It’s important to have heroes.
It’s important to have heroes.
This is a beautiful book.
A book to get lost in.
Set during World War II, it jumps between France and Germany. It weaves together two stories. One of Marie-Laure, a girl who goes blind from cataracts at age six; and of Werner, a young German boy living in an orphanage with his sister, Jutta, in a coal mining town. We watch each of the characters grow up in the shadow of war. Marie-Laure learning to navigate a world without sight, and Werner, a prodigy with unlimited promise whose only options are to work in the coal mines to surely die (as his father did), or enlist as a Nazi soldier.
Doerr renders Marie-Laure’s sensory experience lyrically. It is full of swirls and color and smooth edges and light and sounds. She feels her way over the scale model of her neighborhood that her father painstakingly makes to help her memorize every street, building, and wall — an exercise that saves her more than once. Everything she touches, hears, or feels is amplified. Her world is somewhat isolated, yet full of unique perception and wonder.
“It doesn’t hurt, she explains. And there is no darkness, not the kind they imagine. Everything is composed of webs and lattices and upheavals of sound and texture . . . Color — that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. Its scientists are lilac and lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues down the hall toward the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden.The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light.”
By contrast, the things Werner sees once he arrives at the training school for Nazi soldiers snuff out his imagination and character, turning him complicit in horrendous acts towards prisoners, Jews, and even his best friend.
The stories twist together in surprising ways. The book is sad, but tender, and written in short, easily consumed chapters. Marie-Laure’s lack of sight saves her from witnessing the worst horrors of the war; things the other characters will never un-see. Her resourcefulness and courage make her an unexpected heroine and a sweet, almost magical character that I will not forget.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
New York Times write up.
P.S. Thanks, Angie, for this thoughtful birthday gift!
My last post got me thinking about rereading.
Some people see it as a waste of time. Why read something again when there are so many books in the world just waiting to be read?
It can be so comforting, going back in time like that. Some books are like old friends.
It can also be disappointing. Example: Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett. I read this book the year after I graduated college. I had made a few incredible, lifelong friends during that time and suddenly we were all spread out. Truth & Beauty is Patchett’s only memoir and a beautiful eulogy to her best friend, Lucy Grealy (who also wrote a powerful memoir, Autobiography of a Face, which helped define the category in 90’s). The two met in college and and although their lives went in completely different directions, they stayed connected until the day Lucy died. I loved the way Patchett captured female friendship and I used to recommend this book all the time. But when I reread it a couple years ago, I was surprised to find that it came off as overly sentimental (yes, even to me). It didn’t touch me as deeply as it had when I was 22. I grew out of it.
I’m interested to hear about books people have read twice. I don’t do it often, but here’s a few I can think of:
Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume (I haven’t grown out of the sweetness of this book.)
Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (better the second time)
The Great Gatsby (many times)
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
I’m sure there are others . . .
In anticipation of the movie, I re-read Wild.
I devoured it in four days.
I forgot that my copy was signed by Cheryl Strayed. I forgot that I had done some ferocious underlining the first time around.
The underlines and notes in the margins were a window to the person I used to be.
Some of the passages still struck me just as strongly; others not as much.
Who was I then? What was I working out?
It was comforting to think of the things I’ve moved through since then. To see that some lines that were revelations then just read like common sense now. As Cheryl made her way over that PCT trail lugging her backpack, Monster, I followed the little clues in the margins reminding me of the paths I’ve come down since.
This passage was not underlined, but is one of the truest in the book to me now:
“There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what. What destroys what. What causes what to flourish or die or take another course.”
and, of course —
“How wild it was, to let it be.”
Well, since my last post I found that book. The book I’m going to obsess over and recommend to anyone who will listen:
It’s not new, and it’s not a secret — the book came out last fall, won the Pulitzer in April, and has been on the bestseller list for months. I guess it also got slammed by literary critics. But I’m completely in it. A third of the way through and in that torturous place where I want to slow down so it doesn’t end, but can’t because it’s so damn good.
Fun fact: Hillary Clinton is also reading it right now.
Do you remember Room? How amazing it was? It was the book I was obsessed with in 2011. I usually have one book a year that I tell everyone to read. Room was that book. Last year it was The Interestings. 2012, Where’d You Go Bernadette. What will in be in 2014?
I actually don’t think it will be Donoghue’s new book, Frog Music, although that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. It was highly entertaining. Just so different from Room! I felt like I was reading a different author. Which, props to Donoghue for her versatility.
This one is set in San Francisco in 1876. I usually avoid historical fiction. I’m not sure why. I have this immature sense that it’s going to be boring. Turns out, it was fascinating to read about San Francisco in the 1870s. Donoghue did her research and painted a realistic picture of the time — horse drawn carriages, clashes between Chinese and French immigrants, the small pox epidemic, and an oppressive heat wave that smothered San Francisco that August and September. It was fun to imagine how our city used to be.
The main characters, Jenny Bonnet and Blanche Beunon, were real people of the time. Donoghue crafted the story around newspaper articles and public records. The book starts out with Jenny’s murder (that’s not a spoiler; it happens right away). The rest of the story jumps between the day of the murder and a few weeks later, time Blanche spends desperately trying to figure out who killed her friend. You can feel Blanche’s stress, the sticky heat, the dust of the streets, the looming fear of disease, and the inescapable, crushing oppression of women back then.
Plus, there are some steamy sex scenes.
P.S. I have a pact with my friend Sky to blog once a week. Here we go!
Two new books on my wishlist for summer reading:
I loved Ferris’s first book, Then We Came to the End, a darkly funny workplace comedy. I’m excited to read this new one, which I’m sure will be as entertaining as the first. From the publisher’s description:
“Paul O’Rourke is a man made of contradictions: he loves the world, but doesn’t know how to live in it. He’s a Luddite addicted to his iPhone, a dentist with a nicotine habit, a rabid Red Sox fan devastated by their victories, and an atheist not quite willing to let go of God.”
Fun story about Then We Came to the End: I actually read it in manuscript form back in the mid-2000s because I was interviewing for an editorial assistant job at Little, Brown with the inimitable editor Reagan Arthur. After the interview, she handed me the manuscript and asked me to to draft flap copy as an assignment. I labored for hours and hours. I decided to take another job before hearing back from Reagan on whether or not I got it (a decision I still occasionally question). It was fun seeing this book come out and become a major bestseller. (I checked: they didn’t use any of my flap copy.)
Ahhh, Michael Cunningham. The Hours is one of my all-time favorite books. I’ve read it twice and am now thinking of reading it again. My love for The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway are intertwined; both books take me back to my last year of college and the study-abroad trip to London that got me hooked on Virginia Woolf . The beautifully-titled Snow Queen sounds like the kind of book I could get lost in. From the description:
“In subtle, lucid prose, [Cunningham] demonstrates a profound empathy for his conflicted characters and a singular understanding of what lies at the core of the human soul.”
I just got back from Popoyo, Nicaragua. I spent many (many) hours in this hammock:
It’s a portrait of a town. Russo’s characters are richly developed, distinctive, and very much human. The book touches on themes of ambition, lost opportunity, unfulfilling marriages, unlikely friendships, and the scrappy bond of family that somehow outlasts all. I breezed through it. I realized when I finished the book that not all that much happened in the story, but it felt like it did. More than plot twists, I was held by the subtle transformations of the characters and the unexpected connections between them.
When I wasn’t reading, I was enjoying this place. A dream.