Category: Read My Own Damn Books

Snow Falling on Cedars

Cover image for Snow Falling on Cedarsby David Guterson

ISBN 0-679-76402-X

“She was of this place and she was not of this place, and though she might desire to be an American, it was clear, as her mother said, that she had the face of America’s enemy and would always have such a face.”

It is 1954, and Japanese-American World War II veteran Kabuo Miyamoto has been charged with the murder of fellow fisherman and veteran Carl Heine. His trial begins in the midst of a snow storm that has struck the town of Amity Harbour, on the island of San Piedro off the coast of Washington State. Reporting on the trial is Ishmael Chambers, who inherited the small local paper from his father when he returned from the war. Carl was a solo gill-netter fisherman, and his body was pulled from the ocean, caught in his own nets, after the boat was found drifting off the coast on a foggy September morning. In the grip of the snow storm and the trial, the islanders are forced to face old grudges and deep seated prejudices as the evidence against Kabuo mounts.

Ishmael’s coverage of the trial is complicated by the fact that the accused’s wife, Hatsue, was his first love before the war, and he has never gotten over losing her. Indeed, he still entertains shameful fantasies of winning her back, even as her husband’s life hangs in the balance. Ishmael lost his arm during the war, fighting in the Pacific Theater, and it has bitterly tainted his perception of the island’s Japanese-American residents, even as he clings obsessively to his feelings for Hatsue. However, this is not the only unfinished business being raised by the trial. Before the war, the Miyamoto family had entered into a clandestine arrangement with Carl Heine’s father to purchase seven acres of strawberry land, which would be placed in Kabuo’s name once he came of age, due to the fact that first generation Japanese immigrants could not own land. But they were interned before they could finish their payments, and when Carl Sr. died while his son was away at war, his wife took the opportunity to sell the entire farm.

Snow Falling on Cedars opens on Kabuo’s trial, though it takes some pages for David Guterson to reveal what he is charged with. Indeed, it is in general a novel that peels back in slow layers, as one witness after another takes the stand, and flashbacks are interleaved with the present moment. The pacing is slow and steady. The witnesses give their testimony when their time comes to take the stand, but through the limited omniscient narrator, we are also able to see the things they are thinking about, but not saying. Some are entirely insignificant to the plot—the coroner for example, thinks about how, during the autopsy, he noticed that the deceased’s penis was much larger than his—but other omissions are much more consequential. The coroner does not mention in his testimony that he told the sheriff that the blow to Carl Heine’s head reminded him of wounds he saw delivered by kendo-trained Japanese soldiers during the war, a comment that may have primed the sheriff to suspect Miyamoto.

What fills in the slower pacing of the novel is the ambience of the Pacific Northwest island setting, despite the fact that the story takes place in the midst of an uncharacteristic snow storm. San Piedro is a fictional island that would be part of the San Juans if it existed, but it draws inspiration from Guterson’s home, Bainbridge Island, in the Puget Sound just off Seattle. Guterson pays great attention to detail as he describes both salmon fishing and strawberry farming, the two main industries on the island. The beaches and cedar forests serve as the sites of Ishmael and Hatsue’s budding but forbidden romance. What begins as innocent child’s play on the beaches must take covert shelter among the ancient trees when they become adolescents. Though fewer scenes take place there, the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar, California, feels visceral and immediate. Manzanar is the more literal incarnation of the dark undercurrent that runs beneath the more romantic, pastoral portrayal of Amity Harbour.

An obvious comparison can be made between Snow Falling on Cedars and To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel Guterson regularly taught as a high school English teacher with a budding novel in his desk drawer. But neither Nels Gudmunson, the lawyer, nor Ishmael Chambers, the journalist, is Atticus Finch, at least not as he appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird. They might perhaps be closer to the earlier incarnation of the character recently revealed in Go Set a Watchman. And the narrative is complicated by the fact that Kabuo is not obviously innocent, even though prejudice certainly played a role in his arrest. For most of the story, Kabuo refuses to speak to anyone, even his lawyer, about what really happened that night out on the water, and so the reader, too, is left in the dark, piecing together the clues along with the jury, even as we enjoy a more omniscient perspective, privy to some characters’ internal thoughts.

