This Week's Reads

Marilynne Robinson and Malcolm Gladwell.


By Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus, $23) Marilynne Robinson attained literary immortality via that most swiftly mortal of literary enterprises, a dissertation. As she labored toward her UW Ph.D., she scribbled memorable phrases on pieces of paper, which somehow—many of us would kill to know precisely how—accumulated into the legendary 1981 first novel Housekeeping. Except for two thoughtfully eccentric nonfiction books, and some reviewing, she's been silent as the tomb ever since. So literary types are hailing her second novel like it was the Second Coming. It isn't; it's not even a second Housekeeping. Cultists with a visionary gleam won't likely press it upon you like a tract, the way they did her debut. It's an altogether quieter affair, about fathers and sons instead of mothers and daughters, a three-generation family saga that's less about family than about the Heavenly Father. The narrator is so intellectual he's practically spectral: John Ames, a 76-year-old preacher in Gilead, Iowa, who expects to die any day now. It's 1956, but he writes a century's worth of family chronicles for his 7-year-old son to read once he's grown. John lives with one foot in the hereafter, alternating between mutedly ecstatic poetical meditations on miraculous homely moments of small-town life and musings about whether, when they meet again, his son and he will occupy immortal bodies of the same adult age. Though John tells of biblical bad blood between his pacifist preacher father and his one-eyed warrior grandpa, an abolitionist John Brown co-conspirator, his family saga has none of the blood and thunder of Russell Banks' John Brown novel, Cloudsplitter. John's depiction of his grandpa sounds like John Steuart Curry's famous mural of Brown: "a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard, like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it." But John tamps down anger and eschews stentorian Old Testament cadences. Gilead is steeped instead in a frostier New England style, a prose as plain as a pine-plank church pew. Its theological speculation is so subtle it might be called Hairsplitter. Yet however otherworldly, it's earthy, too: "The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light . . . a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence." John figures he's delivered 2,250 sermons; and this, his 2,251st, could make the devil drop his last dollar in the collection plate. Robinson masterfully realizes time, place, character, incident, mixed motives, philosophical yearnings, and dry-as-dust-bowl wit. (Her account of a Model T stolen and then serially sold by so many Gilead citizens that the law couldn't figure out whom to arrest is like a Mark Twain tale in miniature.) By those who seek plot, however, she may be shot. There are really only two propelling narrative elements in all the godsmacked plain talk, and they're barely there. The first, John's troubled relationship with his best friend's bad-seed son (the original delinquent in the Model T incident), provides the novel's conclusion and sole overt revelation, but the resolution isn't a bell ringer. Its pleasures are intellectual. I think there's a second implicit plot point, but the revelation never gets revealed—it's just hinted at: The narrator's much younger wife may be the girl seduced and abandoned decades before by the bad-seed son. Gilead is inconclusive plotwise, but it's so satisfying in so many deeper ways that it's gripping from cover to cover. No one on earth writes like Robinson. My guess is she's heaven-sent. TIM APPELO Marilynne Robinson will appear at Richard Hugo House (1634 11th Ave, 206-322-7030), 7 p.m. Fri., Jan. 21. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

By Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown, $25.95) In the mid-1980s, L.A.'s Getty Museum was on the cusp of acquiring an ancient Greek kouros statue. Using stereomicroscopes, scientists determined that the rare statue was authentic. Yet without anything more than a cold stare, art experts the world over knew it was a fraud. The controversy raged for years until the Getty's lawyers determined through inconsistencies in its documentation that the kouros was a forgery. So how can a bunch of art-history wonks instantly see something trained scientists can't? How can they be right when the evidence says otherwise? Answering such questions is at the heart of Malcolm Gladwell's fascinating, if not totally convincing, new book. Gladwell traces a diverse mosaic of instances in art, culture, and even the military where snap decisions based on limited information prove more effective than those made more deliberately. One memorable example involves the UW's Dr. John Gottman, who has been analyzing the conversations of married couples for nearly two decades. Watching only 15 minutes of videotaped discussion, Gottman can predict whether a couple will be married 15 years later. His accuracy rate is a staggering 90 percent. He's become so adept at reading the nuances of emotional communication that he's concluded that marriages crumble owing to a single emotion: contempt. (So much for sex, money, and those meddling in-laws.) But Gladwell also notes that for all its efficacy, rapid cognition can go awry. That's because what he calls "thin slicing" usually rules out everything beyond our immediate experience patterns. This can mean that an innovative TV show is rejected during test marketing even when it's proved successful elsewhere. As a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Tipping Point, Gladwell mines our culture for counterintuitive stories. Indeed, Blink itself briskly distills complex ideas into a clear conversational thesis that narrowly avoids pedantry. But the book leaves a lot of questions unanswered. If a marriage can be assessed in 15 minutes, what does it mean for couples interested in staying together? How do we know when to trust thin slicing instead of making decisions the more cautious way? In his uniquely engaging voice, Gladwell shows that perhaps knee-jerk reactions have gotten a bad rap, that simple thoughts writ large are indeed complex. Kind of ironic that "thinking without thinking" should require so much thought. JOHN DICKER Malcolm Gladwell will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 4 p.m. Sat., Jan. 22; and at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave., 206-652-4255; $5), 7:30 p.m. Wed., Jan. 26.

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