Pull and Bloody Pull

 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Pull and Bloody Pull

Boys in the Boat

Many great accounts filtered down to me regarding Daniel James Brown’s account of Boys in the Boat. When a book is recommended that highly, it rarely disappoints. That goes double for this amazing re-telling of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the lads from Washington.
One of the members of the Best Food Ever Book Cub, posed this interesting question: “What made the boat speed through the water faster than any other boat? Coaching? Pocock’s design and cedar cut from the B.C. coast? Determination, competitiveness, and will? The Fates?” These are all great questions, and I know the discussion will be very lively as we look for answers.
It is my personal belief that champions are born, and champions are also made. What kept me turning the pages of this book that topped the New York Times bestseller list, is the recreation of a time and a place. A quest plot drives the action as we are literally pulling for every member of the crew. From hard working circumstances and the depths of the depression, these young men prepare to make themselves champions. The coaching is superb. There are words of inspiration for us to read and tuck away in our minds, on our blackboards, and in our diaries.
“One of the first admonitions of a good rowing coach, after the fundamentals are over, is “pull your own weight,” and the young oarsmen does just that when he finds out that the boat goes better when he does. There is certainly a social implication here.” George Yeoman Pocock P. 149
Reading of all the various obstacles overcome by the crew members, the grueling conditions in which they trained, the brute strength they were able to call upon when needed, makes this book an inspiring read. How I wished I had a rowing machine in my basement, or that I could get out on those glassy early mornings in my kayak or my canoe once again. I longed to feel my back muscles stinging, and I wanted to watch whirlpools in the water. I longed to glide along driven by my own steam. There is something so satisfying and immediate about the whole mode of travel that I wanted to feel all that beauty again.
Certainly the boys from Washington had an inner toughness that we long to see again. I can remember that in my youth the hockey players who worked in gravel pits and on farms in Ontario, gaining strength while putting food on the table for their families. Can true grit be found in a gym? I am sure it can, but I have always wondered if overcoming adversity as a child adds to what goes into the  making of a champion.
“Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them, civilization is out of whack. And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it. That’s what he gets from rowing.” George Yeoman Pocock P.357
If you have a reader on your Christmas list, or like me, you give books to everyone, Boys in the Boat will be a highly valued addition to any library.

 

Subtext: What Lies Beneath

 

 

The greatest dialogue in plays, films, or books, manages to impart that which is said and that which has been left unsaid. The elephant in the room, as it were, will keep everyone guessing. A literal definition of subtext describes a message which is not stated directly, but can be inferred. It pertains to the hidden, less obvious meaning perhaps archly delivered by some of our greatest actors.

How is it done? Isn’t dialogue hard enough without adding this to the mix? The answer is yes.

Studying the book entitled,Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath, by Linda Seger I have gained some insight as to how a writer can manage to achieve this. If the audience is let in on a secret, there will be much that can be read into the simplest of statements. A daughter may pretend to like the suitor her father picked out for her, but if we know that she secretly loves someone else, there will be a subtext to all she says. If a mother only wants what is best for her son, but does not want a daughter-in-law who is above her in social standing, she may seem to be welcoming this newcomer, but we will read into her attempts to be friendly. In some cases, such as the world of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the whole of Denmark can be slightly rotten. If the road to power is suspect, the dialogue will be full of subtext. Obviously, Shakespeare was a master at this skill. He would even have a character walk downstage and let the audience in on a few secrets. A sudden windfall, an unlikely suitor, a change of leadership, or even a new invention, can put all known truths under a new microscope. Perhaps everyone is trying to make an adjustment, but no one wants to. There you will see subtext.

A character at odds with the culture about which the audience is familiar will provide many a laugh as the poor fellow bumbles along, unaware of his missteps. Subtext is an essential tool in the comedian’s toolkit. In a tragedy, the very elements left unsaid, can be the ones propelling everyone to their doom.

While thinking about this topic, my thoughts lead me straight to a much- loved play, namely, The Importance of Being Ernest. Oscar Wilde states it flat out in Act 1, Scene 1. Two characters, Algernon and Jack, have a discussion while waiting for guests to arrive for tea. Discussing names Jack says,

 

“Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country.”

