A book with a blue cover

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“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

-Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See”

Rating: 5 stars
Days to read: 48

This was one of those books that everyone in my book club independently put on their challenge list at the beginning of the year. It’s that good. However, I’m ashamed to say this book suffered a bit from start reading, get distracted by shiny things, then pick it up again weeks later.. it is in no way a reflection of how incredible this book is. This post could consist of only, “just go read this book” and that would be everything you need to know about it.

The story is told through a series of flash forwards and flashbacks, and from multiple perspectives. Marie-Laure is a young girl in France on the verge of World War 2. Her father is a locksmith at a museum and she accompanies him every day to work, where she is treated to an infinite world of knowledge and discovery. When she is young she loses her vision but is incredibly resilient, largely due to how her father raises her. He builds Marie-Laure a model replica of the town they live in which she learns through touch. Werner is a young German boy, hundreds of miles away, growing up in an orphanage with his younger sister Jutta in a poor working class town. Years ago they lost their father to a coal mining accident, and fate seems set that in a few years Werner will have no choice but to work in the same mines that killed his father. He has a knack for electronics though and is soon fixing things through the whole town. At night, he and his sister listen to an unknown French man teach science lessons on an old beat up radio, and for those brief periods of respite, they experience the awe and wonder of the world beyond their reach. Doerr is a master at weaving through each narrative- the jumps between perspectives and time points feels fluid, never jerky.

As the war reaches them, both Marie-Laure and Werner’s worlds are shattered. When the Germans invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father are forced to evacuate, and carry with them an important mission from the museum. Werner is recruited to a school for elite young German soldiers due to his aptitude for engineering. In very different ways they experience the cruelty of war, the tangible displacement and danger and the intangible shifts in relationships and understanding. One of the most incredible parts of the book is the way we experience the world through Marie-Laure. Despite being blind she very much sees the world around her, the way people walk when they’re scared or excited, the smell of the sea, the feeling of the wind just before it rains. I wondered if in some ways she sees the world far better than I ever have. Werner too has an incredible talent for truly seeing people, their weaknesses, fears, the quiet beauty in them that no one else seems to notice.

There’s a meditation on bravery throughout the book that Doerr explores with an incredible amount of grace. As Marie-Laure learns to navigate through the world, literally and figuratively, she does not hold back. In Saint-Malo she joins the underground resistance to the German occupation, retrieving messages concealed in bread from the bakery, to be broadcast on the illegal transmitter in the attic of her great uncle’s house. Repeatedly she’s told how brave she is, for her it is just life. She knows no other way. Werner is drilled about bravery at school but he begins to question the kind of bravery they teach. Is it brave to attack the weakest and most vulnerable around us, enemy and countryman alike? He struggles with this and is confronted with more as a young boy than most of us face in a lifetime. Through both Marie-Laure and Werner their humanity is revealed through how they traverse the inhumanity of war.

Book endings are notoriously difficult to nail, and this one was perfect. The way all the narratives come together (and those that don’t) say something about what war does to us. 500+ pages later this book sent me into the affliction known as book hangover.. curl up and set aside several hours for this one.

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A book set in Europe

“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”

-Marcus Zusak, “The Book Thief”

Rating: 5 stars
Days to read: 11

Sometimes the hardest books to review are the ones you loved the most. The ones where all you can say is, “stop everything immediately and go read this book, I have nothing more to add.” This book caught my eye after 2 friends rated it highly on Goodreads and both mentioned crying at the end. I don’t really cry while reading so I almost approached it as a challenge: if you’re really as good as they say you are, little book, give me your best shot. The book won.

The Book Thief is the story of a girl named Liesel who lives in a small village outside the city of Munich with a foster family starting right before World War 2. We first watch 10 year old Liesel on a train ride with her mother and brother as they travel to an orphanage where they will be given up for adoption, presumably because her mother can no longer care for them. Before they make it her brother dies on the train, and his death haunts Liesel’s nightmares for many years in her new home. It is also this event that begins her career of book thieving as she grabs a copy of a cemetery procedures book (of all things) in the snow at the funeral even though she can’t read. She and her foster father form a special bond as he is the one to console her after each and every one of her nightmares, and in those quiet early morning hours he teaches her to read. Down the street from Liesel’s foster family is a boy named Rudy. Liesel and Rudy become great friends, even if (probably because) they spend most of their time teasing and cursing at each other. How this scenario becomes incredibly endearing and heartwarming is a testament to Zusak’s prose– he is able to convey the kind of fierce love that is present between two people even when they don’t show it explicitly (see also: Liesel’s foster mother, whose generous heart becomes much more apparent later on in the story).

Liesel and her family live in a contentious time in Germany. Frequent and ostentatious demonstration of one’s allegiance to Hitler is expected to the point that any perceived weakness in this regard has serious consequences. At first her family attempts to play along even though their hearts are never truly in it, which becomes more complicated when a series of events leads Liesel’s father to hide a Jewish man (Max) in their basement. Liesel forms a strong bond with Max as well, like an older brother she never had. At one point he becomes incredibly sick, sleeping for several weeks, and Liesel reads to Max every day. When he wakes up he writes a few books for her; ‘The Word Shaker’ in particular is incredibly moving and speaks to the power of words, both those of Hitler and his rise to power, but also the words of those who stand up against him.

