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    Books & Reading, Mother's Education

    Growing a Soul with Island of the World

    February 2, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]I[/dropcap] almost called this a “review,” but it seems inappropriate to review a book like Island of the World. It’s be like reviewing a biography, something else that makes me uncomfortable. How could I review someone’s life? While technically fiction, Island of the World is most certainly the story of a life.

    I thought it’d take me many months to finish this 800-page brick of a book, but my recent illness has given me time for reading {and sleeping}, and also no energy for anything else. Last Thursday, I only read or slept. I didn’t even really eat.

    Or maybe I did eat. I ate this book. And it nourished me internally — my soul grew, I think.

    Growing a Soul with Island of the World: This book. I highly recommend it ... if you're tough enough to handle the tragedy.

    While I highly recommend this book — it is beautifully and poetically written — still, I must warn you. The life of the main character, Josip Lasta, is tragic. I can’t even think of a word strong enough — the things that happened to him are proof that evil is alive and well in the world.

    See me talking about him as if he were real?

    Reading the book was a joy, but it was also pain. It was beautiful, yet I was unmade by it on more than one occasion. If you plan to read it, make sure you’re in a place in life where you can handle it.

    I wish we had time to trace some of the themes I found in its pages — aging and what it means to grow up and grow old is a big one. Birth and rebirth. Faith and forgiveness in the fact of the most severe atrocities. The power of culture — real culture — to change the world. Love and self-sacrifice. Poetry and what it means to be a poet. How to be human. How to live well after tragedy and trauma. Even how to die well.

    Or, we could step back and talk about the power of literature to teach empathy. There’s research saying it does, you know. As a teenager in the 90s, I remember hearing awful things about the former Yugoslavia.. I knew even then that to be “Balkanized” was a terrible thing. But I never felt anything. The evening news isn’t really the place to grow the affections.

    But this book found me weeping at yet another incidence of Communism — and the Statist materialist ideologies in general — destroying a people, heart and soul. I care more about the Balkans than I ever did before.

    Of course, we could step back even further and draw some parallel lines. We Americans tend to think we’re so protected from these things because we live in a democracy — which we’d be wise to remember is actually a republic. But what if the chests of our culture are more empty than we’d care to admit and our cultural gas tank is running on empty?

    What if, for example, an empty suit with no moral compass were, say, the Republican Party’s front runner*?

    Everyone always forgets that Hitler was democratically elected.

    So. If you’re brave enough, read this book. And while I talked about themes, please don’t go read it analytically. Bathe in it — let it wash over you. Like all good art — and this is very good art — it’s work taking in as a whole.

    *I wrote that before the results of the Iowa caucus.

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  • Reply Recommended Reads | The Upcast Eye November 6, 2016 at 9:30 pm

    […] The Island of the World by Michael O’Brien – this book tells the difficult story of Josip, a young boy growing up in Croatia during WWII. The first half of the book is filled with unspeakable suffering, but there is also much beauty and grace. When I read Gone With the Wind several years ago, I was left with a restless heart over Scarlett’s incredible, unflinching selfishness – and the opposite was true with this book. I was undone by Josip’s quiet strength; my heart grew through reading of his forgiveness and his sacrificing selflessness. A book to remember. And for a much better review of the book, read this blog post!  […]

  • Reply dawn February 2, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    I read it originally because of Karen Glass’ review in 2011. Here.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 8, 2016 at 8:33 pm

      Dawn, you now have me wondering whether Karen Glass’ review was the first time I heard of the book!

  • Reply Dawn February 2, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    Sigh. After this post and now Karen’s review how can I possibly resist? Just clicked on the link and added it to my cart to purchase for my birthday gift. I’m sold. Now to find the time to read it…Maybe someone will gift me THAT for my birthday? A girl can dream, at least.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 8, 2016 at 8:35 pm

      Time as a birthday gift. More husband’s should think of that one!

  • Reply Queen of Carrots February 2, 2016 at 9:56 am

    I started this book a few years ago, read the first chapter or two, was swept away by how beautiful it was and terrified about how much pain I knew was going to occur. I still want to read it some day. I still don’t have the nerve.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 8, 2016 at 8:35 pm

      I can see why you put it down, QOC, even though it is beautiful. I think I would have at other times in life, too…

  • Reply dawn February 2, 2016 at 9:02 am

    Even if you start to read it analytically, I don’t think you can do anything but let it wash over you. ❤

    I, too, struggled with writing a review. The book took my breath away.

