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The Testament of Mary
     

The Testament of Mary

4.1 27
by Colm Toibin
 

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“Tóibín is at his lyrical best in this beautiful and daring work” (The New York Times Book Review) that portrays Mary as a solitary older woman still seeking to understand the events that become the narrative of the New Testament and the foundation of Christianity—long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

In the ancient town of

Overview

“Tóibín is at his lyrical best in this beautiful and daring work” (The New York Times Book Review) that portrays Mary as a solitary older woman still seeking to understand the events that become the narrative of the New Testament and the foundation of Christianity—long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

In the ancient town of Ephesus, Mary lives alone, years after her son’s crucifixion. She has no interest in collaborating with the authors of the Gospel who are her keepers. She does not agree that her son is the Son of God; nor that his death was “worth it”; nor that the “group of misfits he gathered around him, men who could not look a woman in the eye,” were holy disciples.

Mary judges herself ruthlessly (she did not stay at the foot of the Cross until her son died—she fled, to save herself), and her judgment of others is equally harsh. In Tóibín’s stunning story, this woman whom we know from centuries of paintings and scripture as the docile, loving, silent, long-suffering, obedient, worshipful mother of Christ becomes a tragic heroine with the relentless eloquence of Electra or Medea or Antigone. In this “exquisite novella…Tóibín gives a familiar story startling intimacy” (The New Yorker) and shows us Mary as she “throws aside the blue veil of the Madonna to become wholly, gloriously human” (NPR Books).

