Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the newest book I’ve read in a long time, weaves together the stories of a young French girl, Marie Laure, who is blind and a German orphan boy, Werner, who is gifted at mathematics and tech. Over the years of the Second World War, their lives intersect at surprising points. I enjoyed the style: the present tense, poetic descriptions of the scenes. The best part was how it captured snapshots of what “the war” was like, and how it followed up with the characters as adults, revealing how their childhood experience of World War II forever changed the direction of their lifelines, like changing the threads and changing the whole tapestry.

Some themes I picked out were:

-intransigence of life

-the war: living through it, how actions by leaders at the state or military level trickle down into daily life

-overcoming trials: carrying on or just going along is contrasted in Marie Laure and Werner. Werner accepts a deepening spiral of Nazi commands that drags him into moral quicksand

-happiness: what is it? All the Light We Cannot See, would say, rightly, that it is not a permanent state, but something we can catch glimpses of if we try to do our honest best in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Sometimes circumstances can snatch it away entirely, such as when Marie loses her father.

-the randomness of birth and outcomes: circumstances beyond our control determine a lot of what happens in our lives

-freedom despite the randomness: But free will matters too, and our approach and our willingness to respond can change things for the better. Werner does finally learn this lesson, I believe.

Over all, it seems very accurate about the nastier aspects of war and difficult circumstances. I would say the balance the book strikes between free will and circumstance is one of its best features.

It’s not a particularly religious book, and it captures some very unpleasant wartime realities, but I think it’s pretty accurate about what it means to make good choices and try to live a good life on the ground. And it’s not the darkest book I’ve ever read; I’d say Graham Greene is darker, and he was Catholic.

Here are some quotations I picked out:

From Werner’s childhood, the contrast between his orphange and the opulence of the SS Officer’s home:

“The lance corporal looks around the room–the coal stove, the hanging laundry, the undersize children–with equal measures of condescension and hostility.” (80) [He is coming to collect Werner to repair the radio of the SS Officer Siedler. Werner goes there and successfully repairs the radio.]

“Werner gathers his tools. Herr Siedler stands in front of the radio and seems about to pat him on the head. ‘Outstanding,’ he says. He ushers Werner to the dining table and calls for the maid to bring cake. Immediately it appears: four wedges on a plain white plate. Each is dusted with confectioners’ sugar and topped by a dollop of whipped cream. Werner gapes. Herr Siedler laughs. ‘Cream is forbidden. I know. But”–he puts his forefinger to his lips–“there are ways around such things. Go on.'” (83)

Then, later,

Marie Laure misses her father:

“Oh, to the free. To lie once more in the Jardin des Plantes with Papa. To feel his hands on hers, to hear the petals of the tulips tremble in the wind. He made her the glowing hot center of his life; he made her feel as if every step she took was important.” (403)

Finally, this quote from the end shows the ripples of the war in the characters’ later lives. Jutta, Werner’s sister, receives a token from Werner that had belonged to Marie Laure, so Jutta goes to visit, but she is very nervous and self-conscious about her German-ness as she travels:

Jutta and her son ride the train to visit Marie Laure in France:

“Before dark, a well-dressed man with a prosthetic leg boards the train. He sits beside her and lights a cigarette. Jutta clutches her bag between her knees; she is certain that he was wounded in the war, that he will try to start a conversation, that her deficient French will betray her. Or that Max will say something. Or that the man can already tell. Maybe she smells German.

He’ll say, You did this to me.

Please. Not in front of my son.

But the train jolts into motion, and the man finishes his cigarette and gives her a preoccupied smile and promptly falls asleep.” (507)

I love how this final quote captures how we sometimes feel like others can see through us, can read our invisible thoughts, and we can become very paranoid about nothing.

Book Review: SPOILER ALERT Harry Potter and The Cursed Child – (Overdone and Boring at the same time)

Enter a caption

I’m sorry to review Harry Potter and The Cursed Child as one of the biggest reading disappointments I’ve had since I started reading for pleasure again after my kids were born–so in the last four years.

I loved the original Harry Potter books and the movies: the magic, the adventure, the fun, the characters. I grew up with it, and I wanted to love Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Yet, from page one, I was disappointed:

  1. little new plot material
  2. simplistic characters
  3. sloppy emotional outpourings

SPOILER ALERT – consider yourself warned, though I have avoided things that could ruin the one real surprise.

