Archive for January, 2018

Basement Mole

In the winter months I am drawn
to windows; such is
the life of a basement mole.
Workdays find me
arriving in another lightless dawn
to be swallowed by
a flight of stairs that descends
beneath the frost line.
Only rarely does the opportunity
arise for me to reach
the heights of those fabled offices
with a framed view.
My kind envies the privilege of
those so graced,
even if all there is to see is a lot
of salt-grimed cars.
Which is why I tend to accept
a meeting request
that promises to elevate me from
the nether regions.
In some glassy conference room,
squinty-eyed after
claiming a window-facing seat,
my meeting minutes
document the weather outside.
I’ll blithely agree with
the collective consciousness
of those above me,
so long as no blinds are drawn.

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Washington : A Life / Ron Chernow

In this in-depth biography, Ron Chernow seemingly leaves no stone unturned as he presents the breadth of George Washington’s event-filled life. The story he tells scrubs away the myths surrounding the man to reveal the fallible figure hidden beneath History’s veneer. Chernow follows Washington’s footsteps through his adventurous early years while assisting the British in their battles against the French, his experiences of leading the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and finally his tumultuous eight years as America’s first President.

As this biography shows, Washington had more than his fair share of flaws. He craved money, status, and fame. In his personal life he remained tightfisted, engaged in questionable land speculation, and was a hard-driving slave master. And yet he also learned to master his strong passions and ambitions to spend most of his adult life in the service of his country, often at a great cost to his own pocketbook. Even more importantly, he evolved into a statesman with the necessary skills to steer a fledgling country toward its future greatness.

While he was not a particularly gifted general, he possessed a charismatic personality that drew the support and devotion of the soldiers he led. Washington was a born leader, which explains why he was the only President to be unanimously voted into office by Congress. Being a slave holder is certainly a red mark against him. However, over time, he did begin to question the legitimacy of the practice. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, upon his death George Washington freed his slaves. This was not a common practice at the time.

For those who think that politics in this country today are virulent compared to the past, reading Chernow’s description of Washington’s eight years as President is eye opening. The battle between the Federalists and the Republicans was a knock-down, no-holds-barred fight in which “fake news” and personal attacks played a prominent role. At the start of his Administration, Washington tried to favor neither party, but over time he began to support the concept of a strong central government as opposed to the preeminence of states’ rights. In this effort he was assisted by one of the leading Federalists, his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

Chernow is a master biographer, and this work on George Washington will appeal to lay readers and students alike. For those wanting a better understanding of our country’s birth and infancy, I suggest they begin with this book, then follow it with Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Together they provide an avenue to comprehend the passions and ideals of the time. The author’s descriptive prose brings these two leading “Founding Fathers” to life, peeling away the myths and gloss to show the flesh and blood beneath.

A Day Of Onions

With a jolt,
the smile in her blue eyes
awakens mine

An exclamation
that acknowledges more
than mere presence

In its abundance,
her happiness, a treasure-
trove shared

Momentarily alone,
we are passing ships in a
vast corridor

I’m the chance
recipient, touching a spark
not grounded

Misdelivered
perhaps, but cherished
nonetheless

A day of onions,
tempered by her honey-
sweetened glance

Impact

A freight train
with a full head of steam, November
arrives without
a brake to slow its momentum.
Resigned to
impending fate, sluggish flies await
their demise.
In the stark absence of leaves we
are completely
exposed to a season’s prying eyes.
The weight
of a cloud-lowered sky has crushed
all resolve.
What’s not already dormant will soon
succumb unless
propelled with the help of wings to
another hemisphere.
Night steadily encroaches on day.
In drab monotone,
we have reluctantly begun to forget
green’s vivid hue
as our dreams are drained of color.
Like the sun,
we feel exhausted and irrelevant.
And yet, whether
it’s with a twinge of fear or a surge
of exhilaration,
bracing ourselves for the impact,
nobody budges.

Commonwealth / Ann Patchett

This novel opens on a warm 1964 Sunday afternoon in Southern California at a christening party. An uninvited guest turns up with a bottle of gin, and once it is introduced, the entire tenor of the party changes. Suddenly, the neighborhood orange trees are being stripped for juice and other bottles of hard liquor appear as inhibitions loosen and neighbors begin to dance in the midday sun. This ultimately leads to the uninvited guest kissing the young married mother who is hosting the celebration. In this satisfying read, Ann Patchett traces the ripple effect of that kiss through the next fifty years.