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Mary Gordon
“Tóibín is at his lyrical best in The Testament of Mary, a beautiful and daring work…it takes its power from the surprises of its language, its almost shocking characterization, its austere refusal of consolation.”
The New Yorker
“[An] exquisite novella…Tóibín gives a familiar story startling intimacy.”
The Wall Street Journal - Sam Sacks
“A heartfelt, powerful work.”
The Washington Post - Ron Charles
“Dramatic and poetic…A powerful, devastating story.”
NPR - Annalisa Quinn
“Lovely, understated and powerfully sad, The Testament of Mary finally gives the mother of Jesus a chance to speak. And, given that chance, she throws aside the blue veil of the Madonna to become wholly, gloriously human.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer - Karen R. Long
“Mary—silent, obedient, observant—has echoed down two millennia, cementing a potent ideal in the Western imagination. Now the masterful Irish writer Colm Tóibín puts a jackhammer to the cozy, safe, Christmas-card version in The Testament of Mary.”
Entertainment Weekly - Jeff Giles
“A slim, grave, exquisitely emotional book…The Testament of Mary is a spellbinding, surprisingly reverent book.”
The New York Review of Books - Hermione Lee
“Tóibín applies a Joycean ruthlessness…Imagining himself into Mary’s interior life is his boldest jump yet.”
The Millions - Claire Cameron
“Tóibín’s intimate approach make Mary feel more credible and human…The result, The Testament of Mary, feels true.”
Buzzfeed - Macy Halford
“Tóibín suffuses the story with a sense of mystery and makes the reader feel (perhaps as never before) the tragedy of the crucifixion.”
America magazine - Michael O’Loughlin
“A deeply, if at times painfully, human portrait of Mary, tearing asunder the robes of red and blue that envelop her in paintings and sculptures.”
Sunday Times (UK) - Robert Collins
“With this masterly novella,Tóibín has finally tackled the subject of Christianity—and he has done so with a vengeance…Nowhere in this beguiling and deeply intelligent, moving work is Mary’s attention to detail more instrumental (and more like a novelist’s) than in her account of her son’s death…In a single passage—and in a rendition, furthermore, of one of the most famous passages of western literature—Tóibín shows how the telling and the details are all-important.”
The Independent (UK) - Leyla Sanai
“[A] monumental achievement…equally powerful and poignant whether it’s read by one who espouses or eschews the New Testament…A tender, soul-rending exploration of a mother’s mourning; a searing, stunning work.”
Observer (UK) - Naomi Alderman
“The Testament of Mary is an important and persuasive book: Tóibín's weary Mary, sceptical and grudging, reads as far more true and real than the saintly perpetual virgin of legend. And Tóibín is a wonderful writer: as ever, his lyrical and moving prose is the real miracle.”
Scotland on Sunday - Stuart Kelly
“There is a profound ache throughout this little character study, a steely determination coupled with an unbearable loss. Although it has some insightful things to say about religion and the period—the descriptions of the Crucifixion are visceral—it has a universal message about the nature of loss. ‘I can tell you now, when you say he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.’”
Irish Independent - John Spain
“This novel is the Virgin's version of the life of Christ. After a lifetime listening to everyone else's versions of that life, she is angry and frustrated because they are all questionable.”
The New Statesman (UK) - Linda Grant
“A flawless work, touching, moving and terrifying…”
The Age (Australia)
“Reading this perfect little novella is like watching someone light a candle inside a lantern.”
Booklist
“A stunning interpretation that is as beautiful in its presentation as it is provocative in its intention.”
The New York Times Book Review
Unlike other writers who, in rendering the historical past, leave their poetic and image-making gifts at the door, Toibin is at his lyrical best in The Testament of Mary…a beautiful and daring work. Originally performed as a one-woman show in Dublin, it takes its power from the surprises of its language, its almost shocking characterization, its austere refusal of consolation. The source of this mother's grief is as much the nature of humankind as the cruel fate of her own son.
—Mary Gordon
Publishers Weekly
Tóibín (Brooklyn) has chosen Jesus’ mother as the narrator of his poignant reimagining of the last days of Christ. Mary doesn’t think her son is the son of God; in fact, she’s convinced that he’s simply running with the wrong crowd, “Something about the earnestness of those young men repelled me... the sense that there was something missing in each one of them.” But when she recounts the story of Lazarus’s return from the grave, she presents no other explanation than that of his sisters, that Jesus was the one who brought him back. At the wedding at Cana, she sees Lazarus for herself and finds that “he was in possession of a knowledge that seemed to me to have unnerved him; he had tasted something or seen or heard something which had filled him with the purest pain....” This beautiful novella turns on who or what Mary should believe about her son’s life and death—and on a mother’s grief: “I saw that once again he was trying to remove the thorns that were cutting into his forehead and the back of his head and, failing to do anything to help himself, he lifted his head for a moment and his eyes caught mine.” Agent: Rogers, Coleridge & White. (Nov. 13)
The New Statesman
A flawless work, touching, moving and terrifying…
— Linda Grant
The Wall Street Journal
A heartfelt, powerful work.
— Sam Sacks
The Washington Post
Dramatic and poetic…A powerful, devastating story.
— Ron Charles
NPR
Lovely, understated and powerfully sad, The Testament of Mary finally gives the mother of Jesus a chance to speak. And, given that chance, she throws aside the blue veil of the Madonna to become wholly, gloriously human.
— Annalisa Quinn
The New Statesman (UK)
A flawless work, touching, moving and terrifying…
— Linda Grant
Sunday Times (UK)
With this masterly novella, Tóibín has finally tackled the subject of Christianity—and he has done so with a vengeance…Nowhere in this beguiling and deeply intelligent, moving work is Mary’s attention to detail more instrumental (and more like a novelist’s) than in her account of her son’s death…In a single passage—and in a rendition, furthermore, of one of the most famous passages of western literature—Tóibín shows how the telling and the details are all-important.
— Robert Collins
Observer (UK)
The Testament of Mary is an important and persuasive book: Tóibín's weary Mary, sceptical and grudging, reads as far more true and real than the saintly perpetual virgin of legend. And Tóibín is a wonderful writer: as ever, his lyrical and moving prose is the real miracle.
— Naomi Alderman
Scotland on Sunday
There is a profound ache throughout this little character study, a steely determination coupled with an unbearable loss. Although it has some insightful things to say about religion and the period—the descriptions of the Crucifixion are visceral—it has a universal message about the nature of loss. ‘I can tell you now, when you say he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.’
— Stuart Kelly
Irish Independent
This novel is the Virgin's version of the life of Christ. After a lifetime listening to everyone else's versions of that life, she is angry and frustrated because they are all questionable.
— John Spain
The Independent(UK)
[A] monumental achievement…equally powerful and poignant whether it’s read by one who espouses or eschews the New Testament…A tender, soul-rending exploration of a mother’s mourning; a searing, stunning work.
— Leyla Sanai
America magazine - Michael O'Loughlin
“A deeply, if at times painfully, human portrait of Mary, tearing asunder the robes of red and blue that envelop her in paintings and sculptures.”
America Magazine - Michael O’Loughlin
“A deeply, if at times painfully, human portrait of Mary, tearing asunder the robes of red and blue that envelop her in paintings and sculptures.”
America magazine - Michael O’Loughlin
“A deeply, if at times painfully, human portrait of Mary, tearing asunder the robes of red and blue that envelop her in paintings and sculptures.”
Library Journal
An elderly woman lives alone, rarely leaving home. Her husband has died, and her son has been killed for proclaiming to the masses that he is the son of God. Following his brutal crucifixion, Mary has moved to Ephesus in Asia Minor to live in relative anonymity. Two unnamed men visit her often, wanting to hear about the events that led to the end of Jesus's life, but she does not want to speak of it. The visitors attempt to convince her that they are writing gospels of her son's life because his story will change the world forever. In what first appeared as Testament, a stage play presented in Dublin during the fall of 2011, award-winning author Toíbín (Brooklyn; The Master) converts the canonized Saint Mary into a real woman who struggled mightily with fear, guilt, and pain. VERDICT Toíbín's play, now published as a novella, offers a moving and thought-provoking take on the life of a religious icon, which will resound with most readers who have an interest in the events surrounding the beginnings of Christianity. [See Prepub Alert, 5/20/12.]—Susanne Wells, Indianapolis P.L.
Kirkus Reviews
A novella that builds to a provocative climax, one that is as spiritually profound as its prose is plainspoken. At the outset, the latest from the esteemed Irish author (Brooklyn, 2009, etc.) seems like a "high concept" breather from his longer, more complex fiction. As the title suggests, the narrator is Mary, mother of Jesus, reflecting on her life and her son as she nears death. She is a religious woman but not willing to cooperate with those who want to establish a new religion on the death of her son, the self-proclaimed "Son of God," whose execution promises "a new life for the world." No, to her, it was the death of a son for whom nothing could provide recompense. "It was simply the end of something," she says, and the claims of divinity leading up to it came from a son she barely knew: "his voice all false, and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him." The miracle of Mary's testament is that what might initially seem like blasphemy ultimately becomes transcendent, redemptive, even as she continues to resist "efforts to make simple sense of things which are not simple." The testament encompasses the resurrection of Lazarus and the miracle of the wedding feast at Cana, both related in such a way that she neither denies what happened nor takes faith from them, and culminates in a crucifixion related in excruciating detail, from the perspective of a mother witnessing the execution of her earthly son. "I gasped when I saw the cross," she remembers and subsequently reflects, "He was the boy I had given birth to and he was more defenceless now than he had been then." What follows the crucifixion gives a whole new dimension to the testament, for Mary and the reader alike. A work suffused with mystery and wonder.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781451692389
Publisher:
Scribner
Publication date:
02/04/2014
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
96
Sales rank:
233,879
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Testament of Mary

