19 January 2013

Book Review: Benediction by Kent Haruf


I remember that I first read Kent Haruf when I was a bookseller at Lemuria and he had published Plainsong, a book that would go on to be a finalist for the National Book Award. I was so taken with his honest observations, the simple beauty of his language, and his ability to bring great dignity to characters who lead quiet lives. I loved Plainsong so much that I went back to read his previous two books, both of which are set in the same small high plains town of Holt, Colorado. (This is not a series of books, mind you. They just happen to take place in one small town.)

Thus when I heard that Haruf had a new book coming out this year, I was fairly chomping at the bit to get at it. Like his previous novels, Benediction takes Holt for its setting, and also like them, it's a slow and steady build. "Dad" Lewis is the main character, and he learns on the first page that he has cancer and that he's not long for this world. Dad is an older gentleman, hardworking and well-respected locally--if not a scion of the town, then certainly part of its backbone. He's honest and dependable, and while he has certainly been a good husband to his wife of many decades, he's less sure of the kind of father he was to his children, particularly his son. Dad's bedside recollections form much of the book, as he revisits past events that have marked him--most haunt him, but occasionally we are privy to quiet moments of joy, too.

In the meantime, other characters drift in, such as Dad's neighbor woman whose young granddaughter has come to live with her, or the new preacher in town who is in a constant struggle with his wife and son, or an elderly friend whose middle-aged daughter has moved in with her, and even Dad's two children, now adults themselves. Benediction is definitely a slow and deliberate read, but by the time you get to the hundred page mark (or so), you're so fully entrenched with the lives of these people that it's sometimes startling to realize that these are not people you know; they are not your neighbors.  But their stories seem so utterly familiar, so like your neighbors and your coworkers and the once-removed friends-of-friends.

I really do feel that Haruf has his finger on the pulse of small-town Americana: the hard work, the dreams, the aspirations, and the inevitable realization that your life is not what you thought it would become. He reveals with clinical but gentle precision the foibles of these small town folks, and he is pure genius at finding beauty in the quotidian and revealing the quiet dignity of humanity.

I am not a Christian, but I am deeply moved when, on those rare occasions, I see the true message of Christianity brought to light.  Not from those storefront Christians who are more interested in being seen in church than actually following the teachings of Christ, and certainly not from those people who sport those God-awful (pun intended) plastic bracelets proclaiming WWJD as if to indicate their membership in an elite club. In a chapter a little more than halfway through Benediction, the new preacher in town tries something new with his congregation.  Instead of kowtowing to the local sentiment regarding the war in Iraq and the 9-11 tragedy, he wants his congregation to ask themselves: really, what would Jesus do?  The preacher starts with the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, and how maybe Jesus was only speaking metaphorically:
Because we all "know the satisfaction of hate. We know the sweet joy of revenge. How good it feels to get even. Oh, that was a nice idea Jesus had. That was a pretty notion, but you can't love people who do evil. It's neither sensible nor practical. It's not wise to the world to love people who do such terrible wrong...
But I want to say to you here on this hot July morning in Holt, what if Jesus wasn't kidding? What if he really did mean what he said two thousand years ago? What if he was thoroughly wise to the world and knew firsthand the cruelty and wickedness and evil and hate?...
And what if we tried it? What if we said to our enemies: we are the most powerful nation on earth. We can destroy you. We can kill your children. We can make ruins of your cities and villages and when we're finished you won't even know how to look for the places where they used to be...We can do all of these things to you. And more. 
But what if we say, Listen: Instead of any of these, we are going to give willingly and generously to you. We are going to spend the great American national treasure and the goodwill and the human lives that we would have spent on destruction, and instead we are going to turn them all toward creation. We'll mend your roads, expand your schools, modernize your wells and water supplies, save your ancient artifacts and art and culture...In fact, we are going to love you. And again we say, no matter what has gone before, no matter what you've done: We are going to love you... (pp 140-141)"
Unfortunately the congregation interrupts the preacher before he's finished and they raise their voices in protest in hatred, most of them walking out, shaking their heads with righteous indignation.  Because apparently that's not what their version of Jesus would do. I was crying when I read those passages and I'm tearing up again now as I transcribe them, because it's that kind of shit that moves me rather deeply. No, I'm not a Christian, but then again, neither are most Christians I know.

I got a little off topic there, but seriously: just read Benediction. If you value quiet books of real substance over plot-driven novels with murders and/or love triangles (and I'm not saying these books don't have their rightful place on the same shelf--about one quarter of my book reviews fall under those headings), then you should read Kent Haruf.

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book, provided at my own request by one of my terrific sales reps. Knopf will publish it in the US in late February 2013. 