 

Algernon:

“I have always suspected you of being a confirmed Bunburyist; and I am quite sure of it now.”

 

Jack:

“Bunburyist? What do you mean Bunburyist?”

 

Algernon:

“I’ll reveal to you the meaning of that incomparable expression as soon as you are kind enough to inform me why you are Ernest in town and Jack in the country.”

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious and modern literature a complete impossibility.”

 

By the time the guests arrive, we have learned that both Bunbury and the Jack/ Ernest situation, are used as an excuse. When in town Ernest must leave at once as his brother Jack is in a pickle. When in the country, it is Ernest who calls him away, thereby providing the perfect excuse to escape social functions to which he is less than enthusiastic. Bunbury provides a similar ruse. Through the remaining scenes of this immortal play, all references to these characters are loaded with subtext.

Characters sometimes do not know themselves. Their most basic drives and instincts may be covered up by social convention, or self-delusion. The stage may be full of actors whose roles are at cross purposes. Therein lies the subtext.

 

 

After 100 Years

 

In Flanders Fields

The famous poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, penned as a memorial for his slain friend, Alexis Helmer, pictured above, captures the essence of sacrifice. The chilling poem grew to symbolize World War One itself. School children in Canada were tasked with memorizing it, and reciting it at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. This year, as we remember the fallen, we know that they are all together now; there are no living survivors of what is often called, ‘The Great War.’
It was supposed to be the war to end all wars. As my great grandfather was a committed pacifist, we can only surmise how difficult it must have been for him to see his only son go off to war. Fortunately, we have access to the letter he wrote expressing his thoughts:
The World Office,
Tuesday 1st February, 1916
My dear boy, I suppose you find it hard to think of yourself twenty-one years ago, but the dear little chap who used to love me so much and put his arms around my neck, and climb up on my knee, and play ball and do all the other little things which you won’t think anything of until you have children of your own, are all on my mind. Well dearie, you are a man now and your own master as I have always tried to have you be. I may not have done as well by you as I hoped, but you are all I could wish in the main things, clean, truthful, brave and generous. I think you will have enough regard for the old days to keep these things in your heart all your life.
You are going on a high quest now, not for yourself but for all the world. I have never bothered you much with religion, but I want you to feel that you are at all times in the care of the Master and that He will be with you in times of difficulty or danger. Even though you stand in the shadow of death you need fear no evil for He will be with you if your heart is turned to Him.
The war has interfered with many plans I had for you. You are going to England but not as I expected. I do not know what another year may bring, but we are all in the hands of the Eternal. I hope you won’t think of this as a sermon or a screed. It is just a loving word from your old Daddy to wish you all the best things in the world, and to kiss you goodbye as you go away and leave all the old times behind forever. Don’t forget, no one will ever love you better than I do. It makes me all the sorrier that I have such a poor way of showing it.
God bless you dear, now and always.
Love, my dear boy, Your loving Daddy
By the grace of God my grandfather lived and came home to raise a family. A recent book, released in Canada last week, depicted many of his experiences in the war. He was at all four major battles: Ypres, the Somme, Passchendale, and Vimy Ridge. He was also a fly boy, and in this book, I saw a photo of him in his leather coat, leather hat and goggles. At one point, his plane was shot down and even though he was wounded, he managed to land it in an obliging field. He said it fell in circles as a leaf comes down from a tree.
His gunner tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “What is going to happen?”
He said, “You and I have had a lot of arguments about religion Wardsy, and in about forty seconds, we will find out who is right.”
Conn Smythe in flight gear.

Mercifully, they managed to land and as they scrambled out of the plane, they saw a man waiving to them frantically. Feeling they were about to be rescued, they headed for him only to learn to their horror that it was a German. He pointed his gun at my grandfather’s chest and pulled the trigger, twice at point blank range. Luckily, the soldier missed and my grandfather later told us that it was the force of his wrath and will that somehow steered the bullets into his coat, passing him by completely. After this brush with death, he was taken prisoner and later escaped. Eventually captured, he had to spend the rest of the war in solitary confinement.
To read of all these tales so many years later, to learn of the horrific carnage, and see photo’s of his old friends and teammates from home, many of whom did not return, makes me so cognizant of the merest thread separating us all from life and death.
We have not lost sight of all the brave Canadians who died so far away from home. We pause in silence this Armistice Day, at eleven am on 11/11/ to remember all the fallen on all sides, and pray, as always, for a real, lasting and enduring peace.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields


