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.

Cha-cha-changes

Welcome to the first official post of 2015! Yeah I know, some of the Louisiana entries were made during 2015, but they were referring to an event that happened way back in ancient times of the year previous. So, here ya go.

Man, has this year gotten off to a rockin’ start! It is setting up to challenge me in ways I’ve never really been challenged, but that will help me get closer to where I want to be pretty quickly. These changes are happening on both a professional and personal level.

First, excitedly, I have been named President of the Norrie Disease Association. This was necessitated by our previous president having to step down due to some unfortunate circumstances that have made it difficult for him to continue in that role. While the reasons make me sad, I am still appreciative of having this opportunity and hope I can make the most of it. I got a strong vote of confidence from my fellow board members, though I honestly am not entirely certain why. Me? One who is sometimes too shy to make a simple phone call? Who definitely has a ways to go before he is as assertive as he would like to be? But, I hope I have made and am making progress in this area, and it will help to have such knowledgeable people to assist me as I do so. We’ll see if this August’s conference goes off fairly well.

RELATED: Five Years of the NDA

Second, this city and the Triangle Transit system have decided to pull a bit of a switcheroo on me. They’ve altered some of the routes that I take, especially that which I use to get home from work. I hadn’t known this initially, I suppose because I wasn’t smart enough to check the service changes page they posted shortly after the year began. This meant I got stuck at Durham Station downtown for 30 minutes, in the cold wind! I have since been trying to learn how to get from my old bus to the new one, and a cool thing is that BlindSquare GPS, an app on my iPhone, can actually tell me where the buses are within the station. Well it probably has some set database that doesn’t change often, as some of the numbers are transposed a bit. For example, the 700 now stops where the 400 used to, so it still calls that the 400. But as long as I know this, I can easily still use it to track my location. Hopefully I will know it by rote soon enough.

The final change I will talk about at this point is in my reading habits. Check out my 2014 Booklist, which you should find in the “Pages” section of this site. There, I note that I consumed 34 titles last year, a record for me. Many of these titles were by so-called “indie” authors, as I’ve befriended them on Twitter and wanted then to check out their works. As local writer Monica Byrne noted in an article that discussed her book, 2014 was actually the year of the indie author in many respects. One of its best reads, The Martian, had been put out by an unknown guy named Andy Weir. The thing I most liked about this book is that, while he clearly knows his stuff regarding what the planet is like, how one might experience a mission there, etc.; he does a good job of making things understandable to those of us who maybe don’t have such advanced knowledge.

I also took in more nonfiction than I ever have before. I’m thus starting off this year in the same way, currently reading a very popular title called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks about a black woman who’s cancer cells were scooped in the 50s, implanted in a dish, and have gone on to aid in lots of research, medications, and the like. It’s an interesting read.

I have it as a goal this year to reach fifty (5-0!) books. That’s a lot for me, as I normally don’t have a whole lot of time to sit and read. I’m doing them two at a time though, and already about a third of the way through both books three and four.

I have them all in my iPhone these days, using the Audible, BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download) mobile, iBooks, and Kindle Apps. All of these apps have their pros and cons, but as far as functionality goes I think Audible tops the list. In Kindle, if I happen to get a notification it shoots me to the top of the page I was currently reading. In iBooks, I am slowed by having to wait for the page-changing announcement to disappear, though I suppose I do like this announcement since I can keep track of my progress. And in BARD, the audio books work fine, but I wish the Braille books would be automatically marked when you stop. If I forget to set a mark before closing the app, it’ll jump back to the beginning of the book and I must then find my place again. Depending on how far I’ve read in, this can take a while!

Anyway, that’s a quick scan of 2015 as it has unfolded thus far. It looks to be an entertaining year, full of unexpected occurrences. I just hope most of those are favorable for me and for us all. More soon.

Post-Convention: Writer’s Block and Finding Me

So, I’ve been back from my fun trip to Las Vegas for a bit over two weeks now, and I’ve not been able to think of anything particularly interesting to write about. I feel a bit dry, just trying to keep going from day to day. But my goal is to make at least one entry per week, so let’s see if I can just capture a hodge podge of my thoughts.

One of the things that has made this period better is spending two consecutive weekends with my cousin: the previous down in Charlotte and this one here in Durham. This was especially nice, as I opted, after asking my supervisor if I had enough time to do so, to take off of work on Friday and chill at home. My cousin had arrived on Thursday night.

We just did a lot of talking, harkening back to long ago days when we would often stay awake into the early morning hours, watching sports and gnawing on pizza slices. As far as baseball goes, I guess I’m an Atlanta Braves fan, as much as I’m a fan of any team. I like the sport, but wish we could get our own major league team somewhere in North Carolina. This isn’t likely to happen anytime soon though, given the many minor league franchises we have speckled throughout the state. Anyway, we listened to the Braves lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1. They seemed unable to do much of anything.

