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.
I was pleased to see “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” by Rick Bragg on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. Bragg cut his writing teeth on stories of the American South. His memoir “All Over But the Shoutin” was chosen for the 1998 Notable Books list.
Once we get past the irony of Jerry Lee’s “own story” being told by someone else, the choice of author makes perfect sense. Bragg clearly knows how to portray the South, in this case, Ferriday, Louisiana, where Lewis grew up during the Great Depression. That time and that place propelled Lewis to rock and roll superstardom in the 1950’s. Nearly everything that happened to Lewis, or that he set in motion, connects back to Ferriday. His bigamous marriage to his young cousin, his reliance on drugs and alcohol, and his attraction to risky behavior of all sorts, they all began in Ferriday. And central to it all is the image of a performer with boundless energy, a man who whipped crowds into a frenzy with a piano playing style entirely his own.
Bragg interviewed Lewis extensively for this book, using many of Lewis’s own words to craft the story. Bragg succeeds in creating a compelling sense of Jerry Lee Lewis in his seventies, looking back on his life as a younger man. He almost never admits regret, and often notes where he deserves more credit. From time to time I became completely impatient with Bragg because he diverted attention away from Lewis’s story in order to wax poetic about the South.
Last year’s Notables list included “Johnny Cash: The Life” by Robert Hilburn, another story of a boy growing up in the Depression-era South, destined to be a star. The two stories combine well, with both men getting their start at Sun Studios in Memphis, both leading complicated personal and professional lives. Both Bragg and Hilburn respect the depth of Lewis and Cash, going to great lengths to do justice to their complex lives.
I found “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” immensely readable, potentially an excellent nonfiction choice for books groups who usually read fiction. While it’s an easy recommendation to rock and foll fans, I’ll also suggest it to people who enjoy social history, especially if they’re interested in the American South.
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.