Commonwealth is a history of divorce, remarriage, and two blended families. In all, there are six children thrown together to navigate the choppy waters of traveling back and forth between the homes of their parents and new stepparents. Spending their summers together in Virginia, the children share disillusionment over their respective parents. And then one summer, a tragedy strikes which joins them in a guilty secret that bonds them for life.

Each chapter features different characters, and the one who appears the most is Franny, the baby christened in the opening chapter. What soon became apparent to me is that each chapter could stand alone as a separate short story. There is nothing straightforward about the histories Patchett presents here; entire decades are skipped over and are not necessarily delivered in chronological order. Yet, by concentrating on the bits and pieces of daily lives, the author assembles a jumble of life stories composed of seemingly disjointed pieces into a completed family tapestry.

As in most clan histories, there is humor and heartbreak to be found among these pages. But those chapters resonate most in which nothing at all seems to take place. While individuals in this blended family might disappoint each other, ultimately love and responsibility are a tie no one can easily escape from. This novel presents an intimate glimpse into a family’s life story that resonates with our own. Patchett has created a detailed tale of how an illicit kiss can shape the next fifty years.

Winter Haiku

Drawn to the window
by a midnight bright as noon—
our first Full Snow Moon

Peeling an orange,
tossed zest perfumes a fire’s
memory of warmth

The wind fiddles with
its worry stone, burnishing
a crusted snowscape

Transparent ghost ships,
cartwheeling cirrus, today’s
faint entertainment

The clock’s carousel,
joining ambition, seems to
be decommissioned

Winter comes early…
Spring, the life of the party,
fashionably late

What In The World Is Robert Reading : My Favorite Reads In 2017

Below is a list of the books I’ve read in the past year, followed by abridged reviews of twelve of my favorite one.

In the order read (linked to the full review)…

Eileen / Ottessa Moshfegh
All My Puny Sorrows /Miriam Toews
M Train / Patti Smith
Selected Fiction / Henry James
Love And Summer / William Trevor
The Way Things Were / Latish Taseer
The Girl On The Train / Paula Hawkins
What Maisie Knew / Henry James
Lady Chatterley’s Lover / D. H. Lawrence
American Heiress : The Wild Saga Of The Kidnapping, Crimes And Trial Of Patty Hearst / Jeffrey Tobin
The Basil And Josephine Stories / F. Scott Fitzgerald
Nothing Even Dies : Vietnam And The Memory Of War / Viet Thanh Nguyen
The News From Ireland & Other Stories / William Trevor
The Warden.  Barchester Towers / Anthony Trollope
Eventide / Kent Haruf
A Man Called Ove / Fredrik Backman
One More Year : Stories / Sara Krasikov
After Rain / William Trevor
Benediction / Kent Haruf
Just Kids / Patti Smith
Crucible Of War : The Seven Years’ War And The Fate Of Empire In British North America, 1754-1766 /Fred Anderson
Did You Ever Have A Family / Bill Clegg
The Blazing World / Siri Hustvedt
Middlemarch / George Eliot
The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao / Junot Diaz
Valiant Ambition : George Washington, Benedict Arnold And The Fate Of The American Revolution / Nathaniel Philbrick
Evicted : Poverty And Profit In The American City / Matthew Desmond
Journey Into The Whirlwind / Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg
Inferno : The World At War / Max Hastings
Sanctuary / William Faulkner
Dead Presidents : An American Adventure Into The Strange Deaths And Surprising Afterlives Of Our Nation’s Leaders /        William Carlson
1848 : Year Of Revolution / Mike Rapport
Learning To Drive And Other Stories / Katha Pollitt
The Sympathizer / Viet Thanh Nguyen
Our Souls At Night / Kent Haruf
The Adventures Of Augie March / Saul Bellow
Dead Men Do Tell Tales : The Strange And Fascinating Cases Of A Forensic Anthropologist / William R. Maples And Michael Browning
The Hemingses Of Monticello : An American Family / Annette Gordon-Reid
Sense And Sensibility / Jane Austen
Neither Here Nor There / Bill Bryson
The Whites / Richard Price Writing As Harry Brandt
A Manual For Cleaning Women : Selected Stories / Lucia Berlin
The Blood Of Emmett Till / Timothy B. Tyson
All The Light We Cannot See / Anthony Doerr
Pride And Prejudice / Jane Austen

_______________________________________________________________________________________

All My Puny Sorrows / Miriam Toews

This novel focuses on two sisters, Elf and Yoli, and their strong family network. On the surface, Elfrieda’s life is one that most people would envy. She is a world-renowned classical pianist, has traveled the world, and is happily married. Yolandi, on the other hand, is the one who at midlife still has not gotten her act together. She is divorced, has two children by different men, and the books she has authored have not caught the attention of the greater world. And yet looks are often deceiving. Elf has long suffered from major depression and desires to end her life. Not only that, she has already attempted suicide twice, only to be discovered and rescued by family members.