Plot:

There is only a little I could spoil because the new plot mostly revolves around the plots of the original seven books. What’s new is that that Harry’s son, Albus, and Draco’s son, Scorpius go, back in time with a time-turner in attempt to right certain wrongs from the past. They revisit Triwizard Tournament a few times, remind us of the Chamber of Secrets and go back to that fateful day when Voldemort gave Harry his scar.

The only present day conflict is that Albus and Harry don’t get along well. The Cursed Child is about the next generation wrestling with the scars of the past, which is of course a real struggle, but I was hoping for new present-day problems and adventures.

Yet the back-in-time plot, while a bit trite and logically-suspect, also tries to do too much.

At one point, Scorpius encounters an alternate universe where Voldemort is king, where all is dark, and Dumbledore’s Army is completely underground and he must find them, and convince them to help him and get time aright again. During this one-scene gargantuan plot piece, three (THREE!) characters throw themselves at Dementors to help save Scorpius. The full undermining of the alternate world is accomplished merely as a step in rest of the story–which is about the importance of letting things stand as they were. That one scene has to do a bit too much emotional and story-telling work for the amount of time it gets. And it seems a little too easy for Scorpius to sweep in and right this all-goes-wrong world in a few sentences.
Continue reading

National Book Festival – Sept. 24

nbf-home-animated-banner-2016Something of interest to book readers in the area or perhaps even in general, the Library of Congress’s National Book Festival is happening here in Washington DC on Saturday, Sept. 24 at the Washington Convention Center.

Stephen King will be speaking, and Marilynne Robinson will speak and receive an award. My good friend and fellow reader, among other honors, Meg, had this to say about the latter:

“Marilynne Robinson wrote Gilead, a really beautiful book.  It won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, and was notable for prominently featuring faith as its theme.  It is written from the perspective of a Midwestern pastor. She once said that authors today are afraid of writing about faith, but she finds that writing about it, authentically, produces some of the best writing there is.”

The book festival is free, features dozens of authors and will have children’s activities and appearances by children’s writers.

There will be also be poetry readings and poets. 😀

http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/

#natbookfest

So I’m thinking of going! Are you?

Local Book Places: Nature Centers have Specialized Collections

I’ve been featuring local bookstores because finding just the right book can be a treasure hunt. And blazing a trail to the buried treasure chest can lead to many different locations.

For instance, if you take a sudden interest in the flora and fauna of your backyard, as I have recently, it can be hard to find places to learn to identity the trees by leaf or the birds by name. (Note that I tried googling “blackbirds in Virginia.” Somewhat helpful but nowhere near as comprehensive as a locally sourced print guide.)

Enter Hidden Oaks Nature Center

, one of the many nature centers in Fairfax and Arlington Co. They, and other centers, have small collections, open to the public, of precisely this sort of thing: classification guides to the plants and animals, geology, stars, etc.

Lovely! Now I can learn the names of the mushrooms sprouting from my aging mulch.

But the point here is that there are often specialized collections available outside of stores and public libraries, which can be especially useful if you have localized or highly targeted interests. They must be hunted however.

Colleges, local governmental resources like towns and counties are good starting places.

Here are some photos of the charming little collection at Hidden Oaks. It’s as quirky and sincere as it looks. Continue reading

5 Reasons I Keep Too Much Junk, A Review of The More of Less by Joshua Becker

MoreofLessCoverThis easy-going introduction to minimalism by Joshua Becker came into my life right at a time when I needed to hear its message. The clutter of our growing family was growing into an overwhelming problem, so much so that I would rather spend the day at the park than look around my house.

Here are of the reasons I kept too much and what to do about it:

  1. “Nice” stuff and Being Frugal

I had a lot of “nice” stuff like antique china I had collected before I had children for the day when I would have a house to put it in. And lots of things had sentimental value, and I had baby gear. I was “frugal,” so I was saving everything that I might one day find a use for–like stacks of fabric for making a quilt…for the day I learn to use a sewing machine.

Becker deals with all of these tendencies we have to keep things that we don’t actually need. He makes the case that not only do we not need them, but they hold us back from doing the things that we actually do care about. That was the part I needed to hear.

“When we embrace minimalism, we are immediately freed to pursue our greatest passions. And for some of us, it’s been a long time since we’ve had access to the resources required to chase our hearts’ greatest delights–however we define those delights. Living with less offers more time to spend on meaningful activities, more freedom to travel, more clarity in our spiritual pursuits, increased mental capacity to solve our more heartfelt problems, healthier finances to support causes we believe in, and greater flexibility in the careers we most desire” (11).

And in addition to making space for the things we do care about, Becker emphasizes the moral benefits to battling back consumerism and dedicating our time and resources to others and causes we believe in.

I had long been against rabid consumerism, but I bought into it more than I realized. I was frugal, but that meant that I was saving tons of things, in hopes that I would frugally reproduce a beautiful pinterest picture rather than recognizing that the simplicity of light in a neat room was all I really needed to have a lovely living room.

2. I was too distracted; but I want More Time for Priorities
Continue reading

Book Review: The Choice of the Family by Jean Laffitte

2015, “The Choice of the Family: A Call to Wholeness, Abundant Life, and Enduring Happiness.”

image

I saw this book and picked it up because the title posed an unusual juxtaposition of the words “choice” and “family.” For someone immersed in the regular, secular media, like I am, “choice” is a word associated with abortion, not usually with traditional family structures. This interview with Jean Laffitte, Bishop and Head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, instead aims to show that he sees accurately the challenges facing the family as well as its importance as an authentic path for personal development and holiness, rather than a mere default position that people slip into out of lack of resistance.

The Choice of the Family takes up the call of Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Familiaris Consortio, which said:

“Since God’s plan for marriage and the family touches men and women in the concreteness of their daily existence in specific social and cultural situations, the Church ought to apply herself to understanding the situations within which marriage and the family are lived today, in order to fulfill her task of serving.”

From the opening which goes through Laffitte’s background and his studies at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Life, the book highlights that the family is an under-studied and under-recognized force in social life and also how clearly Laffitte sees the struggles facing men and women in family life today.

The Significance of the Family

So often we do not appreciate just how much we receive from our families. The modern age is typically conceived of as comprised of atomized individuals. Yet in actuality, each of us is born into specific constraints, gifts and relations that come from our families. Carl Anderson’s, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, summarizes it well in his statement in the Introduction:

Each family exists within a living ecology–a unique environment shaped by the dynamism of its members, who present a variety of age, health, maturity, responsibility….No institution in society can shape and, in so many ways, determine a person’s life to the same extent as the man and woman who give one life, and the family with which one shares one’s formative years.”

The family we are born into gives us the foundational relationships in our lives, brings us up in a history of culture and lived experience whether these concepts are consciously acknowledged or not.

Continue reading

Bookstore visit: Top Picks from Barnes and Noble

Barnes and Noble gets knocked sometimes for being too corporate. And that’s true enough; they are a big corporation.

But often B&N is the only book store in town, if there even is one, and they have a great kids section, cool gifts and host author events and book parties. (I have no affiliation with Barnes and Noble at all; this is all my unsolicited personal opinion). And I love to visit with my kids in the winter.

So, here are some picks from our last visit. Since I bring children, and I don’t want to buy the whole store, we take pictures of the titles that interest us.

This time I was really impressed with the local history section, which I had never paid attention to before. There’s a tree house book in there to help guide me to my dream home, some books of poems and legends that I want to teach to the kids, some classics that I enjoy, some gift picks and a toy pick from my son.

What would you browse for?

Here we go:

image

To inspire my lifestyle. Continue reading

Book Review: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

3690This is a good, terrifying, tragic book. It is good because it takes sin very, very seriously and portrays with painful realism a society suffering from both material and spiritual poverty in revolutionary Mexico. It takes place in the early 20th century when the Communists had taken power and the Church had been reduced to less than a handful of wandering, rogue priests.

The main character, an unnamed such priest with an alcohol problem is one of the most captivating characters in literature, a broken man who clings still to holiness and is therefore able to bring little pieces of goodness to others.

But this is not a novel to read lightly. This is a book for people who need to feel pain, real human pain. If life has become numb, if you have forgotten your blessings and need to read about hardship, sacrifice and endurance against all powers of hell, this book is for you.

Like the Brothers Karamozov by Dostoevsky, the hope offered amid the tragedy is slight, but it is there. And sometimes it is the only thing in the world left to hold onto.

Greene writes with all the flair of the early 20th century Oxford-trained writers such as T.H. White, Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” (Part I, Chapter 1).

“The world was in her heart already, like the small spot of decay in a fruit.” (This refers to the priests reflections on his own illegitimate child)

“Oh,’ the priest said, ‘that’s another thing altogether – God is love. I don’t say the heart doesn’t feel a taste of it, but what a taste. The smallest glass of love mixed with a pint pot of ditch-water. We wouldn’t recognize that love. It might even look like hate. It would be enough to scare us – God’s love. It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.”

This is a good description of how frightening and painful the love of God can be. It’s not some sappy syrup, it’s more a purifying fire, and it is hard not to run from.

So, do I recommend this book? Maybe. It’s for adults; it has weighty themes and did not mean much to my sister who was assigned in high school. But if you are at the point where you’d rather hurt than feel nothing at all, then read this book. If you want a laugh, pick up something else.

[Confession: I did not read this entire book, but I did read most of it and I read all the sparknotes.]

Advent: The Reason The Traditions We Hand Down Matter

My latest article from the Truth and Charity Forum is about Advent and why the traditions we institute with our kids matter so much. It’s not about feeling guilty for not doing a million things; it’s the opposite actually. Sometimes we need to do less but with more heart. Are we teaching consumerism or faith? What do we say Christmas is about? All this has been closer to home than ever for me as my oldest is three years old and fully able to absorb what we teach this year.

“in families, we transmit an understanding of reality, of good and evil, of values and truth. It is so abstract sounding that words often fall short, but it is real. So the arrival of our children and the role of parenthood, which we inherit, are immensely transformative, and they should be for both us and our little ones. As parents, we will build the framework that forms their entire lives, even if we cannot always see it.

AdventCandles“In the new book “The Choice of the Family,” which is an interview with Bishop Jean Laffitte, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, the interviewer quotes him a passage from Karl Wojtyla’s (who became Pope John Paul II) play The Jeweler Shop:

When they [children] grow up under our eyes, they seem to have become inaccessible, like impermeable soil, but they have already absorbed us. And though outwardly they shut themselves off, inwardly we remain in them and–a frightful thought–their lives somehow test our own creation, our own suffering (p. 167).

“This captures it so well; because children first encounter the world through the lens of their families, it is true that they “absorb” us, in a sense. And their lives then become tests of us. It’s not that the outcome of our children is our fault or responsibility, it’s that the tools and habits we consciously or unconsciously teach them as they grow will come to manifest in their adult lives, just as the lessons from our parents came to manifest in ours. We will have to take responsibility for the tools we transmit, and they will have to reckon with the tools they receive.”

And “Advent is the time of preparation, of waiting for the coming of our Lord, of God made flesh who made the world and desires to draw us back to himself. It is this God who bestowed our life, who bestowed the lives of all children, who came into physical reality within a family himself. It is his introduction to this family that we await in Advent. He who authored all families, broken or whole, came like us, into a family himself in order to restore wholeness to us all, who are all at varying levels of brokenness without him. And he encounters us to the extent that we let him, for God forces no one. This is what we believe, and this is what we have the opportunity to joyfully share.”

Full article here.

http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/advent-in-the-family-a-transmission-of-values/

So what do you do with your kids? What did your parents do with you? Did you change the traditions that you grew up with or hand on the same ones?

Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness by Christopher Kaczor

At times, an unnecessary tension exists between psychological research and Christian faith, but Dr. Christopher Kaczor has now written a helpful book to clear a path through that forest of tension. In “The Gospel of Happiness,” he highlights the many ways that positive psychological research agrees with practices of the faith, yet he manages to keep his distance and not blur any important distinctions, such as to claim that any of this research “proves” Christian doctrine, or make any unkeepable promises such as that becoming or being a Christian will make your life easier or happier. Who among us is perfect at this whole life thing, after all?

Kaczor acknowledges that “Freud’s atheistic materialism, and reduction of theism to a childish desire for a father figure as a savior from helplessness, exemplifies this conflict” (181). Yet this is not the end of the story. He continues: “the full history of psychology and Christian belief is more complicated and interesting” (181).

Overall, the book is worth reading, and it doing some of the exercises in the book did help me appreciate the people and things in my life more. One key is that it can only work if you are willing to let it, as in to actually try it. If you approach it cynically and assume it’s all a load of baloney, it would be hard to appreciate new things.

Without further ado, here are some of the most interesting and useful parts of the book.

For one thing, he gives a fully fleshed out definition of what happiness actually is: and surprise, it goes beyond feelings and possessions. The acronym PERMA sums it up. Yes, P is for positive emotions (joy, gratitude, etc). E is for engagement, actually participating in communities and activities that are inherently rewarding, and having experiences of flow and total engagement. R is for relationships, loving, self-giving relationships. (Love one another as I have loved you -Christ Jesus). M is for meaning, having a purpose, a connection to something higher.

And finally, A is for accomplishments. This one is interesting. It isn’t about social comparison, Continue reading