Our 25th book club is coming up and that means we’ve read 25 great and not so great books. However it also means there are 25 possibly great books that we’ve left unread. We wanted to do something special for our 25th book club anniversary, so we’re introducing the Zombie Round! All the books that just didn’t make it the first time around get another chance in this zombie round. We’ve made brackets of all 22 books that didn’t make it and over the next few weeks you get to vote which one will get another chance to be read.
Our fifth randomly selected bracket is another three hitter with Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman, David Vann’s Caribou Island and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Some new ones vs. an oldie. Let’s vote!
Tigerman lost out fairly recently in our 17th book club where we gave sci-fi another chance. Annihilation by Jeff vanderMeer won that month, and sci-fi turned out to be pretty alright for most of our book clubbers. Maybe we should delve into the genre some more?
Lester Ferris, sergeant of the British Army, is a good man in need of a rest. He’s spent a lot of his life being shot at, and Afghanistan was the last stop on his road to exhaustion. He has no family, he’s nearly forty, burned out and about to be retired.
The island of Mancreu is the ideal place for Lester to serve out his time. It’s a former British colony in legal limbo, soon to be destroyed because of its very special version of toxic pollution – a down-at-heel, mildly larcenous backwater. Of course, that also makes Mancreu perfect for shady business, hence the Black Fleet of illicit ships lurking in the bay: listening stations, offshore hospitals, money laundering operations, drug factories and deniable torture centres. None of which should be a problem, because Lester’s brief is to sit tight and turn a blind eye.
But Lester Ferris has made a friend: a brilliant, internet-addled street kid with a comic book fixation who will need a home when the island dies – who might, Lester hopes, become an adopted son. Now, as Mancreu’s small society tumbles into violence, the boy needs Lester to be more than just an observer.
In the name of paternal love, Lester Ferris will do almost anything. And he’s a soldier with a knack for bad places: ‘almost anything’ could be a very great deal – even becoming some sort of hero. But this is Mancreu, and everything here is upside down. Just exactly what sort of hero will the boy need?
On a small island in a glacier-fed lake on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, a marriage is unravelling. Gary, driven by thirty years of diverted plans, and Irene, haunted by a tragedy in her past, are trying to rebuild their life together. Following the outline of Gary’s old dream, they’re hauling logs out to Caribou Island in good weather and in terrible storms, in sickness and in health, to patch together the kind of cabin that drew them to Alaska in the first place. Across the water on the mainland, Irene and Gary’s grown daughter, Rhoda is starting her own life. She fantasizes about the perfect wedding day, whilst her betrothed, Jim the dentist, wonders about the possibility of an altogether different future. From the author of the massively-acclaimed Legend of a Suicide, comes a devastating novel about a marriage, a couple blighted by past shadows and the weight of expectation, of themselves and of each other. Brilliantly drawn and fiercely honest in its depiction of love and disappointment, David Vann’s first novel confirms him as one of America’s most dazzling writers of fiction.
There was such disappointment with one book club leader when Gilead lost. For our 18th book club we did read The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, which was also a really good book. However, Gilead remains very high on our TBR-pile. We can do this!
The narrator, John Ames, is 76, a preacher who has lived almost all of his life in Gilead, Iowa. He is writing a letter to his almost seven-year-old son, the blessing of his second marriage. It is a summing-up, an apologia, a consideration of his life. Robinson takes the story away from being simply the reminiscences of one man and moves it into the realm of a meditation on fathers and children, particularly sons, on faith, and on the imperfectability of man.
The reason for the letter is Ames’s failing health. He wants to leave an account of himself for this son who will never really know him. His greatest regret is that he hasn’t much to leave them, in worldly terms. “Your mother told you I’m writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you?” In the course of the narrative, John Ames records himself, inside and out, in a meditative style. Robinson’s prose asks the reader to slow down to the pace of an old man in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956. Ames writes of his father and grandfather, estranged over his grandfather’s departure for Kansas to march for abolition and his father’s lifelong pacifism. The tension between them, their love for each other and their inability to bridge the chasm of their beliefs is a constant source of rumination for John Ames. Fathers and sons.
The other constant in the book is Ames’s friendship since childhood with “old Boughton,” a Presbyterian minister. Boughton, father of many children, favors his son, named John Ames Boughton, above all others. Ames must constantly monitor his tendency to be envious of Boughton’s bounteous family; his first wife died in childbirth and the baby died almost immediately after her. Jack Boughton is a ne’er-do-well, Ames knows it and strives to love him as he knows he should. Jack arrives in Gilead after a long absence, full of charm and mischief, causing Ames to wonder what influence he might have on Ames’s young wife and son when Ames dies.
These are the things that Ames tells his son about: his ancestors, the nature of love and friendship, the part that faith and prayer play in every life and an awareness of one’s own culpability. There is also reconciliation without resignation, self-awareness without deprecation, abundant good humor, philosophical queries–Jack asks, “‘Do you ever wonder why American Christianity seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?'”–and an ongoing sense of childlike wonder at the beauty and variety of God’s world.
We’re getting to round 1.5. Who deserves to win? Vote for Harkaway, Vann or Robinson!