The library is a pleasant walk away from Kate’s apartment, but maybe not on a day when it’s over 90 degrees and the library didn’t open until 1:00. So Kate drove the two of us while Raj was napping, and that way we could completely focus on finding the titles we really wanted, most of which we had researched together online the night before.
We were looking not for ourselves, but for a toddler. Kate’s eager to fill her child’s life with the most enriching books, nourishing not only because of the pictures or the text but also for how they provide an experience for the adult and child to share — and that they both enjoy. We’ve been talking about what makes a child love a book, and why we don’t like some of the traditional favorites. But even in cases where we can’t quite put our finger on what is “wrong” with a story or the illustrations, one reading to find out is more than enough time to give to it.
Today the bag of 14 books we brought home included 6-8 board books, including a few by Sandra Boynton and Byron Barton (Mi Carro); there were many sweet options in this category, so many that we had to narrow our choices by such considerations as, “Let’s not borrow this book I Hear, because listening to a book is not an experience of hearing the birds, rain, or wristwatch that are pictured; why don’t we talk about sounds when we are actually hearing them.”
One charming picture book with fold-out pages is Papa, please get the moon for me, by Eric Carle. It’s a whimsical tale in which the girl making the request does get her wish, and she even plays with the moon as soon as it gets small enough for her dad to bring it down the ladder. Raj seems to focus on the pictures of the moon in his story books, and I always love to return to the more poetic depictions of the moon when reading or singing to children.
A title that popped up on my screen was The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson, with pictures by Beth Krommes. It appealed to me right off, and the majority of reviews were positive, but some people said it was too dark and that several children had not liked it. As luck would have it, the small local branch had it available so I was able to see it for myself very quickly; now it’s my latest favorite picture book.
It has elements of Goodnight Moon, but the verse form of the traditional “This is the Key of the Kingdom.” And though it is about nighttime and there is little color on the pages, it is about light even more, somewhat in the way that the novel All the Light We Cannot See is radiant with love and hope.
The moon is shining in the sky when the scene opens, of a bed, where a violin and a book are lying. Only one line describes each scene.
In that book flies a bird. In that bird breathes a song… all about the starry dark.
Every week at Vespers we pray “Thou appointest the darkness and there is the night,” and it reminds me of how C.S. Lewis wanted to name his space trilogy something about Deep Heaven, because space sounds cold and unfriendly, whereas heaven is full of angels. God created the night and He is in it. This book seems to be about the sun (shining on the moon, even at night) and the electric lights in our houses, but when you come to the end and read about “a home full of light,” you realize that it is also about the human love and care — and that is only an overspilling of the love of the Holy Trinity — undergirding it through the night, making it the most restful place that is both safe and bright.
Only a few pages into Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome, and I was enthralled; I began to want very much to make my own visit to that most historic and colorful city. But a chapter in, I realized that Doerr had brought me with him, and that my vicarious travels were so much more exciting and satisfying than anything I could accomplish in real life — all without the huge expense and strain of international travel.
“Energy pours off the traffic, off the sidewalks; it feels as if we are pumping through the interior of a living cell, mitochondria careering around, charged ions bouncing off membranes, everything arranging and rearranging. Here is a pair of stone lions with crossed paws; here is a Gypsy sleeping on a square of cardboard. Down the white throat of a street a church floats atop stairs.”
Doerr’s year in Rome was certainly stressful, but he was young and strong, and was able to take his adventures, which any of us might know in the present moment as anxieties,dilemmas,pain and suffering, and turn them into prose that conveys not just a complainy travelogue, but his own engagement with the sensory overload of living in Rome, combined with being a new father. Fatherhood alone is such a transformative experience, it would give such a writer plenty of material for a book, but to have twins, and then to take them at six months of age to live in Rome, where you don’t even know the language, is exciting to the point of crazy.
“What did Columbus write in his log as he set out from Spain? ‘Above all, it is fitting that I forget about sleeping and devote much attention to navigation in order to accomplish this.’ Henry wakes again at two. Owen is up at three. Each time, rising out of a half sleep, it takes a full minute to remember what I have forgotten: I am a father; we have moved to Italy. All night I carry one crying baby or the other onto the terrace. The air is warm and sweet. Stars burn here and there. In the distance little strands of glitter climb the hills.”