Binge-Watching Olive Kitteridge on HBO

 

HBO has released a brilliant rendition of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Years ago, The Best Food Ever Book Club chose Strout’s novel as our February selection. The discussion was varied and intense. While this is not unusual, the character of Olive was argued over through most of the dinner. The novel, structured on a collection of short stories, is a character driven book. It is not without drama and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Set in the small town of Crosby, Maine, it would classify as a place driven story. Yet, it is the characters who really make up the narrative, and the way Olive is drawn first by Strout, and then played brilliantly by Frances McDormand is amazing. How do I love seeing a great adaptation of a story I could imagine as well as if I were in the room.
Olive is a math teacher. Her role as a wife, mother and teacher gives her a sense of authority that is at best a bad habit, and at worst a distinct flaw. Her blunt, sharp-tongued, and caustic responses wound everyone  around her. I know she can’t help it. How do I know this? There have been people just like her in my midst. Olive is also nurturing; she is an avid gardener, and she cares for those if she knows who are suffering from mental illness. She spots a young man, one of her former students, on the verge of suicide. We learn her father died by his own hand. She is tough and hard-boiled, but not all the way down to her core and that is where the story keeps emerging. When we see her disapproving and judgmental expressions, we know she will let fly. Sometimes her acidity takes us by surprise. You are always on your guard around people like her. They keep you on edge. It seems that the minute you start to get comfortable, or are gaining confidence they will cut you off at the pass. It is complacency she fears the most.
Henry, her husband, played fantastically by Richard Jenkins, is the kindest and most genteel of men. How does he put up with her we wonder? We grow to learn that when the chips are down, and I mean flat down to the bottom, Olive will be in your corner. She is like the tough old nurse all the young ones fear, but when you are in a pickle, she will pull you through. There is humor in how Olive negotiates through the town, and through the years.
The costumes, scenery and sets are just as I pictured them. Weathered shingles, porches done in a dark green stain, plaid shirts on women and men, a family dining at a wooden table in the kitchen. If I were ever teaching a creative writing class in creating characters, or an acting class in depicting characters, this book, Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout would be an excellent place to start. HBO has produced an outstanding adaptation, and this character driven story will be an American classic.
It was dreary here on Windy Bay today. A back strain restricted my activities. Binge-watching the show through the afternoon turned into a rare delight.

Lila

Because I was so deeply enthralled in Marilynne Robinson’s Home, it was a joy to purchase her new book, Lila. Now that I have read it, I find myself in her camp once again. Her style is very intimate and the world she describes feels familiar, even though the town is fictional. Some would call it a ‘quiet’ book, but I hesitate to describe it in such terms. Delicate and nuanced would be more to the point, as she delves into the thoughts of her protagonist, an unfortunate lost soul who finds love in the home of an aging minister.
It intrigued me to read the second book of Robinson’s set in the graceful home of a minister.  With a Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, in 2004, and numerous other accolades and shortlisted novels to her credit, one would assume that she would be free to set her books wherever she would like. She has protagonists discussing Biblical passages and Home, published in 2008, is a tale of the prodigal son returning to his father’s house.
In reading about Marilynne Robinson’s life, I learned that she grew up in Sandpoint Idaho. She currently lives in Iowa and teaches at the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop. How she ever explains these to realities to public at large, makes me smile as people perpetually mix up Iowa and Idaho. Housekeeping published in 1980 is set in Sandpoint, but Gilead, Home and Lila are placed in the fictional town of Gilead. There is a flavor or a hearkening back to a particular American style that has always been precious. It exists in Canadian literature as well. The outside world can be harsh, the environment, difficult, but there is a place of refuge, behind closed doors, where life unfolds quietly, and with dignity. It makes the reader picture shafts of light coming into the parlor where a few carefully placed chairs seem comforting and familiar.
Last week, I read something on Twitter bemoaning the ‘quiet’ novel, and the dearth of women’s fiction understandably bent in this direction.
“Something has to happen. It has to have a plot,” advises one literary agent.
I have always been fond of writing that gently wraps itself around me as if it is a warm blanket. My cousin once put a picture on my Facebook timeline where the pages of book take on a human form and wrap the reader in a hug. That is how I see Robinson’s Lila.
What if we were completely alone in the world and understood almost nothing? How would we manage? Lila reaches that part of all of us that feels alone, neglected and abandoned. While the great majority of us have never been forced to deal with such a bleak existence, there lurks in us, a deep fear we experienced as children listening to Hansel and Gretel. It is that very private spot in our psyche that this book embraces.

