REVIEW: All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Because I am reading this book for a fun Facebook club, and just due to it being an interesting story, I thought I would write a short review about the popular book All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. It’s yet another among the pantheon of World War Two era thrillers, a collection of which I’ve read many. I guess this period has always interested me, given that in many respects it was one of the most frightening in human history.

In this particular novel, Doerr chooses to tell the story of the unfolding conflict from two main perspectives: that of an intelligent German who goes on to become a radio operator and locate people who are making “illegal” transmissions, and a blind French girl who lives with her father and eventually her great uncle.

The German, Werner Pfenig, spends his early life in an orphanage with his sister and other kids, barely able to get enough food and about as por as can be. He discovers his love for radios somewhat by accident, rigging an old set that he then uses to entertain all within the house at the permission of Frau Elena, the head of the house. This ability to fix and tinker with some of the most complex systems as well as to master trigonometry, science, and similar fields, soon leads Werner out of the orphanage and to a rigorous training academy that prepares young men to fight for the reich. That these sorts of academies existed is amazing.

Meanwhile, the blind girl who’s name is Marie-Laure, discovers that she has an uncanny ability to solve puzzles. Her father, who works at the National Museum in Paris at the story’s start, enjoys creating these puzzles for her and concealing prizes within that she usually obtains with eye-popping speed. He soon teaches her tricks to figure out navigating her environment, such as counting steps and other landmarks. Finally, he constructs a model of the city that she can traverse with her fingers to learn where everything is in relation to everything else.

Shortly after the novel’s opening, the French family are forced to flee Paris to a seaside fortress city called Saint-Malo, where the great uncle lives in a six-floor house and has remained inside for many years due to mental challenges, probably definable these days as PTSD, suffered during the first World War. Marie-Laure is thus called upon to re-acclimate to these new surroundings, which she also does with the help of another model constructed by her father. Once she gets good at moving around, she begins to shuttle messages from the bakery to their house for broadcasting on the radio hidden in the attic that has not been confiscated by the invading Germans.

Werner spends a few years honing his skills within the academy, and when he is supposedly only 16 years of age they decide to bump his age up two years so that he can go ahead and begin serving his country. He has many misgiving about this service as he gets farther into it, leading to increased depression about life in general.

The story is told in a unique way, I would say in parallel rather than serial fassion. We jump back and forth between the early days and those leading up to, and those on and following August 9, 1944, the middle period which Werner calls the “Border days”. This creates in the reader a sense of detachment from the latter experiences as they are initially revealed, but slowly dawning understanding of their significance and origins as the previous period concludes. I am not sure how to feel about this arrangement, other than that perhaps it causes me to miss some of the stuff that occurs later and dilutes the response I would have to it. I suppose this is the intent.

Alongside the larger plot of the war itself is a smaller plot where a soon-to-be cancer-ridden German Sergeant Major vigorously hunts down the fabled Sea of Flames, a highly valued diamond that is said to confer ever-lasting life on its holder but also to cause serious problems for those who are close to the holder.

On the French side, I would say that Marie-Laure is generally shown as a competent, well-functioning blind person. As usual though when sighted people write about such things, way too much emphasis is placed on the idea of counting steps to get around. I do this only in very rare cases, and would say that it would mostly be an impractical way of measuring distance anyway. Can you imagine at every turn resetting your “meter” to zero, sometimes having to them go up to 100 or more in order to find the next turn? I might take steps of different sizes, or someone may call me causing me to become distracted. No, most of us do not do this regularly. We just learn to notice changes in the environment; sidewalk, grass, etcl and remember where to make the turns. It’s easier than it sounds. But I do at least like that Marie-Laure is shown being capable of independent functioning.

As usual with my reviews, I haven’t actually finished the story. I’m about 79% of the way through currently, but for the most part I like it. It took me a while to adapt to his writing style, which often omits commas where they should probably be. This creates a feeling of rush or panic, which I gather may also have been intended. I think though that this may have been the most nounorthodox examination of said war that I’ve ever read.

Well The Weather Outside Is Frightful

And the snice is piled a mile high, And since I can’t go nowhere, (I don’t care about grammar, because in my head I sound like Louis Armstrong) Let me read, let me read, let me read!

Ah, it’s already been way too long since I last darkened these pages with virtual ink. I suppose that’s mostly because I just haven’t been able to think of anything worth printing. I know though that I need to maintain some kind of presence here, so that you, dear reader, will not forget me. Plus, I’m about to get got for about 150 bones in order to continue using blindtravel.net. For that price, I should try and make it worth it, right? So bear with me as I try and write myself out of this latest block.

And on blocks, Old Man Winter decided to show up and throw a bunch of ’em at us last week. Whatever that stuff was, snow? ice? I call it “snice” confined me to the inside of my beautiful, well insulation-missing, electrical heating can barely keep up, 500-sqft apartment from Monday when I got off of work at 1 PM till Friday when I was finally able to return to said work at 6:15 AM. And o man, that was some of the coldest cold I’ve ever known, as we hovered around 5 degrees F with sub-zero windchills. And slide slide slippedy slide! All the way to the building.

