Book Review: “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr

This is one of those rare books that the reader knows is a classic while reading it. Anthony Doerr’s brilliant 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel centers on the parallel plights of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and a young German soldier, Werner Pfennig, during World War II. Marie-Laure’s devoted father is a locksmith who is in charge of the locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. There, he is involved in an elaborate scheme to hide a precious rare blue diamond from the Nazis at the outset of the war.

Marie-Laure’s father is consumed with protecting her. To ensure she can navigate her surroundings, he builds a scale model of the Paris neighborhood where they live. When the war forces the family to move to the Breton coastal town of Saint-Malo, her father builds a scale model of Marie-Laure’s new surroundings.

Doerr’s vivid writing appeals to all the senses, especially the scenes written from Marie-Laure’s point-of-view. While Marie-Laure’s upbringing in Paris and the coastal town during the early year of the war is comfortable, Pfennig’s childhood is bleak. After his father dies in a coal mining accident, Werner and his sister, Jutta, grow up in an orphanage. He faces a bleak future working in the coal mines until a Nazi officer discovers he has a talent for fixing radios. He is assigned to an elite military training academy where he witnesses first hand the cruelty of the Nazi regime. He watches helplessly as a shy friend who refuses to take part in a ritual of torture is tormented. Later, Werner finds out his friend was beaten senseless. 

After relocating to Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure’s father disappears after boarding a train to carry out a mission for the museum. As the war rages on, living in Nazi-occupied Saint-Malo becomes increasingly dangerous, yet Marie-Laure’s uncle, Etienne, enlists her in a plan to send messages to the resistance over a short wave radio hidden in the attic of their six story home.  

Werner’s talents find him in a Nazi unit that traverses the countryside looking for radios used by the enemies to transmit vital information. In one scene in Austria, Werner’s fellow soliders, searching for a hidden radio, execute a young mother and her seven year old daughter, who was hiding in a closet, an act that haunts Werner. 

When the allies bomb Saint-Melo, Marie-Laure makes a discovery about where the blue diamond is hidden. Not far away, Werner and two fellow soldiers are trapped under the rubble of a grand hotel where they have been encamped.

The story’s strength lies in the choices the characters make and the impossible moral dilemmas they encounter in desperate situations. The light in the title is manifested by the irrepressible spirit and determination of characters like Marie-Laure, her uncle, and even Werner, to carry on in the face of the darkness of war and destruction.  There are supreme sacrifices and astounding acts of love that take place within a brutal setting. Doerr’s skill at bringing a fresh perspective to a period of history that has been written about perhaps more than any other is a testimony to his vast talent. 

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Book Review: “The Girl on the Train,” by Paula Hawkins

None of the characters in this runaway best-seller are likable. There’s Rachel Watson, the protagonist, who is a bitter, unemployed thirty something woman. Rachel is obsessed with her ex-husband. She rides the train to London each day because she cannot bear to tell her friend and landlord that she lost her job. When a young woman goes missing, Rachel makes a series of incredibly dumb decisions in an effort to find out what happened to her. And she’s the best of the lot.

Then there is Megan Hipwell, the woman whose disappearance triggers a highly publicized police search. Earlier Rachel observed Megan and her husband, whom she dubbed Jess and Jason, on the terrace as a loving couple during a signal stop each day, and she fantasized about them as the ideal couple. They are anything but. Megan is a drifter who got into prostitution and drugs as a youth and has a dark secret. And Scott has issues, too.

And finally there is Anna Boyd, a cold seductress who steals Rachel’s husband, Tom Watson (I couldn’t help but think of the professional golfer). Anna is calculating and hateful toward Rachel, though with good reason as Rachel is prone to stalking her and showing up drunk at the house where she and Tom once lived.

Suspects abound as the hunt for Megan progresses. There is Scott, who is jealous and occasionally violent. There is Megan’s therapist, with whom she had a fling. And there is somebody else in her life whose existence is not revealed to the reader until late in the story.

