Marilynne Robinson is not another J.D. Salinger, sequestered in the woods, endlessly rewriting her earlier work, but you would be forgiven for thinking so. When Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1981, readers and critics alike heralded the arrival of a major new talent. Her lean, elegant prose and wise voice -- warm but entirely unsentimental -- seemed to belong to an author at the peak of her career, not at the beginning. Readers eagerly awaited her next novel.
More than two decades later, they were still waiting. Robinson hadn't vanished into the wilderness, however. Far from it. She'd published a study of Britain's nuclear program so controversial that it can't be published in the United Kingdom. She'd also joined the faculty of the esteemed Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she has influenced a generation of writers. Yet her next novel remained mythical, the subject of whispering among her fans and students, but never seen.
Finally, last year, Robinson published her second novel, Gilead. It is a surprisingly slim book, given its lengthy gestation, and its plot is uncomplicated: John Ames, an elderly pastor in small-town Iowa, chronicles what he considers his ordinary life in a letter for his son, a young child, to read after Ames has died. Of course, the father's life is anything but ordinary, and the skill with which Robinson draws us into his character is remarkable: Ames' spare language and self-deprecating sense of humor effortlessly become a stirring image or a profound insight. By the novel's end, he isn't merely a complete character but -- a rarity in modern fiction -- a complete soul.
The praise for Gilead has been nearly unanimous, earning Robinson two of the highest honors in American literature: the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Robinson reads from Gilead at 2 p.m. at the First Unitarian Church (1507 Waterman Avenue). Left Bank Books sponsors the free reading; call 314-367-6731 for more information. -- Ian Froeb
Cedar Lake Ensemble's dance of love
An episode from every sitcom in history: Someone has a tryst with a stranger he's sure he won't see again. Then, inevitably, that same someone has a job interview with said stranger. Yawn. It's amazing how interesting romantic relationships can be, yet how repetitive the stories are -- unless, of course, you're watching the tale unfold in a multimedia contemporary ballet production. The Cedar Lake Ensemble of New York presents Beyond the Red at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday (June 23 and 24) at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus (1 University Drive at Natural Bridge Road; 314-516-4949). Here the struggles and temptations of a couple are beautifully expressed through dance, in a refreshingly unique form. About time. Tickets are $15 to $30. -- Kristie McClanahan
There are only a few things in St. Louis that leave a sweet taste in your mouth after 92 years: our beloved Cardinals, a cool Budweiser, a visit with your Great-Aunt Viola and, of course, a chocolate-banana malt from Crown Candy Kitchen. If you've ever craved the confectionery secrets of Crown Candy, John Oldani is spilling the cocoa beans in his new book, Sweetness Preserved: The Story of Crown Candy Kitchen. Get a copy signed by Oldani (pictured, behind Crown Candy patriarch George Karandzief) at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 23, at Subterranean Books (6275 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-862-6100) or at 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Florissant (13995 New Halls Ferry Road; 314-830-3550) on Saturday, June 25. Both readings are free, and be warned: This book is not for the lactose-intolerant and may require a post-perusal pit stop at Crown Candy. -- Amy Helms
OK, you've been enjoying Jazz Fest in Shaw Park all day Friday, and you plan to attend Saturday's sets, but you're not ready to trade fours with that pillow yet. WWTD: What Would Thelonious Do? Consider, uh, swinging by the still-new and nearby Finale (8025 Bonhomme Avenue, Clayton; 314-863-8631) for the Kim Massie Trio's post-festival show at 10 p.m. Ms. Massie is the acclaimed belter from Madison, Illinois, with the requisite wherewithal to cover both Etta James and Led Zep. (That is most certainly not your everyday vocal stretch there, home fry.) Tickets are $10 and are available at the Finale box office, Ticketmaster outlets or at www.ticketmaster.com. -- Alex Weir