I want to write something
or about pain
as you are reading
you feel it
and as you read it
you keep feeling it
and though it might be my story
it will be common,
though it be singular
it will be known to you
so that by the end
you will think -
no, you will realize –
that it was all the while
yourself arranging the words,
that it was all the time
words that you yourself,
out of your own heart
had been saying.
~ by Mary Oliver, from Evidence: Poems
I read Madeleine L’Engle’s The Love Letters as part of Semicolon‘s Biblically Literate Book Club. This book was February’s selection, and I finished it last night – a few days late. The Love Letters took a while to grab me, but once it did, I was hooked and couldn’t put it down. In fact, I stayed up too late last night finishing it and am really wishing I hadn’t given up caffeine.
In The Love Letters, the stories of two women are told, the women very different, but both dealing with issues of fidelity and faithfulness, as well as grief and loss. Charlotte, a “modern” woman (the novel was written in the ’60s) has run away to Portugal, to her mother-in-law’s villa, to deal with questions concerning her marriage. Mariana Alcoforado, a 17th century Portugese nun, has fallen in love with a French soldier, and her actions have brought devastation upon the convent.
In Charlotte’s story, the action mostly takes place in Charlotte’s mind, as she remembers her childhood, her marriage to Patrick, and the devastating events that have been the cause of her running away from her husband. Through her reading of Mariana’s letters to her French lover, her conversations with her mother-in-law, Violet, and Violet’s doctor, Charlotte wrestles with the issue of vows. What do marriage vows mean? When, if ever, is it okay to abandon those vows? Who do the vows bind one to – one’s spouse, or God?
Mariana also wrestles with the burden of her vows, vows that as a second daughter with no dowry she had no choice but to make. Are her vows to God any less binding because she had no choice but to make them? As vows become more difficult to keep, do they become more necessary to keep?
L’Engle slowly unwraps each woman’s story, intertwining them in such a way that there were times at the beginning of the book when I was unsure which story was being told. I think this confusion at the beginning was part of the reason that it took a while for me to be drawn in. Don’t let that keep you from reading it, however; this book has much to say about the nature of love and fidelity.
4 out of 5 stars
For more reviews and links about this book, check out Sherry’s review.
A few passages I want to remember:
“…I must not forget that to think that chastity and sex are opposites is a blind mistake. A wife refusing her husband relations because she is angry or wants her own way about something is being just as unchaste as a prostitute, because she is equally prostituting the meaning of love. In the same way a prude rejecting sex as being vile is being unchaste. But this all must be seen in a Christian framework, Cotty. There are no new morals. There never has been. There never will be.” ~p. 170
“Were you lonely when – your wife was alive?”
A feeling of tension came into the room, but his voice, as always, was courteous, controlled. “It was easier to bear. That’s all.”
“Then – ” she said eagerly, “then maybe that’s what I mean. It’s – I can’t bear the loneliness right now. I’m torn in two by it.”
He covered her hand with his. The nails were ridged, a little horny, cut short, immaculately clean. The touch of skin felt warm and vital. “But nobody can bear it for you,” he told her. “Even when you love, and are loved, you have to bear it yourself.”
“But when you’re loved it’s easier. You said it yourself.”
“Charlotte. Dear Charlotte. Yes. In a sense you’re right. But easiness has never been a criterion of value.”
Now she could not restrain herself. She sat upright. “So, because it makes things easier, you’re devaluing love?”
He brought both hands down in a definite gesture on his knees. “Not in the least. Its value is so high that it cannot be estimated. And there is nothing easy about it.” ~ p. 171-172
“Love is a four-letter-word. And you, having been wrapped in the cotton wool of those damn convent schools all your life, know nothing about four-letter-words. Love is the wildest one of them all. We take it and we separate it and we are too cowardly to accept the violence of the union of all its parts. And a marriage that is a marriage has to accept this fusion. It has to be done, Charlotte. It cannot be evaded. I have been a coward all my life about love. You might as well face that about me. I do not like admitting it, but it is a fact. All I have been willing to accept in my relations with men is passion. Passion is part of a marriage, and a necessary part, but it does not endure unless it is sustained by a foundation of love that is – ”
“That is what?”
