My posting of books I’ve read from the American Library Association Notable Books list has backed up a little. I finished “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr earlier this spring, and yet it has stuck with me.
The winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Price for fiction, it follows two young people through World War II. Doerr tells the stories of a blind French girl named Marie Laure, and a brilliant young German solider, Werner Pfennig, at first separately, but then draws them close together in an artillery-racked city. Neither child has an easy life. Maure Laure, whose mother is dead, loses her sight when she is six. Werner, growing up in a German orphanage, seems destined for the life of a miner.
And yet, each is gifted. Maurie Laure’s loving father teachers her to become independent and walk around Paris on her own; his job as locksmith at the Museum of Natural History provides the perfect home for her remarkable intellectual curiosity.
Werner figures out how to repair and build radios. His homemade radio allows him and his sister to listen in on fascinating science-related transmissions from France. His natural math skills bring him to the attention of the German war machine. He works on a critical device that reveals the source of radio transmissions.
Radios play a key role in the story–in talking about this book, Doerr described how he was inspired by the wonder of cell phones, which we now take for granted, the wonder of communication virtually through the air. He weaves this into both characters, with Marie Laure and her great-uncle transmitting information to the resistance via radio, and Werner using radio technology to home in on their location to shut them down, or worse.
Anthony Doerr creates these two remarkable characters, both missing so much, and yet who have so much. The war takes one thing after another from them, until they encounter each other just once, in the heavily bombed French coastal town of St. Malo. Doerr draws a compelling background of Europe in the midst of World War II, but the novel really shines in the characters he creates.
A Library Journal reviewer said, “The novel presents two characters so interesting and sympathetic that readers will keep turning the pages hoping for an impossibly happy ending.” What I found frustrating, but entirely reasonable, are the loose ends Doerr leaves. The nature of war is that some people’s fates will never be known. The novel ends in our own time with the people who remain, carrying on even with those holes in their hearts.
I usually reflect on whether each title on the Notable Books List deserves to be called “notable.” This book more than earns the label, beginning with many fascinating parts, and shaping them into something both heartbreaking and beautiful, and whole.
I’m just now getting caught up on reviewing several books I recently finished. I had taken plenty of time reading “Year Zero: A History of 1945” by Ian Buruma, from the nonfiction part of the Notable Books list. I began it in May or so, read about three quarters of it, and set it aside until a few weekends ago, when I determined to finish it.
It’s a sweeping look at the year after the end of World War II, a time when people began making organization out of the chaos of the war. Buruma addresses various topics in three general sections, describing the situation in Europe, in Asia, and in other parts of the world impacted by the war. Some chapters are primarily how individuals adjusted–how hunger, exultation, and revenge played out. Later chapters address institutions and cultures, such as how the allied countries went about re-educating the German and Japanese people. A theme that recurs is the complexity of relationships–few people, groups, or countries were entirely “clean” in motive and behavior. This is what will stick with me from “Year Zero.”
Buruma introduces the book with the story of his Dutch father, who was kidnapped as a college student to work in a factory in Berlin. When the war ended, he nearly died of starvation, but eventually made it home. His story led Buruma to ponder all of the stories, all of the adjustments, all of the things that had to be set right.
As a reader, I found this information, and Buruma’s approach, interesting. Its drawback is that his basic idea, to explore this chaotic time in regard to several aspects, and spanning continents, keeps him from developing a strong narrative thread. The view is awfully wide, and not especially deep. Certainly he explores interesting themes, but without the strong storytelling structure that would create a more compelling book.
Even so “Year Zero” addresses an era of interest to many readers. I expect that for those who are quite familiar with the time period, Buruma’s rich information and perspective will add much to their own already-developed sense of the war’s story.
“The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking” by Brendan I. Koerner continues my trek through this year’s Notable Books list.
From the nonfiction side of the list, this book uses the story of one airline hijacking event in 1972 to explore the “epidemic” of hijacking in the 1960s and 1970s, before screenings and metal detectors became part of the airport landscape.
It makes for interesting reading, how Koerner keeps the thread of the 1972 hijacking intact as he weaves in additional information. In some ways it reads like true crime, this story of Roger Holder, a black Vietnam veteran struggling with mental illness and addiction, and Cathy Kerkow, his white “hippie” girlfriend. Koerner does a fine job describing their story in the social context of the time. That story extends long after the plane they hijack lands in Algiers.
A couple of quibbles–throughout the book, Koerner refers to “stewardesses” instead of “flight attendants.” That would be the vernacular of the day, but it seemed outdated when he was writing from a contemporary viewpoint. Second, Koerner often writes as if he knew what Kerkow was thinking or feeling. Because she disappears years after the events of the story, Koerner could not have interviewed her, and none of his many notes shows a written record of her thoughts or emotions during the complicated hijacking or the chaotic period that followed.
Even so, I’ll recommend this to people who seek social history, and to those who are especially interested in the era of the 1960’s. I could see this being a strong nonfiction choice for book groups who usually read fiction. Holder and Kerkow’s story illuminates many issues of their era, a number of which remain lively and relevant.
Oh, to be in the hands of a master storyteller. That is where I spent a recent weekend, reading Edwidge Dandicat’s “Claire of the Sea Light.”
Set in the author’s native Haiti, this contemporary novel begins with Claire at seven, visiting her mother’s grave on her own birthday. Her mother died giving birth to Claire, and so this day establishes the pattern of the story, life and death side by side. Eventually her father makes the difficult decision to give Claire up to a woman in town, and that is when Claire disappears.
It is also when Dandicat’s storytelling genius emerges, backing away from the intensity of the disappearance, using each of the next six chapters to tell the story of someone whose life connects eventually to Claire. After that series of flashbacks, the story returns to Claire herself.
Dandicat’s writing includes just what it needs to, homing in on the most important details, elegantly including just what is needed, and almost nothing more.
When I started this book I knew it was about a girl’s disappearance, and I worried that it would be too dark, too intense, and too hopeless. Without stooping to cheap hopefulness, Dandicat weaves in the sea light of Claire’s name. Hope is not too bright, and despair not too dark, when they remain so close to each other.
I’ll recommend this to people who love a good story, well told. No wonder it’s on the American Library Association Notable Books List.
I enjoyed it immensely, and found myself losing track of time while I read it. Hilburn crafts a compelling story. From Cash’s upbringing in Dyess, Arkansas, to his drug-drenched superstardom to his final days as a national icon, Hilburn keeps the story’s thread strong.
Hilburn’s reliance on extensive interviews brings many voices into the narrative. The people closest to Cash testify to his artistry, his addictions, the immense physical pain in his final years, and his remarkable love for June Carter Cash. A music critic, Hilburn gives frank assessments of Cash’s performances, puts them into context, and keeps the music central to the story.
I grew up in a home where we seldom missed “The Johnny Cash Show.” This book looks deeply into and beyond what was seen onstage.
My late husband played a quirky mix of music, and one of his oft-performed pieces was Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” sung in French, with his own accordion accompaniment. People–all kinds of people–loved that song. I kept humming it as I read this book.
I’ve recommended this to several readers who are interested in popular music generally, or country music more specifically. I see it having ample appeal beyond that, because Hilburn weaves plenty of insight into this portrait of a complicated man who become an American icon.