Paula Hawkins has crafted a tightly woven mystery that gains steam as it progresses. The reader won’t want to put this one down. She leaves little clues along the way, inviting the reader to guess who the real killer is after Megan’s body is discovered. I had it all wrong, which is the sign of a skillful mystery writer.

I would recommend this book, though the writer didn’t make me care enough about any of the characters, save for Rachel.

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The Joy of Audiobooks

Writers, like most people, take their eyesight for granted. It is terrifying for a writer to think about losing his eyesight. On July 26, I underwent emergency surgery for a detached retina in my right eye. Two days earlier, I had lost sight completely in that eye, following 10 days of seeing eye floaters and black spots.

Though I had great faith in my surgeon, eye surgery is not an easy thing to face. The day before my surgery, I ordered two audiobooks, “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr, and “The Girl on the Train,” by Paula Hawkins. I had confidence I would regain sight in my right eye, but I had to admit I was a little scared.

The surgery was successful, but the after-care was unpleasant, to say the least. I had to lie or sit face down for seven days with no TV, internet, reading or writing. Reading and writing are a writer’s lifeblood. Thank goodness for audiobooks and podcasts.

I put on my earbuds and lost myself in the brilliance of Doerr’s prose about the struggles of a blind French girl and a German solider during World War II. Zach Appelman’s narration was briilliant. He skilfully made the characters come alive through subtle nuances in the rendering of the dialogue. On the day I was cleared to read again, I started listening to “The Girl on the Train” on audio.

Audiobooks are wonderful gift for the sightless and the sighted. Technological advances have made audiobooks more accessible and affordable. Audiobook sales are growing. According to the Audio Publishers Association, audiobook sales accounted for an estimated $1.43 billion in 2014, up 13.5 percent from 2013. Adult titles accounted for 87 percent of all sales, though children and young adult titles are increasing in sales. 

According to a GalleyCat post, revenue for audiobooks from 2008 through 2013 is etimated to have grown at an annualized rate of 12 percent (IBISWorld Report figures). The article cited the increased popularity of Internet-connected mobile devices as a major factor in the growing popularity of audiobooks.

I still prefer to hold a book (or a Kindle) in my hands. I like to linger over brilliant phrases or re-read passages that resonated with me (which can also be done with audiobooks, but requires bookmarking or finding the right place). However, I will be listening to books more often. The spoken word makes the story more intimate and makes the characters come alive. That’s how stories were rendered before print–around campfires, in town squares and pubs. 

Audiobooks present a great option for all readers and book lovers.

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Are You Sick of Your Work-In-Progress?

I’ve reached that stage with my work-in-progress. I can’t even look at it anymore. Don’t get my wrong. It’s not that I don’t love it. I do. It’s just that I’ve spent too much time with it: revising, editing, polishing, word-smithing, reviewing, and revising yet again. I’ve spent too much time hanging out with the characters. I’ve put it aside so I can view it with fresh eyes. I’ve done all the things I’ve advised other writers to do. And I can’t look at it.

And now it’s time to send it off to my editor. How does a writer know when it’s time to let a manuscript go and send it to an editor? One of my author friends does five or six rounds of editing, sends the manuscript to beta readers, does more edits based on suggestions, and only then does she send it to an editor. That describes my process, except I don’t have any beta readers. I have shared my drafts with a small group of writer friends who meet twice a month. That feedback has been invaluable to me. 

My point is this: if a writer waits until her manuscript is perfect before sending it off to an editor, she will be waiting a long time. A writer’s manuscript will never be perfect. There comes a time when the writer must simply let go and put the manuscript in someone else’s hands.

My editor will return my manuscript with loads of great edits and suggestions. She will cover both stylistic and substantive edits. And when I read her suggestions, I will retun to my work with (that expression again) fresh eyes.

