When You Read a Book in a Different Space {Book Club}

My friend Joann’s mom was visiting Jo in Beijing and said, “You must read City of Tranquil Light: A Novel by Bo Caldwell.” She placed it in my hands and so I did. That was about five years ago. I remember that it was well written and told the story of a married couple in cross-cultural work in China in the early 1900s.

What I had not anticipated in re-reading it was my emotional reaction. I sat down this morning to read our first section. Will says, “Although I now reside in southern California and have for many years, that faraway place remains my home.” We also learn that his wife Katherine is dead and we’ll be meeting her though her journals.

By page three I already had to pause and reflect on how the same book can hit you so very differently based on when in life you read it. When I first read this, it was casually put in my hands as a delightful read, I was in China with no inkling I would be in a faraway place, and my father was alive.

Timing people. Timing is everything. I want to get this done before the weekend because this is a big weekend in my family. We bury my dad on Saturday (yes, he died over two years ago and I try to explain to non-American friends what we are doing is not normal for American culture) and we celebrate my mom’s 80th on Sunday. I am in America. My father is dead. My mom is 80. What in the world? So, this novel stirring up when I first read it—how innocent I was and how I could just enjoy it—compared to the twists and turns of life.

I will do my best to separate out what is actually the book from what are my all-over-the-board reactions. But hey, we are emotional beings who read, not robots. With our last three books being new reads for me, the uber-reflective nature of this particular book for me wasn’t on my radar (and when I picked it, I did not know the timing of all of this or my reactions or I might have picked a different book. We shall thank a sovereign God who knew and doesn’t play with us and you’ll forgive my gushing. We’re all in this together :)).

I love Will and Katherine. I love how relatable they are. I love how I can see whispers of my own journey reflected in theirs. I love their BIG dreams and how they were met with hard, ordinary, wonderful life.

You might have read that Bo Caldwell based this book on her maternal grandparents. I found an article where she explains the differences:

“The biggest difference is that unlike my characters, my grandparents had five children. I chose not to deal with fictional children because they would complicate what felt like an already complex story. Also, my grandparents lived in five different cities in China and worked in Taiwan after the Communist takeover of China. I had my characters settle in one place so that I wouldn’t have to keep rebuilding cities, and I chose to have my characters stay in the United States once they returned because I wanted to focus on what leaving China meant for them, on aging and on their marriage. Finally, while my grandparents’ lives were certainly the primary inspiration for the book, I was also inspired by the lives of other [cross-cultural workers], and I incorporated parts of their stories as well as my grandparents’. The line between what really happened to any of these people and what I made up or exaggerated is already blurry and, in my experience, will become more so as time passes.”

I can see why she “streamlined” the story so as not to lose us as her readers. Already her choice of not using pinyin (the romanization of Chinese) is kind of driving me nuts. It takes a bit for my mind to recognize “Tsaichien mei-kuo” and “Zaijian Meiguo.”

I could relate to Katherine when her brother-in-law said, “You’ve only been in China for less than a week and you’re already overhauling the economy and modes of transportation? . . .  Katherine, there are practices in this country that you will dislike, I assure you. But some of these we must accept as they are. We are here to offer the people the gift of faith, not remake their way of life, even when the change seems necessary and right.”

Or the homesickness Will experienced after seeing the public execution.

Or when Will shared and said, “The people listened intently, and I thought we might have many potential converts. But when I finished, everyone left without a word or a look back.” Been there, understand that.

I loved when the women came to visit Katherine and she “somehow held my tongue (I am given many opportunities to do so).” I got tears in my eyes later when she thought she had run out of things to show the ladies and they said, “We have not come to see your possessions. We have come to see you.”

As we near the end of today’s section, please feel free to say if you are not enjoying this book. In trying to be objective, I hope you will read it because you’ll see yourself reflected again and again. What stood out to you? Where did you sense yourself saying, “Me too?”

See you in the comments!


P.S. Reading plan for City of Tranquil Light: A Novel by Bo Caldwell.  

  • August 9—”Shepard-Teacher” to “Kuang P’ing Ch’eng”
  • August 16—”Firstborn” to “Famine”
  • August 23—”Civil War” to “Think and Want, Family and Home”

Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Used copies are available, $9.99 on Kindle, or this free PDF versionWe’ll read it August 30, Sept 6, Sept 13. Cool interview planned with this book!


  1. Ruth August 8, 2016

    I loved this book–I’ve finished reading it, because I couldn’t put it down. And it hardly felt like a novel to me, more like a really familiar memoir, because as much as China has changed, it has also remained the same. The Wade-Giles vs. pinyin also drives me crazy. I kept trying to translate into pinyin so I’d know what things meant or how to say them, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

    I’m so impressed that even after all the years, Will still reads in Chinese and feels more comfortable in Chinese. I can only hope that some day I might have some measure of that language ability! The reminder that “mushi” is shepherd-teacher also caught my breath. Its one of those words I know and use, but don’t often think about the meaning of the two characters together, which give so much meaning.

