Review of All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

The history and settings of this book alone makes it a worthwhile read. The author has a gift for bringing places to life and rendering this time period authentic in both beauty and ugliness. I often dislike historical fiction, finding the writing often stilted and awkward, but this novel combines the history and setting flawlessly into the story line.

This book alternates between two lives of the blind French Marie-Laure and the German Werner Pfennig (although the occasional extra character will get a chapter here and there). The time period of the story starts a few years before WWII and goes through the end of the war, with a few chapters looking even farther into the future (this is not a spoiler as the chapter titles have dates in them.)

I love the language and the detail. Many historical fiction books put in researched detail, but it usually feels forced and obvious. This book doesn’t feel like history at all, yet so much history is in here. The settings, whether it’s a house or a camp or a little tiny room under the rampart, feel immediate and sharp.

The characters are strong, complex, and feel mostly authentic. There are some periods where the characters’ actions and motivations seem a bit stretched, but the novel never gives them easy choices or easy consequences.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is on page 63: “Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean towards its branches as if towards the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.”

The one thing I really didn’t like about the book was the extremely frequent flipping between characters. During every one to three minutes of reading, the book flips characters and scenes. I quite like how the story followed these two very different people, but the changes happened much too fast and much too often. I never had a chance to settle into the scenes. It made it hard to read for long periods of time, and it separated me emotionally from the book, which may or may not have been intentional. This remains a worthwhile book in spite of this problem, but it’s worth a warning to anyone picking it up.

For book groups, this book is average in discussion potential. While I struggled finding good, complex questions, I ended up with enough to give this a recommended status.

Click here for my discussion questions on this book.

Review of We Are Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Review: 5 out of 5 stars

When I read the summary of this book, I didn’t want to pick it up. A girl raised with a chimpanzee? Well-intentioned but heart-breaking consequences? It sounded like some young adult book that people like because it’s easily digestible. But thank goodness this is not that kind of book. This book is a smart, sometimes funny, often hard look at the underpinnings of living life as a flawed human being.

Any gist of this novel will fall short. I’ll tell you what it’s about, but with this fair warning: the description will not do justice to the gripping narration or the intense philosophical and psychological undertones. On the surface this is a story told by Rosemary, a young woman who was raised alongside a chimpanzee when she was a very young child, and she now struggles to fit in with her family and society. But on a deeper level, this isn’t a book about a chimpanzee at all. Rather the story is about how the complexity of guilt, memory, humanness, and identity affect the ability to live a normal life.

I immensely loved the narrator. She funny, sharp, and broken. In an example from early in the novel, on pg. 14, Rosemary describes her mother as “an infamous bridge hustler—I’m amazed there are still people who’ll play with her, but that’s how desperate for bridge some people get; it’s like a drug.” The tone is flippant and yet accurate, silly yet authentic. The narration pulled me in and kept me through some very tough issues that arise in the middle of the book.

The issues this book explores are both plot-based and theme-based. Plot issues center around Rosemary dealing with family issues that are so painful and perceptive I couldn’t help but live them with her. The story then dives into the deep end of issues on themes like the use of animals in scientific experiments. You will feel like you can’t breathe during these parts.

There’s also a lot of playing around with psychological theories and real social issues. Nothing heavy handed, but the book creates places where we need to stop and really think about what was just written and how it applies to the world.

My favorite parts of the novel centered around the tenuous nature of memories. (After I wrote this, my husband read it and asked me if the chimpanzee turns out to not be real. This is not what I’m hinting at. There is no cheesy gotcha moment like that.) The author did a bang-up job on capturing how memories shape our world, make us who we are, and yet completely fail us at the same time.

Here’s a favorite quote of mine on pg. 48: “Language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, ,mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph i a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”

Click here to see my discussion questions on this book.

Review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Review: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a charming book in a very young adult novel kind of way. It’s a very easy and quick read, character driven, and a nice balance of angst and growth.

This novel is a story told by fifteen-year-old June in the 1980s, where the death of a beloved uncle from AIDS sends her on a life-changing, soul-searching journey.

There are so many reasons why this should have been classified as young adult. The narrator is only fifteen, with distinctly youthful language and adolescent thought processes. She finds herself grappling with tough life issues without parental help (so typical in YA novels) because her accountant parents are in the middle of tax season, and her life has led her to be estranged from her older sister as well. She struggles with self-esteem and other typical coming-of-age problems like boys, self-identification, and fitting in. Plus, like most YA books, there’s this certainty while reading that everything is going to work out in the end, that the narrator will lose some innocence but gain some wisdom. This let’s us feel safe in following the main characters twists and turns. It’s all just so typical of every other young adult novel, I don’t understand why it isn’t classified as such.

The language and themes are good. Not great, but good. Rarely was I ever taken out of the book, but rarely did I re-read a passage for its beauty either. There’s a nice level of complexity to the characters, but it has its fair share of coincidences, along with a feel that the characters make choices that no one would actually make but which turn out all right in the end. The ending was rather hard to swallow but fit well with the rest of the book.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: “If you think a story can be like a kind of cement, the sloppy kind that you put between bricks, the kind that looks like cake frosting before it dries hard, then maybe I thought it would be possible to use what Toby had to hold Finn together, to keep him here with me a little bit longer” (pg. 78).

Young adult literature can still be excellent reading, and this book is like that. If you looking for a light read, do grab this.

While I have included discussion questions, I found that my questions felt rather simple. Unless you have a book club geared to young readers or you attend a book club that likes to drink a lot of wine, I would pass on this book for most discussion groups.

Click here to see my discussion questions.

Review of Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Review: 5 out of 5 stars

This book is real British jewel. Treasure it’s foreignness. Admire all that sparkles within.

As an American, I seriously felt like I needed a translation. For example, what American would know that a “scout” is a domestic worker at Oxford University? Plus the lives of the rich, landed aristocracy of the 1920s and 30s feels so otherworldly to me—the servants, the brutal and constant sarcasm, the expectations of conduct. However, once I accepted that this book is truly a book of an exotic land in a foreign language, I settled down in it and found it a delightfully good read.

In this novel, Charles Ryder finds himself mixed up in the Flyte family for two decades, from his college years into middle life. The family has so many destructive issues of which the narrator continues to be drawn into.

This isn’t the kind of book that I ever wanted to pick up and dive into; but once I was reading it, I found the pages would fly by. I had to get used to stumbling over the Britishisms. At some point, I figured out that it was useless looking them all up, so I would skip over them and wait to catch up a paragraph later.

For most of the book, I found the text alternatives between lengthy conversations and poetical descriptions, neither of which were overly floral or difficult to get through. In fact, I would say the language is possibly the best part of this book. The conversations aren’t realistic, but they do convey a great deal about the characters and viewpoints. Descriptions are absolutely beautiful and do the heavy lifting in this story. The plot is mediocre and seems beside the point.

The point of this book, in fact, seems to be the re-creation of the world these people live in. The reader is drawn into it, the sarcasm, the loneliness, the family responsibilities. It’s quite fascinating. Brideshead is the grounds that the book mostly takes place on, and Waugh has such an evocative way of bringing the place to life.

The characters are hideous in a way only a great author can make them. If you want to love the characters in a book, you might struggle with this one. All the characters will have parts of them you will like or find amusing at least, but they all have terribly flawed issues as well. However, their tragedy and complexity make for a good read.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: “Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.” (pg. 313)

I recommend this easily to any book group or any individual interested in classics. If you happen to be an Anglophile, this is a must-read for you.

Click here for the discussion questions.

Review of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Review: 5 out of 5 stars

This was a whirlwind of a book. Once caught up in it, this novel will breathlessly spin you around and around. I feel that to hold this novel steady, I would need to read it twice, a statement which for me is high praise. Be warned that this review is based on only one read and therefore is only half accurate.

This is the story of several characters whose lives are intertwined in Chechnya between the years 1994 and 2004. The backdrop is the two wars that ravage the area during these years. Characters deal with the normal ups and downs of friendships and relationships, loves and betrayals, all while trapped between two dangerous armies.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel concerns the omniscient narrator. For those who forgot what this is from junior high English class, there’s no character telling the story, rather, it’s just being told to us by a god-like narrator. Sure, this happens in roughly half of all stories, so why should I bring it up in a review? Because this narrator seems to also be a psychic with an obsession for numbers. For example, on page 305, the narrator tells us that one very minor character will one day have eight hundred and eighty-two cats, “all named for his mother, though he would never know that exact figure.” Any object or character can be suddenly alighted upon with these OCD visions. This gives the book a rare quality, a lightness of distance, putting everything in perspective with such a breadth of information.

The language is haunting and beautiful. I almost couldn’t highlight anything because I wanted to highlight everything. My example is early on, page 40: “His love, pity, and revulsion each claimed her, each occupied and was driven from her, and even now, as he sealed a postage stamp-sized square, he was afraid that in moments, when he broke away, his disgust would overwhelm the imprint of his lips.” This language is poetical without being difficult to read, with themes like war and fear woven into the descriptions.

Torture scenes do occur, and they can be a bit gruesome, although I’ve read more worse in other books. This history of the place can also prove a challenge. As a backdrop, it’s hard to keep up with at times. I’m guessing not too many readers out there have much knowledge of Chechnya history. And with the stories hopping back and forth during those ten years, following the timelines can be frustrating. With some slow, mindful reading, though, it’s worth figuring out how the history intertwines with the story, and never does the book feel like a history textbook.

I highly recommend this book to everyone. This is not a beach read, though, so be prepared to dedicate some quiet hours.

Click here to see my discussion questions.

Review of The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecke

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

At 675 pages, you might pass over this book, but pick it up anyway if you like speculative fiction, historical fiction, or just have a long plane ride and only want one book. The writing and plot makes it read like a much shorter book (think of it as a 450-page book instead). Book clubs especially should look into selecting this as themes here are complex and plentiful.

In the novel, a Golem and a Jinni find each other when they both end up in Manhattan, NY in 1899. Their lives becomes more and more intertwined as they learn how to live among humans.

Themes include immigration, isolation, humanness, religion, sexuality, gender roles, and the list goes on and on. All these themes are treated with a reverence and complexity that allows for a more meditation quality. Speculative fiction is at its best when it uses fantastic elements to bring to light human issues, and this book has this in spades. Wecker uses the nonhuman creatures to delve into cultural and religious issues that would feel pedestrian in human characters.

The plot is hardly traditional, but it does bring a mystery with flashbacks as well as solid character progression to keep the reader going. The language is easy and delightful, adding a flourish only in places where it’s needed. The characters are a bit hard to relate to, but they are written with depth and feel authentic enough.

I am deducting a point because of the length. While it reads quickly (and I seriously don’t want anyone to not get it for the length), it would have been that much better if it had been shorter. In the middle of the book, I fatigued of hearing the same character issues and complaints. It has one or two too many characters. And with no character that we easily relate with, the book has to rely on plot to keep us interested. I just feel that everything this book accomplished could have been done with fewer pages. The ending is also a little too neat, but I would forgive that if it hadn’t taken 200 pages to end.

Overall I recommend this book, especially if the genre appeals to the reader.

What to say to make people think you’ve read the book: I pretty sure that if Chava had my job, she would have killed everyone already.

Click here for my discussion questions on this book.