Yoli serves as the story’s chronicler, and what a delightful narrator she makes. Her messy life is presented with humor despite a number of unexpected tragedies. It helps that her mother and aunt (fabulous characters who deserve starring roles in another story) are constant presences, there to provide emotional support and set a positive example with their resiliency.

There is certainly plenty of sorrow on display in this novel. And yet the the tone throughout is humorous, showing the importance of family no matter what the difficulty, and how laughter heals in a time of tears. Some might call this novel dark. I disagree. Its message is not one of loss, but rather a declaration of love’s triumph in the darkest of times.

M Train / Patti Smith

Patti Smith first became well-known as a musician in the 1970s, merging poetry and rock into a number of successful albums. While she still turns out the occasional record, Smith is probably best known now as an author. In 2010, she won the National Book Award for Just Kids, a book that chronicled her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the late sixties and seventies. M Train is another work of nonfiction, one in which she describes a year in her life. It also includes reflections on the past, her dreams, as well as the craft of writing and artistic creation. The opening sentence sets the stage and explains what is to follow: “It’s not easy writing about nothing.” Yet in describing the randomness of a year in her life, the puzzle pieces assemble to provide fascinating revelations about Smith’s personality and history.

M Train is a book about nothing, and yet it is about everything important in Smith’s life. Reading it is like sitting down with this artist in a café over a cup of coffee and spending hours captivated by her remarks. She is a woman who has always lived and dreamed “outside the lines.” In one of her dreams, she asks the spirit of Osamu Dazai, a renowned Japanese writer: “What is nothing?” He answers: “It is what you can see of your eyes without a mirror.” This book is Smith’s attempt to take the reader to that important place of nothingness.

The Blazing World / Siri Hustvedt

The Blazing World is an ingeniously constructed piece of fiction. It is presented as a posthumous sampler featuring excerpts from the diaries of Harriet (“Harry”) Burden, an artist who created dazzling (and often frightening) multimedia installations from the 1970s to her death in 2004. The sampler also features critical reviews of her work and interviews with her family, friends, and collaborators.

Harriet is an amazing character, a flawed protagonist filled with rage, an intense creative energy, and a neediness to have her artistic endeavors acknowledged and acclaimed. In her fifties, she comes to believe that the reason that her work has been dropped from galleries is because of her sex and age. To prove her hypothesis, she decides to produce a series of installations for which she enlists men to present as their own work.

In this novel Harriet Burden wears many masks, and the glimpses into her diaries reveal a complex personality, obviously creative and intellectual, but also often crippled by self-doubt despite her aggressive public persona. The Blazing World is a dazzling read, one that touches upon numerous subjects, including art history, philosophy, and even neurobiology. It is a novel that engages both the mind and the heart. The book’s title is well-chosen, for this story does blaze with the energy that creativity generates.

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao / Junot Diaz

Oscar De León, nicknamed Oscar Wao (a bastardization of Oscar Wilde), an overweight young Dominican man, is the ultimate nerd. Obsessed with science fiction, comic books, and writing fantasy stories, his childhood is a lonely one. As he grows older, he falls in love with a number of women, but for the most part he is too shy to approach any of them. His greatest fear is that he will die a virgin. Surprisingly, Oscar makes the perfect vehicle for the author to tell the greater story of the Dominican Republic’s sad story.

Through flashbacks that introduce his grandparents, mother, and other members of the family, the reader is provided with details surrounding the cruel reign of Trujillo (nicknamed El Jefe), the country’s ruler from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Oscar’s forebears dared to defy Trujillo and suffered serious consequences – his family was branded with a fuku, essentially a curse, for generations to come. The story’s narrator for most of the book is Yunior, a friend of Oscar’s and someone who is in love with his sister Lola. Yunior’s narration swings back and forth from Caribbean vernacular, often profane, to a more academic tone, complete with footnotes. Sprinkled throughout are references to Lord Of The Rings, which creatively compare Trujillo’s rule to the Dark Lord Sauron.  It is the rare novel that succeeds in telling a personal story which illustrates the history of an entire country.

