Sunday 5 November 2017

Book clubs and book talk on a rainy Sunday morning...

It’s a mild, rainy morning, and so dark inside that I’ve had to turn the light on as I’m writing.  Dreary is the word that comes to mind to describe today… but on the bright side, we got an extra hour - HURRAY!!  (I’ve already used up my hour, and it’s only 11am!!)

My Volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See.  Set during World War II, this Pulitzer Prize-winning book weaves together two stories, one of a young blind French girl, the other of an orphaned German boy, and builds to their unlikely meeting in a small French village near the end of the war.  Marie-Laure is a motherless girl who, at the age of six, lost her sight completely.  Her father, a locksmith working at the National History Museum in Paris, undertakes to protect her and teach her, encouraging her to become independent.  He is helped in this by his colleagues at the museum, as they take her in and make her part of their community.  Werner Pfenning is an orphan boy who, with his younger sister, Jutta, has spent most of his childhood at the Children’s Home in a village in Germany.  The children at the Home seem to have formed a community of their own, each fulfilling a role, helping out with the other children, and educating themselves by pursuing their interests during their free time.  The woman who runs the Home, Frau Elena, is a French nun who is more fond of children than she is of supervision, so she allows the children more freedom than they may otherwise have enjoyed.  On one of his expeditions, Werner finds a broken radio and manages to figure out how to fix it.  Others in the village, recognizing his talents, start coming to him with their own broken radios.  With the start of WWII, Werner’s exceptional capacity for understanding electronics brings him to the attention of a Nazi official, who offers Werner the chance to go to a boarding school to study, but his education teaches him more than he bargained for.  With the threat of a Nazi occupation in Paris, Marie-Laure and her father try to flee the city, but her father is also on a mission - he is entrusted to deliver a rare, possibly-cursed diamond (real or replica, he doesn’t know) to a safehouse before the Nazis can begin looting the museum.  But he is unable to complete this mission, and so carries this diamond with him to Saint Malo, where his eccentric uncle Etienne lives.  They make a home in this village, but the threat of a Nazi invasion is ever-present.  How the lives of these two young people, from different countries and on opposite sides of the war experience, will eventually come together, and what events will result from this, propel the story forward, taking the reader on a gripping journey through this tumultuous time in history.  It was a small group yesterday, but we managed to talk for nearly three hours!  This was definitely the longest meeting we’ve ever had.  As you can imagine, we discussed more than I can possibly put in this post (and more than you’d want to read!), but yesterday’s meeting was a reminder of why I love book clubs - what could be better than spending time discussing a book, and inevitably your personal and shared reading experiences related to this book, with people you like being with?  I feel very fortunate to be part of two great book groups, as well as running a fabulous group with my students (who are graduating at the end of this school year - I am sad already!).  I had a few questions when I finished this book that my group members were gracious enough to discuss.  How would this story have been different if Marie-Laure were not blind?  Answer:  The blindness made her more vulnerable, so if not blind, she wouldn’t have been as “heroic” or “triumphant” a character; she would have been more “ordinary”.  Were traumatic experiences (ie rape, starvation, relocation, bombings, dead bodies in the street) easier to deal with and overcome during wartime?  Answer:  Since it was commonplace and everyone was experiencing these things, people just accepted it and did what they had to do to survive; they also supported each other more, helping others through their experiences, hoping to make things easier.  And if you are surrounded by violence, you would become desensitized to it - in the midst of war, if you let every act of violence eat away at you, you would be unable to survive.  We discussed Doerr’s succinct phrases, the way he was able to perfectly describe things, like the loose flesh and veiny hands of the old women and the feeling Werner had about the first slice of canned peach, that was like a sunrise in his mouth.  We discussed the guilt German people felt (and maybe even still feel today) about their identity and the horrific crimes committed by their countrymen, even if these were crimes committed by others.  We agreed that this book was a struggle to get into, but that it picked up about halfway through.  One member thought this whole book was a love story, most notably between Werner and Marie-Laure and between Marie-Laure and her father.  We discussed the final chapters, and decided we liked the way the author wrapped everything up, that we were able to find out what happened to everyone, although the fates of some characters made us sad and even angry.  We discussed how much we really control our own lives, a theme that ran through this novel.  We agreed that this was a book that evoked a strong emotional response, and delved into a dark period in history.  I apologized to our newest book club member for choosing such a “heavy, depressing, sad” book, but she pointed out that it’s important to explore these things, that we can’t just ignore what happened (thanks for letting me off the hook!!).  We discussed the ways that members of the community fought against the Nazis, particularly the group of women in the village, and applauded them for their creativity and efforts in the face of such adversity, during a time when it would have been easier to just “do as you’re told” and not fight back.  We discussed the changes in communication, that there will never be any “lost letters” in this age of electronic communication, and that while this is supposed to be a time of connectedness, many people, particularly young people, are actually feeling totally disconnected.  WHEW!  That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but I have to close now and get on with the rest of my day.  I would recommend this as an excellent choice for any book club.  

Since three of the last four books I’ve read have been about 500 pages, I’m planning to start reading a shorter book this afternoon - not sure yet what that will be, but I have a big stack of loans from the library to choose from and can hardly wait to dive in!  

Have a great afternoon, and take advantage of that extra hour to get some extra reading done!

Bye for now…

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