing the net on their PC, rather than dutifully editing their novel? Come on, ‘fess up!  We’re only human, after all.

I’m indebted to my writing friend, Dawn, who acts as my Writer’s Conscience, on writing issues, and she introduced me to this hold-all term. And I thought: Yesss! She’s right (again!) I know just what she means.

So on Saturday I vowed not to turn on my PC which is my biggest writing Time-trap. I don’t own a Smartphone, and my elderly Nokia mobile serves as a useful tool and nothing more. TV? My mother brainwashed me years ago about the crime of wasting daylight hours by watching TV, so that takes care of that.

For me the PC  is a magic carpet to anywhere in the world – or the universe, for that matter. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of entertainment and information, where I’ve spent many happy exploratory hours instead of working on my novel, on my memoir, on my blog posts, on my competition entries – the list is endless. Sigh.

So I resolutely left the PC sulking in its corner on Saturday and accomplished so much without its evil influence – I was quite astonished by the end of the day, when I climbed onto the couch, for some mental chewing gum i.e. TV.  I tidied out cupboards, sorted out my craft material – throwing out a ton of STUFF in the process; I made huge in-roads on a craft project that’s lurked around for months; I wrote a book review;  I mended my favourite yellow jersey; I read 4 chapters of a novel that I’ve been struggling to finish; I made West African Sweet Potato Stew for supper, and last of all, I made my cat deliriously happy by providing under-cat heating once I flopped onto the couch.

All in all a good day. Today I switched the beast on, but it’s been strictly business, including typing this blog post.

Give it a whirl: go on a PC fast – you’ll save power, do a million worthy things, and feel so virtuous at the end of the day. In fact, I’m going to declare one quarantine day every week. I might even finish the tapestry I’ve been avoiding for the last two years. Stranger things have happened.

 

 

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MY LIGHTBULB MOMENT – ADDAMS FAMILY STYLE


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Recently an on-line acquaintance sent me an invitation to join Zorpia, so – ever obliging – I clicked YES, and the deed was done; another social network: well – why not? I’m an accomplished Facebooker, a reluctant LINKED IN member (does anyone ever actually get any work via LinkedIn I wonder?) so Zorpia – pouf! This we can do. Until I discovered it’s prime purpose was a Dating Site.

Yes, well, no fine. I’ve joined Dating Agencies before, way back when, back in the misty past before electronic grabbed us by our digits, when cellphones didn’t exist – yes, readers, there was such a time,  hard to believe I know, but there was such a time. And I was three decades younger, and a good time was had by all. But now? In my senior years?  Hmm, I’m not so sure.

I’ve been deleting invitations and refusing to click on prospective beaux. A real old killjoy, that’s me.  But tonight it hit me like a runaway express train – I had the classic AHA Moment – I know what’s missing on Zorpia. Yup. The light bulb went on while I was watching one of my favourite movies  Addams Family Values. It’s a wild comedy  set in its own dark universe, containing two glorious, wonderful creatures, a stirring reminder of eternal love and volcanic passion. I’m speaking of Gomez and Morticia Addams, of course.

The American cartoonist Charles Addams created the macabre Addams Family in the pages of the New Yorker magazine, during the 1940s; and then some 40 years later two movies arrived, based on the cartoon characters: The Addams Family  followed by Addams FamilyValues.

 Anjelica Huston gives a bravura performance as the tall, mysterious, remote, stylishly gowned Morticia – she of the blood red talons, the smouldering glances, the dead white skin, the swishing fish-tail hems of her black, black gowns. Her consort is Gomez Addams (unkindly referred to somewhere along the line as ‘that over-heated Spaniard’ played by the actor Raul Julia with superb verve); he is the epitome of suavity, with his thin mustache, his brilliantined hair, his fancy waistcoats, his top hat, his cane (in reality its a swordstick : of course it is! What else would it be?) He’s elegance personified, but with a dangerous edge – fencing and knife throwing are but a few of his many talents. Whoever arranged the movie casting should have received an award – the casting is inspired.

Although Morticia and Gomez are married – with two homicidal, dark children, (Wednesday – the girl, and Pugsley – the boy) plus a new baby to prove it – they are still passionately in love with each other. Morticia has but to throw a languorous sideways glance at Gomez and huskily whisper “Mon cher” and Gomez  is inflamed with passion, covering her with kisses from her crimson fingertips up to her marble neck, and murmuring  seductively of painful delights to come – tonight, and forever! Amorous phrases, murmured in a foreign language – any foreign language – are as a match to a petrol bowser, so far as Gomez is concerned.

There’s a marvellous scene in Addams FamilyValues  where Gomez and Morticia perform a tango at a gypsy night-club. It’s the most dramatic, sensual tango I’ve ever seen – makes Strictly Come Dancing look like the Teddy Bears’ Picnic . At one point Gomez whirls Morticia around so fast that she spins away down the dance floor, her fishtail hem and the dance-floor catching fire from the exploding passion and music as she spins – it’s sensational!

Now that’s what I’m missing on Zorpia – the romance, the passion. If there’s a suave gentleman on Zorpia who relates to Morticia and Gomez’ fiery romance, and he can tango – well! What can I say? I’ll be squeezing into my slinky black sequins and dusting off my black dancing shoes ….. can’t wait!

 

 

 

 

 

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THIS IS THE VOICE OF AMERICA.


