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University of Iowa News Release

Nov. 19, 2004

Marilynne Robinson, Workshop Faculty Member, Reads From New Novel Dec. 1

Marilynne Robinson, a faculty member in the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, will read from "Gilead," her new novel, at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1 in Shambaugh Auditorium of the UI Main Library.

The free reading will be broadcast on the "Live from Prairie Lights" series hosted by Julie Englander on University of Iowa radio station WSUI, AM 910. Listen on the Internet at

Donna Seaman, writing for Booklist, called "Gilead" "a work of profound beauty and wonder." And a recommendation in Kirkus Reviews stated, "Robinson returns with a second novel that, however quiet in tone and however delicate of step, will do no less than tell the story of America -- and break your heart."

A Publishers Weekly preview summarized, "Fans of Robinson's acclaimed debut 'Housekeeping' (1981) will find that the long wait has been worth it. From the first page of her second novel, the voice of Rev. John Ames mesmerizes with his account of his life -- and that of his father and grandfather.

"Ames is 77 years old in 1956, in failing health, with a much younger wife and six-year-old son; as a preacher in the small Iowa town where he spent his entire life, he has produced volumes and volumes of sermons and prayers, 'trying to say what was true.' But it is in this mesmerizing account -- in the form of a letter to his young son, who he imagines reading it when he is grown -- that his meditations on creation and existence are fully illumined.

"Ames details the often harsh conditions of perishing Midwestern prairie towns, the Spanish influenza and two world wars. He relates the death of his first wife and child, and his long years alone attempting to live up to the legacy of his fiery grandfather, a man who saw visions of Christ and became a controversial figure in the Kansas abolitionist movement, and his own father's embittered pacifism.

"During the course of Ames's writing, he is confronted with one of his most difficult and long-simmering crises of personal resentment when John Ames Boughton (his namesake and son of his best friend) returns to his hometown, trailing with him the actions of a callous past and precarious future. In attempting to find a way to comprehend and forgive, Ames finds that he must face a final comprehension of self -- as well as the worth of his life's reflections.

"Robinson's prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise; the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense. There is no simple redemption here; despite the meditations on faith, even readers with no religious inclinations will be captivated. Many writers try to capture life's universals of strength, struggle, joy and forgiveness -- but Robinson truly succeeds in what is destined to become her second classic."

Between the two novels, Robinson wrote the non-fiction books "Mother Country" and "The Death of Adam."

A recent feature in the New York Times Magazine revealed, "Until a few years ago, Robinson was actually trying to write a different novel: a darkly comedic story of a woman 'abraded' by her experience of the world. She worried, though, that she was stuck in an isolated female voice like the one in 'Housekeeping'; the novel didn't seem to come together. One day, she composed a piece of a poem by one of the book's ancillary characters, an elderly preacher.

"'All of a sudden, this character emerged that had a voice and presence and authority that swept everything else I'd been doing away,' she said. After this, she wrote 'Gilead' swiftly, in two years or so. She told [Writers' Workshop Director Frank] Conroy that it was as if she were sitting on the narrator's lap as he whispered the story to her."

The Writers' Workshop is part of the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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