They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell. But I am not being hunted now. Not anymore. I am being cared for, and questioned softly, and watched. They think that I do not know the elaborate nature of their desires. But nothing escapes me now except sleep. Sleep escapes me. Maybe I am too old to sleep. Or there is nothing further to be gained from sleep. Maybe I do not need to dream, or need to rest. Maybe my eyes know that soon they will be closed for ever. I will stay awake if I have to. I will come down these stairs as the dawn breaks, as the dawn insinuates its rays of light into this room. I have my own reasons to watch and wait. Before the final rest comes this long awakening. And it is enough for me to know that it will end.

They think I do not understand what is slowly growing in the world; they think I do not see the point of their questions and do not notice the cruel shadow of exasperation that comes hooded in their faces or hidden in their voices when I say something vague or foolish, something which leads us nowhere. When I seem not to remember what they think I must remember. They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.

I like it that they feed me and pay for my clothes and protect me. And in return I will do for them what I can, but no more than that. Just as I cannot breathe the breath of another or help the heart of someone else to beat or their bones not to weaken or their flesh not to shrivel, I cannot say more than I can say. And I know how deeply this disturbs them and it would make me smile, this earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all, except that I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I had no further need for tears. There was a time when I thought that I had, in fact, no tears left, that I had used up my store of tears, but I am lucky that foolish thoughts like this never linger, are quickly replaced by what is true. There are always tears if you need them enough. It is the body that makes tears. I no longer need tears and that should be a relief, but I do not seek relief, merely solitude and some grim satisfaction which comes from the certainty that I will not say anything that is not true.

Of the two men who come, one was there with us until the end. There were moments then when he was soft, ready to hold me and comfort me as he is ready now to scowl impatiently when the story I tell him does not stretch to whatever limits he has ordained. Yet I can see signs of that softness still and there are times when the glow in his eyes returns before he sighs and goes back to his work, writing out the letters one by one that make words he knows I cannot read, which recount what happened on the hill and the days before and the days that followed. I have asked him to read the words aloud to me but he will not. I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw. I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to.

I remember too much; I am like the air on a calm day as it holds itself still, letting nothing escape. As the world holds its breath, I keep memory in.