Snow Falling on Cedars is somewhat of a murder mystery, even though it is more ponderously paced than most pager-turners of that genre. Rather, it is more concerned with how human nature shapes such an investigation and prosecution, subtly or not so subtly dictated by preconceived notions and the weight of the past. The truth is slowly revealed, even while the reader is left with the impression of how easily it could have been buried forever.

___

You might also like:

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Binti: Home

binti-homeby Nnedi Okorafor

eISBN 978-0-7653-9310-4

“Tribal hatred lived, even in Oomza Uni. And today that hatred, after simmering for a year, was coming to a head.”

Having succeeded in negotiating a tentative peace between the Meduse and Oomza Uni after the attack on the Third Fish transport, Binti and Okwu have settled in as students on the university planet. Binti is supposed to be a master harmonizer, but ever since the attack, she has been experiencing violent mood swings, feeling almost uncontrollable flashes of anger that have convinced her she is unclean. To purge herself, Binti decides it is time to travel home, and make the traditional Himba women’s pilgrimage. But returning to Earth will mean making her first space trip since the attack, and facing up to the consequences of defying tradition when she chose to leave her family behind to attend university.

Binti returns to Earth after a year at Oomza Uni, with Okwu as her travelling companion. Okwu is the first Meduse to ever visit Earth for a peaceful purpose, and their arrival at a Khoush spaceport causes a great stir. This serves to highlight just how tentative the peace with the Meduse is. Over their first year of study, Okwu has been in constant conflict with its human teacher, and Binti has the sense that the fact that war has been forbidden only makes the Meduse want it more. Despite being regarded as a hero at Oomza Uni, her friendship with Okwu has prevented her from making any other close friends there.

Although Nnedi Okorafor begins Home with a fight, for the most part, it is a quieter affair than the first Binti  novella, focusing on interpersonal relationships, including social and familial constructs and traditions. When Binti comes home, she must face the fact that she has disturbed the line of succession in her family, abdicating her place as her father’s heir in the astrolabe business, and also forfeit her position as a woman within Himba society. No man will want to marry her, as her old friend Dele makes abundantly clear, and her family’s emotions are a warring mix of pride in her accomplishments and anger at her abandonment of their way of life.

The most interesting part of Home takes place when Binti makes an unexpected detour to visit the Desert People, known among themselves as the Enyi Zinariya. Binti’s father is descended from them, but this is considered a shameful fact, never spoken of, and Binti is embarrassed by the darker skin and bushier hair she inherited from her father, though her hair has now been replaced by Meduse okuoko. After highlighting the tension between the Khoush and the Himba in Binti, Okorafor takes it a step further here, exploring the people who are looked down upon by the Himba, just as the Khoush look down on them. In making peace with herself after the traumatic events that took place aboard the Third Fish, Binti must confront the part of her heritage she has denied and been taught to be ashamed of.

The character and world-building in Home may be stronger than the action, but the pace picks up in the last five percent of the book, heading towards a cliff-hanger ending that promises a more eventful third installment in the Binti series. Whereas in the first volume, Binti looked out to the stars and dared to imagine a bigger life for herself, here she must come home into order to look within, and reconcile her dreams with her roots. While Binti is beginning to feel a bit more like a serialized novel than stand-alone novellas, I nevertheless look forward to the next volume. The third Binti story is titled The Night Masquerade, and is due out in September 2017.

