Saturday, November 22, 2014

Book Review: "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

I don't know why I waited so long to read Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. I've loved his other books—in fact, his 2010 story collection, Memory Wall, was among the best books I read that year, so I know he's a tremendously talented writer.

Maybe I hesitated because the book has already begun showing up on a number of year-end "best" lists, and lately I've had a bit of a disconnect between those the critics label as best of the year and those of which I'm most enamored. Well, I needn't have worried, because Doerr's latest is as good, and beautifully written, as I hoped it might be.

In the early 1940s, the world is on the brink of war. Marie-Laure is a 12-year-old girl living in Paris with her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. Although Marie-Laure went blind at the age of six, she has a tremendous thirst for knowledge and a passion about the world around her, particularly the natural world. Ever-protective of his daughter, Marie-Laure's father built a model of their Paris neighborhood so she can navigate the streets and always find her way home.

Meanwhile, in a German mining town, young Werner Pfennig is growing up with his sister, Jutta, in an orphanage. When the two discover a radio, it opens up a world of dreams and information. Werner also discovers his ability to repair and build radios, as well as his ability to grasp complicated mathematical and scientific concepts. This intelligence catches the interest of a Nazi officer, who sees that Werner is enrolled in an elite Hitler Youth school, where the fervor for perfection and rooting out inferiority begins to turn him into a person he doesn't recognize.

As war closes in, Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris and head to the seaside town of Saint-Malo, where her eccentric great-uncle Etienne lives. Etienne has never been the same since the first World War, and he is unprepared for just how profoundly his life—and the lives of those around him—will be affected by Marie-Laure's presence, as well as the town's resistance to the Nazi occupation. And Werner finds himself on the front lines, as he is part of a team tracking down those using radios to subvert the Nazis.

Werner and Marie-Laure's lives will intersect in a profound way, both when they are at one of their weakest moments. And this encounter will have an indelible impact on the lives of many for years to come.

"To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it's a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop."

This is an exquisite, wonderfully told story. The characters are tremendously vivid and came to life for me, and I found myself fully immersed in what was happening to them. Although the book unfolds slowly, I was never bored, and although I had some suspicions about how certain events would be resolved, I felt some suspense at what would happen. Doerr is truly so talented, and although the book's switching back forth between two points in time sometimes made me take a moment to re-orient myself to where I was in the plot, I enjoyed this book so, so much.

If you don't need a book to move at breakneck speed, but you want a story to savor, pick up All the Light We Cannot See. This is one of those books I could see as a fantastic movie as well, but the book is so worth reading.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review: "The Land of Steady Habits" by Ted Thompson

Is it ever too late in life to have a mid-life crisis?

Anders Hill doesn't think so. He and his wife, Helene, are living a financially comfortable life in suburban Connecticut, socializing with the same group of people they have for years. Both of their sons are grown and have moved on to lives of their own (one more successfully than the other), and they've just finished the requisite home renovations.

For some reason, this life is no longer enough for Anders. He retires from his job in the financial sector and decides it's time he and Helene get a divorce. This decision doesn't follow any significant anguish or betrayal—he's just not satisfied with his life anymore, and is ready to move on to the next chapter, despite how surprising and upsetting this decision is for Helene, their family, and friends. (And don't even mention his poor timing in announcing his decision to Helene.)

Once Anders moves into a condo and is now free of all of the social obligations he found so stilted, he realizes he misses that life, misses Helene, more than he anticipated. But attempts to re-enter his old life seem to go more than awry—he always seems to do or say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and his discovery that Helene has begun dating his old college roommate throws him for even more of a loop. (And doing drugs periodically with a friend's son isn't helping matters either.)

"Divorce, he'd learned early on, was not so much from your spouse but from all of the things you'd forged as a couple—the home, the parental authority, the good credit, the friends."

The Land of Steady Habits follows Anders, Helene, and their youngest son, Preston, as they all try to make sense of their new realities and deal head-on with (or avoid, in some cases) the challenges that they face. It's an interesting look at how easy it is to become complacent in a life in which you're basically unhappy, and how easy it is to take things and people around you for granted. This book is also a commentary about how privilege doesn't always equal happiness.

This was a well-written book, but the majority of the characters were fairly unsympathetic, so it was difficult to warm to them. Anders seemed like a person who was probably in need of psychological help (as was Preston), but people continued berating them and letting their behavior continue unabated instead of getting them help. I totally understood Anders' rants and his need for something different, I just felt like it took him a long time to get there. And while Helene seemed to be the character most deserving of empathy, she seemed fairly flat to me. My favorite parts of the book were Anders' interactions with Charlie, the troubled son of Helene's closest friends, and I wished there were more of those.

