July 28, 2014
All the Light We Cannot See
By Anthony Doerr
Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig are two children growing up during World War II whose lives will intersect in 1944 during the Allied bombing of Saint-Malo. Marie-Laure is a curious and dreamy blind girl whose childhood is spent exploring Paris’s Museum of Natural History where her father works as the head of security. Werner is gifted and inquisitive and lives with his sister, Jutta, in a German orphanage until he is selected to attend an elite government school where he is promised answers to his scientific questions, but also told that his mind is dangerous, independent and subversive.
This novel is rich in symbolism and written in a lyrical, thoughtful tone. Doerr deals with heavy subjects and writes with great detail while remaining abstract about his character’s inner lives. Despite this, the novel is highly readable. Doerr calls his decision to break up the novel into short (two or three page) chapters a “gesture of friendliness” to the reader (http://www.powells.com/blog/interviews/anthony-doerr-the-powells-com-interview-by-jill/). The short chapters aren’t the only thing helping the reader to speed through this thick book. Doerr’s plot is thrilling. Jumping back and forth between 1944 and earlier years, Doerr keeps his audience anticipating the eventual merging of the timelines, when Werner and Marie-Laure will finally cross paths. I found myself at times clutching the book in desperation and at other times staring into space contemplating a poignant sentence.
This novel will leave you haunted, which is appropriate considering that many of its characters are haunted themselves. Marie-Laure hears her father’s voice in her head advising her during moments of terror. Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel is obsessed with the legend of the fabulous gem he tracks throughout Europe, especially its supposed gift of longevity. Werner cannot escape the image and voice of his sister, Jutta, who becomes his belabored conscience while he is being indoctrinated at school. And then there is Marie’s uncle, Etienne, who suffers from PTSD after watching his brother die in his arms during the first World War.
Moving, thrilling and fulfilling, this is a great summer reading pick. Read it if you like literary or historical fiction with the smallest dash of magical realism.
July 21, 2014
By Max Barry
The online comic strip xkcd.com once had a strip where a man tells his female companion to bring him a sandwich. The woman tells the man to get himself the sandwich. The man then says, “Sudo, get me a sandwich” and his companion immediately gets does so. We are to believe that “sudo” is a magic word; you only need to precede your demands with this word-of-power and everyone will obey you.
The plot of Lexicon expands on this idea. We are not all susceptible to the same “magic” word or words but, by analyzing an individual’s psychology, a secret organization can classify a person by “segment”, and with that knowledge, take over his mind. And they do this by asking you five simple questions:
•Are you a dog person or a cat person?
•What’s your favorite color?
•Close your eyes and pick a number from 1 to 100
•Do you love your family?
•Why did you do it?
But Wil seems to be immune to every segment’s power words. Nobody knows why that is so, but everyone is hunting him, and using deadly force.
Emily, on the other hand, is just the sort of person this shadow organization wants to recruit into their stable of “poets”: highly persuasive young people who can be taught neuropsychology and linguistics, with the ultimate goal of using the poets to control the world.
One thread of the story follows Wil and the other follows Emily. The reader knows that their lives and the action will converge at some point, and as the body count grows, the sense of anticipation and tension also grows, exponentially.
The action is non-stop, the characterization is well-done, and the suspense is a killer.
If you only read one book this year, Lexicon ought to be it. Not a perfect book - this reader has some issues with the ending - but nearly so!
July 14, 2014
The Last Kind Words Saloon
By Larry McMurtry
The climatic shooting incident at this book’s conclusion supposedly lasted 30 seconds, and it involved names that have since morphed into iconic Western lore. Fittingly, the author also shoots the reader right in the heart at the end of this novel and you, the reader, must decide if this is a good or a bad thing.
The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014) is another memorable story of America’s mythic West brought to life in empathetic, unheroic but very human terms. McMurtry again proves that he is the literary master of the Western fiction genre, and the astute choice of the jacket art, the painting “The Fall of the Cowboy” by Frederic Remington, the master of Western art, foreshadows the nostalgic sense that permeates the book.
McMurtry’s West is one where even legends are basically and simply human beings. This novel is short, perhaps approaching a novella. The dialog is almost truncated but the characters are still sharply drawn. If there is anything in the novel dealing with aiming and hitting a target, McMurtry certainly has a good bead on the West. His women would be “victims” by today’s standards and the men would be “abusive”, but this is the wild, wild West and McMurtry boldly populates it with whores, gamblers, thieves, lawmen, rustlers, ranchers, bartenders, settlers, Indians, and life, death, and love. And weather and geography populate McMurtry’s world as effectively as his human characters.
There is no need to write about plot and character, there is just the enjoyment of reading this wonderful novel. When McMurtry fires that last bullet you will have a chance to dodge it, but you won’t…just go back to the cover art and glance at Remington’s painting.
July 2, 2014
by Emma Straub
If you're looking for a new beach read this summer, look no further. Emma Straub's previous works, the short story collection Other People We Married and novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, showed her to be a master of literary stylings, but this book is meant more for pure pleasure reading. She tells the tale of a middle- class New York family on vacation in Mallorca. The mother, Franny, is a food writer, and the father, Jim, a recently "retired" editor. (The truth of his retirement comes out to the family in stages). Joining them is their daughter, Sylvia, who will be leaving for Brown University at the end of the summer, and their older son, Bobby, who has moved to Miami and is dating Carmen, a personal trainer who does not curry much favor with the more pretentious members of the family. We also have Franny's oldest friend Charles and his husband Lawrence. Each of these characters has, as you may have guessed, inner turmoil of one kind of another. Sylvia has to figure out who she wants to become in the fall while embarrasedly lusting after her Spanish tutor; Bobby has to admit his financial problems to his family; Franny and Jim are not-so-obviously unhappy together, despite it being their 35 year anniversary. Each of them get a chance to tell part of summer's tale in their own unique voice, all of which Straub describes with startling accuracy. Their character arcs are believable but, at times, heart warming. We also get delicious details of the landscape and the food of Mallorca. This is a quick, easy read that will fit in nicely in between taking dip in the pool and a turn at the grill.