___

Also by Nnedi Okorafor:

Who Fears Death

Norse Mythology

Cover image for Norse Mythology by Neil Gaimanby Neil Gaiman

ISBN 978-0-393-60909-7

“There were things Thor did when something went wrong. The first thing he did was ask himself if what had happened was Loki’s fault. Thor pondered. He did not believe that even Loki would have dared to steal his hammer. So he did the next thing he did when something went wrong, and went to ask Loki for advice.”

In the beginning, there was nothing but the mist world and the fire world. From these came Ymir, a giant both male and female, the first of all beings. Ymir was slain by Odin, called the all-father, for Odin both created the gods that you will read about here, and breathed life into the first humans. In these pages, Thor will acquire his famous hammer, the mighty Mjollnir. Loki will get his fellow gods into and out of trouble countless times, until he finally plays the trick that will lose him their trust once and for all. Witness the creation of the great walls of Asgard, the genesis of the gift of poetry, and the source of the gods’ immortality, as retold by Neil Gaiman.

Norse Mythology begins with a brief introduction chronicling Gaiman’s fascination with the Norse myths that have been carried down through the centuries. This section lasts only about six pages, and I would have been interested in further reflections on the place of Norse myths in our contemporary world, and how we relate to them today. Given the role these myths have played in Gaiman’s own works, he seems ideally suited to ponder the topic at greater length than the introduction affords. In this introduction, Gaiman identifies Ragnarok—the final battle—as a crucial element in his fascination; the Norse myths felt cyclical and alive thanks to this tradition of death and rebirth, and the inevitable end of all things, even the gods. Gaiman also briefly points out Norse gods whose names we know, but whose stories we do not have, because they were not recorded or passed down, before getting down to actually retelling the stories that are recorded.

Gaiman arranges the stories in a sequence that begins with the genesis of the nine worlds, proceeds through the creation of humanity, and finishes (or begins again) with Ragnarok, the “final destiny of the gods.” This arrangement speaks to the tantalizing cyclical nature of Norse mythology that Gaiman points to in the introduction as having so thoroughly captured his imagination as a child. The stories start out short, more informative than immersive, laying the necessary groundwork for understanding the mythos. Then Gaiman digs more heartily into the body of the work, obviously delighting in tales such as “The Mead of the Poets” and “The Last Days of Loki.” The tone ranges from humourous to epic, though much of the dialogue can be curiously modern throughout.

Most of the stories in the book are about Odin, Thor, and Loki, though other gods feature as well. My favourite of these was Kvasir, even if his role in the narrative is rather gruesome. As Gaiman points out in the introduction, there are many stories we don’t have, and gods who are remembered by name alone, their deeds and powers mostly forgotten. But Gaiman works well with what remains, particularly with the relationship between Loki and the other Asgardians. Gaiman mines the strange reliance and concurrent mistrust of this clever figure who was adopted among the Aesir. This relationship is particularly evident in “Freya’s Unusual Wedding,” in which Loki is charged with helping Thor retrieve his stolen hammer. Before going to Loki to seek help, Thor must first ask himself if Loki was responsible for the theft.

It is interesting to see in these tales similarities and connections to other mythologies and religious systems. Odin hangs from the world tree, his side pierced by a spear, not unlike Christ on the cross. There are three Norns, sisters very similar to the Fates of Greek mythology. The first man and woman are called Ask and Embla, not unlike the Christian Adam and Eve, though the Norse versions are created from wood rather than clay. The connections run deep and wide as the different traditions echo in surprising ways. Of course, as Gaiman points out in the introduction, the Norse myths that have come down to us were recorded after the coming of the Christianity, and it can be difficult to trace what was the root, and what was added later through comingling.

Norse Mythology includes an eight page glossary, which is helpful if you are reading the stories over a period time, because minor characters or artefacts reappear later, often with greater significance. I got quite confused at one point over whether Vali was the son of Odin or the son of Loki, but as the glossary so helpfully points out, there are actually two Valis. Many of the stories Gaiman chooses to retell here are in some way significant to the coming of Ragnarok, which is the final tale in the book, so the glossary is especially welcome as you reach that final convergence.