    1. Michele Womble August 9, 2016

      Ruth – I was tempted to keep reading, too, but so far I’ve been able to hold back 🙂 mainly because at the moment I have several other things I need to finish vs. the one that’s tempting me to finish it instead.

      It reads like a memoir to me, too. When Amy said that it’s based somewhat Bo’s grandparents, I wasn’t surprised. I felt it just had to be a “real” story – although I realize that a lot of it is made up, still, I can definitely feel that it’s genuine, even if some of the details are rearranged a bit.

      It also feels familiar to me – although I’ve not lived in China – but some of the experiences and feelings are oh, so familiar because they are common to living in a new land (and maybe also because I did live in Japan 3 years when growing up and visited (during that time and later) other countries in the area). So it’s not familiar to me in the same way that it is to those who do or have lived there – but still so hauntingly familiar all the same….

      1. Amy Young August 11, 2016

        Michele, I agree, this book is so genuine. That’s a great word to describe it!

    2. Amy Young August 11, 2016

      Ruth, I agree! This book is so readable . . . it pulls you in :)! I am taken with how beautiful the writing is! And yes, same-same for China, but different. I bet the same could be said for most countries comparing today to one hundred years ago :). So glad you liked it!

  2. Paula Miller August 9, 2016

    This looks like a great book. When I downloaded the free PDF, it was Owner. I have been wanting that one too, so thanks! Could the button be fixed so we can get this book? Thanks so much!

    1. Michele Womble August 9, 2016

      Paula, are you trying to download City of Tranquil Lights or Wonder?

      City of Tranquil Lights is our current book club read and it is not available for free anywhere (that I know of), but there is a link to buy it on Amazon, and for me it has been worth the ten dollars.

      Wonder is the next book we’ll read, and the free pdf is of THAT book.

      (I didn’t see a book called Owner when I clicked on the link, so I’m assuming that Owner is a typo and you meant Wonder – or maybe they already fixed the button and I’m just confused. 🙂 )

      I hope that’s helpful.

      1. Amy Young August 11, 2016

        Thanks Michele, right you are :). Paula, we hope you can join in!

  3. Jenilee August 9, 2016

    I can totally relate to reading/rereading things that mean different things at different times. I’m working now to go back through all our “required” reading from worker training… because now I have space to put it in my brain. Space with the correct filters… back when we were reading it before, I had no real basis to truly feel and understand what I was reading! Now it means so much more…

    1. Michele Womble August 9, 2016

      Isn’t it funny how you can read a book and think it’s ok, and then years later – or maybe a short time later – you read the same book and it’s stunning? I like how you say you have space to put in in your brain – space with the correct filters. A friend of ours uses the word “pockets”. The first time through we didn’t have pockets to hold what we were reading, and now we do. (Like pockets in clothing). I think it’s smart that you’re going back and re-reading now that you have new “pockets”.

      1. Amy Young August 11, 2016

        Pockets! Love it, yes, that is it exactly!

    2. Amy Young August 11, 2016

      Jenilee, YES! One of the highlights of my job in China was spending the first month with folks new to the field as they went through training. SO, I got to sit in on the Chinese Culture information year after year after year. While I am NO cultural expert 🙂 . . . what I do know is because I slowly had more and more space in my brain to store what I was hearing 🙂

  4. Jill August 9, 2016

    Love! Love!!! LOVE!!!!!!! So, SO relatable in other SE Asian cultures, too, as well as the typical feels, emotions, and thoughts of any cross-cultural worker and what they go through as they adapt to their new host country. I can especially relate to the language learning process, the highs and lows, as I give my full attention to my language studies right now. It’s definitely hard to put the book down and not read ahead to the end! Great choice!

    1. Michele Womble August 9, 2016

      I’m having trouble not reading ahead, too, Jill!

      Oh, language studies!
      what is your favorite thing about language studies?
      and your least favorite?

    2. Amy Young August 11, 2016

      Jill, this is what I love about this book too! Bo Caldwell writes so beautifully and realistically. I found myself saying, “Yes, yes, yes, I can relate to that!” Instead of “What? No, no, no.” 🙂

  5. Michele Womble August 9, 2016

    what a great title for this post. I’ve never read this book before (I love it, btw) but I can totally see how the difference in time and space affects the way you relate to the book…I can see how this story would be hitting you right where you are – it’s like when you first read the book, you were Will and Katherine in their first year, but now you can relate more to Will in the beginning – knowing way more about where it’s all going – what it will mean for your life…

    I felt like you had a lot going on for some reason and was already plotting a letter in my head to ask how to pray for you – this post pretty effectively answered my question…

    Maybe you have already explained on here about your dad and I missed it, but…why are you burying him after 2 years?

