All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeI’m pretty sure we’ve established in this space that I love a good World War II book, and especially one of this recent spate of “World War II books about places that are not London or a concentration camp”. I’m not sure exactly what it is that fascinates me and pretty much everyone else about this time period, but it probably has something to do with the whole good vs. evil thing and how, ideally, this is a time never to be repeated and from which we can learn many dozens of things. One hopes.

The first part of that, the good vs. evil thing, is of course not that simple, and this idea is explored pretty interestingly in this book. We have two main protagonists: a young blind girl living in France with her father, and a young mechanically-minded boy living as an orphan with his sister in Germany. Both leave their regular lives very quickly, she to coastal France to help her father hide a very valuable stone, and he to a military school to become a good German soldier.

The girl’s story is rather a bog-standard World War II story, with the hiding and the rationing and the French Resistance and et cetera. Doerr tries to dress it up with this valuable stone business, but that’s a really weird and unnecessary side plot so let’s pretend that never happened.

The boy’s story, on the other hand, is more of a bog-standard coming-of-age boarding school story, except for the whole “becoming a good German soldier” thing, and I found that absolutely fascinating as someone who also loves a good boarding school story. Trying to do well in school and fit in and not succumb to peer pressure are such universal sentiments, and it’s hard not to sympathize with this boy who really just wants a better life and this is his only way to get one.

Another big idea explored in this book is the importance of the radio (and communication in general) during the war and beyond. It’s amazing that in this time, broadcast radio is so ubiquitous that the Germans are confiscating radios and creating their own stations and broadcasts to keep people from knowing what’s really happening, but meanwhile resistance fighters were communicating via the radio and German soldiers have to take radio receivers out and scan the dial and hope to happen upon the right channel at the right time to hear the right words that would help them take down their enemies. It’s not unlike the current ubiquity of the Internet and the way that some countries censor it or create their own version of it to give to their people. It’s fascinating and also incredibly frustrating to see history repeat itself like this.

I will admit, though, that for all that intriguing content I didn’t end up being super into the book. That stone business is kind of really very awful, as I said, but also I had a hard time getting into Doerr’s writing. The best thing he does in the book, I think, is make his chapters very short and snappy so that when the point of view changes you keep reading to get back to that other narrator, and then the other, and so on until you’ve read the whole book and are like, huh.

On the plus side, after discussing this twice at book club I can say that it is a very good pick for your next book club meeting, as you will get a lot of different opinions on the book and there are a lot of different aspects of the book to talk about. I’m not sure I’d read it again, but I’d definitely go to another book club or two about it!

Recommendation: Read it and then make all your friends talk about it with you.

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

The NightingaleAt the beginning of the year when I was collecting recommendations for my in-person book club, I had several people clamoring for us to read The Nightingale. But even though the book had been out for almost a year, it was still insanely backed up at the library with almost 200 people on hold for it. I kept checking in and checking in and finally there were few enough holds that I felt comfortable making this the book club pick… for August.

Insane, right? I’m guessing that part of the reason it took so long to calm down was the same reason I needed it — it’s a perfect book club book.

The Nightingale tells the story of Vianne and Isabelle, two sisters living in France during the German occupation. Vianne watches her husband go off to war, her students dwindle as families leave the city voluntarily and at the hands of the Nazis, her home get taken over by German soldiers, and her daughter grow up in the shadow of the occupation, and she makes it her job to keep her family safe any way she can. Isabelle, the younger sister, wants nothing more than to be someone, and she makes it her goal to join the resistance and work to take down the Nazis in any way that she can.

Reasons to pick this book for your book club:

1. World War II is prime book club fodder, and you know it.
2. A better reason — The Nightingale takes place in occupied France outside of Paris, a place I, for one, haven’t heard too much about in my extensive reading of World War II book club books. It’s fascinating to see how different the attitudes of the soldiers and citizens are compared to novels that take place in England or Germany or the US.
3. It stars two ladies doing the best they can in two wildly different ways. There’s a great discussion to be had about the roles of women at the time and in the present.
4. It’s going to make some people cry, which means plenty of people will show up to your meeting to make sure they weren’t the only ones bawling.

I’m not kidding about number 4. It took me a relatively long time to get into this book, and I saw a lot of the little twists and turns coming (though not all of them, I’ll say) and there were a few parts early on that I could see were meant to make me give a sniffle, and I didn’t cry at them and I was sure this book wasn’t going to make me cry. And then it did, and I was a mess, and my husband was like, seriously, woman, why do you read books that waste our Kleenex, and I was like, shut up and hug me and let me tell you how glad I am that we don’t live in occupied France.

So even though I wasn’t all in from the beginning, this book is definitely on my list of books to recommend to people, and in fact is probably going to be on the list for my library’s book club after I talked it up at a recent meeting. (Thank goodness, that’s one more book I don’t have to read!) If you’re in the market for a moderately depressing but rather fascinating look at life during World War II, this should definitely be on your list.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name VerityThis is one of those books that I haven’t heard much about (well, relatively speaking), but everything I’ve heard has been along the lines of, “OMG CODE NAME VERITY OMG OMG.” I was, obviously, intrigued, and so I had it checked out of the library shortly after my library obtained a copy of it, but then it had to go back due to massive holds list and I forgot about it in favor of many other books. When I saw it somewhere on the internet again recently, though, I knew it was time to embrace the awesome.

