All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

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Anthony Doerr’s splendid, elegiac novel All The Light We Cannot See encompasses WW2 within an examination of the lives and worlds of two teenagers:  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl, and Werner Pfenning, a German whiz-kid desperate to live the coal mine fate of his home town of Essen.   Written mostly in the present tense, with recurring flashbacks throughout both children’s lives, All The Light progresses inevitably to their meeting during the siege of St.-Malo, France, in August of 1944.

Doerr’s narrative captures with words elements that literally cannot be visualized.  Radio waves, communication, thoughts, the songs of birds, time, fear, love, loyalty . . . and the ever present drifting of musical notes.  A voice is described as “a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.”  As a touchstone, Doerr returns time and time again to Debussy’s Clair de Lune.  (Listen to the piece here:  http://youtu.be/-LXl4y6D-QI)

To quantify Marie-Laure’s blindness, Doerr is even more limited than her father, who constructs scale models of their neighborhood in Paris and ultimately of the entire town of St.-Malo, complete with park benches and gutter openings.

To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”

599_snails1Swamp Lymnea by Patricia Pepin

In contrast, Werner must also rely on non-visual cues for his own navigation.  He triangulates radio emissions to find Allied and Resistance transistors and leads his team there to eliminate them.

I listened to this book over the past few weeks, 16 hours worth, and found it mesmerizing, haunting, sometimes too disturbing to accompany a drive.  The details of the Nazi youth training program, the flight of Marie-Laure and her father from Paris to St.-Malo frankly made me shut off the sound on several occasions.  But each chapter is fairly short, as if Doerr himself can’t stand to render more than a certain modicum of horror, beauty or incandescence per page.

All The Light We Cannot See was an international bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Awards, and has been named a best book of 2014 at the New York Times, Barnes & Noble, Entertainment Weekly, the Daily Beast, Slate.com, Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, and Kirkus.

There are many words and sentences that remain in my mind.  Doerr’s mastery of language is profound.  Near the end of the book, Doerr moves the narrative to some twenty-five or thirty years after WW2.  One particularly poignant thought is expressed as, “Every hour someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.”

All the Light We Cannot See would make a wonderful read for your book club.  A grand story, eloquent language, interesting and sympathetic characters.  It is definitely on my top five of 2014 list.

MENU

Homemade Bread

Omelettes

Peaches

MUSIC

Clair De Lune

MOVIE CASTING

This is quite difficult for All The Light We Cannot See due to the youth of the primary characters.  A young Emma Watson for Marie-Laure.  Werner — I have no idea.  But here’s my dream French team.

Daniel LeBlanc — Vincent Cassel

Etienne LeBlanc — Jean Rochefort

Madame Rouelle — Juliette Binoche

Madame Manac, Etienne’s housekeeper — Catherine Deneuve

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Circus Circus (and A Menu)

Circus

My sister is having her book club tonight for a discussion of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.  I suggested the book because I loved the images of the black and white circus redolent of exotic spices, magic and mystery.  Despite huge sales of The Night Circus, I guess there are mixed reactions:   my mother said her own book club wasn’t fond of it and my weekly group at the Carnegie Center wasn’t sold on it either.

I admit, the plot is confusing and perhaps the basic love story of two magicians creating a world within a circus as part-competition, part-sacrifice is a bit strange.  But the imagery created by Ms. Morgenstern, possibly due to her years of stage experience, pulled me in and kept me bound to the story.

red scarf

MENU

My sister asked for some help with a black and white menu for her group tonight and this is what I suggested:

Popcorn drizzled with dark chocolate

Bagel chips smeared with cream cheese and topped with black caviar

Steamed white asparagus sprinkled with poppy seeds and lemon juice

Squid ink pasta in alfredo sauce

Chicken breasts wrapped in whole spinach leaves

Black and white cookies (store-bought) for dessert

The only tricky parts of the menu would be the asparagus and chicken.  Trim the asparagus ends first, by holding the end and bending.  Where it snaps naturally leaves you only the tender part of the spear to cook.  You will want to wait to cook them until right before you are ready to serve.  I steam mine in an asparagus steamer for 3 boiling minutes, then turn off the heat and let the asparagus sit for a few more minutes.  Place the spears on a plate, douse with lemon juice and poppy seeds just before you serve them.

On the chicken, use whole skinless, boneless breasts and season with salt and pepper.  Place the breasts on the spinach leaf (or leaves) and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.  Wrap the leaves around the chicken to create a cooking packet and drizzle the exterior with more olive.  Drizzle, don’t drown.  Then place in a pre-heated 375 degree oil.  Cook for 15 minutes per side.

I would also serve hot chocolate with fresh cream and strawberries to give a nod to the Circus followers’ red neckties.

MUSIC

Tears of a Clown, Smoky Robinson

The Show Must Go On, Three Dog Night

Wild Billy’s Circus Story, Bruce Springsteen

Circus, Britney Spears (UGH, I know)

Circus, Tom Waits

and there’s always the cast albums from Pippin and Barnum

MOVIE CASTING

I’d love to see this as a movie.  Caitriona Balfe who is magnificent in Outlander would make a fine Celia.  And I suggest Hugh Dancy as Marco.

Happy Reading!