During that prolonged in-between time, I had mainly books for company. I completed Kindred, by Octavia Butler. Often cited as the first work of science fiction by an African American woman, it revolves around someone who keeps getting snatched from her comfortable life in 1976 to varying times during the 1800s, whenever her White ancestor needs saving. These journeys back are frought with danger, as this black woman ends up on a plantation and has to basically become a slave in practice. While much of it is kind of sad, there are also interspersed some bits of comic relief. I enjoyed it overall.

I also read another Science Fiction, well ok maybe this one was more Fantasy, whatever it is that distinguishes those categories from one another, called Don’t Fear The Reaper, by Michelle Muto. Another of my indie Twitter authors, she writes a novel about a young woman, well a teen-ager really, who decides to take her own life because she can no longer stand being without her twin sister, who had also lost her life due to horrible circumstances that we find out about later in the book. When she “comes to,” she initially thinks that either she had been stopped before completing the attempt or she hadn’t gone through with it at all, but this turns out to be incorrect. She has instead entered another plane of existence, inhabited by “earthbounds,” those stuck in purgatory here on this planet, angels and demons, and reapers, the individuals who are charged with liberating souls from the dying body. Reapers also have scythes, literally hellish weapons with which they can whack demons and villainous earthbounds and vanquish their souls, in a puff of smoke and unspeakable pain, to the hotter environs below. This book also provides comic relief, in that the ghosts hitch rides with people in order to reach their destinations by simply sliding through doors and taking a seat inside of the vehicle. And the next time your engine sputters to a stop on the road, well maybe they are just trying to get out. This was an interesting, speculative read on the nature of suffering, why some of us take that final action, and whether this in fact relieves us of our pain. Of course it’s fiction, but it does stimulate the thought process.

Of the eight books I’ve completed this year, half have been Sci-Fi. I don’t expect that percentage to hold, but one thing I do enjoy about the genre is the ability of those stories to make you examine and ponder your surroundings in a new way.

And I guess that’s all for now. Y’all, when is Spring coming! Hopefully soon, hopefully soon.

Book Review: I Know This Much Is True

In honor of today’s Readathon, which asks people to continuously read books over a 24-hour period, I thought I’d post a review of my best read of 2014 thus far. While I think the idea behind Readathon is cool, I know I couldn’t do it since I like to take my book in small bites and really digest the plot. But to those who are doing it, enjoy, and probably drink lots of coffee!

So I’ve just completed my second really long book of the year. The first was The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, which I may review at a later date. This one though is titled I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb.

On posting that I was reading this on Facebook, it quickly became clear that I’m the last person on earth to pick it up, not surprising I guess, given that it came out in 1998. Many immediately said they loved it also, having some deep sense of connection to and empathy for the characters.

The main characters are twins Thomas and Dominic Birdsey, (last name may or may not be spelled correctly but for that you can blame the fact that I read it in audio). We meet Thomas just as his Schizophrenia leads him to profoundly injure himself in an attempt to stop the oncoming Gulf war of the early 90s. He takes this action in a library, and other patrons and the librarian demand that he be put away quickly. He had already been in a lower-level facility, but they decide to escalate him to one with greater security, and a lot less flexibility for him and his family.

Much of the rest of the story is essentially told in flashback: through Dominic’s therapy sessions, thoughts from their stepfather, and a diary that their grandfather wrote about his coming to the US from Sicely at the turn of the 20th Century. It is a fascinating tale of hardship, bombast, and the strength of a special kind of love that only people with a fairly rare relationship can understand.

I think my favorite parts of the story were those concerning their life in the 1960s. How Dominic met someone at a place called the Dial Tone Lounge, a bar with tables that allowed people to dial in the number of another table if they saw someone attractive there. Did such establishments exist? That sounds like fun.

Of course, not all was great for them then. We get a glimpse of how their stepfather Ray treated, and often mistreated, Dominic, their mother, and especially Thomas. As with other books I’ve read, I can really feel Thomas’s discomfort, enduring taunts that he was a “sissy” and too girl-like, as my biological parent very regularly said such things to me as well. Later in the story, Ray claims that he had a hard time not doing this as he had been raised in an era where men were taught to always display a tough exterior. That’s sad.

I also liked the complexity of Dominic’s feelings. While he often yearned to have his own life and space, he nevertheless continued to fight vehemently for his brother and whatever his brother wanted. He did this even to the extent that it hurt his relationships with women. It was certainly a tough fight with a less-than-desirable outcome.

I would definitely recommend this book, though probably not as one to consume during the readathon. I’m not sure how many print pages it is exactly, but at 30 hours of audio it has to be of a pretty good size. It will however make for a great summer read, as there is lots of talk of waterfalls, beaches, and entertainment. There is also a deep exploration of those characteristics that make us beautifully made, if flawed, human beings.

Book Review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

So as I hope is readily apparent, I’ve learned more about how and where to enter posts on my new site. I feel kind of silly too, because I could have been doing this all along. It’s definitely a lot more convenient than the mad dash I’d done before of composing it in notepad, pasting into an email, sending it to my iPhone, yadda, yadda, yadda.

