Best of the 00’s – Gilead, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, Never Let Me Go, and The Road

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is one of the outliers on this list. It takes the form of a letter from an old man, married late in life, to his young son, to be read after he is dead. The author is a preacher in the midwest, and the letter is a recounting of his life, his father’s life, and his grandfather’s life in the context of the abolitionist movement before the civil war, all the way through the depression. Gradually, something like the story of a novel emerges in the letter, having to do with the family and family friends during the writer’s life.

I spoke of the text as a letter, though it is written as a diary, over the course of several weeks or even months, and the attitude of the author changes with his health and with time. It makes the text challenging at times, as does the author’s choice not to break up the text as chapters.

The context of the story is one of race relations, but the theme that emerges is one of forgiveness. It’s a charming theme and the author’s voice is charming also, and I think that’s why people love this strange little book. It is written by a character you like and who holds likeable viewpoints. The themes are big but the action is small. Everything stays believable and real.

A little tough to read, but worth it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a story about the revival of magic, which is really real, in Georgian England. It’s well written and fun.

But it’s not about much, at least compared to the other stories on this list. It doesn’t tackle big themes. One character gets into a little trouble when he sacrifices his principles for career advancement, and then another character works with him to get him out of trouble. Maybe it’s about students and teachers. Maybe it’s about the quest for knowledge. But it isn’t revelatory. It’s just a nice fun fantasy novel that’s well executed.

But this list is “Best of the 2000’s,” not “Most Edifying of the 2000’s,” so maybe there’s a place for that here.

Most people liked it and I liked it too.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a dystopian future novel… set in a slightly alternate present… where only one small aspect is dystopian. It’s kind of… bummer sci-fi?

The story revolves around the lives and education of clones bred for organ harvesting, from the point of view of one of them, in a society that half-heartedly tries to give them human dignity before ultimately requiring them to sacrifice their lives for the benefit of real, full humans.

It’s well written, and moving. The reader has mounting horror about what will happen to the characters while they themselves remain willfully ignorant of their fate, avoiding thinking and talking about it the way we all avoid thinking about our deaths.

It’s not going to be a pleasure to read, of course, because of its subject matter, but it was a good book, and I recommend it.

It was a good book, and I recommend it.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a post-apocalyptic survival story, in which a father and son team trek down to the coast to survive the winter, on the run from the worst aspects of the surviving human race.

The cheeky book review I could give is “just play The Last of Us,” and it applies, but I think we can do better.

First, I don’t care about this genre. I liked Alas, Babylon well enough when I was in middle school, but survivalism and disaster preparedness aren’t particularly interesting to me. The general idea of all of these books is “you do what you have to do and try to stay a good person in a world where some people won’t try at all.” Even in zombie versions of this scenario, everyone knows the real monsters are the other humans. Humans are the worst.

Second, this is a book about emotions and not about ideas. That’s fine. The emotions feel authentic and worth exploring, but I’d rather read about ideas.

In the current climate, where post-apocalyptic survival is the single biggest fantasy concern of the culture, these stories are going to keep coming up. Most will be a lot worse than this. Maybe one or two will be better, but I won’t be the guy to ask about that. I won’t be reading them.

Fine for them that likes the genre.

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