Recently, Marilynne Robinson was the guest of Bill Moyers. Even in this interview, I find that there is something of her elegant writing in every sentence.

Shadow of the Shore

 

 Edith Wharton at her desk.
On a recent trip to Memphis, Tennessee, my husband took me to a used book store called Burke’s Books. We have done this on many trips, and it is one of our traditions for which I am most grateful. We spend a good amount of time in these establishments; he never rushes me or questions my purchasing habits, another one of his many strong suits. While in the stacks, I browse and sit in waiting chairs, picking up and putting down many books. Mostly, I wait for a certain feeling to come over me, a tingling, or an inkling that will lead me in a direction I need to go. It was in a used book shop in Coeur d’ Alene that I found a sentence in a history book that led to me spending a decade creating My American Eden. My husband found two of the most significant details of the story in second-hand shops- one in our town and another in Westchester County, Pennsylvania. When we left the shop in Memphis, he joked that he had in his hand a book that may well be the key. I laughed because I often have the same feeling. On the plane home, I cracked open my treasure: Edith Wharton’s Summer.
The book jacket revealed that this work was considered by many to be her finest. The trip home flew by in a jiffy as I devoured Wharton’s beautiful work.
From Summer:
“The lake at last- a sheet of shining metal brooded over by drooping trees. Charity and Harney had secured a boat and, getting away from the wharves and the refreshment-booths, they drifted idly along, hugging the shadow of the shore. Where the sun struck the water its shafts flamed back blindingly at the heat-veiled sky; and the least shade was black by contrast. The Lake was so smooth that the reflection of the trees on its edge seemed enamelled on a solid surface; but gradually, as the sun declined, the water grew transparent and Charity, leaning over, plunged her fascinated gaze into the depths so clear that she saw the inverted tree-tops interwoven with green growths on the bottom.
They rounded a point at the farther end of the Lake, and entering an inlet pushed their bow against a protruding tree-trunk. A green veil of willows overhung them. Beyond the trees, wheat-fields sparkled in the sun; and all along the horizon the clear hills throbbed with light. Charity leaned back in the stern, and Harney unshipped the oars and lay in the bottom of the boat without speaking.”
Page 95
The Mount
When asked which books made her the most proud, Edith Wharton named Summer as one of them. In reading more about her life, I happened to learn about her home, a beautiful estate in the Berkshires, known as The Mount. As she penned a book about houses and gardens, she was able to oversee every detail of this exquisite treasure. Born of wealth and privilege into an old moneyed family, instead of whiling away her life in gorgeous drawing rooms and delicate gardens, she picked up a pen and gave us a body of work, worth picking up time and time again. Now I am obsessed with going to see her lovely home and have added one more adventure to my wish list. Her library is depicted below.

If you are the proprietor of a second-hand book shop, thank you. If you can spend an afternoon in a dusty shop, consider yourself lucky. You never know when you might find the key. It may lead to a decade of further study.

Among School Children

1
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

II
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy —
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

III
And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.

IV
Her present image floats into the mind —
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once — enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

V
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

VI
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.

VII
Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;

VIII
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

William Butler Yeats
June 1865-January1939
Winner of Nobel Prize in Literature 1923

In One Book

Do you read to be entertained, to be edified, or to expand your horizons? I suppose most of us would answer all of the above. Some writers can do all three in one book. That goes triple for John Irving. Starting with The World According to Garp that won the National Book Award in 1980, I have been a fascinated and loyal reader of his work. The character driven stories and complicated yet subtle plot-lines have always appealed to me.

