A Thousand Gifts

 

photo-158Years ago — two decades ago, really — I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I thrilled to the descriptive language (“my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp”), and the way she wrote in verbs (“sharks that roiled and heaved” or “grace tangled in a rapture with violence.”)

I recently picked the book up again, and had a hard time making my way through it. It was still interesting, but parts seemed heavy and overwritten. It got to be too much at times, focusing as much on Dillard’s linguistic acrobatics as what she was saying.

I realized that my preferences in writing have changed. Some prose is like a stained glass window. The point is the window itself. Other prose is like a regular window. The point is what you can see through it. It’s not that stained glass is bad. It’s an art, and many like it a great deal. But it really all depends what you’re looking at the window for.

All this is a long way of getting at my feelings about Ann Voskamp’s A Thousand Gifts. Another Zondervan offering, heavily marketed at the “Zondervan Woman” demo we talked about in The Nesting Place review, the book seems like it has a straightforward premise. Voskamp, farm wife and mother of 6, has had a tough life. Her little sister was killed by a truck driver in front of her house growing up, and the tragedy tore her family apart. Now, in the struggles of sibling rivalry, the weariness of homeschooling six kids and doing their laundry, of running a farm that never quite makes it financially, she is trying to learn to be happy by expressing gratitude. To do that, she will try to list a thousand gifts. Not a thousand things she wants, but a thousand blessings that she already has.

Gratitude is a great topic, as is trying to find joy in both suffering and the mundane details of life: doing the laundry, cooking, etc. Both are messages that speak to people broadly, which is probably why this book did so well (it hit the New York Times bestseller list). And yet this book left me frustrated at its poor execution, at what it could be but yet was not.

For starters, I would have loved to see Voskamp’s actual list of 1000 gifts. But all we get are snatches here and there: “54. Moonlight on pillows 55. Long, lisped prayers 56. Kisses in dark.” We skip from there to “117. Washing the warm eggs 118. Crackle in fireplace 119. Still warm cookies.” Maybe she and her editor thought it would be boring, or take up too much space, but Voskamp managed to find space to use the Greek word “Eucharisteo” — the word for what Christ did during the last supper when he broke bread and “gave thanks” — roughly 1000 times, over and over again, just to make sure you’ve got it. Really. One line on page 224 is “Eucharisteo. Eucharisteo. Eucharisteo.” Given the title of the book, you’d also think the thousand gifts would be the arc of the narrative. But instead, it seems grafted on. She’s at 1000 on page 83, and then keeps going with this book for 100-plus more pages.

Then there is the prose itself. As Voskamp writes at one point, “I’m no pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” and indeed, for all I found that book overwritten at my later reading, it wasn’t nearly as overwritten as this. Take the opening line: “A glowing sun-orb fills an August sky the day this story begins, the day I am born, the day I begin to live.” Yes, lest you worry, the sun existed on the day Ann was born. But not just any old sun, a sun-orb. She then decides to describe her own birth in graphic detail, even though I’m quite sure she doesn’t personally remember it, and in any case, it’s gory in the way that everyone’s birth is gory. Why on earth are we going there?

Here’s why we’re going there: Because she has words and phrases she wants to use, and so she will use them, whether the narrative requires it or not, and regardless of whether they even make sense. Like “My chest pounds the hooves of a thousand stallions running on and away.” Really? A thousand stallions? Not just a team of them? No thought can be had without rethinking it multiple times in different words: “I lie there and untangle the memory of scenes, the string all twisted, one long strand of nightmares plagiarizing life, the fibers of the neocortex working through my life, all the life most important.”

It is often self-indulgent prose, which I assume is not intentional for something that, on the back cover, invites the reader to “leave the parched ground of pride.” Voskamp sounds like a fascinating woman with an interesting life and a great idea that is worth sharing. But it is hard to look through the window toward gratitude when the window itself is trying its hardest to get you to look at it. I wished I could read this book and feel differently, but unfortunately, this opacity didn’t move me much at all.

 

44 thoughts on “A Thousand Gifts

  1. This review seems more of a comment on your own change, from the two decades ago when you first picked it up and loved it to now when you dislike it. Do you have any more insights to share about why you might have had this change of heart? Aside from the overwrought prose – more like, about who you were to who you are now?

  2. Re: what changed: LV grew up? Or maybe it’s that she no longer had time for not getting to the point.
    *
    This is one of the reasons I knew by high school that I was never going into English. The essays that got rewarded with higher grades (and being read aloud as examples in class) were often so flowery I wanted to vomit. I feel much more comfortable with technical writing.
    *
    Not to say I don’t like delicious authors, like Peter S. Beagle or R.A. MacAvoy or Nina Kiriki Hoffman, but there’s a line between delicious and flowery. And some people really like flowery, but I’m more of a Strunk and White gal. Don’t use a big word or phrase when a small one gives the exact same meaning. Complications should not be gratuitous. Use them only when they provide necessary nuance.
    *
    Two decades ago, #2 on our blog was a huge fan of Ayn Rand. She grew up.

