Just the Facts: by Sheldon Vanauken. 240 p. Published by Harper & Row, 1997. Borrowed from the San Francisco Public Library.
Who Cares? Adult Non-Fiction – Memoir
Not-so-Short Bio (from Amazon):
A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken, is a heart-rending love story described by its author as “the spiritual autobiography of a love rather than of the lovers.” Vanauken chronicles the birth of a powerful pagan love borne out of the relationship he shares with his wife, Davy, and describes the growth of their relationship and the dreams that they share. As a symbol of their love, they name their dream schooner the Grey Goose, “for the grey goose, if its mate is killed flies on alone and never takes another.”
While studying at Oxford, Sheldon and Davy develop a friendship with C.S. Lewis, under whose influence and with much intellectual scrutiny they accept the Christian doctrine. As their devotion to God intensifies, Sheldon realizes that he is no longer Davy’s primary love–God is. Within this discovery begins a brewing jealousy.
Shortly after, Davy acquires a fatal illness. After her death Sheldon embarks on an intense experience of grief, “to find the meaning of it, taste the whole of it … to learn from sorrow whatever it had to teach.” Through painstaking reveries, he comes to discover the meaning of “a mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love.” He learns that her death “had these results: It brought me as nothing else could do to know and end my jealously of God. It saved her faith from assault. …And it saved our love from perishing.”
Eyewitness Account: This was our April book club selection. The piece that was most interesting was hearing a guy so articulately describe his love for his wife – how rare is that? Also, it was extra-intriguing to hear his “pagan” philosophy on how to have a love/marriage that lasts forever, and then hear how that view was challenged when he and his wife became Christians while at Oxford. He concludes a beautiful love story by saying that he came to accept his wife’s death as a mercy wrought by God for his own best interest (pretty ballsy).
Unfortunately, those bits were wrapped up in too much slow-moving memoir for me to find it an overall engaging book. I’ll caveat that by saying that memoir is not one of my favorite genres, and those who enjoy reading bios or autobiographies will probably get a whole lot more enjoyment out of this book. Also, you might like it if you 1) read poetry, as Vanauken has his poetry peppered throughout the story, or 2) like reading anything by C.S. Lewis, as his letters to Vanauken are also scattered throughout.
A side beef – I thought the book would have been better if the guy hadn’t been pushing his relationship with C.S. Lewis to the forefront throughout it. Even if Lewis really was such an influence, I continually felt like Vanauken (or his editors) stressed it more than he would/should have in order to make it a selling point for the book. I’m an avid Lewis fan, but the constant interjection of the letters kept annoying me because this was not supposed to be Lewis’s story – it was Vanauken’s. Just my two cents .
“Under the surface of the visible world, there is an echoing hollowness, an aching void — and it cuts one off from the beloved. She is as remote as the stars.”
“Considering the prayers and their answers and considering the events . . . I cannot escape the impression that Somebody was being very gentle with us. Perhaps she had to die — for me, for our dear love, for God. And I had to live with grief, for God. But He was, perhaps, as gentle with us both as He could be.”
Other Books Read by This Author: None.
★★★☆☆ Writing Style
★★★☆☆ Original Idea
★★☆☆ Page Turner
Just the Facts: by Thaisa Frank. 320 p. Published October 2010 by Counterpoint.
Who Cares? Adult Historical Fiction
Short Bio: The luckiest of Hitler’s hunted are those who knew other languages – they are pulled from the long lines of people destined for shooting ranges or concentration camps and designated “Scribes”. Due to a peculiar paranoia of Hitler’s, they are tasked with responding to the numerous unanswered letters throughout the Third Reich that are mailed, but never delivered, to those that disappear. The Scribes live in an abandoned mine shaft that has been renovated to look like an underground city – complete with a sun that rises and sets on pulleys. The Compound is largely ignored until the Scribes are tasked with answering a letter written to someone who is not dead, but alive.
Eyewitness Account: Not gonna lie – I thought this was going to be another WWII tear-jerker. Don’t get me wrong, they have their place, but they are so common that you need a great plot and great characters to make your story something exceptional. Much to my great delight, Heidegger’s Glasses stood out right away, with the author doing some daring things like not using quotation marks (which did not, surprisingly, drive this OCD reader crazy) and using BEAUTIFUL prose. Toward the end, I started to realize this book wasn’t just another “here’s how horrible WWII was”, it was a book about how we handle personal grief and guilt and WWII just happened to be the setting that Frank chose as the context.
The premise of the book is entirely fictional (except that a philosopher named Martin Heidegger did exist) – it is not based on historical evidence that Hitler really believed the dead might upset the living if their letters were not answered and that such a compound of Scribes existed. What kind of author comes up with this stuff – I can TOTALLY believe that Hitler would fall for something so superstitious!
There are two amazing parts about this book that could be easily overlooked: the first is the scattering of letters that seem to interrupt the plot at random intervals, and the second is the author’s manipulation of the copy format. The letters puzzled me at first (Who is writing them?), then astonished me (How could someone in a concentration camp write THAT?), and finally, after abruptly changing tone mid-book, devastated me (see letter below in “Notable Quotes”). The letters alone tell a powerful story that is almost overlooked if you don’t pay attention to them (they’re tempting to skim over – DON’T DO IT!).
The format is unusual; I already mentioned that Frank does not use quotation marks (making it unclear sometimes what is spoken and what is merely thought) – she also puts a line space between every paragraph – which means that in a running dialogue, sentences don’t appear connected, but isolated and detached from context. You wouldn’t think this would be such a big deal, but I found that it had a profound effect on me. These unusual formats in tandem created a sense of surreal disconnect from reality – the lack of quotes felt like a lack of boundaries, and the isolated sentences felt disjointed and taken out of their native context. How brilliantly Frank connects her reader with the world of the Scribes, not by overused prose, but through copy text! I have several theories on exactly what purpose these changes serve, but I’ll let you read and decide for yourself.
Overall, this story was not astounding because of an amazing plot or vivid characters (I wasn’t quite as impressed by them as I was by the other aspects of the book) – it is the clever writing and slow crescendo to a poignant ending that make it a solid 4-star book.
“We always walk on paths that lead us back to getting lost.”
“Everything seemed tilted in the light, as though it were cast in sepia and framed by the sheer certainty of having happened.”
“. . .Letters from the time before the time that mattered; a time when no one ever thought about writing to make false records; a time when the dead didn’t need letters to stop the world from falling apart; a time when people didn’t depend on knowing languages to save their lives; a time when letters brought the living together, sentenced no one to live below the earth, and weren’t used as weapons to rewrite history.”
Sometimes I imagine you. You are never doing anything remarkable–just going to the refrigerator for milk, or letting in the cat–yet I find these memories precious just because you are yourself. I do not know if I’ll see you again.
Other Books Read by This Author: None.
★★★☆☆ Plot Development
★★★★★ Writing Style
★★★★★ Original Idea
★★★★☆ Page Turner