What begins with a patient laying of groundwork for the Norse mythos builds into epic levels of tension and mistrust as Ragnarok approaches. The gods in Gaiman’s hands are both powerful heroes and petty grudge-holders, sometimes magnanimous, but often untrustworthy. It is a retelling that feels at once fresh and accurate.

___

You might also like Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Born a Crime

born-a-crimeby Trevor Noah

ISBN 978-0-385-68922-9

“The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.”

When Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984, his existence was literally illegal, proof that his black, Xhosa mother and his white, Swiss-German father had violated the Immorality Act of 1927, one of the many laws defining the system known as apartheid. The crime carried a punishment of four to five years in prison, and mixed race children were often seized and placed in state-run orphanages. But Noah’s mother was determined and clever, and she managed to hold onto her son, refusing to flee her home country in order to raise him. But it made his childhood complicated, even after apartheid officially ended in 1994. Racial hierarchies and inequities persisted, and despite receiving a good education, his upbringing was anything but easy. In a series of essays, Born a Crime chronicles Noah’s experience growing up under apartheid and its aftermath.

Noah opens with an effective hook; when he was eight or nine years old, his mother threw him out of a moving vehicle. From there he relates his extremely religious upbringing, eventually circling back to the incident that led his mother to push him out of a moving minibus on their way home from church. By then the reader has a much better sense of the context, both political, and personal, that led to the event. In addition to an interesting life, Noah also has a good sense of pacing and narrative style that make his recollections particularly illuminating, as is clear from the first chapter.

Noah is observant, and able to clearly convey the absurdity of the system he was born under while also explaining its function for a North American audience that is probably not terribly familiar with the ins and outs of apartheid. Each section opens with some background history that helps contextualize the story from his life that he is about to tell. This means that the episodes themselves are not overly bogged down with explanation, and readers who are already familiar with South African history can skip much of the exposition. He also highlights important differences in the ways systemic racism has functioned in South Africa when compared to the United States. The most important point to note in terms of understanding his narrative is that the word ‘colored’ in South Africa refers to a mixed race person. Whereas the American “one drop” rule made anyone with any African blood black, mixed race people formed their own category in South Africa, separate from both black and white.

An aspect of the memoir that I found particularly interesting and revealing was Noah’s discussion of language and its power. South Africa has several official languages, including English and Afrikaans, as well as a variety of indigenous languages like Xhosa and Zulu. Noah grew up multi-lingual, criss-crossing language boundaries in the same way that he crossed racial ones. Describing the way language could make him into a chameleon, he writes “My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I answered in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.” For white or colored people, it was considered demeaning to learn African languages, but a black person speaking good English could be considered uppity in the wrong context. Rifts between different African groups could be crossed by speaking their language. Children in schools in the tribal homelands were taught only their native language, the better to divide them from other black tribes. This is an interesting contrast to the strategy employed against indigenous people in North America, who were stripped of their native languages in order to divide them from their culture and heritage, and assimilate them.

Trevor Noah is known as a comedian, successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show. But while there is an understated humour present in Born a Crime, for the most part it is memoir, not comedy. The humour comes mostly in the form of sly comments, such as when he describes his mother’s determination to attend church three times every Sunday: “The more time we spent at church, she reckoned, the more blessings we accrued, like a Starbucks Rewards Card.” However, there are some episodes that are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the time when Noah’s fear of using the outhouse while visiting his mother’s family in the Soweto Township led to his family becoming convinced that there was a demon in the house. For the most part, however, these are leavening incidents in an otherwise serious account of his childhood. This memoir highlights the insightfulness that, while essential to any good comedian, can also be put to other purposes.

___

You might also like Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow

The World’s Strongest Librarian

Cover image for The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarneby Josh Hanagarne

ISBN 978-1-592-40877-1

“I finally had verification of something I had long suspected—there was a daily intensity quota that had to be met. I had to expend a certain amount of energy on tics each day. It could be meted out over many small tics, or a few dozen huge ones.”

