Wednesday, October 14, 2015
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
No wonder this book won the Pulitzer Prize, and was nominated for so many other awards, and is found on so many “best of” lists. This is an amazing book, on multiple levels. It brings the horrors of WWII down to a personal level, but is never overwhelming or overly dark/depressing. In the end, it speaks of the strength of the human spirit, even in the face of evil.
But don’t let the lofty themes scare you – this is also a wonderful story of two young people, a French blind girl and a German electronics whiz, and how they grew up before and during the war, and how their stories eventually come together. Doerr does a wonderful job of capturing life for each of these characters, enveloping the reader with delicious prose that captures the feel of their very different lives.
Marie-Laure lives with her widowed father in Paris. He is the locksmith and key master for the National History Museum, and Marie-Laure grows up surrounded by scientists and collectors. Werner is an orphan boy, who lives with his sister in an orphanage, and who loves to design and build things – especially radios. He is discovered by the Nazis and sent to a training school (boot camp) for young Nazis. The book weaves together the two stories of the children as they grow and as their world changes around them.
The narrative is told in multiple time periods, as well as the two main story arcs. The book starts with the bombing of the town of Saint Malo, with Marie-Laure alone in her great-uncles house. As we skip between storylines and time periods, we follow the two protagonists’ stories and are led to them finally intersecting. What happens after they meet is probably not what most readers would want or expect, but it rings very true.
The title of the book is from a radio lecture that Werner overheard as a young boy, about the spectrum of light. The small part of the spectrum that is visible to the human eye is infinitesimally small, compared to the rest. So much so, that – mathematically speaking – all of the light spectrum is invisible to humans. How this relates to the book is up to the reader’s interpretation. While the obvious hook is Marie-Laure’s blindness, I think it refers to all of the goodness (the “light” in a dark world) that is happening, even in the midst of WWII. Both Marie-Laure and Werner are often struck by some bit of natural beauty, or the kindness of a stranger, and I think it is this that helps them survive.
Another theme addressed is the age-old question of “What makes a good person do bad things?” This question is often raised when discussion Nazi Germany, and Werner’s story depicts this brilliantly. There are many scenes showing how he is gradually sucked into the Nazi war machine – even when his friend in school stands up and refuses to participate. I really came to understand how easy it can be for good people to be corrupted – or at least to be trapped so much as to go along, even when they know it’s wrong.
I also have to mention the prose – it’s fabulous. Doerr’s descriptions are nearly poetic in their imagery, yet it all flows effortlessly. It’s a page-turner, but with certain pages that will cause the reader to pause and savor the words on the page.
This is a book that will stick with me for some time to come – the mark of a book that is not merely entertaining, but that speaks to the human condition. It is truly worthy of the Pulitzer Prize, and is a book that everyone should read.
Saturday, October 10, 2015
The Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ivan Doig knows Montana. He knows its landscapes, it moods. He knows its people, and how they are shaped by the land. And he knows how to weave all of this into a captivating story. And while this book isn’t perhaps his very best, even just a "good" Doig is a near masterpiece.
The title could more accurately be The Bartender’s Son’s Tale, since the story is told through the eyes of Rusty, who is six years old when we first meet him. His father, Tom Harry, is the owner of The Medicine Lodge bar* in the (fictional) town of Gros Ventre in north central Montana. Tom and Rusty’s mother “split the blankets” when Rusty was a baby, and Tom sent Rusty to live with his sister in Arizona. Rusty is bullied by his older cousins, and his future looks bleak, when one day
Tom swoops in and declares that Rusty is to come back to Montana and live with him.
The two of them find a rhythm of life together, and things go along fine until the summer of Rusty’s twelfth year. A new girl, Zoe, moves into town, and she and Rusty discover they are kindred spirits. But even more ominous, a strange (to Rusty) woman arrives with her daughter, Francine, claiming that Tom is the father. Francine begins living with Rusty and Tom, and starts working in the bar, thus disrupting the perfect life Rusty felt he had. All of this takes place in the late 1950's and early 1960's.
Like Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, this is a father-son story, and a coming-of-age story for the son. We see the father through the eyes of his son, which means we don’t know everything about the man – we only know what the son sees. And part of the plot of this book is Rusty’s gradual attempts to wean information from Tom as to what Tom did “before” when he was working at the Fort Peck Dam. (Characters and events from Doig’s earlier work, Bucking the Sun, play a not insignificant role in the plot, but reading that book is not really a necessity before tackling this one.)
Rusty’s admiration of Tom is quite natural, and his curiosity about “grown-up life” also feels genuine. Watching him watch and listen to the people in the bar (via a hidden vent) and then being privy to his attempts to understand everything is part of the charm of the book. But Doig never falls into cheap jokes at the expense of Rusty – he is treated with the seriousness of any of the adult characters, and his questions and unease about his mother and his father’s past permeate the book.
There are, as always with Doig, wonderful characters – Canada Dan, the ne’er-do-well sheepherder; the wife of the local newspaper editor who was a star in early Hollywood; Duane Zane, the local garage owner and his bully of a son. They are all depicted with grit and reality, giving Gros Ventre the feel of any actual small town in Montana.
Doig takes his time unraveling the mysteries in the book: Who is Rusty’s mother? Why does Tom rush off on foolhardy trips to Canada? What really happened at Fort Peck? The narrative meanders along nicely, like a bubbling brook traipsing its way through a valley. It is not rushed, but before long you know a great deal about each person in the book, and you feel what they feel. It reminded me a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird in this regard – both have a young child narrator, who is an outside witness to the goings on in the adult world, and both have many little vignettes of everyday life that gradually reveal the whole picture.