In the end, I thought this would be more a comic look at a late-in-life mid-life crisis, but it turned out to hew more toward an introspective character study. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

Monday, November 17, 2014

Movie Review: "The Theory of Everything"

Science is definitely one of my weaker subjects, so I'll admit going into The Theory of Everything I didn't know much about Stephen Hawking, although his book A Brief History of Time was a fixture on the best-seller list in the late 1980s when I managed a bookstore during college. And while the film gave me more perspective on Hawking than I had, what it gave me more than anything was a tremendous admiration for his courage and determination as well as his spectacular intellect.

Hawking (a masterful Eddie Redmayne) was a doctoral student at Cambridge in the early 1960s, an absolutely brilliant mind yet utterly unsure on what to focus his PhD studies. At a party he meets Jane (Like Crazy's Felicity Jones), a feisty poetry student who is intrigued by him but not quite certain if she can handle his intelligence and unorthodox views. But as the two begin falling in love, tragedy hits—Stephen is struck with a motor neuron disease similar to ALS, and is given two years to live.

A lesser woman would have taken the opportunity to leave Stephen, and a lesser man would have allowed himself to wallow in self-pity until his body betrayed him. But as the movie (which is based on Jane's memoir) proves, neither Stephen nor Jane are lesser people. The movie tracks Stephen's rapid physical decline, juxtaposed against his brilliant scientific discoveries. It also chronicles Stephen and Jane's relationship, both the highs and the lows, as well as the challenges that his condition caused their marriage.

In movies such as My Week with Marilyn and Les Miserables, Redmayne proved himself to be an actor of diverse range and a strong presence. But nothing I've seen him in prepared me for his utter transformation into Stephen Hawking. At the start of the movie, he is a floppy-haired, clumsy, almost impish presence, with Austin Powers-esque glasses and a mouth that moves as fast as his mind. And as the disease takes its toll, Redmayne metamorphosizes physically, drawing his body into itself, but his face, while often frozen into grimaces, never loses its expressive ability. This is a performance on par with Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. (Seriously, he's that good.)

And if Redmayne's Stephen is the physical center of the movie, Jones' Jane is the emotional center, and her performance is no less brilliant. I've been a fan since first seeing her in Like Crazy in 2011 (here's my review of that one), but she is truly impressive here, playing the sometimes-idealistic, sometimes-vulnerable woman who clearly served as a catalyst for Stephen Hawking's bravery. One scene early in the movie, when she watches Stephen struggling shortly after being diagnosed, shows the range of emotions she is going through without resorting to a single stint of histrionics. I had goosebumps.

The other performances in the film are equally worthy of standing alongside Redmayne and Jones, particularly Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer Jones, the church choir director who becomes a companion to the Hawkings', and David Thewlis, as Stephen's mentor and professor. While the movie doesn't expect you to understand the science Stephen was so passionate about, it does give you numerous glimpses of his trademark flashes of humor, which again, make Redmayne's performance so nuanced.

To use a British-ism, I thought this movie was really lovely. But in the end, it is worth seeing mainly for the breathtaking performances. Redmayne is so clearly deserving of an Oscar for this role, and I hope that Jones' name will be among the Best Actress nominees this year as well. This is a love story, a story of triumph, and most importantly, the story of perseverance, and I am glad I had the chance to experience it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Book Review: "The Remedy for Love" by Bill Roorbach

The state of Maine is about to get hit with what is being called "the storm of the century." Small-town attorney Eric stops by the grocery store to stock up on some high-end provisions (fancy cheese, good wine, etc.) in preparation for a visit from his estranged wife. He finds himself in line behind Danielle, an unkempt woman he assumes to be homeless, who is having trouble coming up with all of the money she needs to buy her groceries. Rather than cause a scene, he pays the difference, then offers her a ride.

When they arrive at the cabin where Danielle has been staying, a sense of concern comes over Eric. Given the anticipated storm, Danielle needs water and firewood, not to mention more food than she has. And while she's willing to accept a bit of his help, she's more than ready for him to leave her alone. But when Eric finds himself stranded, without a car or a cell phone, the only place he has to go is back to Danielle's cabin—and she's not happy about that, to say the least.

As the storm unleashes its fury, the two forge a tenuous agreement to ride it out together. But as lies are told, truths are revealed, and both the right and the wrong things are said, Danielle and Eric aren't sure if sticking together is the right decision. And Mother Nature has her own ideas. Is Danielle emotional, unstable, and/or possibly dangerous? Is Eric the victim he has painted himself out to be?