Evicted : Poverty And Profit In The American City / Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond convincingly argues in Evicted that policy makers have overlooked a major cause of poverty in this country – the high cost of rental housing in cities across America. In this ethnographic study, he follows eight families/individuals in Milwaukee, showing how they struggle (and often fail) to keep a roof above their heads.  Desmond interweaves the narratives of individuals living in a trailer park on the fringes of the city’s south side with those of tenants on the poverty-ridden north side. Both have become areas where the economically disadvantaged are usually restricted to when seeking housing.

As he shows, this is not because the rental properties in these areas are more affordable; it turns out to be just the opposite. Housing is typically expensive, and yet, worse still, barely habitable. So why do the people Desmond follows in this study live where they do? It is because they have no other choice. Due to poor credit history, being branded with past evictions, and landlords’s racial bias, they are turned away from affordable and more desirable rentals in better parts of the city.  This means that those living below or near the poverty line end up spending at least half of their income on rent alone. Any kind of emergency, such as job loss or illness, results in falling behind on their rent as they try to keep the heat on and their families fed. This leads to eviction notices from landlords, which sends these individuals, many with young children, into a mad scramble to find another place to live.

The people portrayed here are often their own worst enemies. Desmond does not try to put makeup on them. They often foolishly spend what money they have, are single parents with numerous children, and a good many abuse drugs or are engaged in prostitution to make ends meet. Yet Desmond’s descriptions of their lives also highlight their dignity and generosity. Most of them give money they cannot afford to lose to help friends and family in desperate straits.  What Evicted does best is to present the cause and effect of this housing issue, putting a human face on a topic most of us would rather ignore or simply place the blame on the poor themselves. The author’s masterful research and writing elevates the issue into one of a basic right. No matter where one falls on the political spectrum, this book persuades that our country needs to step back and reconsider the issue with fresh eyes.

Journey Into The Whirlwind / Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg was a professor and an active member of the Communist Party who, in 1937, was caught up in Stalin’s Great Purge. Accused of participating in a “counter-revolutionary group,” she was found guilty and sentenced to ten years of solitary confinement. Journey Into The Whirlwind is her account of the events leading up to her arrest and the first three years of imprisonment. Ultimately, Ginzburg would spend the next eighteen years in the Russian gulag system.

Stalin’s Great Purge was a campaign of political repression in the Soviet Union. From 1936 to 1938 it involved a large-scale purge of the Communist Party and its government officials, all who were accused of being “saboteurs” or “counter-revolutionaries,” most found guilty based on forced confessions after being tortured. It has been estimated that at least 600,000 people died during this Purge. Ginzburg, who never did confess despite months of daily interrogations, barely escaped execution and was given a ten-year sentence of solitary confinement.

Journey Into The Whirlwind is a heart-breaking account of all that she and the other women prisoners around her endured from 1937 to 1940. It is also an uplifting story of her indefatigable spirit and the kindness of fellow prisoners who provided support at various times when she was near death herself.  Ginzburg has an amazing eye for detail and her story of survival is a gripping one from beginning to end. With honest poignancy, she created a “lest-we-forget” masterpiece that will continue to resonate with readers for generations to come.

Dead Presidents : An American Adventure Into The Strange Deaths And Surprising Afterlives Of Our Nation’s Leaders / Brady Carlson

In this humorous, informative book, Brady Carlson travels across America visiting Presidential grave sites, museums, monuments and memorials. What he finds provides us with rich details of our leaders’ contributions to American history.  His writing stye is colorful and highly readable. Diving into this book is like spending time with a gifted tour guide who quickly becomes a good friend. He shifts from the somber to the macabre with ease, and yet his stories remain amusing throughout, all the while without belittling any of our past presidents.

