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.


Monday, January 9, 2017


I meant to write about something very profound and powerful tonight that probably would have changed your life forever for the better, but somehow that didn't work out.

Every year when I come home from Christmas Mass, I take the Advent candles out of the wreath and replace them with white candles and we light them when we say our prayers during the Christmas season.

In the mornings when I am doing what I ought to be doing, I walk around the perimeter of three rooms in my house while I pray the Rosary. Today being the feast of The Baptism of the Lord, and there being quite a bit of candle left, I thought I would light the candles while I walked and prayed. So, the longest I am out of sight of the candles is maybe 30 seconds.

It's really amazing what a nice little fire you can get going in 30 seconds. 

Then earlier this evening I flushed the toilet and it made a sound, which if you heard it on X-Files, you would know for sure that something was about to leap out of that toilet and either eat your liver or inject some sort of venom into you that would make you become like unto itself. And the sound wouldn't stop for maybe 5 minutes and then the flowing of water ceased to be something that occurred in my house.

So, now I am in a hotel where everything seems to work, but I have been made to face, once again, a question that has puzzled me for years whenever I've stayed in a hotel, which is why?

I may have asked this question here before, but if I have it has been more than a year ago, and nobody gave me the answer.

The first time I saw this phenomenon, I was staying in a hotel room with three other women, and I thought it was so bizarre that I decided to fold the paper this way every time I went in the bathroom. And I did. And I waited for someone to comment on it, and nobody did, and nobody has ever mentioned it to this day. I have to wonder if they noticed--how could they not--and what they were thinking.


Saturday, January 7, 2017


 [Mary] saw the circles of velvet-covered wood diminishing in height and held together by a central upright, making shelves for the display of a host of miniature treasures, fairy things of silver and gold, jade, pinchbeck, glass, ebony and ivory, all so small that only the eyes of a child could fully perceive their glory... 
"An ivory coach, you see, Mary," whispered her cousin. "It's no bigger than a hazelnut but it's all there, the horses and the coachman and Queen Mab herself inside."                                                                   The Scent of Glory, Elizabeth Goudge

 One of the reasons, but by no means the only reason, that I love Elizabeth Goudge's Scent of Water is because of the little things. I have always loved miniature things. When I was little, I wanted so badly to be able to shrink down to their size--well, I'd still like to do that. I don't have any perfect little minatures like the one pictured above from the Denver Museum of Miniatures, Dolls, and Toys, but I do have a bunch of tiny Nativity sets.

Unlike the small things in the museum, they are not at all valuable in anyone's eyes but my own. I bought some of them for a dollar or two on sale after Christmas in Hobby Lobby long ago, but I love them anyway. So, I thought that as the Christmas season is drawing to a close, I would post pictures of them.

This one is kind of a joke, but it's the oldest one and has something to do with one of the children, which is why I keep it, although I don't even remember which child. Poor St. Joseph and the shepherd can't even stand up. I don't usually even get it out but one of the grandchildren found it and put the pieces in the with the big crêche along with some animals from the toy basket. This was before Christmas, so the only authentic piece in the crêche is the ox in the back left corner.

As you can see, they all have different pieces. While they all have Mary and Joseph and Jesus and some others, the others are different. They all have angels too, but since I sometimes put the angels on top of the books, they didn't make the picture.

I think this one is kind of odd, but fun. The sheep look drunk.

Some of the animals seem to have disappeared this year. This one is missing a camel and a donkey and some sheep.

This is my favorite. It has twelve pieces and I've got them all along the length of the garland on our mantle.

This pewter set came from a craft fair at the museum where Bill worked for 28 years. I had been tempted to buy it for several years and I honestly can't remember if Bill bought them for a surprise or I just said, "Okay, this year we're buying it." The little plaster angels were a gift from my niece Sarah. One year when she was little, she had $11.00 and she took it to the dollar store and bought a 
gift for everyone.

Some of them are just little one or two pieces. The church goes on top of the Holy Family.