In One Person is our selection for The Best Food Ever Book Club this month. The story centers around a young man’s desires, as he comes of age in Favorite River Academy. Sexuality is a complex subject, and the protagonist is confused as to whether his preferences are settled or remain in flux. The theme of tolerance runs through the novel from start to finish, making us question our beliefs, and our rigid limitations, as we follow Billy’s journey. Through high school and into maturity, Billy Abbot is an endearing character.

When authors speak of their work, you will often hear these words. “I wanted to explore…” It is a great achievement to go from that statement to a fully fleshed out novel where the reader is then put into a position of questioning their thoughts on the matter. Hence, the fodder for a great discussion.

John Irving says,

“Billy is not me. He comes from my imagining what I might have been like if I’d acted on my earliest impulses as a young teenager. Most of us don’t ever act on our earliest sexual imaginings. In fact, most of us would rather forget them-not me. I think our sympathy comes, in part, from our ability to remember our feelings-to be honest about what we felt like doing.”

Irving states that he writes from the perspective of emotional and psychological truths. He writes having envisioned the ending first. The fully complex architecture of his novels is something I can absorb viscerally, but cannot quite identify. I feel it, but I cannot see the scaffolding. In other words, I don’t know how he does it. That is fine by me. He is the man behind the curtain, a man I admire, and a man who sets my imagination on quite a journey. He will have a new book coming out soon. Stay tuned…

Reactions:

For Robin Williams

 

The year was 1976. The nightclub in Aspen where I worked had booked a two week gig with comedians from The Comedy Store. Steve Martin had been our guest a few weeks prior and I thought whoever was sent from L.A. could not come within a hundred miles of his rising star. Since I would be hearing the show night after night, I thought I would be in for a big snooze.

 

On the night I met Robin Williams, I arrived at the club early and checked in with my friend who worked in the office. He said the guys were setting up backstage. Remembering I had left my black, high-heeled boots there earlier in the day, I thought I could sneak in unobserved and retrieve them. I pushed the curtain aside and reached down to pick them up, almost bumping in to a handsome young man wearing a long sleeved tee shirt, suspenders and khakis.

“I’m sorry to disturb you. I just came to get my boots.” I put out my hand and introduced myself.

“I’m Robin,” he replied. “I was going to use those in my act.” He took one boot from my hand and put it on like and evening glove. As soon as he started making jokes, I thought the week might be looking up after all.

 

Being that I was the lowly coatroom girl, I was free to watch the show. I stood in the back when he took the stage introducing himself as “Russia’s only comedian.” After the show, we all gathered for our one free drink, sponsored by the owner, and then went out on the town after that. Word spread like wildfire and the crowds grew larger every night.

Robin came back in the summer to open for a band that ended up canceling at the last minute. It was like a classic movie scene where we learned the business would fold if we couldn’t come up with some wild scheme to fill the place. The idea of asking Robin to do the whole show was absolutely preposterous, but knowing we would all be out of work if he failed to save the day, we persuaded him to say yes. He didn’t know if he would be able to do it, to go from fifteen minutes of comedy to performing a one man show. He wasn’t sure if he had enough material from what seemed to stem from a stream of consciousness. We offered all the help and encouragement we could. He asked me to come onstage with him, doing a few bits when he lost his train of thought, or came to a dead end. While I watched for those times when he might need a new direction, I realized that he had a far greater wealth of material than we knew. He had characters and voices, he had skits, and bits, like one of his favorites, “Attack of the killer chairs.” Observing him made me stand back in wonder. He killed it, night after night. He had the quickest wit I had ever encountered in my life. His gift was staggering, yet he bore it with humility. Some nights he would stay “on” for an hour or two after the show, but once done it would all close, just as if someone drew a curtain across his eyes. Then he would be quiet.

We all knew that someone would discover him soon and it was only a matter of time before he would go on to far greater heights. The privilege of watching his career unfold, seeing him live up to his full potential, thrilled me over and over. I knew his offstage persona, his sweet, shy manner, his dazzling intellect, his moral compass, his gentlemanly sensibility and his heart. I can honestly say that I truly admired the man, and had a fondness for him that never wavered. Under what lucky star was I born that I would bump into someone like him?

