Book review: A Sense of Wonder (Brian Doyle, 2016)

Novelist Brian Boyle, author of Mink River (2010), was editor of Portland Magazine (University of Portland) from 1991-2018. Annie Dillard called Portland “the best spiritual magazine in the country.” In A Sense of Wonder, Doyle collects 36 of the best articles by nationally known writers that appeared in the magazine. Beautifully crafted prose, full of insight and deeply human this slender volume of short essays touches on the big questions of life and meaning. It begs to be read aloud to friends and discussed.

David James Duncan writes “An Elevator in Utah: On how children make despair look stupid.” Patrick Madden reflects “On Laughing: Notes on the funniest sound there is.” William Stafford praises non-violence in a world full of war in “Every War Has Two Losers: Oregon’s late poet laureate on the madness of violence.” Helen Garner writes “On Not Being Good at Reading the Bible.” In “The River,” Paul Myers tells of the time he went fly-fishing with his brother-in-law only to have tragedy interrupt a lovely day.

     Many years ago I was fishing in the Wilson River with my brother-in-law. It was autumn, salmon season. The air and the river were cold and you could smell the sea. Yellow and gold and bronze leaves darted and swirled and spun in the crystalline waters at our feet. Morning mist hung in the hemlocks and firs climbing the mountains. Everywhere there was mottled light.
     I heard the sound of plastic hitting rock and I looked over and saw my brother-in-law lean over to retrieve his lure box from the river and then he slipped and fell in and the river yanked him away. He groped frantically for the rocks and jabbed his heels desperately into the riverbed and after a second or two he actually stood up, the pounding water fanning out behind him high and wide as a peacock’s tail; and then the river grabbed him and pulled him straight down into its bosom and he vanished. [p. 125]

In “Learning to Love,” John Daniel sees and hears wonder walking and praying along a river. Thomas Lynch explores hate and love and possibility. Steve Duin tells of visiting the Holocaust Museum with his son in “I Hold His Hand.”

     If you stepped from the freight car holding your son’s hand, you joined him in the showers. That was almost automatic. The kids went to the gas chambers first. If your fingers were entwined in your daughter’s, you went along for the ride. The Nazis at Auschwitz or Treblinka didn’t have time to pry you apart.
     The kinder guards working the railroad platforms would whisper, “Give away your baby,” but what parent could heed that advice? They’d ferried the child that far. They’d kept their sons and daughters safe and reasonably well-fed in the ghetto and through the long, brutal haul of deportation.
     Why would they, how could they, let go of that hand?
     It is early morning, and I am keeping a wary eye on my son, Michael. We have come to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, just a block from the Washington Monument, and I don’t know if he is ready for what we will see. [p. 49]

Brian Doyle reflects on “The Late Mister Bin Laden.” Ian Frazier writes… well, there is more; please read it for yourself.

Book recommended: A Sense of Wonder: The World’s Best Writers on the Sacred, the Profane, and the Ordinary edited by Brian Doyle (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books; 2016) 192 pages.