These characters alone are enough to capture my love for this book, but what makes the novel truly great is Zusak’s choice to tell the story through the character of Death. Death is sarcastic but not really evil. He is a result but not a cause. He does not delight in our passing, he’s just the carrier of souls. I loved his commentary about war not being “death’s best friend” as the phrase goes, but rather more like a “boss” who continually demands more. Death is particularly affected by our humanity, our best and our worst, and even seems attached to many of the characters. He has the perfect perspective for telling a story about how we live before we die. Death almost has a tenderness that belies how we normally think about and process death.. “It kills me sometimes, how people die.” I couldn’t get over this line. It’s beautiful.

I cried when Liesel cried for the last 100 pages of the book. It was a punch in the gut. In the words of George R.R. Martin, “when my characters are in danger, I want you to be afraid to turn the page (and to do that) you need to show right from the beginning that you’re playing for keeps.”

I’m worried for any book that comes after this, because I’m in a complete book hangover. There’s not a doubt in my mind this book gets 5 stars. Trust your friends when they warn you of book tears.

A political memoir

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one of my favorite signed copies in my collection

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”

-Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy”

Rating: 5 stars
Days to read: 6

One of my reading weaknesses is that I rarely read non-fiction. This is possibly because I spend so much of my time in technical science literature that escaping to a fantasy world seems far more enticing when reading for fun. But to be honest, even this is at least partially an excuse. History comes much less easily to me than science, so while I read multiple newspapers daily to stay on top of current events, I rarely dive into the history and context of many of our current problems. Abolishing the death penalty is an issue I feel very strongly about, but only recently did I come to the realization that I knew very little about the history of the death penalty in this country. A good friend who is a lawyer and feels the same way about the death penalty recommended this book and I couldn’t be more thankful that this book and the work of the Equal Justice Initiative got on my radar.

Just Mercy is the story of Bryan Stevenson’s career as a lawyer for death row inmates and children sentenced to life in prison. I was both entranced with his writing as much as I often struggled to keep reading the stories of many of his clients throughout the years. Featured prominently is the case of Walter McMillian, a black man who was convicted of capital murder in Alabama even though there were multiple eye witnesses that he was miles away from the crime scene at the time of the murder. To read about the gut wrenching racism of the prosecutors and jail staff, including using police dogs and other tactics to scare the supporters of the defendant from showing up at trial, I felt sick to my stomach. It made me want to slam my book down in the middle of the coffee shop and scream, this can’t be real, can it? People can’t really treat others this way and get away with it, can they? We know on some level that they can and they do, but each individual story is heartbreaking in its own way. Of course, to be this shocked and surprised is indicative of my relative privilege being white. I get to be unaware of these issues if I chose to, because I don’t have to personally experience this reality. However, to do so perpetrates the culture that allows these wrongdoings to occur. If I’m silent then the voices that demand finding person to be punished for a crime without regard for real truth, and by extension real justice, become that much louder.

Although this book was published a couple years ago, it felt timely against the backdrop of the current presidential race. The anti-PC pendulum has swung so far that we now call being abrasive and cruel as “honesty” and “keeping it real” (can we abolish that phrase? And “haters gonna hate” while we’re at it, but I digress..). Our sense of justice is so steeped in revenge, or downright swallowed by it, that we conflate mercy with being “soft on crime”. If we are truly to consider ourselves a Christian nation as some candidates would espouse, how can we revel in how forgiving and just God is in dealing with our own sins on Sunday morning and then go cheer on candidates who propose denying that same compassionate justice to our neighbors (especially those that don’t look like us) on the talk shows Monday morning?

The first response I normally hear when I get into these kinds of conversations is something along the lines of, what you just think these people should go free and be allowed to hurt people? Or, yea let’s give these criminals a cushy life, why would they be deterred by prison! The irony of course in this is that a prevailing belief in just mercy is not being “soft” on crime. It is merely the reminder that punishments need to fit the crime, not our desire for revenge and retribution, or worse, to look good in the next election. It feels good to say what we want to do to people who cause great harm to our loved ones and members of our society. But the ways in which we either allow or disallow ourselves from going down that road shapes our culture in profound ways.

Perhaps most indicative of Stevenson’s character, and probably what has allowed him to connect with and therefore better represent many of his clients, is how he recognizes his own brokenness and need for mercy, even (maybe especially) for those who seem least deserving of it. In one of the chapters Stevenson recalls a guard who put him through a strip search (not standard operating procedure at this jail), and among other things also points out his truck in the jail parking lot with a bumper sticker that reads “if I knew it was going to be this way, I would have picked my own damn cotton.” (I have no words for this.) Later that guard is in the courtroom while Stevenson presents his client’s extremely abusive childhood in grisly detail. When the guard next sees Stevenson back at the jail, the guard stops him and asks to shake his hand, explaining that he had a rough childhood himself in foster care and didn’t think anyone had it as bad as him. Instead of dismissing the guard as forever repugnant for his previous actions, Stevenson shakes his hand. Both men are changed by Stevenson’s mercy.

I’m saving my five star ratings for the books that absolutely change me, this book completely deserves it.