While this is not my favorite Doig book (I think that has to go to English Creek) it’s probably in the top three. Anyone who likes Doig’s work will find this a worthy addition to his oeuvre.
*In the bar, the beer of choice is Great Falls Select, and as a native of Great Falls, I especially enjoyed the book's references to the beer and the town, as well as Rusty and Tom's visit there.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is probably not a book I would have ever picked up off the shelves. I don't usually like modern literature, because it seems to be either full of unlikable, neurotic characters, or it is so obviously engineered to tug at your heartstrings, full of artificial emotions. But this book was chosen by our book club (as part of our library's book club recommended books), so I read it. And I'm glad I did!
It is set in the 80's (which is important to the story), and the narrator is 14-year-old June Elbus. June is a misfit - a bit of a history nerd, who fantasizes about living in the middle ages. Her older sister, Greta, is the "pretty one" and is a budding stage star who seemingly has everything together. June's uncle is the famous artist, Finn Weiss, and he is dying of AIDS. Finn is not just June's uncle - he is her godfather, and basically her only real friend.
After Finn's death, June is bereft and having difficulty coping. Her mother wants her to "get over it" and get on with life, but June just can't seem to. Then she ends up meeting the mysterious stranger who was at Finn's funeral, but who was denied entrance. She becomes friends with him, and learns more about Finn, and about her family and herself.
Having the book set at the time when AIDS was just becoming known in the mainstream, and at a time when homosexuality was not as openly accepted, allows the story to have sharper emotional arcs. The fear of AIDS and the denigration of gays add to the already fragile family dynamic and to June's difficulties in handling what is happening.
This book has many themes: it's partly a coming-of-age story, but it also deals extremely well with the highs and lows of having a sister. The relationships between June and Greta is handled exquisitely. No one can love you and simultaneously hate you like a sister - and the author nails this. The character of June is also outstanding. Her fears, her hopes, her emotions are all quite true to life, without being too whiny, as many teen protagonists end up being. This ability to portray teen life (both outward and inward) is one of the many strengths of this book.
And, despite the fact that it deals with AIDS, and fear and prejudice against gays, it never falls into the trap of being preachy, nor is it ever maudlin. Because the characters seem so real, the events that transpire never feel contrived. It really captures what it feels like to be 14 and trying to navigate a big, scary world. June Elbus is a strong, believable, and likable character, and her story is one that anyone can relate to.
Sunday, September 6, 2015
Rusalka by C.J. Cherryh
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Not CJ's best book, by any means. It wasn't terrible, but it was pretty ordinary, which for CJ is kind of shocking. Granted, this was fairly early in her career, so I'll make allowances, but for fans of hers, be warned: this doesn't meet her usual writing standards.
A rusalka is a ghost, from Slavic/Russian folklore, of a woman who died violently in the water - accidental drowning, suicide or murder. This spirit haunts the woods near where she died, drawing energy by killing unsuspecting people who happen by. This book is a very long fairy tale about one such spirit.
The book is set in what would appear to be Medieval Russia. It begins in a small village, where we see a young ne'er-do-well, Pyeter, get in a fight with the husband of a woman he's seduced. The man dies during the fight (without being touched by Pyeter) and the village authorities are called out. Pyeter was wounded in the fight, and hides in the stable of the local inn. He is discovered there by Sasha, the young stable boy, who has a bad habit of wishing things about people and having those wishes come true. For whatever reason, Sasha decides to help Pyeter, and they end up running away together. They eventually stumble across the home of an old man, who saves Pyeter's life by healing him with magic. The old man, Uulamets, is a wizard, you see. He tricks the young men into helping him resurrect his dead daughter, Eveshka, who is a rusalka.
The first part of the story moves along rather well, though the character development of the two young men is fairly sketchy, especially that of Sasha. Once they join forces with Uulmamets and begin trying to rescue Eveshka, the rest of the book is mostly arguments. Pyeter & Sasha argue. Sasha and Uulamets argue. Eveshka and Uulamets argue. All four of them argue. This goes on and on and on, for the rest of the book. There are encounters with other magical creatures from Slavic/Russian folklore, but these don't overshadow the incessant bickering among the characters. Even the final battle seemed to be just a blip between arguments.
The magic in this world is never fully defined - it seems to be along the lines of simply wishing and believing things, though Uulamets uses potions and spells, as well. People seem to be born with the ability to use magic, and those that are recognized as such can be taught by wizards. But clearly, wizards and magic are not thought of in a positive light by the mundanes, since Sasha was so ostracized and criticized for his 'wishing' abilities. Otherwise, one would think he would have been sent to a wizard as an apprentice.
Another nit to pick: CJ massively overuses the phrase "with which" and its similar cousins. Every other page, and sometimes twice on the same page, we get something along the lines of:
She wanted them safe. Which notion far from reassured him.
...Upon which thought...
...After which decision...
Used sparingly, there is nothing wrong with these phrases. But they are used dozens of times in this book - and often enough that they are jarring interruptions to the flow of the story.
Between the unending arguments and the awkward phrasing, this book needed the hand of a very good editor. Sadly, it didn't benefit from such. As the first in a trilogy, it doesn't spur me to want to read the rest of the books, though I may give them a try - someday.