Weekly Words About New Books in

Independent Bookstores

March 24, 2024

Revealing Look at the Bible's First Book From a Literary Icon, and How Past Revolutions Inform Current Day Discontents

Reading Genesis by Marilynne Robinson. A new book offering a unique perspective of the book of Genesis from the Bible would not normally find its way into this column - or independent bookstore bestseller lists, for that matter. And yet, here I am writing about just such a book, one that hit the bestseller list in its first week of publication. But then again, the author is one of the indies' best-loved writers. Marilynne Robinson is an enduring favorite, thanks to her Gilead series of novels - Gilead, Home, Lila, and Jack - set in the 1950s in the rural town of Gilead, Iowa, and chronicling the lives of Reverend John Ames and Reverend Robert Boughton and their families.

Now Robinson, who has explored theological themes throughout her long writing career, offers a powerful consideration of the first book of the Bible (the full text of the King James version is included in the book). The book of Genesis has been analyzed and debated by scholars and fundamentalists in regard to its coherency and whether it should be taken as literal truth. Robinson's approach is influenced not only by her Calvinist views but by her appreciation of what she considers its greatness as literature.

In a recent interview with UK's Premier Christianity magazine, Robinson explained why she chose to write Reading Genesis: "I think the reading of the text has been impoverished by the scholarly traditions that surround it. Conventional interpretations of Genesis minimize the text and are rather disparaging of the Old Testament God. The documentary hypothesis, which is an assertion that the text is not intrinsically meaningful, is a terrible beginning for any serious attempt to give anything its due."

Robinson's literary critique of Genesis has received many positive reviews, including a starred one from Kirkus Reviews: "In this illuminating work of biblical analysis, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Robinson, whose Gilead series contains a variety of Christian themes, takes readers on a dedicated layperson's journey through the Book of Genesis. The author meanders delightfully through the text, ruminating on one tale after another while searching for themes and mining for universal truths . . . [A] luminous exegesis."

Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present by Fareed Zakaria. The CNN host and Washington Post columnist explores historical revolutions – past and present - that define the polarized and unstable age in which we live. He has chosen three periods that he believes shook up norms while shaping the modern world. In 17-century Netherlands, a series of transformations made that country the richest in the world and, in Zakaria's view, created politics as we know it today. Next, he examines the French Revolution, which left a bloody legacy that haunts us today. Then comes the Industrial Revolution, which catapulted Great Britain and the US to global dominance and created the modern world.

Zakaria uses those histories to help shed light on four present-day revolutions: globalization, technology, identity, and geopolitics. For all their benefits, the globalization and technology revolutions have produced profound disruptions and pervasive anxiety about our identity. And increasingly, identity is the battlefield on which the 21st century's polarized politics are fought. It seems to be a forecast for a dark and grim future, but Zakaria asserts that pessimism is premature and offers a potential path forward, albeit one that must wind through the disruptions and ideological fissures we live with today. His arguments are thoughtful and thought-provoking. Here's one small example from the book: “Liberalism’s great strength throughout history has been to free people from arbitrary constraints. Its great weakness has been the inability to fill the void when the old structures crumble.”

Arriving in Paperback This Week, a Sophisticated, Sparks-Flying Romance

Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld. This author's first novel, Prep, published in 2005, was enough of a critical and financial success to allow her to become a full-time writer at age 30, and in ensuing years, she has developed a loyal and enthusiastic following. She is perhaps best known for two works connected to First Ladies - American Wife, whose protagonist resembles Laura Bush, and Rodham, which imagines an alternative life for Hilary Clinton if she had chosen not to marry Bill. Following Rodham, published in 2020, Sittenfeld said she was ready to write something "short and fun," which brings us to Romantic Comedy.

Set in the world of late-night TV sketch comedy - think Saturday Night Live - the protagonist of this contemporary romcom is Sally Milz, a sketch writer for The Night Owls. The first section of the book - set in 2018 - takes readers through one frenetic week of putting the show together, highlighted by Sally's unexpected attraction to the guest host, pop music sensation Noah Brewster. Sittenfeld offers up an entertaining "backstage pass" look at the weekly machinations of putting together a live comedy show while, at the same time, she also starts sparks flying between Sally and Noah.

Given that this a romcom and we're not even halfway through the story, it will not be giving anything away to note that Sally and Noah have a falling out after the show. We move to two years later, when Noah reaches out to re-establish contact with Sally and the relationship resumes. This being the midst of the pandemic, however, the two communicate largely via email, which works especially well for Sally the writer and gets the pair back on track. There are a few more bumps in the road, but a modern-day happy ending awaits.

The New York Times Book Review made Romantic Comedy an Editor's Choice last year, calling it a "love letter to the prototypical rom-com," and adding, "Sittenfeld’s work exists in the dissection and comprehension of female desire: what we want, what we absolutely don’t and, maybe paramount, what we’re even allowed to have. . . . A fizzy ride."

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Hi, I'm Hut Landon, and I'm a bookseller in an independent bookstore in BerkeIey, CA.

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