Monthly Archives: August 2015

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-Malo, 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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