What most interested me is how he contrasts the ways in which the different presidents were viewed at the time of their deaths as compared to later years. He also shows that the way we memorialize our presidents reveals more about America than it does about them.  He ends his book describing the ”Marshfield Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival and Presidential Family Reunion and Missouri Walk of Fame.” This is an annual event that draws the descendants of past presidents, giving them a chance to interact and reflect on what it is like to be a relative of such famous figures. Who would have guessed there is such a festival? Thanks to Carlson’s reporting skills, this and many other facts are revealed along the way, to the the reader’s delight.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales : The Strange And Fascinating Cases Of A Forensic Anthropologist / William R. Maples and Michael Browning

Forensic anthropology involves the examination of human skeletal remains for law enforcement agencies to determine the identity of unidentified bones, as well as to provide evidence in murder investigations. Maples, a noted forensic anthropologist, worked at the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory at the the Florida Museum of Natural History.  Dead Men Do Tell Tales chronicles his career, highlighting his numerous high-profile or interesting forensic cases.

Over the years he was involved in investigations involving many historical figures. The list is impressive, including Francisco Pizarro, the Romanov family, Joseph Merrick (i.e. the Elephant Man), and President Zachary Taylor.  Just as fascinating are the murder cases he was called in to help solve.  As this book shows, Maples was not only a gifted forensic detective, his insightful commentary also provides a detailed history, pre- and post-mortem, of the individuals he highlights. It was published in 1994, three years before his death from a brain tumor.  While Dead Men Do Tell Tales will appeal to fans of the TV show CSI, I recommend it to a wider audience who will appreciate its insights on the importance of a profession most know little or nothing about.

The Hemingses Of Monticello : An American Family / Annette Gordon-Reed

This book presents the story of two families. Each of them grew up in the same household and were related to each other by blood ties. However, there was one glaring difference between them: one was white and free, the other black and enslaved. In The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed gives an in-depth history of Thomas Jefferson’s two families, one acknowledged, the other kept hidden.

The author proves beyond a doubt that Jefferson fathered six children with a slave on his plantation. When Jefferson married Martha Wayles as a young man, he also inherited her father’s slaves. It so happens that her father, John Wayles, had six children with one of his African-born slaves. These children, half-brothers and sisters to Martha, were moved into Jefferson’s house as slaves, where they were trained as artisans.

After Martha died in 1782, Jefferson began a relationship with her half-sister, Sally Hemings. At the time, she was a fifteen year old girl. Over the course of their thirty-eight year liaison, Sally bore him six children, four of whom survived into adulthood. Despite the fact that they were his children, all were raised as slaves and not given their freedom until much later in his life.

This masterful work goes a long way in insuring that the Hemings story will be included in our history books. The knowledge should not be used to diminish Jefferson’s many accomplishments, but rather, merely to show he failed to live up to the principles he extolled on the political stage.  While Sally Hemings and her children were freed following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the sad fact remains that many of the Hemings family members were sold at auction six months after his death. The Hemingses of Monticello is not just a story of two families, it illuminates the evils of slavery in this country and its lasting repercussions.

Neither Here Nor There : Travels In Europe / Bill Bryson

In the early 1970s, Bill Bryson, then a college student, backpacked across Europe with a friend. Twenty years later, he decided to retrace that journey. He chronicles this second pilgrimage in Neither Here Nor There. On the earlier trip, he was interested in seeing Europe on the cheap, intent on sampling all the local beers while he tried in vain to meet women. When he returns in the early 1990s, he is nearing middle age, wants the comfort of nice hotels, and has a wife and children back at home in England. More importantly, most of the places he revisits have completely changed in twenty years’ time, and they do not match his memories of them.

I first read this travelog sometime in the 1990s. Re-reading it now, some twenty-three years later, I find its humor still amusing. However, I cannot help but wonder, in this age of “political correctness,” how his sometimes crude observations would play with today’s younger readers. Without a doubt, Bryson’s remarks about cultures, countries, and nationalities can be blistering. However, most of this is done with tongue firmly in cheek. (The butt of his jokes is most often himself.) And along the way he mixes in a good bit of admiration and appreciation of the people and places he visits.

What took me by surprise was how out-of-date this book seemed in this present reading. It is like Bryson is describing an ancient civilization. In the early 1990s, there was no internet available for the traveler, and smart phones were only in the realm of science fiction. Even the use of credit cards was uncommon; travelers’ checks were carried by most when heading overseas. A scant twenty-five years later, reading Neither Here Nor There is like stepping into a time machine to visit a world that no longer exists.  Anyone interested in arm chair travel will take delight in following Bryson as he wanders haphazardly from Norway in the dead of winter all the way to Turkey with summer waiting in the wings. Thankfully, back in 1992, political correctness was not yet being strictly enforced.