The Remedy for Love is an intriguing look at two people who are far more complicated than they appear. Danielle and Eric have some interesting banter, open some painful and emotional wounds, and get in each other's faces, and you're not exactly sure what is going to happen. The stranded-in-a-storm thing has been done before, but Bill Roorbach mines it for all it's worth, and most of the time it works, although there are a few somewhat unbelievable turns the story takes.

I felt the book would have been stronger had it focused solely on Eric and Danielle, but it spent a little too much time also providing the framework of Eric's relationship with Alison, his estranged wife. (And given all of the detail Roorbach provided, I still don't know if I understood what really happened with them.) Danielle, in particular, is really intriguing, but her dialogue is a mix of intellectual and street patois that irritated me at times. The two spend a lot of time dancing around proverbial elephants in the room without actually discussing many of them, and I found the ending a little disjointed. (Maybe someone who read the book can message me and tell me how they think it ended?)

Bill Roorbach is a very talented writer; his first novel, Life Among Giants, boasted another fascinating main character. The Remedy for Love is a strong character study, but one that left me with a few more questions than it did answers.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Book Review: "The Daylight Marriage" by Heidi Pitlor

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

When they met, Hannah and Lovell couldn't have been more different. Hannah was the impulsive free spirit, a young woman raised in the midst of privilege yet taught by her mother that women should never be subservient to men—and she had a broken engagement to prove her mother's lessons had sunk in. Lovell was the practical, stable, shy climate scientist, whose romantic track record was far less impressive. But when Hannah delivered flowers to Lovell one day after he graduated, he was smitten, and knew he had to be with this woman, despite the fact he didn't feel like her equal.

Years later the two have built a life together, raising two children—rebellious yet sensitive Janine, and Ethan, shyer yet sturdier. Lovell has a successful career that keeps him busy and challenged, but Hannah feels herself drifting, wishing for more. Through the years, the resentments, the anger, the frustrations, and the hurts have multiplied and simmered just under the surface.

One night, after a seemingly innocuous exchange, it all comes to a head, and the couple have a bitter argument, one that just stops short of turning violent. Both are unsure what their next steps are, but Lovell hopes they can get back on even footing. Then the next day, Hannah disappears after dropping Ethan off at school and calling in sick to work. As evidence dribbles in, Lovell and the children hold out hope that she will return, but they also must negotiate a new stage in their relationships, especially when Janine fears her father may have harmed her mother.

The Daylight Marriage is a bleak yet well-written book about how the things we don't say hurt as much, if not more, than the things we do. It's a book about how we sometimes confuse stability for happiness, and uncertainty for unhappiness. It's also a book about how one impulsive decision can change your life—in both good and bad ways.

Heidi Pitlor does a really good job at switching perspectives between Lovell and Hannah, past and present, tracing their relationship from the start to where they wound up. The story also shifts between Lovell's attempts to pull his and the children's lives together, and Hannah's steps after she left home that morning. It's a well done yet painful story, and Pitlor's storytelling ability keeps you fully engaged and immersed in the characters' lives, even if you don't necessarily like them very much, or know who you're really rooting for.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book Review: "Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love" by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

I remember in September 2011 when the Washington, DC area was hit by a quickly moving and unexpected set of rainstorms that left highways flooded, creeks running far over their banks, and trees felled. While we were fortunate not to lose power, many in the area did. I remember reading that several people were killed during those storms, mainly as a result of getting caught in the floods, including a 12-year-old boy from the town next to ours, who apparently fell into one of the creeks affected by the massive amount of rainfall. I couldn't even fathom the loss his family and friends were feeling, and that boy, Jack Donaldson, remained in my mind for a few weeks as I read and watched a number of follow-up news stories about the aftermath of his death.

So several years later, when I read that his mother had written a book about coping with this loss, and struggling with her faith, I felt drawn to it. Having lost my father unexpectedly just about six months ago, I knew this book would affect me, but it did both in ways I anticipated and ways which surprised me.

Anna Whiston-Donaldson was a blogger who chronicled her family's life, their faith, and her decorating tips. She and her husband, Tim, had two children, Jack and Margaret, and they were deeply rooted in their community, their church, and in their circle of family and friends. The four of them were tremendously close-knit, and Anna was always a very protective parent, warning her children of potential dangers and trying to keep them safe at all times, an irony not lost on her after Jack's death.

