Monthly Archives: November 2014

All The Light We Cannot See: A Novel, Anthony Doerr

All the lightI think it’s safe to say that I drowned in this book. From the very first words I was submerged in Doerr’s magnificent, momentous and terrifying world of Zero: 7 August 1944.

There was nothing that I did not simply love about this book: the characters, the non-linearity of the narrative, the various settings, even the encroaching war which hovers, always, intrudes and then retreats only to re-appear like a spectre in the darkness. Mostly, I think, what drew me into this book was its sensoriness – one of the protagonists is a blind girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc. She loses her sight slowly, over time and in her blindness, she leads us to appreciate the magnitude of other senses:

“To really touch something, she is learning – the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop – is to love it.”

On this journey with Marie-Laure, we learn that “(t)o shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.”

Marie-Laure’s father assumes the role of hero-figure. He constructs a miniature, hand carved replica of the town in which they live so she can learn her way around. Eventually, without realising it, she can navigate her way from her house to the museum, the park and beyond. “Her fingers walk the tightropes of sentences; in her imagination, she walks the decks of the speedy two-funneled frigate called the Abraham Lincoln. She watches New york city recede; the forts of New Jersey salute her departure with cannons; channel markers bob in the swells. A light ship with twin beacons glides past as America recedes; ahead wait the great glittering prairies of the Atlantic.”

and

“She moves along the tide line, almost crawling at first, and imagines the beach stretching off in either direction, ringing the promontory, embracing the outer islands, the whole filigreed tracery of the Breton coastline with its wild capes and crumbling batteries and vine-choked ruins. She imagines the walled city behind her, its soaring ramparts, its puzzle of streets.”

Marie-Laure lives in Paris and far away, in Germany, lives her counterpart, our other protagonist, Werner. Unlike LeBlanc, Werner is an orphan. He lives with the lovely and loving Frau Elena who nurtures him and his sister, Jutta, with an unlikely tenderness. In this environment, Werner grows, becoming adept at mathematics and a range of engineering capabilities:

“He dismantles the machine, stares into its circuits, lets his fingers trace the journeys of electrons. Power source, triode, resistor, coil. Loudspeaker. His mind shapes itself around the problem, disorder becomes order, the obstacle reveals itself, and before long the radio is fixed.”

For Marie-Laure, the world is reduced to touch and sound. She uses her hands to navigate her way through her physical space, and they always flutter before her. For Werner, it is all about the “Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if toward the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.” He lies at night, hidden from the eyes of the growing Reich, listening to broadcasts from far-away places about science and the world and the way things work. He takes his sister on this journey with him and together they delight in the world that opens for them over the radio-waves.

But, life happens and “(t)he war drops its question mark” for both Marie-Laure and Werner. What unfolds is simply a marvellous tale of two young people whose lives run parallel, intersect only briefly and then diverge. Beneath the story of these amazing personalities are moral questions which Doerr raises in a subversive way. Questions like: “‘Is it right,’ Jutta says, ‘to do something only because everyone else is doing it?'” Thus, Werner yearns to belong – “never has Werner felt part of something so single-minded. Never has he felt such a hunger to belong.” – but at the same time, he is keenly aware that although “(h)e is being loyal. He is being what everybody agrees is good… every time he wakes and buttons his tunic, he feels he is betraying something.”

To tell you more about this book would be to spoil the story so I will leave off here. I will only add that as soon as I read the last line of ‘All the Light We Cannot See’, I had this irresistible urge to return to the first page and to revisit the whole book. This rarely happens to me and is a testimony to the power of this tome.

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Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Bookclub

13414676I have to confess, I highlighted huge chunks of this book and for reasons that are too numerous to list here. Simply put, I loved this book. I loved everything about it: it’s honesty, the characters, the emotion that runs through every word, the empathy and the wisdom. All of it appealed to the very essence of my humanity. Most of all, I loved that this book explored the relationship between mother and son through books and reading:

Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother’s favourite books without thinking of her – and when I pass them on and recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.

I can’t begin to imagine a woman like Mary Ann Schwalbe. The way her son describes her, she was larger than life, a powerhouse in a small package, a legacy on legs. She clearly lived her life with intense clarity and commitment and passed that on to all who knew her.
But mostly, this book muses about books and about death. As Schwalbe uses books to explore his reaction to death in general and his mother’s dying in particular:

“There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Schwalbe has other interesting insights:

I often seek electronic books, but they never come after me. They may make me feel, but I can’t feel them. They are all soul with no flesh, no texture, and no weight. They can get in your head but can’t whack you upside it.

I found myself thinking deeply about these statements. Did I agree? I’m not convinced. I like an electronic book. I like the feeling of a small device which holds a library. It gives me a sense of climbing Everest without moving. What I do, profoundly agree with is the notion that: “That’s one of the things books do. They help us talk. But they also give us something we all can talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.” For Schwalbe’s mother, reading was often “like praying” and I want to ask Schwalbe more about this notion … sometimes reading is selfish, a form of escapism … how is that like praying? What kind of prayer does he mean or did his mother mean? So many questions left unanswered.

But on of the things that I loved most about this book was the book-list that it has given me.

The Lizard Cage, The Uncommon Reader, The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch (I’ve seen Pausch speak and I can’t recommend the videos enough), Continental Drift, The Painted Veil, Joan Didion’s autobiography, Olive Kitteridge, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, The Bolter, The Magic Mountain,

And even more, I enjoyed the journey back through books which I had read and loved: People of the Book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Suite FRancaise, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Brooklyn and Too Much Happiness.

In short, a wonderful read. So sad to have finished it.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

The_Sense_of_an_EndingThis was my first foray into the world of Julian Barnes. Not for any particular reason; he’s just not an author I have rushed to read before. It took me a while to read this book, again, not for any specific reason, just because of life – it happens sometimes! Anyway, I finally finished the book last night and found myself quite perplexed by its ending and again, I’m not sure why.

I appreciate Barnes’ literary skill – he can certainly write like a master and his prose is oftentimes brilliant and captivating and intense and profound. But while I appreciated the WAY he wrote, this book just didn’t grab me in the way that I wanted it to … I know it sounds weak and I don’t think I can pin point exactly what it was that left me wanting – was it the fact that I didn’t relate to the protagonist, was it the plot, the setting … all of the above … I still can’t quite figure it out.

Am I glad I read it? Yes, definitely. Barnes is well worth the reading. Will I read more? I’m not sure…