    1. I’m not saying I’d like the book. But clearly it spoke to her at a particular moment in her life. I dunno – maybe 20 years ago LV was just getting started in writing, and something about the prose fascinated her? Based on her opening paragraph, I expected the review to be a little more introspective than it is.

      Re: essays in HS. There was this one class, IB Theory of Knowledge, and you had to write a “philosophy” type essay. I have no idea what distinguished good papers from the mediocre, but extended metaphors and flowery language seemed to play a part. Bite me. 😛

      1. Liz, I think you’re confusing Laura’s initial thoughts about ANOTHER book (“A Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek”) with her review of this book by Voskamp? She said she liked the flowery prose in Tinker’s Creek as a child, but not anymore (I’m assuming its both “growing up” and also gaining experience/expertise as a writer herself that caused the change in preference)—but the reviewed book is a totally different one entirely.

        1. That’s fair, I was definitely confusing the two books. Clearly I am not the reader for this review!

      2. @Liz- it’s too bad how many teachers reward long words and complex sentences when short words and simple sentences can convey the same thing better.

        And yes, as Ana said, these are two different books. The one I read 20 years ago was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. And yes, I think there was something about getting started in writing, and experimenting with what I could do. But in years of writing to word lengths (e.g. a column must be 800 words) I’ve had to work at saying things in fewer words. That may be why I have less patience for things that go on when the point has been made.

        1. I can’t the locate the source at the moment, but I ready a fairly interesting article recently about how writing has changed after the internet. For example, no one wants to read descriptive passages on how a place looks. With the internet and increasing frequency of travel, people already have a picture in their minds and the description is distracting.

          1. @June – I’d love to see something on that. I’m not sure it’s that I don’t like description — because I do. But a well chosen phrase or sentence thrown into something that’s concise goes a long way.

    2. LOL. I had the same issue with high school English classes. I’m also bitter that my stories about head checks for lice in elementary school were never as lauded as those that were about Christmas! And cookies! And rosy cheeks!

      I do wonder whether I’d still like The World According to Garp. Haven’t read it in 20 years. It would be an interesting experiment.

      1. I remember one I wrote about a man who murdered his extremely obese wife and couldn’t get rid of the body… He came to a suitably gruesome end, but I can’t remember what it was.

        1. That’s awesome. I wonder what the reaction would have been to that kind of story in this day and age.

          1. I know not to fat shame now… Though she was well over 500 lb or something ridiculous in the story.

            I think in the end he turned her into bricks and suffocated in the house. I vaguely recall the title of the story being the red brick house.

  3. My thoughts exactly! I’ll paraphrase my earlier comment: Ann is probably an amazing woman and I would likely enjoy meeting her but her books make me wanna barf.

  4. I greatly enjoyed the premise of the book, but I found that I had to read it in a different manner from my normal reading style in order to wade through it. The prose was ‘over the top’ and very self-centred in many ways, which is a shame because the underlying message is truly wonderful. I guess you could say I enjoyed it despite the writing style, somewhat akin to liking something I learned from another person, but not actually liking the person herself.

  5. Yes, my writing was always said to be “too factual” and I am now a technical editor helping people say complex things concisely. I share your feelings about both books – the prose, the prose just gets me and I totally lose the point. I have friends who love it, but they agree that you have to be in a sort of dreamy mode to enjoy it.

  6. Did you actually count the number of “Eucharisteo”s? That sounds like something I would do when a particular word was getting to be too much.

    1. @Karen – I didn’t, but out of curiosity, I just took a look and counted 40 usages in the few pages after she describes the concept. There may literally be 1000.

  7. I am beginning to think I am the polar opposite of the Zondervan Woman, in every aspect except gender. I wonder if there is a publishing house that targets me? (I do like the idea of feeling gratitude for the good things in my life, though- and for the beauty and joy-giving things in the world. That was the original impetus behind my now extremely infrequent “zenbits” series on my blog. I should maybe revive that series!)

    1. @Cloud – no, I don’t think that there is a publishing house targeting you. Maybe we start one? 🙂

  8. I love the concept of contentment and thankfulness, and so I checked this out from the library a little while back and just could NOT make it through. I felt like I was trying to see through a foggy, cluttered window, or trying to walk through an impossibly dense forest.

    Too. Many. Words.

    I will admit that I am not at all poetic, and I tried to keep that in mind as I gave up on the book. A lot of people loved it and seemed to be blessed by it, but I just could not like it.

  9. “Fibers of the neocortex” is kind of a weird image too. It’s really the cell bodies, not the fibers, where the kind of work she’s talking about would be done. And whether the neocortex is even involved in dreaming is controversial. Memories are formed in the hippocampus, although some of them are stored in the neocortex. Also, the fibers of the neocortex aren’t tangled or twisted. They are very highly ordered in a topographic map. I like scientific metaphors well enough when they are used correctly but that one isn’t.

