All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr

Truth be told, I only read this book because I saw somewhere that President Obama had it on his summer reading list last year.  Although I was aware of the book before discovering that fact, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise, only because I’ve read so many books set during WWII that they don’t especially appeal to me at this point.  I’m glad I decided to read this one.

The story centers around a young blind girl named Marie-Laure who lives with her devoted father, a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris.  When Marie-Laure, motherless, loses her sight at a young age, her father goes to great lengths to ensure his daughter’s ability to navigate her world, spending years painstakingly crafting a miniature wooden replica of their neighborhood so that Marie-Laure could memorize its characteristics by touch and translate that to an understanding of the life-size reality of the landscape.

When France is invaded by Germany, Marie-Laure and her father flee to a seaside village and take refuge in the house of an eccentric and reclusive uncle.  The uncle, suffering all these years from PTSD from fighting in WWI, has not left his house in twenty years.  In this tall house in Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure’s father again undertakes the building of a model of the village in order that his daughter may be able to navigate it if the need arises.  Soon, Marie-Laure’s father leaves her with her uncle when he is summoned back to the museum, ostensibly to return a highly prized, rare, and valuable gemstone that he spirited out of Paris when the city was invaded.

Running parallel to Marie-Laure’s story is Werner Pfennig’s, a young German orphan boy with an affinity and aptitude for radios, which eventually earns him the attention of influential Nazis.  As a teen, rather than being sent to work in the coal mines like so many of his peers, Werner is sent to a prestigious boarding school for boys, which is his induction into the Hitler Youth.  Werner struggles continually with what he witnesses and takes part in, both willingly and by force.

Eventually, Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories collide in a way that is unexpected.

I began this story feeling a little ho-hum about it, but was quickly taken in.  It’s beautifully told, and full of characters and settings so vivid that I felt as if I were a bystander, watching it all unfold.  Weeks after finishing this book, I am still pondering it.

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

41qpsissbfl-_sy344_bo1204203200_To the Bright Edge of the World

by Eowyn Ivey

Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child, entranced me when I read it a couple of years ago, so when I discovered that she had published a new novel, I was eager to read it.

To the Bright Edge of the World is a multi-layered tale.  The story opens as a man named Josh, the curator of a small museum in Alpine, Alaska receives a letter from an old man named Walt in Montana, along with a collection of old letters and diaries.  The letters and diaries were written by his great uncle, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forester, and great aunt,  Sophie.  In the winter of 1885, Lieutenant Colonel Forester left his young pregnant wife, Sophie, to lead an expedition into the wilds of Alaska to map the area of the Wolverine River Valley and gather information for the U.S. Army about the geography and native people.  Alternating between the contemporary correspondence between Walt and Josh – by means of which a friendship grows between these two very different strangers – and the old diaries and letters of Allen and Sophie, this story of love, grief, adventure, and survival is told.

Alternating between the contemporary correspondence between Walt and Josh – by means of which a friendship grows between these two very different strangers – and the old diaries and letters of Allen and Sophie, this story of love, grief, adventure, and survival is told.  During the months-long Alaskan expedition Lieutenant Colonel Forester and his men are subject to harrowing conditions and bizarre, inexplicable incidents, while back home at Vancouver barracks in Washington territory, Sophie makes her way through her own ordeals, ultimately finding solace in photography.

As in The Snow Child, Ivey demonstrates here a gift for the fantastical, where the lines between what is real, what is not real, and what is possible are indiscernible.

A fine work of fiction.

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

30555488The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

Among the myriad of novels depicting American slavery, this one stands out mainly because it imagines the so-called Underground Railroad as an actual underground railroad bearing slaves to freedom, rather than just a figure of speech referring to the secret network of black and white people offering haven and help to slaves attempting to escape bondage.

The protagonist in this story is Cora, a young black woman – really a mere teenager – owned by one of the most brutal slaveowners in Georgia.  The depictions of the horrors inflicted upon the slaves of this particular plantation are difficult to stomach, so creative in their brutality are they.  Cora is deemed a “stray” by her fellow slaves, having been left behind by her mother who managed to escape in the dark of night (and whom Cora holds a deep and abiding anger and resentment) before she reaches adolescence.  Having nobody to look after her, and being duly abused by fellow slave men almost as soon as she enters puberty, Cora becomes withdrawn and fierce.  When an opportunity to escape bondage presents itself, Cora hesitantly takes it, despite a recent escapee having been captured, brought back, slowly tortured and roasted alive for the entire plantation to watch in horror as penance.

And so we are introduced to the Underground Railroad, a literal thing rather than a figurative one.  Miles upon miles of tunnels dug and tracks laid by black people deep under the ground, with “stations” hidden under barn floors and kitchen floors across the South, and with both black and white people risking everything (and many losing everything, including their lives, in horrible ways) to bear slaves to freedom.  Nevermind that if there were railroads running underground, the ground would likely shake, or at least vibrate, making it unlikely to be kept secret, and nevermind questions about where the trains came from and how anyone managed to get them into these underground tunnels – reading this story does require a little suspension of disbelief.