Librarians come in many stripes, and a 6’7” weight lifter with Tourette Syndrome is just one of them. Raised Mormon in Utah, Josh Hanagarne was a bookish kid who developed uncontrollable tics when he was in elementary school, though it would take him many years to get a proper diagnosis. The World’s Strongest Librarian chronicles the many ways that Tourette Syndrome interrupted his life. It cut short the mission he was expected to serve for his church, dragged out his university career so that it took him ten years to graduate, and kept him from holding down a job for very long.  But the book is also a paean to libraries, and an examination of family and faith, as Hanagarne finds his calling, gets married, and comes to question the church in which he was raised.

If you look at the Quotes section of Goodreads for this book, almost every passage is about the power and place of libraries in our society. And while that aspect of the book certainly resonated with me, the most illuminating part was Hanagarne’s attempt to help the reader understand what it feels like to have Tourette’s. He does a good job of articulating the experience of these unexpected outbursts, which for him include both physical and verbal tics. He describes them as building up like a sneeze until they need to be released. But instead of dissipating, the next “sneeze” begins to build up almost immediately. He also explains what it costs him to supress a tic, which he manages to do in church or on airplanes, for limited amounts of time. The cost is very loud and violent outbursts later, as if a certain amount of energy must be spent each day, either in small doses, or larger outpourings. This has a significant effect on tendons and joints, which have to bear the violent, repetitive motions. The condition is such a large force in his life that Hanagarne has personified it, nicknaming her Misty.

What seems to be more difficult for Hanagarne to articulate is the method by which he sought relief. Although weightlifting was part of it, he was lifting long before he met Adam T. Glass, the autistic former air-force sergeant who helped him get a handle on the tics. I can’t say the method entirely makes sense to me, but if I was Hanagarne, I know that I would do whatever helped in order to get relief. Glass’s theory seems to have something to do with listening to the body in order to feel how it wants to move, applying this to both weightlifting and breathing, but I can’t say I exactly understood the concept, and Hanagarne also seems to have trouble explaining it clearly.

Another interesting area of Hanagarne’s memoir is his examination of religion and faith. He hits the nail on the head when he writes about the immersive culture of Mormonism. It isn’t just a religion, it is a way of life, with built-in community and social activities than can become all-encompassing. Hanagarne spends a lot of time describing this culture, which may be insightful for those who know little about the religion, or tiresome for those who are well versed. But if you have ever wondered about what Mormon missionaries do when they’re not knocking on your door, Hanagarne gives a good account, up until he had to leave his mission early due to an increase in the severity of his Tourette’s symptoms, which included punching himself in the face. Hanagarne provides a considered look at what it means to detach from such an immersive faith tradition, especially when your family is still involved.

The World’s Strongest Librarian is an interesting and well-rounded memoir, with aspects that may appeal to a variety of readers, whether you are looking to read about a fellow book lover, or to understand Mormonism or Tourette Syndrome better. Hanagarne tackles all these subjects with humour and self-deprecation.

Kushiel’s Dart

Cover image for Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey by Jacqueline Carey

ISBN 978-0-7653-4298-0

“Such a small thing on which to hinge a fate. Nothing more than a mote, a fleck, a mere speck of color. If it had been any other hue, perhaps it would have been a different story.”

Abandoned by her parents on the doorstep of the Night Court—home to the courtesans of Terre D’Ange—Phèdre is groomed for a life of service to Naamah in the City of Elua. But a red spot in her left eye marks her unfit to officially serve in the Night Court, so her marque is sold to the courtier Anafiel Delaunay, who raises her up to be a spy as well as a courtesan. Delaunay is also the only one to recognize what the red mote in her eye betokens; Phèdre is marked by Blessed Elua’s companion Kushiel, and she is an anguisette, doomed to take her pleasure in pain. Without knowing the depths in which is swimming, Phèdre stumbles upon the key to a plot that threatens the Crown, and indeed Terre D’Ange itself.

