Saturday, December 15, 2018

Reading my Library

Although I hope to occasionally add new posts to The Three Prayers, I will do most of my writing on Reading My Library. An explanation of what this blog is about can be found here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Thinking and Friendship in Dark Times

 What [Arendt] called “the banality of evil” was the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the world, the moral world. 
Recently, it seems as if everything I read or hear has to do with the the need for an overarching belief or consensus for a culture or government to be able to sustain itself. And I have spent much of the past weekend talking about how impossible it appears to be for disparate parts of our culture to have any real discussion--how determined people seem to be not to hear one another. Coming home from church Sunday I heard an interview on On Being with Lyndsey Stonebridge about her essay, Thinking and Friendship in Dark Times, which touches on the difficulties and the necessity of the conversations that we aren't having. I think it is well worth listening to if you can find an hour to do it, or you could just scan through the text interview.

I see from looking around the internet that there is a renewed interest in Arendt at the moment, and that some people think other people are misusing her. Well, I don't know enough about that to comment one way or another, but I do think that some of the points made in the interview are worth thinking about.


P.S. I cannot find that essay anywhere.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Terracotta Warriors

Ever since I first saw a picture of the terracotta warriors that guard the grave of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, I have hoped that I could see them in person one day. My interest was peaked even more about 15 years ago when I read For the Time Being by Annie Dillard. Dillard had visited the site of the excavation and describes seeing,
. . . a man swimming through the earth. His head and shoulder and one raised arm and hand shot from the dug wall. His mouth was wide open, as if he were swimming the Australian crawl and just catching a breath.
What an image this is! And how strange it is to think of farmers walking over this massive army for 2000 years without knowing what was buried beneath their feet.

I would love to see the warriors in situ. Dillard says:
For it is in our lifetimes alone that people can witness the unearthing of the deep-dwelling army of Emperor Qin — the seven thousand or the ten thousand soldiers, their real crossbows and swords, their horse and chariots. (The golden smithies of the emperor!) Seeing the open pits in the open air, among farms, is the wonder, and seeing the bodies twist free from the soil. The sight of a cleaned clay soldier upright in a museum case is unremarkable, and this is all the future generations will see. No one will display those men crushed beyond repair; no one will display their loose parts; no one will display them crawling from the walls. Future generations will miss the crucial sight of ourselves, as rammed earth.
I would so love to see this, but I can't imagine that I ever will, so when my daughter-in-law suggested that we might want to go to Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China at the Cincinnati Art Museum while we were visiting, I jumped at the chance. Cleaned and upright in display cases they certainly were, but remarkable to see all the same.

This is a picture of a general with my husband standing behind in the shadows.
I had to laugh when I saw the (unplanned) similarity in their stances, especially when I saw this.

My son with the hands a bit different but the exact same expression on his face as the soldier.
If you click once on the picture, you should be able to see this better.

The fact that each face has its own very definite expression, is one of the most impressive thing about these warriors. There are, after all, about 8000. This is my favorite expression.

He is so intent, so watchful. That is the expression I want to see on the face
of someone who is guarding me.

I don't know who that is driving the horses. Maybe just an anonymous driver.

This is my favorite of the statues. You will notice that his isn't a warrior
and he isn't as detailed as the other statues. He is a servant,
and he was found in a tomb with the bones of the royal horses.
His job is to care for them in the afterlife.

I was also excited to see these:

If you have watched Asian movies or even just seen pictures of Buddhist temples, 
you will be familiar with this roof construction that has long circular tubes 
with round tiles at the end. These are the tiles.

As you can see in this picture, which was taken at the Memphis zoo, it is hard
to get a look at the detail of the round tiles,
so I was happy to see the tiles in the exhibit.

There were many other artifacts in the exhibit. Here are a couple.

If you click on the picture, you can see the detail of the inlay better,
although you won't be able to see the tiny writing on some of the pieces.
I can't imagine how long it must take to make something like this.

This is a silkworm. It could sit on a half dollar.  The reason I like it
is because it reminds me of this guy.