And that's that. I hope you all have a Blessed Epiphany.


Friday, January 6, 2017


One day about thirty years ago, I walked into Davis Kidd Booksellers, a new bookstore in Memphis, and found myself wondering how I was ever going to make myself leave. Compared to the enormous bookstores of the last twenty years or so ago, it was quite small, but it was about 4 times as big as any bookstore in Memphis except college bookstores. And it was beautiful. The bookshelves were very nice and there were nice little alcoves for the different collections and there was a good selection of books. I asked them if I could live there. They looked at me like I was crazy, but in the nicest possible way.

I didn't really have enough money to buy new books at that time, but I loved going into the store now and then, and apparently a lot of other people did too, because soon they moved into a building that was much larger, but still very attractive and comfortable--the kind of place where you could sit all day and read, and they didn't mind if you did.

This looks a lot more inviting from one of those
 chairs when the fire is lit.
There were, of course, current best-sellers but there were classics and good history books, too. It wasn't unusual to run across something like a table full of books by and about T. S. Eliot. Well, there was everything you could want, and if you couldn't find it, the employees would be happy to help you find it, and if they didn't have it, they would get it for you.

The staff was second to none--always friendly and helpful--and once they started working there, they stayed a long time. Their exemplary customer service was what set the store over and above all the other bookstores. And the employees were knowledgeable. They knew their stock and they knew something about the books. I don't know why so many businesses seem oblivious to the fact that treating your customers right keeps them coming back, but we all know how rare it is to go to a store where you're treated as a valued customer. I watched a video the other day in which the owners of the store, Karen Davis and Thelma Kidd talked about booksellers and said that their motto was to be the best bookstore they could be. They came as close to reaching that goal as anyone could.

In 1996 when the store had been open for about eleven years, my 18 year old daughter, Rachel, got a job there, and worked there for the next 17 years. This, of course, made the bookstore even more attractive, (her discount made it extremely attractive) and after they opened a restaurant, my mother and sister and I used to eat lunch in the bistro sometimes, and Rachel would come eat with us. Sometimes other family members would be there too. As is about par for the course in our family, the only pictures I have of the store are of us eating--and the food was really good.

My oldest daughter, Lisa, my mom and Lisa's baby,
who is considerably bigger now.

Rachel and her daughter.

My mom and granddaughter, Tessa
For some reason, I can see my mother and I sitting in the window of this restaurant eating lunch with my grandmother as we did in many restaurants over the years, but Grandmamma died about the time the bookstore opened and long before the restaurant opened. I guess I just always think of her when the family gathers.

The bookstore also had other stuff--as bookstores almost always do these days. Most of the time I just walk by the stuff in other stores, but I must have had the same taste as the buyer for Davis Kidd because a good many of the knick knacks in my house were bought by me or for me by my daughter. This is my favorite.

When I have insomnia this is the cup I use to make my Sleepytime tea. so I can get back to sleep.

About 10 years ago, Ms. Davis and Ms. Kidd decided to get out of the book business and they sold the bookstore to Joseph-Beth, an Ohio-based chain. The new owners decided to keep the old name and the old employees, and from the customers' point of view, not much changed. Then about 6 years ago, Joseph-Beth filed for bankruptcy. The store came very close to closing at that time, but at the last minute was saved my a new investor and it became The Booksellers of Laurelwood--but I never called it anything but Davis Kidd and I don't think I'm alone.

Sadly, the reason I'm writing this post is because today is the last day that the Booksellers will be in business. It's really amazing that they have stayed open this long, managing to stand up to the challenges of the big discount bookstores and then Amazon. There aren't many independents that have. It may sound trite to say that Davis Kidd was not just a business, but a real part of the community, but it's true. There was always something going on there for the community; great children's programs and book signings--some small and some gigantic, e.g. Julie Andrews, or Jimmy Carter. They will really be missed. It make me want to cry--well, it makes me cry. And when it's gone, it will probably be the last of it's kind.