Jacqueline Carey has built and elaborate world and religious system in Kushiel’s Dart, one that defies quick explanation. Indeed, the first hundred or so pages of the book have very little plot, and mostly contain exposition and world-building, which may be a hard sell for some readers to get past. The tone can also be somewhat baroque, as Phèdre is formally relating her adventures sometime after the fact. Carey’s world has very clear parallels to our Europe, but the story of Elua and his companions makes for a unique culture in which to set the story. Of those cast down from heaven to follow Elua, Naamah served by selling her body, and so in Terre D’Ange, courtesans are something akin to priestesses, practicing a holy art that is governed by custom and contract. Despite the information dumping to set this all up, I admire the way there is such a logical structure behind D’Angeline culture being kinkier, more sex-positive, and more accepting of open relationships than our own world—it is literally built into their religious system, and their way of life is logical extension of that. The sex scenes also tend to tie into the plot, as Phèdre seeks out information for Delaunay.

This isn’t our world, so it is difficult to label the characters in our terms, but most D’Angelines are what we might term bisexual. Once she enters the service of Naamah, Phèdre accepts assignations with both men and women, as does her foster brother Alcuin. This is not merely a matter of the Night Court and courtesans, however; Delaunay is also known to have loved both men and women, though some characters clearly have a preference one way or another. And of course, the great houses must make marriages to perpetual their lineage. Though both of Phèdre’s main romantic interests are men, she is captivated by her patron Melisande Shahrizai, a descendant of Kushiel’s house who understands and appreciates what it means to be an anguisette in a way that neither of the men do. But Melisande is also a wily and untrustworthy political player, to whom Phèdre cannot really give her heart.

Once the world is established, the narrative itself is a potent mix of sex and politics. King Ganelon de la Courcel is old, and his heir is his granddaughter Ysandre, who is as yet unmarried, though many have bid for her hand and failed. The succession was destabilized by the death of Ysandre’s father, Rolande, who was a killed in a famous battle driving back the Skaldi from the D’Angeline border. As Ganelon ails, the nobility are quietly skirmishing to upend the succession for their own gain. Anafiel Delaunay is somehow mixed up in the intrigue, and Phèdre and Alcuin spy at his bidding, but he does not reveal his full hand to them. This will lead Phèdre into adventures she never could have imagined when she pledged herself to Naamah’s service. Even as the succession is imperiled, Terre D’Ange is on the brink of war with Skaldia once more.

In many respects, this will be a series that is not for all readers. It is a romantic fantasy, but the sex scenes are explicit, and many of them are also violent; god-touched as she is, Phèdre is not so much kinky as we would recognize it as she is an utter masochist who takes pleasure in being subjected to violence that would be beyond the pale in reality. And while being a courtesan is a respected role in Terre D’Ange, this is not the case in other countries, and once Phèdre starts to travel, the situation gets a little murkier. I would recommend caution for anyone who has experienced sexual abuse or rape. But those who are up for it are in for a twisty, sex-positive political fantasy with many intricate layers.

___

You might also like Uprooted by Naomi Novik

All the Light We Cannot See

Cover image for All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

ISBN 978-1-4767-4658-6

“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”

In 1934, at the age of six, Marie-Laure LeBlanc lost her eyesight. Her father, Daniel LeBlanc, is a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He builds Marie-Laure a scale model of their neighbourhood to help her navigate, and she spends her days with him at the Museum, reading Jules Verne in Braille. But their peaceful life is upset by the German invasion, and they flee the Nazi occupation of Paris, taking refuge in the coastal town of Saint-Malo.  Unbeknownst to Marie-Laure, the Museum has entrusted her father with an item from its collection. What Daniel LeBlanc does not know is if it is the real artefact, or one of the three duplicates that was made to serve as a decoy. Meanwhile, in Germany, Werner Pfennig is orphan who lost his mother to illness and his father to the coal mines of Zollverein. He has a passion for radios and math. When war comes, these skills draw him to the attention of the Reich, and he is selected to attend a special military prep school where talented young Germans are indoctrinated into National Socialism.