I guess I really am investing in this thing now, as I pour a bit into it financially to get this stuff going. Doubtless, that will get me into writing more and hopefully better entries whenever interesting things happen. Now onto your regularly scheduled post, already in progress.

I’ve just completed an excellent novel entitled Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Spanning about 15 years, the story largely centers on the interactions between a Nigerian couple, and specifically what the female of that couple encounters when she chooses to venture to the US to pursue education.

This book actually starts near the end, as she has begun contemplating a return to her homeland from Princeton New Jersey, where she has completed a fellowship. She makes a trip to a Trenton hair salon, marveling at the difference between those two cities in terms of racial and class composition. In this salon, she meets other Nigerians, an individual from the Caribbean, and a diverse group of people from different backgrounds.

In fact, one of my favorite things about this book is that she creates a blog chronicling her thoughts about interactions of race and society in this country. This blog goes viral, landing her speaking engagements and causing some rankling of nerves among black Americans, who feel that they couldn’t get away with pointing out some of the same things she does. It is interesting watching her build a following and even reading some of the entries that had been posted therein, and perhaps it might give me some ideas about ways I can create more engagement here. I should probably read it again.

Adichie does some interesting things with reflection within this story, revealing that things have happened, then going onto another time and subject, and finally coming back to explain how that thing had happened. It sometimes creates the feeling that one has missed something, but I think it also causes the reader to focus and pay more attention to what’s going on.

I’ve heard Adichie speak on this book, and recall her saying that one of its aims was to show us that many in Africa actually live in the middle class, a fact that seems obvious to me but I guess isn’t very widely realized in the West. It also seems that she wanted to show Americans what our culture looks like to people not born into it, which I found fascinating. The main female character becomes interested in and works during the election of president Obama, noting the effect that had on people from Africa as well.

My final observation would be that the character’s adjustment to American life, frought with difficulty, was so real that I almost had to put it down for a bit. I’ve never adjusted to life in another country of course, but her challenges reminded me too much of my own adjustments to graduate school in 2009/10. That part was very well written, though.

So overall, I would say that this was a good, inspirational read. You might enjoy it more if you read the audio version, as there are parts written in Ibo, which I think is one of the main languages in Nigeria. The narrator does a pretty good job at demonstrating the accents, though amusingly she still inserts the R sound between words that start with vowels, as the British do. I imagine that’s hard to avoid. If you can though, grab a copy and be ready to be transported all over time and space.

Book Review: Cruising Attitude, by Heather Poole

Right on the heels of my Audio Mo challenge success, well so-so that is, I’ve learned through a blogger I met on Twitter via AudioMo of another challenge that might well be more up my alley. This one, hash tagged #31WriteNow, dares its participants to write a blog post every day for the month of August. I have absolutely no idea if I can live up to that kind of commitment these days, and especially given that I’m starting class and have some kind of job, no matter how tenuous the latter may be at the moment. But, I can always use the stimulation of the attempt.
I’ve cashed it in on this week regarding the day job, opting to take tomorrow off and work on some more productive things. We did nearly nothing all of this week, but have some hope that things will begin to revive next Monday. We’re just having to pound through the summer doldrums.
My section partner didn’t show up today either, meaning I had no one to talk to. So I decided to start Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet, by Heather Poole.
A well-known flight attendant via Twitter and other social media forums, I’ve followed Poole for almost 4 years now. But upon already reading about a quarter of this book in one sitting, I can say that I hadn’t known as much as I thought about what her job really entailed.
Her tales begin with a couple of fairly recent stories about passengers experiencing medical issues onboard and the measures taken to assist them. Some were humorous, and others were sad. With these, Poole immediately establishes in the reader some of the wild emotional swings experienced by one who engages in this line of work.
In the following chapters, she takes us through her journey into being a flight attendant, noting that this was initially meant to be a short job while she awaited her bigger career as, well something. Just as so many of us young folk struggle with, Poole was having a hard time figuring out just what she’d wanna do.
After an adventure-filled stint with a small, very low budget carrier, she managed to make her jump to the big dogs of the sky. This involved a move to New York City that required quick adjustment to a life that she’d not anticipated and while building a friendship with a southerner who was also adjusting to the flight attendant role.
I obviously have a ways to go. But I’m sure that if her descriptions of intense training at a flight attendant academy, preparation for and survival of life in a chaotic Queens-area crashpad, and encounters with intimidating co-workers as she got started are any indication, her remaining stories will be a lot of fun.
I particularly enjoy Poole’s writing style. It gives the impression that one is sitting across the table and asking questions about how she got to this point. It’s all very conversational. As one who can’t get enough of travel stories, see my enjoyment of the Betty In the Sky with A Suitcase podcast, I unquestionably love this book. This book also brings home what I often hear attendants say: their job is about more than just serving drinks and pretzles. It’s about keeping us safe when we choose to be suspended far above the ground in a metal tube, and any attendant worth his or her salt really takes that seriously. If you check it out, you’ll see what I mean.