So when I started reading the book and it was kind of boring and confusing, I was quite disappointed. The book starts with the sentence, “I AM A COWARD,” (yes, in all caps) and our narrator goes on to talk about how she got captured by the Nazis for looking the wrong way down the street in France (seeing as she’s British), and how she has exchanged some useful information for some clothing and this convenient supply of ink and paper on which she is to write down all the other useful information she can think of. Yay?

Then she gets distracted from writing about planes and airfields and writes instead about her BFF Maddie and how said BFF met her, Queenie, and how Maddie worked her way into flying planes and being a part of the war effort and really being kind of a badass pilot and friend. Oh, and also how Maddie did not survive dropping Queenie off in France and how Queenie feels incredibly guilty about this fact. And I was like, okay, this is pretty interesting, I like that this story is about ladies doing awesome things and feeling feelings that have naught to do with boys and so clearly that is why everyone loves this book.

But then the story started coming to a close right there in the middle of all those pages, and I was like, well, what’s going to happen next, then?

And SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS ahead if you’re the type who wants to be surprised by a story, and I have to admit that I adored being surprised by this story.

What happens next is that Queenie’s story ends with her being dragged away from her paper and ink and Maddie’s story begins with the fact that she is totally not dead in France and continues to poke very interesting holes in Queenie’s story. It also starts basically right where Queenie’s does, so it becomes a sort of race against time — will Maddie rescue Queenie from the Germans in time or will she herself be captured or what the heck is going to happen why won’t these pages turn faster!

Ahem. And whatever you guess is going to happen to our two narrators, you are going to be wrong, because this book is tricksy and conniving and also just absolutely mean and left me unexpectedly crying into my limeade in the café area of Publix. You should probably read the last part of this book in the privacy of your own home, with some tissues available, is what I am saying.

In summation: omg, Code Name Verity. omg, omg.

Recommendation: For fans of badass ladies and those who are more prepared than I was for a good cry.

Rating: 10/10

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the HedgehogOh, book club, you make me read the weirdest things. I only wish I had remembered how astonishingly weird the French are before I, you know, finished this novel.

I think I can be forgiven for this oversight, as the first half of the book is resolutely not weird, it is in fact academic and philosophical and pretentious and really just boring. Then it gets less pretentious and more interesting and even a bit intriguing, and then the weird French-ness kicks in and I am like… oh boy.

So there are these two protagonists, and they both live in this fancy-pants apartment building in Paris. One is the middle-aged concierge who works really really hard to be the most concierge-y concierge who ever was a concierge. Except secretly she’s a lover of culture and philosophy and academia, except even more secretly she enjoys grocery-store mystery novels and action movies. Layers, you see. The other protagonist is a twelve-year-old who lives in the building and who is overly precocious, though she often pretends not to be. Oh, and she’s planning on killing herself on her next birthday more or less because she’s got nothing better to do with her life. As one does.

They do their stuff, blah blah blah, and it may not surprise you to find out that the best part of the novel happens when their paths cross. There are some small interesting bits up to that point — interactions with family and friends and some backstory to spice things up — but of course it’s all leading up to the two meeting.

I must say that even though I enjoyed this part of the novel, and would probably read just that part again, it is apparent that I did not read this book correctly. Someone brought in the publisher’s book group questions and for one, they were all just as snooty sounding as the first half of the book. So we had some trouble discussing those. For two, some of the questions asked questions that made no sense or directly opposed what I thought about the story or the writing. (Particularly, spoiler alert?, one question talked about what a life-affirming book this is, whereas I found it utterly depressing and a bit cynical.) So… yeah. Don’t trust my word on this one?

Also of note is that like Room before it, I half read and half listened to this book, and also like Room the child narrator was so much better rendered in audio than in print. I should probably just start these precocious-kid books in audio from the start, yes?

Recommendation: Good for a book club (lots to discuss!), perfect for college students who need something to discuss at 3am.

Rating: 6/10

La Bête Humaine, by Émile Zola (17 April — 26 April)

So, after what seems like forever to me, I have finally finished La Bête Humaine. Hooray!

This book is all about the human beast, which is either the man who murders or the intangible thing which drives him to murder, or both, I’m not sure. But I agree with the quote in the introduction, from The Athenaeum, which says that the book should have been titled Murder. Because oh my goodness.

At first there is no murder to speak of; the book seems like a dry cataloguing of the events in the life of M. and Mme. Roubaud, he an assistant train station-master, she his young and pretty wife. But then a secret of her past is revealed and he decides that murder is the best way to make himself feel better about the whole thing. As one does, I guess. Meanwhile, we meet a young man called Jacques whose aunt is possibly being poisoned by her husband and who himself has a gnawing urge to kill women, though he has not yet. He just wants to, like, any time he sees a woman looking all sexy. Oh dear.

So the first murder happens, and we follow along as the authorities sort of try to figure out what has happened and the killer tries to hide his deed. And it works! Sort of. Except that other things happen and lives start falling apart and then suddenly everyone and his sister wants to kill someone else. Because everyone has a bit of the murderer in himself, whether by cold calculation or a fit of passion.

Although I nearly gave up the book within the first hundred pages, I’m glad I stuck around, as all of the plotting and planning of people all trying to kill each other left me very curious as to who would end up dead in the end. And I kept being surprised! Definitely a good book, but not for light reading at all.

Rating: 7/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: France)