If you are going to be in or around Cincinnati before August 12, 2018, I would highly recommend checking out the exhibit.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Book Club ~ About Grace ~ Anthony Doerr

This is a continuation of yesterday's post about All the Light We Cannot See, which we read in our Catholic women's book club last year. I said in that post that I would write about the book we read, and also about another book by the same author. This is the other book.

In Four Seasons in Rome Anthony Doerr writes about being disappointed in a New York Times review of his first novel, About Grace. The review includes the sentence, "Doerr's interest in nature is so obsessive that the whole equation of man in nature becomes heavily skewed in favor of the latter, producing fiction of rapturous beauty but of an oddly cold, uninvolving nature, as if it were enbalmed in its own lustrous style." When I read this I laughed because that is one of my favorite things about Doerr's books.

Doerr's novels are different than other novels because he steps over some invisible line that demarcates what ought and ought not to be done in novels. He doesn't follow the rules. And what's good about this is that when he steps over that line, he doesn't do it because he wants to push the envelope in some daring way that will impress everyone, he does it out of love for his subject.

He's telling you a story but there is snow in the story, and "Look, look at these snowflakes! Let me tell you about these snowflakes!" Or mollusks. Or radio waves. He has the kind of enthusiasm for what he is writing about that you find in the best of teachers--the teachers who make you love some subject for which you formerly had nothing but disdain.

When David Winkler, the protagonist of About Grace is nine, he has a dream about a man being killed by a bus, and one day when he is walking with his mother, the dream comes true. These premonitory dreams occur at intervals in his life, but David never tells anyone, and he grows up a very private and solitary man. He works for the National Weather Service in Anchorage, a rather private and solitary kind of job. He has friends, but no close friends. And I think that this is one reason why the NYT reviewer sees the novel as cold. David's dreams have caused him to live at a remove from other people. Even when he marries, there is an invisible barrier between himself and his wife.

At the age of 32, David dreams about his future wife. They meet, they marry (even though she is already married) and they move away, and have a baby, Grace. Then David has a dream about the death of his child--a death that is in part caused by his inability to save her. When he finds he can't change the events to come, he does the only thing he thinks might help. He leaves. He goes as far away from Grace as he can get, St. Vincent in the Caribbean, where he works as a sort of handyman at a resort, and spends the next 25 years trying and failing to find out if his daughter is alive.

All this sounds rather dreary when told in such a bare bones way, but it's not. The story of David's life in St. Vincent and his relationship with the family that helps him is beautiful--and tragic--and redemptive.

Finally, he gets some clue that his daughter might be alive, and he returns to the States to try and find her. The story of this search could be a book in itself.

And getting back to the snowflakes--the entire novel from beginning to end is inundated with water: clouds, rain, snow, the ocean, an excess of water, a lack of water. Water flowing, and freezing. Water dangerous and salutory. And the most beautiful part is the snow. David's mother has a book, Snow Crystals by W. A. Bentley, a nineteenth century photographer of snow crystals. You can see his images here. His mother's and then David's fascination with these images are part of the beauty of this novel, and it is a beautiful novel about Grace, and grace.

About Grace did not get near the attention that All the Light We Cannot See or Doerr's collection of short stories received, but in retrospect, I like it even better than All the Light. I think about it more. If I re-read one of them, this will probably be it.

And before I finish, I have to at least mention Four Seasons in Rome: Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World. This is a book drawn from Doerr's journal of his year in Rome with his young family. I'm only about a third of the way through, and I am finding it delightful. I don't want to be a third of the way through; I want it to go on much longer than it will; I want it to be three times as long as it is.

I decided to read the book after reading Gretchen Joanna's review of it here. If you think you might be interested in reading the novel yourself, you might want to check out this very nice review.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Book Club ~ All the Light We Cannot See ~ Anthony Doerr

I belong to a Catholic women's book club that has been meeting once a month for several years now. We have read some classics and some definitely not classics. We have read fiction and non-fiction. We try to stay pretty close to something that resembles a Catholic book, whether because the author or subject is Catholic (or at least Christian), or because it is about a topic that might bear on a Catholic life, for instance one month we read More or Less: Choosing a Life of Excessive Generosity. Occasionally, we don't come close to any of this.