So when I told him about the rabbits I was not telling him something that I had half forgotten and merely remembered because of his insistent presence. The details of what I told him were with me all the years in the same way as my hands or my arms were with me. On that day, the day he wanted details of, the day he wanted me to go over and over for him, in the middle of everything that was confused, in the middle of all the terror and shrieking and the crying out, a man came close to me who had a cage with a huge angry bird trapped in it, the bird all sharp beak and indignant gaze; the wings could not stretch to their full width and this confinement seemed to make the bird frustrated and angry. It should have been flying, hunting, swooping on its prey.

The man also carried a bag, which I gradually learned was almost half full of live rabbits, little bundles of fierce and terrorized energy. And during those hours on that hill, during the hours that went more slowly than any other hours, he plucked the rabbits one by one from the sack and edged them into the barely opened cage. The bird went for some part of their soft underbelly first, opening the rabbit up until its guts spilled out, and then of course its eyes. It is easy to talk about this now because it was a mild distraction from what was really going on, and it is easy to talk about it too because it made no sense. The bird did not seem to be hungry, although perhaps it suffered from a deep hunger that even the live flesh of writhing rabbits could not satisfy. The cage became half full of half-dead, wholly uneaten rabbits exuding strange squealing sounds. Twitching with old bursts of life. And the man’s face was all bright with energy, there was a glow from him, as he looked at the cage and then at the scene around him, almost smiling with dark delight, the sack not yet empty.

• • •

By that time we had spoken of other things, including the men who played with dice close to where the crosses were; they played for his clothes and other possessions, or for no special reason. One of these men I feared as much as the strangler who arrived later. This first man was the one among all those who came and went during the day who was most alert to me, most menacing, the one who seemed most likely to want to know where I would go when it was over, the one most likely to be sent to bring me back. This man who followed me with his eyes seemed to work for the group of men with horses, who sometimes appeared to be watching from the side. If anyone knows what happened that day and why, then it is this man who played with dice. It might be easier if I said that he comes in dreams but he does not, nor does he haunt me as other things, or other faces, haunt me. He was there, that is all I have to say about him, and he watched me and he knew me, and if now, after all these years, he were to arrive at this door with his eyes narrowed against the light and his sandy-coloured hair gone grey and his hands still too big for his body, and his air of knowledge and self-possession and calm, controlling cruelty, and with the strangler grinning viciously behind him, I would not be surprised. But I would not last long in their company. Just as my two friends who visit are looking for my voice, my witness, this man who played dice, and the strangler, or others like them, must be looking for my silence. I will know them if they come and it should hardly matter now, since the days left are few, but I remain, in my waking time, desperately afraid of them.

Compared to them, the man with the rabbits and the hawk was oddly harmless; he was cruel, but uselessly so. His urges were easy to satisfy. Nobody paid any attention to him except me, and I did because I, perhaps alone of those who were there, paid attention to every single thing that moved in case I might be able to find someone among those men with whom I could plead. And also so that I could know what they might want from us when it was over, and more than anything else so that I could distract myself, even for a single second, from the fierce catastrophe of what was happening.

They have no interest in my fear and the fear all those around me felt, the sense that there were men waiting who had been told to round us up too when we sought to move away, that there seemed no possibility that we would not be held.

The second one who comes has a different way of making his presence felt. There is nothing gentle about him. He is impatient, bored and in control of things. He writes too, but with greater speed than the other, frowning, nodding in approval at his own words. He is easy to irritate. I can annoy him just by moving across the room to fetch a dish. It is hard to resist the temptation sometimes to speak to him although I know that my very voice fills him with suspicion, or something close to disgust. But he, like his colleague, must listen to me, that is what he is here for. He has no choice.

I told him before he departed that all my life when I have seen more than two men together I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty, but it is foolishness that I have noticed first. He was waiting for me to tell him something else and he sat opposite me, his patience slowly ebbing away, as I refused to return to the subject of his desires: the day our son was lost and how we found him and what was said. I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. So we call him “him,” “my son,” “our son,” “the one who was here,” “your friend,” “the one you are interested in.” Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.

He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was normal, I said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food towards me as though he were a child in a tantrum. Yes, misfits, I said. My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit, he could have done anything, he could have been quiet even, he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent. And he used all of it, I said, so he could lead a group of men who trusted him from place to place. I have no time for misfits, I said, but if you put two of you together you will get not only foolishness and the usual cruelty but you will also get a desperate need for something else. Gather together misfits, I said, pushing the plate back towards him, and you will get anything at all—fearlessness, ambition, anything—and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.