    Appreciate the background information on the book. I just KNEW this was a “real” story. You can feel it. Definitely want to read more by her.

    1. Michele Womble August 9, 2016

      When I said Will in the beginning, I mean the beginning of the book when he starts remembering – so I guess it’s really more like Will in the end, but anyway, hoping you know what I mean. 🙂

    2. Amy Young August 11, 2016

      Michele, you got it exactly. I had forgotten that this book starts with Will “old” and no longer in China. When i first read, as you said, I was more like Will and Katherine in China, and now I’m (other than being so near the end of my life), like Will.

      I know I’ve been a bit more AWOL in the comments here in comments. Sorry! As well as getting ready for the two events (burial and birthday), the week before I was in Texas . . . but also, I am on the pastor search committee for my church. Recently we have narrowed our search and I think in the last two weeks, I have probably needed to write about 100 e-mails related to the details (some not so long, some quite long and detailed.). I don’t know if you remember we had a new pastor start a year ago and need to resign end of November due to an affair. I was friends with all three (the husband, wife, and woman). Much loss for many! For me, of friendships, and dreams of what ministering together could look like. So, between the burial and preparing for a candidate to visit, lots of grief emotions this week. :). Understandable, but I am tired on a deep level (on a surface level, I’m doing okay) :).

      1. Michele Womble August 31, 2016

        I know I’m late to be answering this (NOW whose AWOL? Ha ha!) but I did see it and pray for you – I don’t remember about the issue with the pastor – I don’t think we discussed it when we saw each other? Seems like I would have remembered that… – but I can only imagine the grief and loss associated with that whole process. Still praying for you about it all…

        I’ve gotten behind with book club but am working on catching up now – I think I may skip the middle post for this book and go straight to the last one (when I finish the last chapters, that is) and I went ahead and started the current book. My inclination was to do it all in order (finish this one first then start the next…but…then I would get way left behind in the comments. Anyway, so far this is working for me.

  6. Hadassah August 9, 2016

    I gave up trying not to read ahead and finished the book! Which is probably a good thing, since school starts in less than two weeks and there is so much to do including re-entering our host country after being away for seven weeks! This way, I can still participate without feeling like I’m falling behind:)

    So, I guess what struck me the most about this section was the fact that Katherine had to make a conscious effort to like her new home. She said, “My dislike lessens me, not the city, and I pray that my feelings will change. I desperately want to like it here.” And then in another section she says, “I tell myself that this is home now, and I pray for the grace to accept the details.” Wow! I’m pretty good about calling a place home from the moment I arrive. Move around enough times, and you realize if you don’t, you’ll always pine away for another place. (It’s kinda like starting to call your mother-in-law Mom. The sooner you do it, the easier the adjustment!) And yet, I still struggle with where we live. It’s dusty and noisy and I can’t really see the beauty of it, especially when I’m having to step over trash that was dumped outside our school’s gate on my way to the store or breathing in smoggy air as I run! I try to make our little part of it as beautiful as I can, but I’ve never asked the Lord to give me grace for everywhere else…much less for Him to help me to like it! But I think I need to, because she’s right. It does lessen me and the passion I could have for our work here. Have any of you felt the same way before? How was the Lord able to make you more grace full? How long did it take? Praying for grace!

    1. Jaime August 9, 2016

      I chuckled a bit when Katherine was writing about her first impressions of Will. It’s funny how sometimes our first impressions can be so far off the mark!

      When I first visited SEAsia I met a girl who would later become my housemate and closest friend. However, when we first met both of us were having bad days and neither of us has good impressions of the other. Fast forward to 2 years later when she was returning and looking for a house, both of us resisted the idea of living together. In the end we gave it a try (“I can survive anything for a couple months” running through both our heads), and found that neither of us was what we expected. I’m so glad that we gave it a shot because now she is my best friend here and my greatest encourager!

      These stories always remind me how people are so much more than what their first impression offers.

      1. Jaime August 9, 2016

        Sorry, that wasn’t meant to be a reply 🙂 And now I don’t think I can move it!

        1. Amy Young August 11, 2016

          Hey Jaime, I explored if I could move it . . . and can’t figure it out, but really, no biggie :). I was just curious if I could.

      2. Amy Young August 11, 2016

        I loved that too :). We knew from Will’s writing at the beginning of the book that they would get married, so it was funny to read her thoughts! Good reminder that first impressions are just that. First. Not final 🙂

    2. Amy Young August 11, 2016

      Hadassah I’m so glad you read ahead :). If that is better for you, go for it!