On Friday, I figured we might want to get out of the apartment for a bit. So, I used Uber, the service I mentioned a few entries ago, to take us over to the Waffle House on Hillsboro Road, about 1.5 miles away. I’m starting to use this service more and more frequently, finding that it is regularly cheaper than cabs and probably more reliable as well. I had them take me over to the DMV to get that expired ID card renewed, and going straight from work it was probably about $7 less than I would have paid otherwise. I also took them back to the Amtrak station when leaving Charlotte last weekend, and sent my cousin to the Durham Amtrak when he left yesterday via Uber. This last after there was some miscommunication that occurred when my favorite cabbie hadn’t let me know she wouldn’t be available to pick him up and was sending another cab. When that cab arrived and told me I’d called for a cab, I insisted that I hadn’t. I mean, it’s a strange thing to have happen when one isn’t expecting it. My cousin had planned to catch the 2:33 train out, but because of that snafu he ended up having to wait for the 7:48 train.

If you’d like to try Uber, and it’s available in your area, why not get us both free rides by using my code at sign-up: johnm1014 . Thanks.

And, not much else. I hear tell that we may get at least one final burst of summer. I sure hope so! Right now, it doesn’t seem as if the sun has shone since at least Wednesday. Anyone who knows me knows I begin to feel deprived after such a long time without that warmth. On Friday, we had to brave heavy rains and gusts, and were lucky to emerge with our hearing aids in tact. It was definitely fun.

I am doing a lot of reading and acquiring books with the Amazon gift card I was given for my participation in the Braille study at ACB. So far, I’ve gotten Earthbound, by my good online friend Elaine Calloway, the third in her Elemental Clan series. I also got one that sounds fascinating to me called Fasten Your Seatbelts: A Flight Attendant’s Adventures 36, 000 Feet and Below, by Christine Churchill. I read Heather Poole, another famous flight attendant’s book Cruising Attitude at about this time last year, and feel that it will help me continue my travels, if only in my mind.

Not that I have any idea when I’ll have time to read these books, on top of the stuff I’m already reading from Audible and/or the NLS, but we shall see. Certainly the iPhone does make that easier.

Let’s hope I have more fun stuff to write about in the near future. Till then, I’m off to enjoy what remains of my weekend, and perhaps catch a bit of tonight’s preseason NFL opener between the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills. That’s right, it’s already time for American football again. Too fast does time go.

Writing 101-1 Unlock The Mind

To get started, let’s loosen up. Let’s unlock the mind. Today, take twenty minutes to free write. And don’t think about what you’ll write. Just write.

I’m taking on this challenge, having been inspired by the great Amy Juicebox. I think it technically has some sort of actual time limit, but I’m starting way later than most and don’t really care.

Why am I doing this? Well, because I feel myself entering a slightly dangerous period of my life where I could really get so bogged down by the day-to-day minutiae of surviving my current employment that it becomes my permanent employment. And we all know I can’t have that! So, bear with me as I perhaps make false starts and maybe have some posts that are a little lower-quality than I’d like. I just want to get myself back to writing, and to that motivation that looked like it was going to carry me somewhere at this time last year.

So the object of today’s post is to just keep pressing buttons for 20 minutes. Hmmm, what to talk about.

I’ve set the timer on my iPhone, actually set it for 22 minutes to give myself enough time to load Pandora and the jazz music I now have streaming.

I loaded a station by a jazz artist named Jimmy Scott who, according to an NPR reporter, died today. She states that he’s a man, but the songs I’ve heard thus far that are attributed to him have been sang by a woman. I suppose he plays an instrument or something, though. In any event, it’s nice sounding stuff.

This follows on the heels of my reading Heidi Durrow’s book The Girl Who Fell from the sky, a poignant examination of the challenges that sadly still exist when conducting relationships that involve individuals of different races. Told from the perspective of the mother, her daughter, one of her previous lovers, a bystander who happened to witness the tragedy, and a couple others; it chronicles an unfolding event that the reader isn’t able to fully conceptualize until the book ends.

The mother is from Denmark, and she is employed in Chicago as the story begins. We learn of what happened to her through her journal. Once the event happens, the daughter Rachel is sent off to Portland to live with her grandma. Here, she grows from a 8 or 9-year-old child to a high school teen.

I love that the grandma, as well as one of Rachel’s Aunt’s lover’s daughters, speak in dialect. It helps to add character to the story.

The reason I mentioned it in connection to the music though is that Durrow has Rachel get introduced to another blues great, Etta James. This caused me to create a Pandora station of her too, which I’ve been rocking out to for the last week or so. I’d heard of her via an NPR profile when she passed, but hadn’t really checked out any of her stuff.

And yeah I know that was probably not the best book review I’ve ever written, but I’m not allowing myself to stop and pretty it up. I’d recommend grabbing a copy of the book anyhow. And, Durrow’s putting on something called the Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles tomorrow. I wish I could go, as it sounds interesting.

Four minutes left! What else to say? If you stroll in from somewhere else as a result of this post, please feel free to read some of my other stuff as well. I think it’ll be more interesting. I like doing the occasional book review, as well as talking about disability-related issues, music, and of course travel. Though I don’t really get to do as much of the latter as I’d like these days.

Taking a trip to Las Vegas and the convention of the American Council of the Blind in 29 days though! I’m already bummed that I chose to stay only through that Wednesday, having to leave on an early 9:30 flight, because I will miss the presentation of the NLS narrator, usually my favorite part. But such is the way that west to east air travel works: I’ll lose so much time coming back that I couldn’t afford to depart later in the day than that.

So, nice to meet you? Say hi, drop your email in the subscribe box, and help me keep this thing going! Thanks, and have a great weekend.

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.