  • Reply karen in ky February 2, 2016 at 7:54 am

    Oh, my goodness, I can’t NOT comment on this. That book is still with me. I had a similar reading experience in that I spent about three days from start to finish…and I didn’t do much else. The letter he wrote because he couldn’t *not* write it? And the same letter being written on the other end? (I’m being vague as to not give anything away!) – no one had ever articulated exactly what happened when that happened in my own life (people we know still find it hard to believe) and for that alone, I am indebted to Michael O’Brien.

    My friend Carol Bomer is an artist in Asheville (she and her husband Norm were the first friends insistent that I read this book years ago); she’s done several paintings based on select poems from this book. We still talk about Josep when we manage to find time to talk!

    Finally, when I was in Croatia in the mid 1990’s, we were on a train from Zagreb to Krk, and shared a couchette with an elderly couple, almost enveloped by their fresh produce and various bags. After an hour or so of no one speaking beyond polite smiles, the man said, “Americans?” My friend Teresa said, “Yes.” And he and his wife both began to cry. Literally, tears gushing. She sat up and then leaned over, grabbing our hands, nodding and speaking on and on, and of course we couldn’t understand her. Then he leaned forward, put his hands on hers – and ours, too – and said, “Thank you. Thank you, Americans.”

    It was one of the most intense moments I’ve ever had traveling, and oh, how I wish I’d had what you call ‘feelings’ about this before that moment! I had no idea – none of us did. Even at our campground in Krk, the manager was a young man – maybe 30? – so older to my 25 year old self – but he had only one leg, the other missing above the knee. We had long talks with him, and several of his friends at night. When we finally got the courage to ask him what exactly the war was about, his reply was startling: He said that the conflict was so old – 800 years or more, was his number – that no one knew why they were fighting anymore. They just fought. He said even they really didn’t know why, that it was so entrenched in both race and religion that there was really no way to explain it.

    I’m sorry I am leaving such a long reply! But this book also grew my soul, as you so eloquently say. That’s exactly what it does. It’s one of those to read, and savor, and struggle with, and then read again. And now I’ve got to go and pick it back up! And I should also actually finish writing my annotation about this one – you are so right, how can you ‘review’ a biography? If we could, this one would be in my top five. Maybe my top two.

    Excellent post!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 2, 2016 at 8:08 am

      Wow, Karen! Your story is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing it.

      And the letters. I know.

      Is there a way to view Carol’s work online? I would love to see it! And I think that is a sure sign that this book is literature, even though is calls itself a “novel” on its cover — the fact that it has inspired other art is so telling.

      • Reply karen in ky February 2, 2016 at 8:16 am

        Oh yes – her website is, and on Facebook you can see her work:

        Her husband Norm is actually in regular communication with O’Brien after he first read Island. They even took a trip to Croatia las summer to see different places described in the book.

        Here is the link describing her series about Josep, called Vessels:

        My husband surprised me with one of her paintings for my birthday last year (it’s on my blog – – she has been a dear friend since I moved to the Asheville area in 1999, although I’ve never been able to buy any of her work. So it was about the best birthday present ever. 🙂

        I’m sorry I’m using URLs and not links but I have no idea how to make them links in a comment box!

        • Reply Brandy Vencel February 8, 2016 at 8:38 pm

          Karen!! Wow. Your friend’s art is amazing. Has she ever told O’Brien about her work? It seems like that would be the highest compliment an author could receive — to inspire other art in other forms.

          And I can’t believe you get to have such a wonderful piece hanging in your dining room! It is breathtaking. ♥

      • Reply Michele February 2, 2016 at 8:40 am

        This book is on my shelf, and now it beckons stronger than ever. I’m not sure I’m ready emotionally though…

      • Reply Claire February 6, 2016 at 10:18 pm

        What? Novels aren’t literature? How did I miss that memo?

        And I DO NOT have time for another book! Why did I read this post?!?

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