Anthony Doerr builds a sense of destiny into his sweeping, interwoven narrative of two children on opposite sides of World War II. Long before Marie-Laure and Werner’s paths finally come together in the siege of Saint-Malo in August 1944, Werner lies in bed at night with his repaired radio, picking up the distant broadcast of a French professor who discusses science. The voice belongs to Marie-Laure’s grandfather, who died in the Great War, but whose voice lives on in the recordings he produced. The book is overwrought with these tiny details that eventually flow together with a sense of inevitability. Doerr employs an extremely intricate time line that weaves back and forth through history at very short intervals—the chapters are usually only a handful of pages long, though sometimes it is only the point of view character and not the time period that changes. This works in the sense that the siege of Saint-Malo—with which the story begins and keeps returning to—is the part of the story that has the most tension, but it also makes the timeline of the story complicated to follow.

Marie-Laure is totally blind for most of the story, and her main form of navigation involves counting storm drains with her cane. Her father builds her two models, first a replica of their Paris neighbourbood, in the time before the war, and then a second when they flee to take refuge with his uncle in Saint-Malo on the Brittany Coast. These scale models are designed to teach Marie-Laure the shape of her neighbourhood, so she can navigate alone. Yet her family is caught between this detailed obsession with granting her independence, and an overwhelming protectiveness that leaves her seeming childlike and strangely innocent for a person caught in the middle of an occupation.

If Marie-Laure’s family attempts to shelter her in a way that is not realistic for the times she lives in, Werner gets the opposite of protection. The military school Schulpforta is a brutal indoctrination, constantly forcing the pupils to goad one another to higher achievement, for fear of being singled out as the weakest. While Werner achieves some measure of protection when he is selected to work on a special project to track the source of radio transmissions with one of the teachers, his best friend Frederick is ill-equipped to conceal his weaknesses and his sensitivity from the other boys. Werner’s conscience is a fragile and battered thing, too often given voice only by his sister, Jutta. When he cannot justify his own actions, nor can he bear to write to his sister, who goes months without word of him. (Spoilers/Trigger Warning: Jutta was a character with interesting potential, but she is neglected for most of the story, only to be brought back on stage in the final pages to be raped by Russian soldiers in a scene that felt perfunctory and unnecessary.)

As the Germans pillage Europe’s art collections, Doerr introduces a third point of view character; Sergeant Von Rumpel is sent to track down the famous Sea of Flames, a near-mythic stone that was reportedly in the collection of the Museum of Natural History. Legend has it that the gem is both blessed and cursed; the bearer of the stone cannot die, but those around him will pay the price. Contrasted with this mythic stone is the power of technology and its pivotal role in the conflict. The radio centers in the novel from the earliest pages, when Werner and Jutta repair an old shortwave, and use it to tune into French broadcasts. As the Reich asserts more and more control over its citizens, foreign frequencies are banned, and only state-sponsored German programming is permissible. Jews are not allowed to own radios at all, and the citizens of occupied France are also required to turn in their devices. Radios are pivotal both to the spread of German propaganda and the efforts of the French Resistance.

I read this book mixed media, going through part of it in audiobook form, and then finishing it in hard copy when my download expired before I got through the book. All the Light We Cannot See is long with detailed writing, and the plot, while tense at some points, moves languidly at others. The narration of the audiobook was generally good, but would have benefited from a reader who could better pronounce the many French words. Overall, I felt the book itself worked better, as the short chapters with frequent time changes were easy to lose track of when listening to the audio version.

___

You might also like The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein