Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the newest book I’ve read in a long time, weaves together the stories of a young French girl, Marie Laure, who is blind and a German orphan boy, Werner, who is gifted at mathematics and tech. Over the years of the Second World War, their lives intersect at surprising points. I enjoyed the style: the present tense, poetic descriptions of the scenes. The best part was how it captured snapshots of what “the war” was like, and how it followed up with the characters as adults, revealing how their childhood experience of World War II forever changed the direction of their lifelines, like changing the threads and changing the whole tapestry.

Some themes I picked out were:

-intransigence of life

-the war: living through it, how actions by leaders at the state or military level trickle down into daily life

-overcoming trials: carrying on or just going along is contrasted in Marie Laure and Werner. Werner accepts a deepening spiral of Nazi commands that drags him into moral quicksand

-happiness: what is it? All the Light We Cannot See, would say, rightly, that it is not a permanent state, but something we can catch glimpses of if we try to do our honest best in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Sometimes circumstances can snatch it away entirely, such as when Marie loses her father.

-the randomness of birth and outcomes: circumstances beyond our control determine a lot of what happens in our lives

-freedom despite the randomness: But free will matters too, and our approach and our willingness to respond can change things for the better. Werner does finally learn this lesson, I believe.

Over all, it seems very accurate about the nastier aspects of war and difficult circumstances. I would say the balance the book strikes between free will and circumstance is one of its best features.

It’s not a particularly religious book, and it captures some very unpleasant wartime realities, but I think it’s pretty accurate about what it means to make good choices and try to live a good life on the ground. And it’s not the darkest book I’ve ever read; I’d say Graham Greene is darker, and he was Catholic.

Here are some quotations I picked out:

From Werner’s childhood, the contrast between his orphange and the opulence of the SS Officer’s home:

“The lance corporal looks around the room–the coal stove, the hanging laundry, the undersize children–with equal measures of condescension and hostility.” (80) [He is coming to collect Werner to repair the radio of the SS Officer Siedler. Werner goes there and successfully repairs the radio.]

“Werner gathers his tools. Herr Siedler stands in front of the radio and seems about to pat him on the head. ‘Outstanding,’ he says. He ushers Werner to the dining table and calls for the maid to bring cake. Immediately it appears: four wedges on a plain white plate. Each is dusted with confectioners’ sugar and topped by a dollop of whipped cream. Werner gapes. Herr Siedler laughs. ‘Cream is forbidden. I know. But”–he puts his forefinger to his lips–“there are ways around such things. Go on.'” (83)

Then, later,

Marie Laure misses her father:

“Oh, to the free. To lie once more in the Jardin des Plantes with Papa. To feel his hands on hers, to hear the petals of the tulips tremble in the wind. He made her the glowing hot center of his life; he made her feel as if every step she took was important.” (403)

Finally, this quote from the end shows the ripples of the war in the characters’ later lives. Jutta, Werner’s sister, receives a token from Werner that had belonged to Marie Laure, so Jutta goes to visit, but she is very nervous and self-conscious about her German-ness as she travels:

Jutta and her son ride the train to visit Marie Laure in France:

“Before dark, a well-dressed man with a prosthetic leg boards the train. He sits beside her and lights a cigarette. Jutta clutches her bag between her knees; she is certain that he was wounded in the war, that he will try to start a conversation, that her deficient French will betray her. Or that Max will say something. Or that the man can already tell. Maybe she smells German.

He’ll say, You did this to me.

Please. Not in front of my son.

But the train jolts into motion, and the man finishes his cigarette and gives her a preoccupied smile and promptly falls asleep.” (507)

I love how this final quote captures how we sometimes feel like others can see through us, can read our invisible thoughts, and we can become very paranoid about nothing.

3 Modes of Impartiality/Personal Engagement

Reading and reflecting recently on how people talk to one another, here are some recent observations of mine on how people share and address the impartiality/personal aspect of conversation. Most of David Brooks’ people of character, from his new book The Road to Character, likely fall into the “Quiet” category of mine.

The academic gold-standard is impartiality– to appear impersonal and objective, presenting only the facts. But this is not the mode that most of us interact in, which is perfectly reasonable.

Most of us are affected by and drawn to personal stories, things that resonate with our own experiences. In books, these are novels and memoirs.

I’ve noticed that there are (seem to be) three ways most of us deal with impartiality/personal when speaking, and I think most of us shift between each one though one may tend to dominate.

  1. The Know it All – Impartial as attempt to impress, appear objective and knowledgeable
    1. This is so evident in young people, especially ambitious young people (I can get pretty embarrassed when I think about how often I’ve here) who will happily prattle on about all the things he or she knows or has done or plans to accomplish.
    2. Other times, this surfaces through excessive criticism.
    3. The goal, often unconscious, is to appear learned and accomplished from an objective point of view while hiding the inner self.
    4. Ironically, it stems from a place of insecurity, of wanting very badly to be liked and appear well before others.  Older and mature people see through it right away, but are often very charitable and encouraging.
    5. That being said, the insights and criticisms can be very accurate, though not always.
    6. The Know-It-All is less a fault than a stepping stone in a path of growth.
  2. The Personal – When we becoming willing to show our selves
    1. At some point, most of us become willing to share our true selves, our actual opinions and experience without overt regard to its appearance to others.
    2. Here or elsewhere, we realize that even objective information is filtered through our own experience, so even when we try to be impersonal, it is often more revealing and personal than we realize.
    3. This is how we share with those close to us. Sometimes, public figures will share in this way. But most often, actors and politicians will keep it to the Know-it-All or be a totally the closed-book.
    4. Sometimes, this personal share loses an appropriateness filter and we can ramble on and on about ourselves and our experiences without enough regard to the actual subject of the conversation
    5. This is a normal mode, at least sometimes, in most people. It can be both deeply illuminating or shallow and myopic.
  3. The Quiet – Speaks when necessary
    1. The quiet person has learned that wrongly-placed or careless speech can be incredibly damaging.
    2. This person weighs the entire situation: the participants, their temperaments, the social setting, before adding his or her voice
    3. This quiet one is no longer concerned with the approval of others and uses his or her speech to clarify necessities, put others at ease, or add something edifying without regard for getting credit for it
    4. The quiet person may actually speak quite a lot if it is called for in the situation, but it will always be in balance.

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