16 comments:

  1. If your description of this book is spot-on - for which they always are - then this is precisely the kind of book I love to read. I made a pre-order and will look most forward to reading it. Thanks for your fabulous blog. I look greatly forward to your reviews.

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    1. Aww, thanks, Belle. I sure hope you do enjoy it. And I so enjoy your blog. How's life post-graduation?

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    2. Life post-graduation is fabulous. I had done a quasi-commitment sort of thing last year with a university to begin my masters studies immediately post-undergraduate. The representative just called me to see if I'm ready to start that masters program and I just laughed. Nope. Not ready for any sort of school right now and maybe never. I'm just so happy being able to read my own books again. The happiest ever!

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  2. Dear Emily,

    Sorry to approach you in your comments but I could find no email address.I know your time is limited and have to be very selective in the books you review, but I would count myself very lucky if you considered my book A Soul's Calling for review on your website.

    A Soul’s Calling is a memoir about a man who listened to his heart instead of reason. The book, a work of speculative non-fiction, is part travelogue, part hiking adventure, with shamanism and magic woven throughout.

    A Soul’s Calling transports readers to Nepal's rugged but enchanting Khumbu Valley where mountains speak and nature is imbued with a special kind of magic. The novel is an inspiring modern day adventure that weaves the timeless themes of living an authentic life, the consequences of power, and what a man would do for unrequited love.

    Scott, a forty-something attorney, is average in every way except one. He has a connection to the Other Side. He speaks to Spirit and Spirit speaks to him. He sees, hears, and interacts with an invisible realm that is beyond ordinary human perception. When Scott learns his soul has been spiritually compromised he travels to the ancient kingdom of Nepal to win it back. Once there, he hikes the Himalaya carrying a mysterious bundle and a stick laden with prayers from Luminous Beings hoping to come face to face with the greatest mountain on earth: Mount Everest. As his journey unfolds, Scott is called on to battle his fear of heights, the thin air, and his physical limitations. Powerful, sweeping, and deeply moving, readers will search their hearts as the book draws to a stunning conclusion.

    If this sounds appealing, I would be happy to provide you with a copy. To read an excerpt from the book, please visit www.scott-bishop.com or you can view it using Amazon's Look Inside feature here:

    http://www.amazon.com/A-Souls-Calling-Scott-Bishop/dp/0615695353/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1358172531&sr=8-1&keywords=a+soul%27s+calling


    With every best wish,


    Scott Bishop
    Author
    www.scott-bishop.com

    A Soul's Calling, 340 pp., ISBN 13-978-0-61569-535-8

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    1. Scott, thank you for approaching me, but I do not accept books for review like other book bloggers do. However, I will leave your comment up on my blog in case somebody else who reads it might be interested in reviewing your book for you.

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  3. Hi! I think you have a great blog, and I have nominated you for the Liebster Award. You can go here for more information:
    http://abluemillionbooks.blogspot.com/2013/01/liebster-award.html

    Thanks!
    Amy Metz

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  4. Thank you for letting me know about this book, it sounds wonderful. I am going to pick up a copy of it ASAP!

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    1. Anne, I hope you review it so that I can see you thoughts on it.

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  5. This sounds right up my alley, Emily. I did love Plainsong. This sermon sounds amazing.

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    1. Though the narrataive structure is a more straightforward one than Plainsong, I thought this book was just as good in highlighting th joys and sorrows of everyday existence.

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  6. This sounds beautiful. Your descriptions remind me of the books by Marilynne Robinson.

    I feel so sad that your experiences with Christianity have been negative. But I certainly know that we do not always live up to our name...

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    1. Lindsey, I also really admire Marilynne Robinson!

      I wouldn't say that my experiences with Christianity have been negative. It's a lot more complicated than that. I certainly grew up in a church sphere but have left it behind as it's not for me,.

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  7. I remember really liking Plainsong, though it has been so many years... I'll definitely have to pick this one up.

    So, I have the same issues as you about the state of Christianity (unfortunately, since I am Christian). It is terribly sad to me to see people tied up and bound by a set of ideas that really doesn't have anything to do with (or is in opposition of) what the bible says. I really don't see the point of being a Christian if it doesn't change anything internally. What a lot of work.

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  8. I'm going to have to take a look in the galley room for this! Thanks!

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  9. I love all Kent Haruf books so got this one on my Kindle ASAP. I selected it for my book club . . . BUT after reading, not so sure. It seemed like such a "downer"! I'm originally from a little town in the area that Haruf writes about and always find him so true to life there and his characters are beautiful. What do others think about discussing this book.

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Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)