I've been thinking that I might start reviewing some of the books we read, and I'm also going to try to read at least one more book by the same author. The first book I want to talk about is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which was the book club selection, and then About Grace, which was Doerr's first novel.

You may recognize the name of All the Light We Cannot See, because it was a Pulitzer Prize winner. This in itself is not enough to make me want to read a book, though, and I didn't know it was a Pulitzer Prize winner when we selected it. I had heard about it somewhere--I have no idea where! Then one of the members said she had read it and recommended it, so I immediately agreed. The way we choose books is that people suggest different things and we talk a lot and decide on something definitely and then somebody suggests something else and we're off to the races again. It's a miracle that any book ever gets chosen. This may be why it's a women's book club. I can't imagine men putting up with this for very long.

All the Light We Cannot See begins with Chapter 0, in which we read about the bombing of St. Malo in France, and we meet for the first time the two young people whose lives the book chronicles. Even at this point, as Doerr describes the activity preceding the bombing and the "Queen," the large anti-aircraft gun that is waiting for the Allied bombers, we begin to be drawn in by the author's imagination and his ability to draw us into his vision as he describes the (fictional) Hotel of Bees, where the young boy, Werner, and the Germans are stationed, and the miniature model of the city in the home of the young blind girl, Marie-Laure. This bombing takes place near the chronological end of the story with most of the rest of the book telling the story of the children's childhoods and adolescence.

Werner and Marie-Laure live very different lives. Werner and his sister, Jutta, live in an orphange in an old house in a German mining town which is run by a religious sister.  They are very poor and Werner scrounges for the things the children need. One day he finds, and subsequently repairs, an old radio, which opens up the childrens' lives to the world, and which is the beginning of a lifelong passion for Werner. It also becomes the door through which Werner is able to receive an education equal to his capabilites, but unfortunately this education takes place in a school for exceptional Nazi children. His story is sometimes painfully brutal, but not without occasional glimpses of light.

Marie-Laure, who is motherless and blind, nevertheless leads a rather enchanted life in the museum with her father. She is fascinated by natural science and uses her remaining senses to explore that world. Her father Daniel does all he can to teach Marie-Laure all she needs to live in her dark world: both the practical everyday world, and world of wonder. Piece by piece, he contructs a wooden model of the town where they live, each building with a secret that makes it a little mystery in itself.

In Chapter 1, we learn about the mystery at the heart of the novel. At the end of a childrens' tour of Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle where her father is master locksmith, Marie-Laure, now 6 years old and already losing her sight, hears the story of the locked iron door found at the end of the tour. When another child asks what is behind the door, the guide answers,
Behind this door is another locked door slightly smaller. 
And what’s behind that? 
A third locked door, smaller yet. 
And what’s behind that? 
A fourth door, and a fifth, on and on until you reach a thirteenth, a little locked door no bigger than a shoe. 
And then? 
Behind the 13th door … is the Sea of Flames.
 The guide then proceeds to tell the story of the Sea of Flames, "...a brilliant blue, the blue of tropical seas but it had a touch of red in its center like flames inside a drop of water." As with all stories of large, beautiful diamonds. it is a story cloaked in mystery and woe.

Anthony Doerr writes beautifully and this novel is shot through with grace and light. He has a gift for description, and his images will stay with the reader long after the book is finished. I want to stress that the novel is not about magical realism. The mysterious story of the Sea of Flame is woven through the novel, but it is much more about the way that people react to the stone, than the power of the stone itself.

There is one flaw in All the Light We Cannot See, and that is that Doerr reaches the end of the book, and then keeps on writing. The part of the book that comes after the real and satisfying end of the story seems rather deflated. Still, that is no reason to keep from reading the rest, which is wonderful. I hesitate to even mention this because I'm afraid it will discourage you from reading the book, which would be very sad. I just treat the end of the book as a tedious addendum that I don't have to pay too much attention too.