It’s all part of the process. When I read about “authors” who crank out a first draft, do a quick edit and post their work on Amazon or Nook, I shudder. That’s not how it is done. On the other hand, years of revising and editing and hand-wringing can paralyze the writer. When a writer cannot look at her manuscript anymore, it’s time to do one of two things–abandon it or send it to a professional editor. I have no doubt my work-in-progress is worthy of publication. it’s not there yet, but it will be. 

What about you? Have you ever gotten sick of your manuscript? What did you do?

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The Nostalgia Trap

I’ve caught the nostalgia bug. I didn’t mean to catch it. The bug snuck up on me. It started during the run-up to David Letterman’s last Late Night show on May 20. A fan of Letterman since his daytime show aired in the early 1980s, I watched clips from the waning episodes as his faithful guests said their goodbyes to Dave. I saw the last episode (twice) and it made me feel sad–and old. Having grown up with Johnny Carson, I realized I was old enough to see the heirs to his throne (Jay Leno and Letterman) retire. 

That blue feeling lingered for a while and just as I began to shake it, I attended a mini high school reunion in early June. It was a wonderful evening, swapping old stories with classmates and even hearing a few new ones. The spirit of cameraderie spilled over into the parking lot as we continued the conversation there. Nobody wanted to leave.

In the ensuing days, I found myself reflecting on my youth: successes failures, missed opportunities, songs I liked, girls I liked, parties I attended. It all came back. And that is how nostalgia becomes a trap. I dwelled on the past. If only I had done this and not that. If ony I had asked this girl out and not gotten cold feet. If only I had studied harder. If only I knew then what I know now, things sure would have turned out differently–but possibly not better. Who can ever know?

That’s why I called this post, The Nostalgia Trap. It’s fun to relive the past. The past is so much rosier today than it was when we were going through it (apologies for the shift to second person). We cherry-pick and embellish our memories. And we magnify our mistakes. That’s human nature. That’s not why nostalgia is a trap, though. Here’s why it’s a trap: by living in the past, we cheat the present.

 I’m a big believer in living in the present. Learn from the past, yes. Revere loved ones who have passed on. Keep the past in our hearts, but keep our eyes looking forward. Don’t dwell on the past because no matter how hard you wish it, you’re never going to change it. You can only  change your present and your future.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, you’re wondering what in the world any of this talk of nostalgia has to do with fiction writing. As Ellen DeGeneres would say, “Here’s my point–and I do have one.” In works of fiction, the back story takes place in the past. Some writers go back as far as the period when they were alive. Some who write historical fiction set their stories in times when none of us were alive. To write authentic characters, writers tap into the deep wellspring of the past. They plumb their deepest emotions, their darkest periods, the pain they’ve buried in their subsconscious.

During the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference last November, presenter Meg Rosoff gave a presentation focused on a critical skill: the need for writers to tap into their subconscious, to get in touch with their deepest fears and their most profound pain. The lesson was not lost on the writers who attended. Meg challenged us by asking us to write down the answers to a series of questions about our past. It worked. Many of us had profound revelations that day. During the session we talked about emotions long locked away. Brave writers bared their souls to their colleagues. It was liberating and it added to our toolkit as writers.

Nostalgia can benefit a writer. Looking back and accessing those feelings, hopes, dreams, and disappointments will lend emotional depth to characters in a writer’s work. I just don’t advise living life in the past.

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Book Review: “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell

Karen Russell’s 2011 debut novel, “Swamplandia!” is a dark, hilarious thrill ride that chronicles the disintegration of a pseudo-Native American family and a plucky, precocious 13-year-old girl’s bizarre journey to save them and herself.

Swamplandia! is a tawdry amusement park on an unspoiled island off Florida’s Gulf Coast. The main attraction is Hilola Bigtree. Tourists fill the amphitheater to witness her daring dives from a platform into alligator-infested waters. Bathed in a spotlight, Hilola each night swims through the gators  to safety on a small stage suspended over the gator pit. The alligators never get Hilola, but cancer does, claiming her life at the age of 37. Her death and the emergence of a mega amusement park on the mainland called The World of Darkness send the Bigtree family into a spiral of debt and despair.

