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.
Powers has won the National Book Award previously; he is known for his excellent writing, often described as cerebral or philosophical.
Orfeo opens in a home, a craftsman bungalow, where a man dressed in protective gear is creating something using beakers, vials, pipettes, and pellets. The scene switches to an unfinished 9-1-1 call. Later, EMTs arrive at the door of the bungalow to learn that the call was about a beloved but very sick dog, now dead. As they assess the situation, they take in the in-home laboratory. These initial scenes struck me as almost perfect in their introduction of Richard Els and how others would judge his eccentric pursuits.
The next morning, as Els is out for a walk, hazardous materials workers arrive, dismantle the lab, and take it all away. Els decides on the spur of the moment to run away, though his scientific work wasn’t about terrorism but was using science to compose music. The story becomes a national news phenomenon.
The remainder of the novel alternates between Els on the run, and Els looking back on his life as a composer, an absentee husband, and distant father. Powers presents him as someone who never quite achieves a balance between expressions of his remarkable intelligence and musical sense, and his yearning to be a friend and family man.
Els studied musical composition in the 1960’s and 1970’s with a focus on creating new kinds of sound that would strike most people as not music at all. Powers spends a lot of time describing that sound and related music, to my mind, too much time. And yet that emphasis helps clarify why Els couldn’t stay married, didn’t remain close to his daughter, and lost his best friend. On the run, he seeks them out.
I felt the power of this novel even in the midst of my irritation. This may be part of the genius of the book, underscoring the central dilemma of his life. Powers creates a powerful and perfect conclusion, drawing together what seems impossible.
I expect it will be a fairly rare reader who is either interested enough in the music, or willing enough to plow through it to get to that perfect conclusion. I’ll likely recommend this to people who enjoy literary fiction, and who would be drawn to Els’ struggle to honor his music at such a high cost.
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 read much of “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie while on a brief family trip to Forth. I admit to bowing out of some family time to dip back into this novel of a contemporary woman’s journey from Nigeria to the United Sates, then back.
Much of the story is framed as flashbacks while Ifemelu is having her hair braided for her return to Africa. She reflects on her early days in Nigeria, and her friendship with a young aunt who becomes mistress to a general. When power changes hands, that aunt leaves quickly, ending up in America. Ifemelu follows soon after. Ifemelu’s initial depression, and resorting to performing sex acts for money, contrast with her later success. To her great good fortune, she lands a nanny job with a rich family. She becomes involved with rich and educated men. Thus she has much experience with race and class, and she pulls all of that into a blog that becomes remarkably profitable.
Meanwhile, Obinze, the love of her young life, experiences his own migration story, entering England legally but staying long after his visa expires. After living and working without documentation, he is deported. His fortunes rise in Nigeria as a successful businessman. He comes to see that his marriage, his family, even the way in which he makes money, do not reflect who he wishes to be. He seems not be living by the values his mother nurtured in him.
Adichie reveals and explores a remarkable variety of issues here–race, color, class, shame, and trust. I keep returning to the image of hair braiding as I consider how she does it, weaving together people, places, and politics. I tend to prefer novels that are pared down to just a very narrow chute. Adichie introduces all kinds of minor characters to push the story along. They leave as quickly as they appear. She also provides remarkable detail about clothing, about hair, especially African hair, and about food. It all seems a little messy, maybe too untidy, and yet it works.
I’ll recommend this to book groups who don’t shy away from 500-plus pages. I finished the book with the satisfying sense of a story well told, a better appreciation for the adjustments that immigration requires, and a distinctive view of race and class in America. I’m not surprised “Americanah” landed on this year’s Notable Books list.
There’s a special pleasure to a book that’s read on a trip. I certainly sensed this in “The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards” by Kristopher Jansma, which I started and finished during a recent trip to Chicago for a library conference.
It makes a perfect example of why I love reading the titles from the Notable Books List each year–I come across fabulous books that I would have missed otherwise.
Basically this novel circles around an unnamed narrator and his two most important friends. The story opens as the narrator describes how his mother, a flight attendant, often left him in the care of vendors at the airport. His ability to fit in, especially to mix among wealthy people, leads to a lifelong pattern of dishonesty. He meets the man who becomes his best friend in their college English class. That friend soon writes a fabulously successful novel, though his life is shadowed by addiction and mental illness. Through that friend, the narrator meets the woman he loves but can never marry. Much of the energy in this novel is generated as the three of them come together, then fall apart.
Each of the ten chapters could stand alone as a short story, focusing on a particular time and place. Jansma’s genius is how he uses these pieces to pull the whole story together, how an image introduced in one place returns in another.
How does a writer avoid revealing what others don’t want shared? When should a writer betray a friend to further success? What are the chances for success when relationships are built on lies? How can broken friendships be mended? When is honesty required?
I was surprised by how readable this book was, given those heavy questions. I credit Jansma’s clever eye for detail and ability to draw attention to a new place. The book goes from the East Coast to New York City to India to Africa and many places between. Part of the pleasure in the reading was just learning where it would take up next. Meg Woltitzer aptly used the phrase, “playfully weird” about this book. I would add “playfully smart.” I know that I missed many well-placed literary allusions.
I have confessed before to my Pollyanna-ish hope that at last one person will learn and grow in a novel, and end up a better person. That happened here, though it wasn’t easy or pretty.
I’m not aware of many people who’ve read this. I’m hoping a few of my friends will do so soon, so that we can discuss it. I’ll recommend this to people who like literary fiction, especially if they don’t insist on the work being too dark and pessimistic. In the heart of this story of friendship, betrayal, and love, stands that critical question–CAN a leopard change its spots?