I wrote the first three paragraphs of this a long time ago--maybe April of last year. I hope to write about About Grace, Doerr's first novel, very soon, maybe tonight, but I wanted to go ahead and get this out there since it has been sitting for so long.


Sunday, January 15, 2017


Last Fall, I read Thomas Merton's Seven Story Mountain for the second time and found that it had really improved since I was in my early 30s. It was like when I studied Anatomy and Physiology in my late 50s and found that somebody had put a whole lot more stuff inside cells since I was in high school when there were only 4 or 5 cell parts to memorize. I think it might be one of my favorite non-fiction books now--pretty close to Caryll Houselander
Now I am reading Merton's Thoughts in Solitude with my breakfast. I read a chapter--they're very short--or two a day, and sometimes I read the same one more than once. The current one is titled Reading.
Reading ought to be an act of homage to the God of all truth. We open our hearts to words that reflect the reality He has created or the greater Reality which He is. It is also an act of humility and reverence towards other men who are the instruments by which God communicated His truth to us.
So is he saying that all reading must be spiritual reading? Well, no.
Books can speak to us like God, like men or like the noise of the city we live in. They speak to us like God when they bring us light and peace and fill us with silence. They speak to us like God when we desire never to leave them. They speak to us like men when we desire to hear them again. They speak to us like the noise of the city when they hold us captive by a weariness that tells us nothing, give us no peace, and no support, nothing to remember, and yet will not let us escape. 
If this is true and it seems true to me, there is no sort of book that we ought to avoid except the one that speaks to us like the noise of the city.

One of my favorite kinds of books is one that is not ostensibly spiritual, but in which one finds grace in unexpected places--perhaps a grace that the author did not even intend. Sometimes the books aren't pretty. They may be filled with darkness, but the darkness is the perfect setting for that gleam of grace. The best example I can think of at the moment, and it's an example where I'm pretty certain the author wrote exactly what he intended, is The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

There are more kinds of reading than books. When I think of the noise of the city, I immediately think of Facebook, and presumably other social media with which I am not personally familiar. In fact, the whole last sentence of that quote pretty much describes social media.

I love the idea that the words that we read should reflect reality. We've probably all had the experience of reading a book that was beautifully written, but skewed in some way. I'm not talking about fantasy, which can be an excellent medium for reflecting truth, but books that are like a delicious fruit with poison at the center. I suspect from all I've heard, although I have not read them, that Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books are of this sort. I hate to say this, and I know that some of you will disagree with me, but sometimes I think that Silence is one of those books.

Further on, Merton says, "Ideas and words are not the food of the intelligence, but truth." I've had to ask myself what he meat by this. I wondered if he was saying, "Ideas and words are not the food of the intelligence, but [the food of truth]" but that didn't quite seem to make sense. I think what he's saying is that ideas and words are truth--not just something utilitarian by which we can become more knowledgeable. And he goes on to say that they are not just, "an abstract truth that feeds the mind alone."
The Truth that a spiritual man seeks is the whole Truth, reality, existence and essence together, something that can be embraced and loved, something can sustain the homage and service of our actions: more than a thing: persons, or a Person. Him above all Whose essence is to exist. God.
Obviously, he is talking about the first two kinds of books here.

Thinking about all this reminded me of an oft-quoted passage from The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk may one day be a creature which if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.
And the things we read are likewise leading us one way or the other, as do the things we chose to watch. I find it's very easy to get sucked into a series that is full of the noise of the city because I want to find out what's going to happen. It's much harder to pull back from one of these than it is to put down a book. Offering us nothing, as Merton says about the "noise of the city" books, they are truly difficult to escape.

Well, I have managed during the course of this post to include almost the entirety of this two-page meditation. The book, Thoughts in Solitude is full of short reflections. I had to pull myself up short just there because I started to say that they were helpful, and there's that utilitarian thing. They are more than helpful, they are a door into a solitude that is hard to find in a secular life, and they lead us bit closer to that Person, Who is Truth.