Chief Bigtree leaves for the mainland on a vague mission to raise money to reboot the park with a “Carnival Darwinism” theme. He leaves Ava Bigtree, the main character, on the island with her older sister, Osceola “Ossie” Bigtree, 16, and her older brother, Kiwi, 18. They are left to fend for themselves. Then Kiwi leaves to take a job at the rival World of Darkness, a sort of dystopian Disney World. 

Readers of Carl Hiaasen’s satirical takedowns of Florida will recognize the same currents running through Russsell’s work: corporate and government plundering of the environment and the spoiling of the splendiforous natural beauty of the Sunshine State. But that’s not the real story here. The bigger story here is Ava’s incredible journey–a loss of innocence made more suspenseful by Ossie’s sudden infatuation with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving, a dredgeman who died in the 1930s.

When Ossie disappears along with a dredge barge the two sisters had discovered earlier, Ava knows where she is headed: the land of Ten Thousand Islands, where the underworld is located. There, Ava hopes to not only find her sister and her ghost groom, but she convinces herself that her mother is there as well. Ava has no way to reach the underworld, until a mysterious figure called the Bird Man shows up on the island and offers to take her there.

This is where the story’s fragile grip on reality seems to slip away, but Ava’s sense of wonder and a sharp turn back to reality save it from devolving into paranormal nonsense.

What also saves this story is Russell’s scintillating portrayal of Ava as both self-aware and acutely tuned in to the world around her. Passages like this one left me wanting to applaud: “I was thirteen years old when the end of Swamplandia! began in earnest, although at first I was oblivious of the dangers we now faced–mom was dead, so I thought the worst had already happened to us. I didn’t realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another–bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave.” 

Some readers may find this book too outlandish. It worked for me because I put trust in Russell’s ability as a writer to take me on a magical ride and bring me back to dry land. 

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Book Review: “The House of Hawthorne,” By Erika Robuck

Can love bloom between two artists without causing their art to wither and die? That is one of the more intriguing aspects of Erika Robuck’s poignant historical novel, The House of Hawthorne.

Sophie Peabody was a promising painter who was hindered by debilitating headaches. Her family sent her to Cuba in the hope that the warm climate might cure her. There she nurtured her talent as a painter, while also writing The Cuba Journal. She returned to Massachusetts invigorated, but her headaches eventually would return. In the throes of illness, she met Nathaniel Hawthorne when he came calling on her sister, Elizabeth. Sophie and Nathanial were lovestruck. Robuck described the intensity of their feelings in this passage: “When I enter, Hawthorne’s eyes meet mine, and he rises. By the holy angels, I feel my soul at once aflame and reaching through my breast toward him.”

Their courtship lasted more than four years. Nathaniel  would not marry  Sophie until he could support her financially. He joined Brook Farm, a transcendentalist community and married Sophie in 1842. Their love blossomed in splendidly rendered scenes.  Sophie worried that their marital bliss was impeding Nathaniel’s writing. When their first daughter, Una, was born, Sophie observed she had neither the time nor the energy to paint. They had two more children and then moved from home to home as they struggled to support a family. They eventually settled in the Wayside in Concord. Among their circle of friends were New England scions the Alcott family, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. 

The publication of Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlett Letter, in 1850, and The House of the Seven Gables in 1851, vaulted him into an exalted placae in literature, but did not ease the family’s chronic financial struggles. it was interesting to learn that published authors had it no easier in the 1800s than they do today. 

This is not the story of Hathrorne’s literary talents, but rather it is about the enduring and almost spiritual love between Nathanial and Sophie. Spanning several decades and encompassing their travels to England, Portugal and Italy, their journey was littered with tragedy: the loss of Sophie’s brother and parents, Nathaniel’s parents, and a deadly illness that befalls their eldest daugther.  Through it all their love endured.

What carries this story is Robuck’s brilliant prose, which brings Sophie to life as  a strong, intelligent character: devoted to her husband, yet independent of spirit and an artist of immense talent.

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