Violet sighed, deeply, sadly, took a long draught of wine. “Endurance, for one thing. Acceptance. All people are impossible to live with, don’t you know that? You are impossible – ”
“I know -”
“Hush. Patrick is impossible. So what a marriage is founded on is a commitment to this impossible. You make promises when you get married and you stand by them. You stand by them no matter what. You stand by them even if you have broken them. And you break them over and over again, in intention, if not in act. And it doesn’t matter. You still stand by them. ~ p. 253-254
“Sometimes we Christians tend to magnify men’s sins whereas we should magnify God’s forgiveness.” ~ p. 267
“Punctuation is the notation in the sheet music of our words, telling us where to rest, or when to raise our voices; it acknowledges that the meaning of our discourse, as of any symphonic composition, lies not in the units but in the pauses, the pacing and the phrasing. Punctuation is the way one bats one’s eyes, lowers one’s voice, or blushes demurely. Punctuation adjusts the tone and color and volume till the feeling comes into perfect focus, not disgust exactly, but distaste; not lust, or like, but love….
….Sometimes, of course, our markings may be simply a matter of aesthetics. Popping in a comma can be like slipping on the necklace that gives an outift quiet elegance, or like catching the sound of running water that complements, as it completes, the silence of a Japanese landscape….
….Thus all these tiny scratches give us breadth and heft and depth. A world that has only periods is a world without inflections. It is a world without shade. It has a music without sharps and flats. It is a martial music. It has a jackboot rhythm. Words cannot bend and curve. A comma, by comparison, catches the gentle drift of the mind in thought, turning in on itself and back on itself, reversing, redoubling and returning along the course of its own sweet river music; while the semicolon brings clauses and thoughts together with all the silent discretion of a hostess arranging guests around her dinner table.”
~ from “In Praise of the Humble Comma,” as published in In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction edited by Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones
Although we may have brought forth some fruit and have a joyful hope that we are abiding in the vine, yet there are times when we feel very barren. Prayer is lifeless, love is cold, faith is weak, each grace in the garden of our heart languishes and droops. We are like flowers in the hot sun, desperately needing the refreshing shower. In such a condition what are we to do? The text is addressed to us in just such a state. “Sing, O barren one…break forth into singing and cry aloud.” (Isaiah 54:1) But what can I sing about? I cannot talk about the present, and even the past looks full of barrenness. I can sing of Jesus Christ. I can talk of visits that the Redeemer has paid to me in the past; or if not of these, I can magnify the great love with which He loved His people when He came from the heights of heaven for their redemption. I will go to the cross again. Come, my soul, you were once heavy-laden, and you lost your burden there. Go to Calvary again. Perhaps that very cross that gave you life may give you fruitfulness. What is my barrenness? It is the platform for His fruit-creating power. What is my desolation? It is the dark setting for the sapphire of His everlasting love. I will go to Him in my poverty, I will go in my helplessness, I will go in all my shame and backsliding; I will tell Him that I am still His child, and finding confidence in His faithful heart, even I, the barren one, will sing and cry aloud.
~from Morning and Evening by Charles Spurgeon
Deja watches and smiles. “Sometimes I just can’t get over it,” she says.
“What’s that, Dej?”
“You’re all just so . . . beautiful,” she says. “I have the most beautiful sisters in the world.”
We all share this feeling, but only Deja could give it voice. In anyone else’s mouth, these words would sound syrupy and insincere. Deja manages to convey their real meaning. My sisters are lovely, but she’s not talking about physical beauty. Together, we illuminate each other. When we reflect off each other, whatever light we possess individually is made that much brighter. It is this brightness that Deja finds beautiful. It is the brilliance and power of sisters.
~ from About My Sisters by Debra Ginsberg
The people at Amazon.com are very smart. That whole “Free shipping on orders over $25″ gets me every time. I found this wonderful little chapter book series called Andrew Lost that Jonathan is devouring. Since this is the first series that has really grabbed him, I wanted to make sure and keep them coming, but the library only has a couple of titles. Fortunately, the books are paperback and only $3.99 apiece. Which brings me back to the $25/free shipping thing. When I order a few books for Jonathan, and a new handwriting book for Natalie, and I’m still slightly under that $25 mark, I can’t let it go. I have to add something from my wish list to get that free shipping. This time, it was The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, which has turned out to be a gem of a book.
I’ve read a lot of books that are love letters to reading or to books themselves, but this book is a love letter to bookstores. Buzbee worked for several years as a sales employee in various bookstores, then moved on to work as a sales rep for several publishing houses. He loves books – and he is addicted to bookstores. Buzbee talks about his own experience as a bookseller and rhapsodizes on how the bookstore is basically the perfect retail destination. Along the way, he also talks about the history of the bookshop, beginning with the bookseller’s stalls outside the library of Alexandria and taking the reader up to the famous Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, whose owner published James Joyce’s Ulysses when no British publishing houses would touch it. This book is just full of little nuggets that will stick with me for a while.