Last year I read Doerr’s 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See. All I did was run my eyes along the words and lines, and the author did all the magic of transporting me to another place and time, to rooms in Germany and houses in France, to the beach and along streets and into human hearts beating with fear and hope. I couldn’t help but love them, we were that close – and it was the writer who had brought us together.
It seems that he was already working on All the Light ten years earlier, while in Rome on a literature fellowship at the American Academy. It was a good thing he didn’t have to show anyone a progress report, because Rome and twins were all-consuming. He did write a lot of journal entries, which eventually became this delightful book.
During the Doerr Family’s year in Rome the twins didn’t let their parents sleep much. They also were very sick for weeks, and then Doerr’s wife Shauna ended up in the hospital. Pope John Paul II died, and a new pope was elected. The seasons changed, the husband and wife went on outings to Umbria, and the babies learned to walk. They watched the pines out the window:
“Mediterranean pines, stone pines, parasol pines, and umbrella pines—all the same thing: Pinus pinea. Regal trees, astounding trees, trees both unruly and composed at once, like princes who sleep stock-still but dream swarming dreams.”
In another place I read that Anthony Doerr likes to quote Victor Shklovsky, who wrote 100 years ago: “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”
And this is what Doerr tries to do – but first he must shake himself out of the habit of not seeing, this habit that he explains is quite necessary:
“Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw—actually saw—a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there’d be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs…..
“’Habitualization,’ a Russian army-commissar-turned-literary-critic named Viktor Shklovsky wrote in 1917, ‘devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.’ What he argued is that, over time, we stop perceiving familiar things—words, friends, apartments—as they truly are.”
If I did go to Rome, I’m sure I would be shaken out of my everyday way of seeing things. This has happened to me many times, being in a new place without The Usual surroundings and schedule and people in my life. Even the air smells different, and seems to wake up the brain. Reading Doerr makes me want to take off the blinders more often and really be attentive to what is bombarding my senses.
It could be scary, I know – or exhausting, as he warns:
“The gaze widens and drifts; the eye is insatiable. The brain drowns.”
So Anthony Doerr is very good at what he does, but he is more than a skilled observer and wordsmith; as he imparts to the reader what he receives from the world, his own warmth and humanity come with the package. He is a grateful and caring man who reveals his humble likableness in this very personal account. As he tells you what he sees, he can’t help but tell you who he is. When he looks at his little son:
“…his entire four-pound body motionless except his eyelids, it seemed he understood everything I was working so hard to understand: his mother’s love, his brother’s ceaseless crying; he was already forgiving me for my shortcomings as a father; he was the distillation of a dozen generations, my grandpa’s grandpa’s grandpa, all stripped into a single flame and stowed still-burning inside the thin slip of his ribs.”
When it is time for the Doerrs to return to their Idaho home, Anthony tries to put the experience of leaving Rome into words:
“I know nothing. I lived in Rome four seasons. I never made it through the gates between myself and the Italians. I cannot claim to have become, in even the smallest manner, Roman. And yet I can’t stop myself: a pen, a notebook, the urge to circumscribe experience. Roma, they say, non basta una vita. One life is not enough.”
I was grateful to visit Rome by means of this book, but of course, it was enough for me. I don’t have a bucket list of books or places to see or experiences to have, because if I ever start to think like that, I am reminded of the example of our Lord’s earthly life that was on the surface quite confined — He didn’t go to Rome, either — but was the expression of the best human life ever lived.
I could also be content not reading another book for the rest of my life, but I did just order Doerr’s collection of short stories, The Shell Collector, and in that way hope to see more wide views through his brain-drowning gaze.
From a certain angle, the spring seems so calm: warm, tender, each night redolent and composed. And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point.
This paragraph from All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr conveys the tone of the whole book, which I am only halfway through. Too soon, certainly, to be writing a review, but I can’t help myself, I have to share the joy. My copy was a Christmas gift from Kate and Tom; Kate said it was the best book she’d read all year.