Meet the Author

Colm Tóibín is the author of seven novels, including The Blackwater Lightship; The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; and The Testament of Mary, as well as two story collections. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Dublin, Ireland
Date of Birth:
May 30, 1955
Place of Birth:
Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland
Education:
St. Peter's College, Wexford; University College, Dublin, B.A. in English and history
Website:
http://www.colmtoibin.com

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The Testament of Mary 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I write as a psychologist. The power of the book lies in engagement with the author's projection of his inner world onto a "little known" yet highly mythologized character, that of Mary the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. The author's tortured inner world betrays qualities of paranoia, depression and cynicism all of which are projected onto the character he portrays. Intensely engaging language and powerful descriptions of anguished inner conflict make for a thought-provoking reading experience. The major theme of belief/disbelief will invite the reader into taking a personal stand.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Testament of Mary is easily one of the most talked about books of the year, and this audio book will only add to the buzz. Brutally honest, we meet the mother of Jesus in her elder years, cared for (or is she kept?), by some of the disciples in the ancient port city of Ephesus. As she reminisces about her experiences, her son's ministry, and the aftermath of his death, she pulls no punches: she is as hard on herself as she is on those who are providing for her. She revisits the wedding at Cana, the raising of Lazarus, and other moments in Jesus' public ministry with an undimmed eye. She brings new insights to many familiar episodes recorded in the gospels, coupled with her own powerful reflections. And if this isn't enough to hold your attention, Meryl Streep's masterful interpretation of the test is mesmerizing. Fluidly told, Streep's reading is compelling and inevitable. She invests the familiar figure of Jesus' mother with grit and absolute integrity. Her reading is nuanced with such skill that you will be tempted to listen to all three discs at one sitting. Go ahead! Be overwhelmed. Let Mary speak without interruption. When she is finished, she will be as strong as she was when she began and you, well, you will be exhausted, drained by her passion and moved by her story. On the page, this narrative is monumental; to the ear, the story is unforgettable. When I bought the recording, it was offered for less money than the book; I bought both, and this is a double purchase I do not regret. You won't either. You may lend one or the other or both to friends and relatives, but you will always want them returned, and you will always know where they are on your bookshelf. This recording is as timeless as the story it tells.
LisaMI More than 1 year ago
It makes no difference if you agree or disagree with this book.  It makes you think.  Great discussion starter for a book club and a short  read that is written very well.  His interview on NPR would also add to the discussion.
FrancescaFB More than 1 year ago
Haunting and disturbing to hear from Mary's view how heartbreaking and sorrowful the experience of bearing witness to her Son's torture and execution truly was for her. My image of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, has been changed forever, and Toibin's exquisite writing showcases her as a Mother, and how her story really needed to be told.
MexicoDan More than 1 year ago
A bit heretical (from the official Catholic viewpoint), but a beautifully written novella.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This little novella proposes a more realistic, human view of the crucifiction
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Colm Toibin's writing in this (2011) dramatic monilogue now novella (2012) is like an illumination of a discovered ancient writing - vivid in colors and detail. Toibin's 'illumination' provides the reader with poinant insights into the Mother of Jesus which make her accessible and real, and equally so the Christian gospels as ancient narrative. This powerful and engaging quick read provides excellent material for book club discussions or for faith-based conversations.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Haunting. Beautifully writing.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A decidedly different slant on The Virgin Mary told from the perspective of her older years. Well written with enough historical asides to keep the tale moving forward. While this version does not appeal to me, I appreciated his tenacity and skill in passing the story along.
74scruffy74 More than 1 year ago
9.99 for that few pages, I can't justify the expense
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hope to see the production in New York
umemaru More than 1 year ago
In the debate about the biblical canon it is apparent that choices were made early on regarding what would be included and what would be excluded from Jewish, Catholic and Protestant canons.  Tóibín chooses to write about the choices made concerning the portrayal of Jesus  in the writings of the Gospels. It  seems that the characters who visit Mary, bullies that they are, want her to reinforce the agenda that they have in writing that portrayal; interestingly though unnamed they appear to be John the Evangelist and Paul, who never knew Jesus. Mary is a sad character; the joys of her life with Joseph and in the raising of her (their) son, are gone as Joseph has died and  in her view she loses her son when he begins his mission. She fears for her life even In Ephesus. She does eventually become friendly with a neighboring family of Greeks and goes to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Her descriptions of her life show one of memory, of prayers in the Jewish tradition, and indeed of an understanding of the worship of Artemis as an antidote to the oppression she feels as an ignored woman. A thoughtful book well-written and worth the read.