Four out of five stars.
“The invitation of the bookstore occurs on so many levels that it seems we must take our time. We peruse the shelves, weaving around the other customers, feeling a cold gust of rain from the open door, not really knowing what we want. Then there! on that heaped table, or hidden on the lowest, dustiest shelf, we stumble on it. A common thing, this volume. There may be five thousand copies of this particular book in the world, or fifty thousand, or half a million, all exactly alike, but this one is as rare as if it had been made solely for us. We open to the first page, and the universe unfolds, once upon a time.” p. 8-9
“The deepest connections with customers usually come at the front counter, precisely because that island of counter between customer and bookseller creates an imaginative space for the two to occupy. There’s the safety of the physical barrier, which allows both sides to be a little freer; you are close to each other, face to face, but a barrier remains. Both parties are free to leave at any moment, the clerk to her duties, the customer to the world.
But finally, it’s the cash register that holds sway, for it implies the exchange of goods for money, and it’s during these transactions that a bookseller learns the most about a customer. Out on the floor, it’s all possibility, what a customer might choose to purchase, but at the counter, once the register starts ringing, that’s where the revelations are. These are the books the customer will take home to read or stack up or offer as a gift, and each book, in some way, represents a part of that person’s life. It’s not a mere tally of reading tastes, who likes what authors, it’s a gauge of what concerns people, what occupies them. There, face to face over the elbow-polished wood of the counter, bookseller and customer share a silent but telling moment. Travel guides, cookbooks, a book on divorce, one about ailing parents, a book of baby names, one about the horrifying spread of war in the new century, maybe the vampire novel that will take your mind off everything else, if only for twenty minutes at a time. It’s a little like looking into another person’s heart.” p. 106-107
“By the sixteenth century, the use of coffee had become commonplace in the Middle East, and the Arabic coffeehouse was a long-established cultural fixture. Patrons of early European coffeehouses would have recognized the style and intent of the Arabic coffeehouse. Customers were invited to stay for a long time and to engage in impassioned literary, political, and theological debates. One European observer of the Arabic coffeehouse called it a “theatre for the exercise of profane eloquence,” And Ralph Hattox in his Coffee and Coffeehouses has referred to it as “an excuse for sociable procrastination.” Same as it ever was.” p. 111-112
“A bookseller frequently hears the same dismaying comment, “Well, I’d like to read it, but books are just too expensive.” Considering that books might have cost 50 cents when you were a child, or that you might be able to find the same book for free in a library, then I suppose that a $25.00 hardcover novel does seem extravagant. But a little comparison shopping might help the recalcitrant customer rethink the book’s long-term value.
Today a San Francisco movie ticket will set you back $10.00. Two hours later, give or take, and poof, that money is nothing but your memory, at least until you pony up another $20.00 for the DVD. A 400-page novel will probably take at least 8 hours to read. Once you buy a book, it’s yours, and you can mark and look up at your leisure that one terrific paragraph that keeps floating through your head.
The technology of the book is much more flexible than film, more user friendly. The reader can dip into the book at will, without electricity, and is always aware of where she is in the book, halfway through, a third of the way, mere pages from the end, her fingers helping to measure the excitement of coming to the conclusion. Watching a scene from a film in slow motion is possible, but there’s an unreal air to it; reading a passage from a book slowly does nothing to rob the words of their power. A film presents images; a book creates them inside the reader, with the reader’s active participation. Books are good for your brain. Neurologists have found that, when watching television or film, the viewer’s eyes remain idle, straight ahead, but when reading, the actual physical movement of scanning the page from left to right (or right to left, or up and down, depending) stimulates and conditions the brain, a Stairmaster of the mind.