My love affair with the Radio continues.

As I lay in bed, alternately groaning and cursing during a  bout of gastric ‘flu, my feeble hand managed to grasp my Samsung Galaxy tablet, and started fiddling with the icon marked BBC Radio. I have to say, I think that small action improved  my health  more than all the ginger tea, Probiotics, and other remedies combined.

I spent a happy time discovering a weird variety of  stations ; one  poured out Bangladeshi Classical music; another pumped out jolly  accordion/organ sing-a-long tunes from the Nederlands. Radio Venice offering baroque music. A station in Sweden broadcasting in Farsi. I’m still trying to work that one out. And,  no, I don’t speak Farsi. Radio Mediterranean offered a heady mix of Armenian, Arabic, Italian, French, Greek music. There were umpteen Polish stations promoting music from hip-hop, to acid jazz, to urban funk, lounge, and salsa. Fabulous! Almost worth being sick. Almost, but not quite.

Long ago, when I was a misunderstood teenager, I was given a portable radio – battery powered, of course, I’m speaking of the pre-electronic age, a.k.a. The Olden Days. It  had short, long and medium wave reception. I think it was a Phillips radio, in a smart cream and chocolate plastic casing. I absolutely loved it, and would spend hours twiddling the dial, fighting the dreadful static and the waning battery power, straining my ears for the tiniest snatch of LM Radio’s weekly Hit Parade, or trolling through foreign language stations, listening to streams of exotic sounding languages, and desperately wishing I could understand some of it.

But the one station that was always amazingly clear, was the Voice of America. You knew immediately when you hit it, because out poured a stream of jazz, or  Benny Goodman’s band, playing a swing tune. Just knowing that I was listening to someone or something from half-way across the globe gave me such a thrill. It still does. Over and out!

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MAKING SOUP & CONTEMPLATING LIFE


 

Because I’m currently reading, no : absorbing – or trying to – Mary Paterson’s book “The Monks and Me”, I’m paying careful attention to peeling carrots, the rasp of the peeler, and plop  of the peel landing in the bin. Next comes the peeler over the cylindrical shape of the sweet potato – no rasping this time – just the thin purple peel dropping silently into the bin; noting the myriad little indentations still clad in skin. Taking the washed  potato to the old yellow and white chopping board; the cool,wet pressure against my left hand as I grip it firmly, the pressure of the knife handle in my right hand, the effort to force the knife through the thick object. Then the crisp chop-chop-chop sound of the knife as I slice the potato into batons. The creamy white flesh against the bright yellow tea-kettle design on my antique chopping board. Paying attention.

How much attention do we pay to our daily lives? In my case – very little. Whilst I may be multi-tasking  all day long, for how much of this time am I really present with my actions? Not much. I know I spend 90% of my time preoccupied with plans, thoughts, ideas, reminders, rehearsing speeches, more plans , the occasional  memory fragment, more plans … and so it goes, all day long. Mary Paterson went on a 40-day silent retreat at Plum Village in France, the monastery of renowned Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. She diligently followed the routine, the schedule, the meditation periods, the Noble Silence, the instruction on Mindfulness (be here now!  as Ram Das so succinctly said, so long ago).  And it paid off. As she puts it, “she returned Home” to a peaceful place within.  The book is very readable, in short chapters, one for every day of her retreat. So: if you’re feeling beleaguered by pressures of modern life, read this book! And start  paying attention.  Slowing down.  It works.

Another writer who is  currently receiving a lot of attention, is the Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, with his mammoth exploration of his life titled in Norwegian ‘Min Kamp’ – yes, that’s right, ‘Mein Kampf” in German and in English : My Struggle. It was Socrates who proclaimed : . An unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined life is not the life for man. KOK has certainly taken this dictum to heart.

One Goodreads writer sourly recorded that it had been too much of a struggle, and she’d abandoned the book. Others lavished 5-star reviews, while others wondered why the trivial minutiae in his daily life was of any interest or importance to his readers. I saw him  being interviewed by Razia Iqbal on BBC arts & culture programme, Talking Books,  recorded at the Hay Book Festival this year, and was smitten by his Viking good looks – those blue eyes and that silver hair! However, I’m not sure that I’m up for a 3 000+ page exposition of his life, some of which appears to be sordid and difficult e.g. the aftermath of the death of his alcoholic father. Not only this, but the account of Knausgaard’s life is not a memoir, says the author, it’s a novel, despite being a blisteringly true account of current events within his own family. Some of whom are now not speaking to him. No, really, he cannot have it both ways. Either it’s a memoir, or it’s fiction. And if it’s a factual account of events and people in his life, including himself, then surely its ….  Oh I don’t know. Life’s too short. Go figure.

For some reason, whilst chopping veg for my soup (and obviously not paying attention to what I was doing  – yet again!) I recalled reading a book by Marilyn Robinson titled Gilead*, which is narrated by an old minister, living in a small American town, at the end of his life,  and the reader is privy to his reflections about his life. This remarkably short book was a masterpiece of simplicity and clarity, humility and wisdom. I think I’ll buy a copy of Gilead  and forgo the task of enduing the Norwegian saga.
*Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead (2004), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Ambassador Book Award. Gilead takes the form of a letter from an ageing Iowa preacher to his seven-year-old son. Written in simple and sparse prose, it is an uplifting meditation on life. http://contemporarylit.about.com/

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