Trouble follows Cora on her journey to liberty from the very beginning, and it is with suspense that the reader follows Cora, feeling hope and despair by turns.  The question always remains: can any black person truly escape the chains of bondage?

Well worth the read.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Audiobook-anna-karenina-B002V8HN40 Anna Karenina

by Leo Tolstoy

I’ve meant to read this for years and years.  I actually started it more than a decade ago when I was pregnant with my twins, and just never got very far with it.  Earlier this year I decided to listen to it on audio, since my Audible membership mostly goes to waste and I’ve acquired a lot of credits.  It took me about eight months to listen to; no only is it quite a tome, I tend to do audio books in fits and starts.

There is no possible way that I can write a worthy analysis or summary of this historical epic masterpiece; many scholarly papers have been written about it.  At its heart, it’s the story of the fall of Anna Karenina, a woman who, at the start of the novel, is the beautiful, charming, self-possessed wife of Karenin, a respected statesman.  As the story opens, Anna convinces Dolly, here sister-in-law, to forgive Stepan, her brother and Dolly’s husband, for his infidelities.  This scene foreshadows Anna’s own downfall; soon thereafter, she meets and falls in love with Vronsky, an affluent military man.  They begin an affair which results in Anna becoming pregnant.  She ends up leaving both her husband and young son in order to be with Vronsky.  But alas, this is not the twenty-first century we are talking about – it’s the mid-nineteenth century, and Anna’s infidelity and abandonment of her husband and son make her a social pariah, although her lover, Vronsky, being a man, is not held in lower esteem and is still well accepted and welcomed in the best circles.  It’s a stunning illustration of sexism and female oppression for sure.

Anna’s status as an outcast who is no longer received by polite society takes a toll on her; by the end of the novel, she is a broken woman prone to weeping and jealous tirades, and finally, seeing no way out of her situation … well, you probably know how it ends, but I won’t spoil it in case you don’t.

If Anna’s story is the heart of the novel, there are plenty of characters and scenarios circling her story.  Courtships, marriages, births, deaths, ruminations on life, religion, relationships, and social and political issues abound.

I enjoyed Anna Karenina very much and am glad I finally “read” it.  I’m interested in seeing a film adaptation now; I know several have been made.  Do you have a recommendation on the best one to watch?

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

IMG_8171 Lonesome Dove: A Novel

by Larry McMurtry

I first read this book probably 25 years ago, and for all these years it has stood out in my memory as the best book I’ve ever read.  Of course, over those years, I’ve read many, many other books – including many excellent books, and over time I’ve often wondered if Lonesome Dove would still hold up if I reread it.  Despite how much I remember loving it, I do have a hard time making myself reread books, as there are so many unread books yet to read!  Still, I finally dug out my old paperback copy and delved in.  I was not disappointed.

At 858 pages, it’s too big a story to offer any details – and I don’t think I could do it justice.  In a nutshell, it’s the story of Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, two middle-aged former Texas Rangers, basically retired and living in a “little fart of a town” in post-Civil War south Texas, who impulsively decide to undertake a cattle drive up to the virgin pastures of Montana.  Filled with characters so vivid you could almost hear their voices and smell the dust and sweat of them, it is a sweeping, epic masterpiece story of the wild and unbroken frontier of the American West.

Yeah, it’s a western.  Filled with cowboys and Indians, outlaws and lawmen, heroes and villains, ladies and whores – and plenty of adventure and tragedy.  I was absolutely transported to a different time and place – so much so that I was often dreaming of cattle drives at night.  I was struck by how horrifically hard life was in those times – and yet, in some ways so much simpler than now.  People lived and died as they pleased – there was of course a code of honor, and propriety, but … much of the pettiness and materialism and anxiety over a million things that modern life has brought us was absent.

I cried almost ceaselessly through the last 75 pages or so, and it’s one of those rare books that just leaves me feeling like I’m not going to get over it anytime soon.

To be able to write like this … to imagine a story and put it to paper, a story that truly takes on a life of its own and evokes such emotion – what a gift.  What power!  I am awestruck.

I absolutely love this book, and it remains the best book I’ve ever read.

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

51ra1hvzYbL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The Girl You Left Behind: A Novel

by Jojo Moyes

I have such mixed feelings about this book!

Like The Last Letter from Your Lover, The Girl You Left Behind is two intersecting stories from two different periods of time, one past and one present.

At the heart of The Girl You Left Behind is a painting entitled, well, The Girl You Left Behind.  Painted in the early part of the twentieth century, it is a portrait of a young woman by her artist husband.  When France is drawn into WWI, Edouard must leave to fight, and his loving portrait of her is all Sophie has of him.  In his absence, Sophie Lefévre returns to her hometown of St. Péronne to run the family restaurant/hotel with her younger brother and older sister, whose husband is also fighting at the Front.  When German forces take over the town, Sophie and her sister are forced to prepare and serve meals to German soldiers.  The Kommandant becomes fixated on Sophie’s portrait, and then on Sophie herself, and Sophie, desperate to protect her family and be reunited with her husband, makes a perilous decision.