    1. @Karen- I think it’s safe to say that she thought it seemed like a cool way to describe it, but did not in any way check if it was scientifically accurate. I appreciate you pointing this out 🙂

  10. I couldn’t agree more! I tried reading this book since it’s all the rage, and I literally couldn’t get past the first few pages. Good to know it’s not just me!

  11. I too bought the book and just could not make it through. While Ann Voskamp has talent her words can become murky wading through the pages. Sometimes there is just too much hype on the newest book where our pennies could be better put to use. Thanks for your insight.

  12. This is so interesting to me! I used to write poetry, so I personally love her writing style. After I read the book, I went around recommending it to many people who then proceeded to purchase the book only to realize they couldn’t get through it for the same reasons you are all talking about. I think it is interesting how we all process things differently. Thanks for your honesty!

  13. I did like the book very much but had to reread many parts to make sure I understood so I can totally see how it is not for everyone. I think in my case, I have read too much straight forward information type things since becoming an adult and now the really poetic descriptive writing is a language I no longer understand. I actually think I would have understood it and appreciated it more back in high school which makes absolutely no sense but is true.

    1. @Katherine – maybe, but I read a lot of real poetry too. It’s one of my favorite things to check out in the library. I don’t think it’s my lack of appreciation for poetry that caused me to have problems with this book.

  14. I read the book awhile back and I didn’t like it either. I thought the writing style was just plain weird. But yes she sounds like a very interesting person, and awesome for her that she wrote and published a book and did it the way she wanted to.

  15. Firstly: I totally agree with your opinion of the writing style of 1000 gifts. It’s definitely not my style.
    However, I have to say, I’m kind of disappointed in this review in comparison to that of The Nesting Place. I was looking forward to it because your other piece was written so thoughtfully and presented a very different perspective than that of other reviews I had read.
    This one, although I did laugh in agreement at a few points, seemed to lack that same flavor and instead just seemed focused on making fun of Voskamp’s (admittedly over the top) prose. There was nothing that made me think twice or consider another side of something.
    Obviously, not all reviews can be like that, especially if there really is no other side to consider, but that was my takeaway from this piece.

    1. @sarah – Hmm. My main “review” take-away is that it’s a great idea, but poorly executed. Hence the focus on the problems in execution.

      1. I think that your main point came through clear enough, I guess I felt like the execution was more snarky than strictly necessary. Which is hard to say, because so many of your snarky points rang very true and were very funny.

        I might just be being sensitive on Voskamp’s behalf, which is probably not necessary at all. I’m sure that selling a MILLION copies of something offsets a bit of snark at her expense 🙂

  16. Thank you!

    I could not get through this book. My sister gave me a copy… she’s read it three times. Not only the over-the-top flowery language, but the poor grammar drove me crazy. I understand poetic license, but please… use an adverb, not an adjective, to describe an action!!

    Not a fan. Thanks for validating my impression of the book.

  17. Interesting. I have never heard of any of these Zondervan books, despite the number of crafty blogs and message boards I read. My literal mind would have been really annoyed by seeing a partial numbered list. I could see the book being *called* “A Thousand Gifts” if it was a metaphor, but if parts of the actual list are in it, I need to see the whole thing. Maybe she’s got it online somewhere? Sort of like an Appendix 😉

    This reminds me of the book from the 80s called “1000 Things to Be Happy About” which baffled me even then because aren’t different people going to be happy about different things?

    1. I read somewhere in the last day or two that Ann’s book has now sold 1 MILLION copies so clearly something is resonating with people.

      I find her writing style beautiful… when I’m in the mood (and have the time) for that style. I must confess I appreciate the sentiment of the book a lot but am also only on page 32. I do intend to finish though.

    2. Ha ha, I was thinking about that book too! I actually had it (it was obv. a gift), and I flipped through it to realize that maybe 10% of those things resonated with me. I’m with you on the partial list—putting a “representative list” in the print book with full list “included in the online supplement” sounds like a good solution, that’s what I do with my research!

  18. I enjoyed the first half of the book, but lost the continuity in the second. I probably would not recommend it to anyone. BUT it did get me thinking about gratitude and I’m now keeping my own list . It’s amazing how many things there are to be thankful for when you take a moment to stop and think about what has happened in the past few days. I’m really not concerned with making it to 1,000, but I am numbering and the numbers remind of how much I have to be thankful for. It’s also been great to periodically look back and remember what I would likely have otherwise forgotten!

  19. You know, when I first picked up Ann Voskamp’s book, I could not stomach it either. A few years later I read it from cover to cover, and now it is one of my favorite books.

    I think we all go through seasons in what really speaks to us, just as you did with Tinker Creek.

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