I got into it right away, but it isn’t the kind of book you want to rush through. In that way it reminds me of The Red Horse by Eugenio Corti. They are both set during World War II with all its horrors, but even they can’t blot out the love that glows in these novels. Reading them is like being in the company of the best sort of humans, illuminated by a wise and able storyteller, someone who seemingly effortlessly paints lush pictures in your mind of the landscape of humanity and even of the dark places in individual souls, but who somehow leaves you with hope. You don’t want to leave, and while you are at this feast you want to linger over every bite, every description and metaphor that wants to pull you into another aspect of life and reality.
One of the protagonists is a young blind girl, Marie-Laure. Doerr’s descriptions of her imagination make me wonder if he spent a lot of time under a blindfold, learning what sensory riches are available to those who can’t depend on their eyesight. Telling the story from her point of view enlarges the world that we get to live in as we read. One such moment is when she is accompanying the housekeeper on errands, often to give food to the needy:
…[Madame] burgeons, shoots off stalks, wakes early, works late, concocts bisques without a drop of cream, loaves with less than a cup of flour. They clomp together through narrow streets, Marie-Laure’s hand on the back of Madame’s apron, following the odors of her stews and cakes; in such moments Madame seems like a great moving wall of rosebushes, thorny and fragrant and crackling with bees.
The other protagonist is an orphan boy, to whose orphanage a Nazi officer pays a visit, in a moment that hints at the impending gloom:
The lance corporal looks around the room — the coal stove, the hanging laundry, the undersize children — with equal measures of condescension and hostility. His handgun is black; it seems to draw all the light in the room toward it.
I have read very little 20th, and less 21st-century fiction, but I can identify two elements of this novel’s style as those that I am more likely to encounter in newer books: Present-tense narration, and alternating chapters set in different time periods and about different characters whose lives, we predict, will merge in the end.
More than once in the past I’ve laid aside a book because one or more of these devices was annoying or contrived, but in this case the suspense is only heightened by getting glimpses of what the future will hold for for these young people. The plot was already deliciously thickened by the second chapter, because of these tiny bits of foreknowledge.
So many books I have gobbled up too fast, trying to get to the main point, to find out What Happened, promising myself that I will go back and read the story again so I can pay closer attention and do justice to the other facets of the creation the author has made. Doerr makes it so that I have no compulsion to rush. Everyone is in a process, we all have time. Take time to notice the feel of the air and the way the seasons are changing, the story progressing. Though the war is hanging over them (and the reader) and using them and hurting them, it is not everything. There is a bigger world, a whole universe, of which this one crazy man and his evil system is but a very small room.
Marie-Laure has felt trapped in her house near the sea for months — her father doesn’t think it safe for her to go out exploring the way they used to do back in Paris, now that they are occupied by the Germans. But Madame takes matters into her own hands and walks the girl down to the beach for the first time in her life. As they get close to the shore, Briny, weedy, pewter-colored air slips down her collar.
And then her feet touch the sand: ...wet, unwrinkled sand. She bends and spreads her fingers. It’s like cold silk. Cold, sumptuous silk onto which the sea has laid offerings: pebbles, shells, barnacles. Tiny slips of wrack.
Her world that was dreamily expansive when she was younger and raised by her doting father, and then became overshadowed and dirtied by the privations and separations of wartime, begins to open up again.
The German orphan boy Werner also has a rich childhood, because of kind people and in his exploration of the abundance of wonders in the physical world. He holds within himself a knowledge of the good even through years when he is victimized into participating in the wickedness.
The depictions of the heroes of this book, children growing up, ring true to me. I don’t think it is easy to get that right, and it’s not surprising. No accomplished author is that close to the experience of being a child, and no one can have had the experience of every child. It seems to me a very great gift to be able to “create” young people especially, and to reveal them so deeply and keep them real.
Maybe this will only be Part One of my review, but just in case, I will end with my own reflection of one theme that emanates from this novel: You are never ultimately trapped in a dark place. Light fills this universe of which the darkest moments are only specks, and light is in you.