We saw him when he came through Spokane in the spring of 2013, to do a retrospective show with David Steinberg. In the car on the way home, I expressed a thousand concerns and worries about Robin. That night while cheerful, generous and friendly, I sensed an overall exhaustion setting in that troubled me.

The news of his death and the manner of his demise shocked us all. He will be deeply and profoundly missed. Sometimes we forget that we are mortal. Perhaps genius at that level, comes along once in a hundred years. He inspired me, every step of the way. I have never stopped believing in the power of the imagination. He reminded me of a young colt that prances and dances as he is let out of the stall. A thoroughbred with the bloodlines of a true champion, Robin took comedy in a new direction. He knew we had more in common than we realized. His peers spoke of his generosity. He touched an entire generation of children.

 

We don’t have the answers. We don’t even know the right questions. After watching The Birdcage last night, I felt guilty for laughing. My ribcage hurts today, and my face aches. All those years ago in Aspen, one of our friends remembered the old English nursery rhyme and recited it as we gathered for our free drink.  It was not familiar to most, but it was to me, as it was to him. These are the last lines:

“All the birds of the air
fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the bell toll
for poor Cock Robin.” 

Blinded by the Light

 

 

 

 

“Enthrallingly told, beautifully written and so emotionally plangent that some passages bring tears.”

The Washington Post

Anthony Doerr was interested in the magic of radio. The idea of millions of messages being transmitted all over the world captivated him. He wanted to write a story that would shed light on the miracle of wireless communication. The result is All the Light we Cannot See, one of the most stunning books I have read in a lifetime of reading.

The Best Food Ever Book Club, read The Memory Wall, a few years back.  When the suggestion arose to read  Doerr’s latest book, the answer came as a resounding, “Yes.” He is an author for whom we have developed an abiding affection. We were not disappointed by this latest choice. This story found an immediate home in our hearts.

If you want to create a protagonist readers will root for, give them a few vulnerabilities. Blind from the age of five, a little girl lives with her father in Paris, learning to find her way around. War breaks out and they must flee the city. The story is woven between the perils of Marie-Laure’s situation which is fraught with anxiety and that of a German orphan, who has been swallowed up by the Hitler Youth.

It is not the story alone that makes the tale so compelling. It is the power of Doerr’s prose which has the ability to make a reader stop and think before turning the page.

Marie-Laure ends up hiding in her uncle’s house.  War ravages the coastal  town in Britanny and France is occupied.

The following passage puts us right in the house with Marie-Laure, who is frightened and in hiding:

“The distress is so acute, it is almost unbearable. She tries to settle her mind, tries to focus on an image of a candle flame burning at the center of her rib cage, a snail drawn up into the coils of its shell, but her heart bangs in her chest and pulses of fear cycle up her spine, and she is suddenly uncertain whether a sighted person in the foyer can look up the curves of the stairwell and see all the way to the third floor. She remembers her great-uncle said they would need to watch out for the looters, and the air stirs with phantom blurs and rustles, and Marie-Laure imagines charging past the bathroom into the cobwebbed sewing room here on the third floor and hurling herself out the window.

Boots in the hall. The slide of a dish across the floor as it is kicked. A fireman, a neighbor, some German soldier hunting food?”                                      p. 303

Werner, the German orphan, does not have an easier time of it either.

“Werner folds the map into his coat pocket, packs up the transceivers and carries one in each hand like a pair of suitcases. Tiny snow crystals sift down through the moonlight. Soon the school and its outbuildings look like toys on the white plain below. The moon slips lower, a half-lidded eye, and the dogs stick close to their master, mouths steaming and Werner sweats.”                                                P.245

 

This book was ten years in the making.  The result is stunning, beautiful prose.

“Storms rinse the sky, the beaches, the streets, and a red sun dips into the sea, setting all the west-facing granite in Saint-Malo on fire, and three limousines with wrapped mufflers glide down the rue-de-la-Crosse like wraiths, and a dozen or so German officers, accompanied by men carrying stage lights and movie cameras, climb the steps to the Bastion de la Hollande and stroll the ramparts in the cold.”    P.331

This is exactly the kind of book that fills me with enormous awe and respect. It is my idea of a perfect summer read. It is a great subject in the hands of a master. I was dazzled by it.

 

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