Abruptly, the story jumps ahead to the present (minus a decade or so).  Liv Halston still grieves for the husband who died suddenly four years previous.  Alone and floundering in the Glass House she shared with him, on the verge of bankruptcy, Paul McCafferty enters her life by way of rescuing a damsel in distress – or more accurately, a drunk Liv who has her purse stolen at a bar.  Predictably, the two fall for each other, and for the first time in four years, Liv begins to feel alive again.  Until Paul notices the exquisite painting hanging in Liv’s bedroom, which happens to be the subject of a restitution claim which he is handling for the firm he works for – a firm that recovers artwork lost or stolen during wartime.

Their budding romance comes to a screeching halt, and Liv and Paul find themselves on opposite sides of an increasingly contentious case involving the history and rightful ownership of the painting, The Girl You Left Behind.  Liv is almost maniacally determined to keep the painting at any cost – and indeed, the cost begins to become absurd – because her late husband gave it to her, and so her emotional attachment to it runs deep.  The Lefévre family insists that it was stolen by the Germans during the First World War, however, and they are determined to have it returned to its rightful ownership.  Complicating matters further is the fact that the painting is deemed to be worth a small fortune.

In her determination to retain the painting, Liv undertakes a mission to learn everything she can about the painting’s history and origins, and the more she learns, the more unsettled she is.  What happened to Sophie Lefévre, and how did her portrait end up in the hands of an American journalist living in Spain?

I was completely drawn into Sophie’s story, but found myself frustrated, and even a little disgusted by the present-day Liv.  Her utter refusal to even contemplate giving up the painting even in the face of mounting evidence of its tainted background made me dislike her principles, which made it difficult to like or even root for her.  I won’t spoil the ending, but … well, read it for yourself.

Although both Sophie’s and Liv’s stories are full of unlikelihoods, the novel is no less enjoyable because of them.  Moyes again delivers rich characters and settings, and an intricate story that is compulsively readable.  As with Moyes’s other works, have some tissues handy.

Tacked onto the end of the novel is Moyes’s novella, Honeymoon in Paris, which is the prequel to The Girl You Left Behind, previously available only as an e-book.  The novella is okay – definitely a romantic comedy as opposed to the romantic drama that is the main novel.

My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

9781451698077_300x459 My Notorious Life: A Novel

by Kate Manning

I was intrigued by this book, as it promised to be another novel that delves into midwifery, a favorite topic of mine.  As it turns out, though, this historical fiction is about much more than midwifery in the nineteenth century.  At its heart, this story has a feminist thread running through it, and it’s very much about how women and their rights and bodies have historically been under the rule and at the mercy of men.

The story opens with twelve-year old Axie Muldoon, her younger sister and baby brother huddled on a street corner in the slums of mid-nineteenth century New York.  The children of Irish immigrants, their father has recently died and their mother has been badly injured in a work accident, leaving the family penniless and near starving.  A man from the Children’s Aid Society happens upon the children, and in short order they are shepherded onto an orphan train bound for the midwest, with promises of a better life.  Dutchie and baby Joe, Axie’s young siblings, are soon adopted, much to Axie’s deep grief; through a string of circumstances, Axie ends up back in New York, where she finds her mother, now an amputee, remarried and pregnant.  Her mother soon dies from complications from childbirth, and now Axie is truly an orphan.  She is taken in by the midwife who tried but was unable to save her mother’s life, and Axie soon becomes apprentice to this “female physician.”  Eventually, Axie learns that Mrs. Evans’s practice is not limited to delivering babies; she also prescribes “conception preventatives” and performs abortions.

The story spans many years, and running parallel to the story of Axie’s humble beginnings and rise to notoriety as “Madame Debeausacq” is a love story – that of Axie and a boy she met on the orphan train who later becomes her husband.

When Axie and Charlie marry, Mrs. Evans has died, leaving Axie unemployed, and Charlie’s wages are a printer barely keep them fed.  Axie begins preparing and selling medicines for female complaints, and soon she and Charlie are making money hand over fist.  That their abortive medicines – meant to “clear obstructions” in ladies – are in such high demand is telling.  Women of that time had little control over their own reproductive destinies and very often kept producing children until it killed them, or until they had too many mouths to feed.  Children and families were starving and impoverished, orphanages were overflowing, and women very often had nowhere to turn.  Madame Debeausacq was an angel of mercy with her medicines and, soon, operations to clear female obstructions.

Inevitably, the law comes after Axie, though, and, well . . . I won’t say more.

Loosely based on the real Ann Trow Lohman aka Madame Restell (fascinating stuff!), this story forces us to examine our ideas of morality and how far into people’s – especially women’s, since women have always been very much the victims of a patriarchal society – reproductive lives the law should reach, while illustrating the hypocrisy that still exists of decrying abortion, and in some cases even contraception, as immoral or even criminal (and certainly “sinful”) while refusing to develop a societal framework in which all women and children have access to the basic necessities to be able to live healthy, meaningful lives.

The subject matter is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it immensely.