Jack was an athlete, an actor, always striving to make his friends and family laugh. But he was also tremendously sensitive, complex, and very cautious—as Anna's sister said after Jack's death, "I don't get it. If there was a poster child for 'kid least likely to get swept away in a stupid creek,' Jack would be the one."

Rare Bird is as poignant and heart-wrenching as you'd imagine an account of a mother's grief after the sudden loss of a child could be. But Whiston-Donaldson is careful not to portray Jack as perfect; she paints a complete picture of a complicated, loving, intelligent, and special child, who undoubtedly would have grown into an exceptional man. And she is honest about her feelings—the blame she places on herself for letting her children go out and play in the rain that night, struggling with her belief in God after this loss, and the challenges she faced in dealing with her husband, her daughter, and others while processing her grief.

"But maybe all deaths feel like this—improbable, strange, untimely, unnatural. Maybe every single death needs to be examined, spoken of aloud, and turned over in the mind to make it seem more real. And perhaps not being able to grasp all at once what has happened is a small mercy in itself."

This is an important and powerful book for anyone dealing with grief. I identified with many of the things Whiston-Donaldson said, such as, "I soon learn that prior closeness does not determine who will show up for you." Even though I didn't lose a child, nor do I share her religious beliefs, I was moved and affected by what she had to say. Grief is, sadly, a universal emotion, but how we deal with it is so individual, yet many of her frustrations, fears, and regrets spoke to me.

For her sake and the sake of her family, I wish that Anna Whiston-Donaldson's first book, as she said she thought it would be, was about painting furniture. Yet I feel tremendously fortunate that she was willing to share her family, her grief, her faith, and most importantly, her son, with us.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Book Review: "Noggin" by John Corey Whaley

One of the things I love so much about reading is what different books do for me. Some entertain, some manipulate my emotions (this is not necessarily a negative), some teach, some infuriate, and some make me think. I love when a book surprises me and does more than I expect. Such was the case with John Corey Whaley's spectacular second novel, Noggin. I enjoyed it tremendously (despite its offbeat premise) and it really made me think.

Travis Coates was a gravely ill 16-year-old who was tired of dying, but he didn't want to keep living the way he was. He and his family agreed to participate in an experimental program in which his head (the only part of his body not riddled with the cancer that was killing him) was removed from his body and, when medical and technological advances made it possible, it would be attached to another donor's body. Deep down inside, everyone had a feeling this would never happen, but it was a good thing to imagine occurring years into the future.

One morning Travis woke up, his parents by his side, to find that his head had been reattached to another teenager's body (a better body, if anyone's counting). For Travis, it only seemed like a few hours had passed since he said goodbye to his family, his best friend, Kyle, and his girlfriend, Cate, but for everyone else, it was five years later. Five years in which so much had changed.

"I want to tell you a story about how you can suddenly wake up to find yourself living a life you were never supposed to live. It could happen to you, just like it happened to me, and you could try to get back the life you think you deserve to be living. Just like I did."

Travis has to return to his high school and repeat sophomore year. (While he should be 21, his body and his mind are still 16, and he didn't get enough credits while he was sick to become a junior.) Beyond everyone wanting to get a look at his really cool scar where they attached his head to the other boy's body, it's weird being there without Kyle and Cate, although he is able to make a new friend.

But as similar as that aspect of his life is, things are really different where Kyle and Cate are concerned, as their lives moved on, much differently than Travis would have expected. Travis can't seem to understand why they can't seem to pick things up where they left off, and runs the risk of alienating the people who matter the most to him. It's truly hard to reconcile his gratitude at being able to have another chance to live with his frustration that his life can't be the way he wants it to be.

Noggin is tremendously thought-provoking, because while the procedure that gave Travis a new lease on life is certainly difficult to grasp, it raises some interesting questions. If you thought a person you lost would come back to you, should you keep your life in a holding pattern until it was confirmed that it won't happen? What obligation do we have to those we leave behind? If this procedure existed, should it be used, or is it one step too far?

I really loved this book. I loved the fact that Travis wasn't any wiser than he was before he died, and if anything, he's more confused. I loved all of the characters and how they were flawed, just like real life. And I love the way Whaley tells a story, which is just one reason why his previous book, Where Things Come Back, was one of my favorite books of 2012.

If you can get past the procedure on which this book hinges, you'll really enjoy this, and it will move you if you've ever had to face the loss of someone you wish could still be with you. As Travis says, "It made me realize that no matter how often you see or talk to someone, no matter how much you know them or don't know them, you always fill up some space in their lives that can't ever be replaced the right way again once you leave it."

Noggin might be that way for me.