      You pulled out such powerful thought: ““My dislike lessens me, not the city, and I pray that my feelings will change. I desperately want to like it here.” When I read it, I recognized it as true right away. But, you also raise a good question . . . what does it look like to be grace filled? How long does it take? This might sound underwhelming, but I think a good first (or early) step is to recognize the dislike is there and how it can diminish us. As uncomfortable as it can be, to be able to name and own it helps to diminish the power over you. And then praying about a change of heart (which I’m sure is one your list). I’d also add getting others to pray for you. Yesterday I listened to a podcast where the speaker talked about the way focusing on something positive for only 15 seconds can really make a difference. The problem is, most people skate over the positive things, and don’t give them enough time to really sink in. So, maybe one way you can participate in your own welcoming of Grace to fill more nooks and crannies is to take pictures on your phone or list or find some other way to spend about 15 seconds on positive things. 15 seconds feels doable, doesn’t it? I was so encouraged by that!

      1. Michele Womble August 31, 2016

        Actually, I’m realizing it was clever of you to read ahead, Hadassah, since you knew that you had a busy time coming up. I was trying to NOT read ahead, had a busy time come up, and got behind. Now I’m trying to catch up. But since I haven’t yet, I’m behind in the discussions, too. There are a few books that I feel ok just abandoning if I get behind the program or whatever, but this is not one of them. I love this book.

        I like the way you compare calling a place home immediately with starting to call your mother-in-law mom immediately. Great comparison!

      2. Michele Womble August 31, 2016

        Hmm. I like that idea of focusing on something positive for 15 seconds. (of course, longer is good, but 15 seconds would be something!)

  7. Spring August 9, 2016

    I didn’t get as far as I would like in this book (in other words I didn’t finish the “assigned” reading). So far I am really enjoying it. I grew up Mennonite, and there are a lot of Mennonites in the country we serve in so this portion of things was very relatable to me. I didn’t know till I read your post today that the characters are fictional because they seemed so real to me. I understand feeling differently about a book while re-reading it. I recently re-read the Lord of the Rings series and different parts of the book really hit me. I agree with you about big dreams being met with real life.

    I think my biggest struggle is that people (read the people who support us) expect that our daily lives will be filled with these awesome exciting things. Sometimes they are, most of the time they aren’t…just like life as a non m!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I will be praying with you as you say your final goodbyes to your father’s “earthly home”. May your mother have a lovely birthday!

    1. Amy Young August 11, 2016

      Spring, I can feel that pressure to . . . to have more exciting stories than are realistic. I sort of wish more of our supporters read blogs like Velvet Ashes to have a more realistic perspective. BUT then I also like this being our special spot :).

      Thanks for the prayers :). I’ll share an update next week :).

  8. Juanita Frankamp August 13, 2016

    I raced through the book, read the whole thing in about 1 day and a long night. I think I inhaled it without exhaling at all because it was so real to me. I came home from an asian country 3 years ago and did not find any place to debrief. (This was a mistake, and may still need to be rectified.) So many things were so personal to me about the language difficulties . I tried so hard. Most of my companions were so very fluent long before I could even hear the distinctions between the tones. Eventually, with a lot of tutoring, I could do everything expected of me. But I never became so fluent that I could consider a personal conversation a reality. I would not be comfortable attending a church here in my foreign language. I have so many wonderful things to remember from my time overseas, but not because God graced me in language. I didn’t think I would like this book, but it was entirely captivating.

  9. Summer Reading Challenge Is Over {Enter and win!} // The Messy Middle August 19, 2016

    […] A book you read years ago and have meant to reread—I wouldn’t say I’ve been meaning to reread City of Tranquil Light: A Novel by Bo Caldwell, but I did read it several years ago and reread it for Velvet Ashes August book. I think of all the books I read this summer, this was the most beautifully written. It is a novel that reads like a memoir. It hit me especially hard. […]

  10. Kiera August 31, 2016

    Well, I am coming late to the game on this one again because I didn’t have space for it in August. But I am enjoying it now, so it’s all good. I think I was expecting something different (maybe more like The Good Earth) and so within the first few sentences, I started thinking – “wait, is this a true story?!” On the back of my book I found a reference to it being modeled after Bo Caldwell’s grandparents lives and it all started to make sense again. The first thing that jumped out at me was that my family’s background is similar to Will’s except that my German ancestors who moved to farm in Russia at Catherine II’s invitation later moved to Canada and not the U.S. and we were German Lutheran instead of Mennonite but still. 🙂 I loved how Will wasn’t who Katherine thought she wanted in life but then he later was – reminded me a bit of how it was when my husband and I first met. And the part near the end where they get their crate reminded me of the joy of receiving packages even in today’s day and age with infinitely more modern conveniences. I’m looking forward to the rest of the book. 🙂

    1. Michele Womble August 31, 2016

      I’m still reading this book, too, Kiera, and also reading Wonder at the same time, so it looks like we’re kind of in the same boat (except that you finished Wonder already….) 🙂

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