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Rules for Old Men Waiting: A Novel Paperback – May 30, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Begun in 1981, this slender, unpretentious, lyrical and deeply moving novel by the president emeritus of Amherst College was more than two decades in the making. The year is 1987, and octogenarian Robert MacIver is alone, in failing health and debilitated with grief over his wife's recent death, hiding out in the dead of winter in a remote, unheated Cape Cod house "older than the Republic." Shocked into confronting the seriousness of his plight when the timbers of the front porch collapse under his weight, he retreats back inside the house and realizes that he wants to live out his remaining days—however few in number—with dignity. Thus resolved, he formulates his Ten Commandments for Old Men Waiting, the seventh of which is "Work every morning." And so he decides to write a short story about an infantry company in "No Man's Land" in WWI, which will draw on the interviews he conducted with victims of poison gas that he used for his first book, the well-received oral history Voices Through the Smoke. Pouncey's novel thus becomes a story within a novel; and MacIver's story is elegantly juxtaposed with his memories from his own long life. Pouncey's first book is proof that sometimes greatness comes slowly and in small packages. Agent, Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Bookmarks Magazine

We’d like to think a better-late-than-never literary debut hasn’t garnered this much attention since Ants on the Melon, Virginia Hamilton Adair’s first collection of poetry published at age 87. Pouncey, a classics professor at Columbia University and the retired President of Amherst College, began work on Rules in 1981; at a slim 210 pages, it’s obvious he chose his words carefully. Reviewers generously praise Pouncey’s controlled prose and ripened wisdom. Those who enjoy the book embrace it as a serious-minded antidote to the treacly works of Mitch Albom. The few detractors note that Pouncey falls into traps of many first time novelists: no matter how well it’s written, it’s still a story about a man wandering around an empty house with only memories to incite any drama.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (May 30, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812973968
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812973969
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #792,459 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 38 people found the following review helpful By sb-lynn TOP 500 REVIEWER on June 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I just read the last line of this book a few minutes ago, and all I can say is that I am quite stunned. I normally finish one book, and pick up another right away, but right now I just want to sit and think about THIS book.

Summary, no spoilers:

80 year old historian Robert MacIver is dying. He is at his old house on the Cape, and he has made a list of "rules" to follow these last weeks of his life. These rules involve such things as maintaining his personal hygiene, and eating a healthy diet. Rule seven is "Work every morning. Nap in afternoon if needed. The companion to this rule is, "Work to consist of telling a story to the end, not just shards, but the whole pot".

Robert begins to write a story, his last story, about a group of soldiers in W.W.I. As he is writing this tale, he reminisces about his life.

In doing so, we meet his beloved wife Margaret, and his son David. And we are taken through 3 wars, W.W.I, W.W.II (where Robert served), and the Vietnam War.

This is a devastating novel.

Although this is a short book (just barely over 200 pages), it is very dense, and it is not a quick read. Perhaps there might even be too much description, as I found myself tempted to skim at times.

Despite any minor quibbles, I found this a wonderful story, with a terrific beginning, AND end. In fact the last page (the last sentence!) left me reeling.

Highly recommended. This book would be an EXCELLENT choice for your book club.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By I, Reader on June 24, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Peter Pouncey, now president emeritus of Amherst College, has written his first novel -- long in coming, perhaps, but worth the wait. Having just finished Nicole Krauss' pretentious The History of Love, I recognized from Pouncey's first pages that I had wandered into a truly well-rendered piece of writing -- writing of restraint that nevertheless reveals depths, an understanding of human nature that never shows off its virtuosity (eg, see Krauss). Pouncey's main character, the old man MacIver, former Scottish rugby champ and Columbia history prof, is a diminished man -- yet despite the deep empathy one feels for him, it is not solicited. MacIver hasn't "evolved" far from his true nature -- revealed in flashbacks -- but he does understand it and continues to battle with it. The death of his wife has plunged him into a lonely life in their Cape Cod house -- and he fights the decline of his health while attempting to write a story about WWI, his historical area of expertise. This tale of the trenches becomes the story within the story -- but it is in itself an engaging narrative, not a gratuitous attempt to seem Borgesian (eg., see Krauss). The writing has such clarity and thoughtful simplicity that I literally had to catch my breath at some sentences. The narrator, whose manner parallels MacIver's more fluent and considerate aspects, clearly loves his characters. It is a voice of acceptance that refuses to compromise with the general audience's desire for snap-shut happy endings or puerile intimations of mystery in life (eg, see Krauss). A tough novel of tenderness.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Owen J. Stearns on April 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
While not an old man waiting myself...not yet, anyway...this book resonated strongly with me, largely because the characters are so compelling you can't wait to see what happens to them. With all these young authors today testing their chops with literary cutenesses (exhibit A - Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything is Illuminated"), this novel is refreshing in that it is straightforward, yet full of depth and subtlety, particularly as Pouncey weaves together the 3 narratives of the book in the latter half. Clearly the product of a more experienced life, it's surprising that a book that is anchored around the subject of dying is so damn funny at times.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Pericles on April 25, 2005
Format: Hardcover
On the surface and deep below it, this graceful, elegant march through the character of the 20th century must provoke some weighty reflection. Author Pouncey uses his strong, but thoughtful Scottish-American scholar-athlete, Robert MacIver, as the persona who leads us, by way of his real life and his mind's eye, through three crushing wars of the 20th century. But more than that, he also leads us through both the caverns and the mountains of the soul, from love of country, love of the game and, enduringly, love of child and of mate, testing, searching for self-knowledge on the way. All these melodies weave together into a song of life, ragged and beautiful, through the skeptical meanderings of MacIver's mind. Hurrah for Pouncey, master of grace. We need more the like of him.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Debra Hamel VINE VOICE on August 18, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
After the death of his wife Margaret in the spring of 1987, Robert MacIver himself fell into disrepair--failing to eat properly or to keep in contact with his former colleagues, not seeing to the work that needed doing on his isolated house on the Cape, more decrepit and older, even, than he. Given his failing health, some malady, never named, from which he suffers, MacIver's further decline is inevitable. He is resigned to it, nearly welcomes it, but after an accident jolts him from his despair he determines, as he puts it, to retrench. He establishes a set of ten rules for himself, "a simple skeleton of the well-ordered life for a feeble old man," by means of which he intends to live with some dignity until the end, and to approach death on something like his own terms. The rules include practical instructions for keeping himself fed and clothed and clean as well as directives for keeping the house heated. Having failed to lay in firewood during his months of lethargy, this last is a serious issue. MacIver decides that he will burn picture frames and furniture--though not "articles of fine craftsmanship"--as well as "books of rival scholars and other trash, before good books and my own." Arguably the most important of MacIver's ten rules, however, is that in which he imposes on himself some manner of work. As a retired professor of history, specializing in the First World War, it is not surprising that MacIver elects as his final project in life to tell a story set in the trenches of that conflict. The story he writes, of men consumed by rage over private grievances, is as nuanced and well-written and compelling as MacIver's own. It spills into the book in fragments as MacIver writes it, the stories of his life and his imagination moving in lock-step toward their inexorable, parallel ends.Read more ›
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