The Whites / Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt

One might think that this novel’s title is a racial term. Rather, in New York City police jargon, it represents a lawbreaker who has committed a heinous crime and “walked away untouched by justice.” And, in this story at least, detectives who have worked a crime scene have at least one White who continues to haunt them long after the case has been closed.

Billy Graves is a sergeant in his early forties who works in the Manhattan Night Watch, a small team of detectives who respond to the post-midnight felonies from Wall Street to Harlem. Graves has been assigned this graveyard shift after accidentally shooting a ten-year-old while struggling with a coke-crazed individual on a crowded street. At that time, he was part of an aggressive anti-crime unit known as the Wild Geese.

The plot is set in motion after one of this group’s Whites, a suspect in the unsolved murder of a twelve-year-old boy, is killed when his neck is slashed by an unknown assailant. Shortly afterwards, other Whites haunting the Wild Geese begin to turn up murdered, including Graves’ suspect. A moral dilemma arises for Graves when he begins to think that the officers he once worked with might be the ones responsible for these murders.

All of this might seem standard crime fiction fare. In lesser hands, it would be. However, Price is a first class writer, and his prose elevates this book beyond the restrictions of its genre. The tale he tells is intricate, crackles with razor-sharp dialogue, and its pace leaves the reader breathless. There is barely a wasted word in this entire novel.  There is a good reason why this book appeared on so many critics favorite reads in 2015 when it was first published.

The Blood Of Emmitt Till / Timothy B. Tyson

In the summer of 1955, Emmitt Till, a fourteen year old African American, traveled from Chicago to visit family members in Mississippi. After an encounter with a White woman storekeeper where he supposedly made inappropriate remarks and whistled at her, he was kidnapped and lynched by the woman’s male relatives. Over the course of several hours they severely beat and mutilated the boy before shooting him in the head and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River. Such lynchings were common at the the time in the Mississippi Delta. However, what followed this particular killing was not. The publicity surrounding it shocked the nation and his death served as a catalyst of the Civil Rights movement.

While everyone in the community knew these men were guilty of the crime, it was clear from the start that they would not be convicted. A corrupt, racist sheriff in charge of the case did his best to intimidate witnesses and disregard evidence. However, despite threats to their own lives, a good many people in the Black community and a few Whites did dare to testify against the defendants. Most of the Blacks who appeared in court had to leave the South after the trial to escape the death threats made against them. The courage it took for these people to testify left me humbled. I could not help but wonder if I could have done the the same in their shoes.

The Blood of Emmett Till is less a story of the real fourteen year old boy than a description of his legend and enduring memory. His name is still chanted in Black Lives Matter marches today. By focusing on this single incident, Tyson is able to encapsulate what life was like for Blacks in the Deep South during the 1950s. Only weeks after Till’s lynching, angry over the boy’s senseless death, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. As Tyson shows in this book, Emmitt Till’s death was indeed the spark that ignited the American Civil Rights movement.

All The Light We Cannot See / Anthony Doerr

This delightfully complex novel is set mostly in occupied France during World War II. Its main character is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a French girl who, in 1934 at age six, goes blind due to juvenile cataracts. Her father, a master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, creates a wooden scale model of their neighborhood for to memorize by touch. And for each of her birthdays, he crafts an intricate puzzle box for his daughter with a gift hidden inside. These creations play a big role in the unfolding plot.

Running side by side with Marie-Laure’s story is a separate one featuring Werner Pfennig, an orphan boy growing up with his younger sister in a mining town in Germany. One day they discover a broken radio that Werner takes apart and rebuilds, teaching himself, as he does so, how the circuitry works. He soon becomes the “go to” expert at repairing radios throughout the community. When it becomes obvious to the authorities that Werner is scientifically gifted, he is granted entrance into a brutal academy for the Hitler Youth.

While these two characters occupy center stage, what provides this novel with a pleasing depth is its supporting cast. Be it Marie-Laure’s father, great-uncle, the creepy Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, or Werner’s sister, all could easily stand alone as a lead. It is the radio that ultimately draws Marie-Laure and Werner’s paths to cross at the French coastal town of Saint-Malo shortly before it is liberated by Allied forces.  However, like the puzzle boxes Marie-Laure has been given, the full plot of this book is far too complex to summarize in a short review. Doerr possesses a poet’s soul and has the keen curiosity of a scientist. His detailed descriptions of technology, the natural world, and the human heart dazzles and captivates.