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.


(new) Book Review: The Princess Guide

The Princess Guide uses fairy tales as jumping off points for theological reflection on various aspects of growing up and life for young women.

It is kind and wise, like a loving and well-versed older sister guiding a younger sister. The princess guide does not condescend to young women by pouring on flattery. Instead, it uses familiar stories to bid them hear their higher calling that comes from God alone.

I will say the author sometimes paints with broad brush strokes, perhaps overlooking some nuance, particularly in the section on the differences between men and women. Nevertheless, the heart is in the right place and the guidance offered to young readers is invaluable.

It discusses the value of work, fear, true beauty, and challenges cultural assumptions on artificial contraception and cohabitation. Terraccino addresses women as women in all their uniqueness and value while drawing on Scripture, the Church Fathers, the Catechism, and personal experience. Rare is the book that draws on such wide theological resources within the Church and presents them in so accessible a way, especially for this audience. Too often, the rich teachings and history of the Church lay buried. Terraccino wonderfully and practically brings them too light.

God gave all women and men a royal calling; all persons are called to imitate Christ in his three-fold office of priest, prophet and king. Read this book and let Terraccino show you how to live the royal vocation in the here and now.

The World is Not Enough: Why Worldly Happiness Fails

Ask a class of 7th grade boys what the purpose of life is and they’ll give you the same answer as most other people: to be happy.

This is an obvious truth that is the foundation of almost every formal system of ethics from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Christian ethics to other less formalized systems such as utilitarianism and general post-modern relativism.

If all these philosophies agree about the importance of happiness, how come we don’t all agree on how to live happily (which traditional translates into how to live morally)? Because we have different understandings of what happiness truly is.

The point of this post is to briefly explain why the path to happiness that Jesus offers is diametrically opposed to the standard offer from the world. Ultimately, the counter-intuitive method from Christ is much more accessible and satisfying than the empty promises from other venues.

I – What Happiness Isn’t

We all want to be happy. But we tend, me too, to seek it through the wrong channels. The path the world tells us is this: go to school, keep your grades up, go to college, get a great job, maybe get married, maybe have kids, do fun things, and enjoy your prosperity. I will call this external happiness.

Those are all great things. But there are two problems:

1) This model is inaccessible to most of the world’s population. If happiness is about financial security, fulfilling work, and awesome free time activities like visiting Paris and climbing rocks, then only a very small subset of human beings can even attempt to find happiness. That in itself makes this model problematic. What about the janitor mopping floors for minimum wage? What about the single-mother working two jobs to offer her child a different life? What about the sick and disabled? Or simply, what about stay at home mothers who choose to forego the illustrious career and its concurrent promise of fulfillment? And what about the truly destitute? All life includes suffering, and for many people, it includes mostly suffering. How does this external happiness relate to them? Is the blind beggar rendered permanently hopeless and miserable unless he can turn it all around? To be sure, these people do experience a high degree of misery. Also, I do not want to sound complacent toward their stations in life. Everyone deserves the chance for a decent life. The sad truth, however, is that a lot of people won’t get it. It seems to me that a truly human understanding of happiness should be accessible to every single human soul, regardless of life circumstances.

For this reason alone, external happiness doesn’t fit the bill. We all know of inspiring individuals who radiate peace and joy and who uplift others despite deep personal tragedy and suffering in their own lives. These are the people who thwart the external view of happiness and are the people to whom we should look for learning and instruction.

2) The second problem is that the unstated, underlying end or completion of this model simply doesn’t exist. When happiness is measured by how much we have attained and how much we are enjoying it, there is no end, no rest, no completion. There is always more that we could achieve, more stuff to have, more ways to win. Think about it: many of us have arrived at “adulthood” with college diplomas in hand, decent jobs, and a marriage. Yet there is never an “I’ve arrived, now I can relax moment.” Instead, we think about how to rise the ladder at work, how to make more money, get a nicer place to live, and nicer stuff to put in it too. No matter how precisely we stay on track, we never get there. The external model of happiness never finishes; it can’t be finished. It can’t be completed because it has nothing to do with a state of being; rather, it is external, hence its name. Its focus is on achievements. But achievement is an ever-shifting, never-ending staircase.

Happiness, according to the external model, is found in Olympic gold medals, doctoral degrees, and lofty titles. The problem is very few people can make it to the top and thus enjoy said happiness. And even for those who do, it is fleeting because within months usually, there arises a new top-dog with higher achievements, more honors, and more money too. Even those to appear to “have it all” often are not very happy for very long. Deep down, we know this to be true. We are familiar with too many stories of successful personalities who are miserable, who even take their own lives. It’s unspeakably tragic.

And the agony of the external model of happiness afflicts the less successful as well. Since the completion of the achievement track never comes or some of us realize that we simply won’t rise to the top, a disillusioning disappointment sets in. Bitterness is often the fruit of this “failure.”

Sometimes our response to worldly failure [or more accurately, normal life without excessive prestige] is couched in wild dreams about winning the lottery or the day we will finally “make it.” But a lot of time and real happiness can be wasted waiting for the arrival of this perfect day. As Professor Dumbledore said to Harry Potter as he gazed into the Mirror or Erised, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

I recently read a sad article written by a woman who regretted having children. In response, a honest, kind blogger explained:

“She’s probably a relatively normal woman who…wasted a large portion of her life wishing for a different reality. It’s pitiful, and wasteful, and hurtful to her children, but not much different than anyone who squanders their joy in the realities of life in favor of a dream.” [emphasis mine]

Ultimately, the external model of happiness touted by the world we live in must fail for just about everyone. Yet we cling to it blindly. I won’t pretend I’ve never pined for the day when there is just a little bit more money or when earning that top degree will finally make me feel worthy. But those are not well-spent moments. True happiness must be something more.

Coming up next: Our Lord’s alternative path to happiness