Wednesday, October 14, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll 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

The Bartender's TaleThe 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.