The same $25.00 you’d spend on a hardcover novel could easily be spent for the entree at a tony restaurant, salad, dessert, and wine not included. A terrific time is had by all, but the meal is quickly a memory. Chef Glenn Groening of Kezar Bar and Restaurant in San Francisco has created a duck breast over risotto – I claim it’s one of the finest meals on the planet – and reasonably priced at $15.00, or roughly the price of a new trade paperbck, but when I’ve finished the duck and want just a few more bites, as I always do, well, I’m out of luck unless I order another entire serving. Books are digested, Francis Bacon reminds us, but never consumed.” p. 131-132
“I buy books when I travel because the bookstores I visit then surprise me with their selections. The new novel by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar may be in my local bookstore, or cheaper on Amazon.com, but I haven’t stumbled across it yet. But if I’m at Square Books in Oxford, Mississipi, where the staff member has read the book or simply liked the cover, it might be displayed to catch my eye. Or it could be something as simple as the light in the Fiction section on that given day and how it strikes the book’s colorful spine and calls out to me. Every bookstore has its own delights, and that’s why we can never have too many. The hard part is getting all those books in the suitcase.” p. 193
“We still prefer that quiet rustle of the pages, and besides, how do you press a wildflower into the pages of an e-book?” p. 202
The books of our childhood offer a vivid door to our own pasts, and not necessarily for the stories we read there, but for the memories of where we were and who we were when we were reading them; to remember a book is to remember the child who read that book.
from p. 36-37 of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee
Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry
If both writer and reader assume that the writer’s gift makes him or her a person of a radically different kind, then it seems that the relation between writer and reader must be radically reduced. Reading a book becomes merely a diversion. A writer such as Shakespeare is of course distinguished by his language, which is certainly his gift and his love. But his language is, after all, the common tongue, to which his gift is uncommon grace and power; without his commonness we could neither recognize nor value his distinction. p. 9
The trouble, as in our conscious moments we know, is that we are terrifyingly ignorant. The most learned of us are ignorant. The acquisition of knowledge always involves the revelation of ignorance – almost is the revelation of ignorance. Our knowledge of the world instructs us first of all that the world is greater than our knowledge of it. To those who rejoice in the abundance and intricacy of Creation, this is a source of joy, as it is to those who rejoice in freedom. (“The future comes only by surprise,” we say, “- thank God!”) To those would-be solvers of “the human problem,” who hope for knowledge equal to (capable of controlling) the world, it is a source of unremitting defeat and bewilderment. The evidence is overwhelming that knowledge does not solve “the human problem.” Indeed, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests – with Genesis – that knowledge is the problem. Or perhaps we should say instead that all our problems tend to gather under two questions about knowledge: Having the ability and desire to know, how and what should we learn? And, having learned, how and for what should we use what we know? p. 65
The names poetry and marriage are given only to certain things, not to anything or to everything. Poetry is made of words; it is expected to keep a certain fidelity to everyday speech and a certain fidelity to music; if it is unspeakable or unmusical, it is not poetry. Marriage is the mutual promise of a man and a woman to live together, to love and help each other, in mutual fidelity, until death. It is understood that these definitions cannot be altered to suit convenience or circumstance, any more than we can call a rabbit a squirrel because we preferred to see a squirrel. Poetry of the traditionally formed sort, for instance, does not propose that its difficulties should be solved by skipping or forcing a rhyme or by mutilating syntax or by writing prose. Marriage does not invite one to solve one’s quarrel with one’s wife by marrying a more compliant woman. Certain limits, in short, are prescribed – imposed before the beginning. p. 93
If people only made prudent marriages, what a stop to population there would be!
~ William Makepeace Thackeray
I am enjoying The Warden by Anthony Trollope very much. It is a lot like reading Austen. I especially enjoy his wry comments to the reader on what is happening or about to happen. For example:
“And now I own I have fears for my heroine; not as to the upshot of her mission–not in the least as to that; as to the full success of her generous scheme, and the ultimate result of such a project, no one conversant with human nature and novels can have a doubt; but as to the amount of sympathy she may receive from those of her own sex. Girls below twenty and old ladies above sixty will do her justice; for in the female heart the soft springs of sweet romance reopen after many years, and again gush out with waters pure as in earlier days, and greatly refresh the path that leads downwards to the grave. But I fear that the majority of those between these two eras will not approve of Eleanor’s plan. I fear that unmarried ladies of thirty-five will declare that there can be no probability of so absurd a project being carried through; that young women on their knees before their lovers are sure to get kissed, and that they would not put themselves in such a position did they not expect it; that Eleanor is going to Bold only because circumstances prevent Bold from coming to her; that she is certainly a little fool, or a little schemer, but that in all probability she is thinking a good deal more about herself than her father.
Dear ladies, you are right as to your appreciation of the circumstances, but very wrong as to Miss Harding’s character. Miss Harding was much younger than you are, and could not, therefore, know, as you may do, to what dangers such an encounter might expose her. She may get kissed; I think it very probable that she will; but I give my solemn word and positive assurance, that the remotest idea of such a catastrophe never occurred to her as she made the great resolve now alluded to.”