All the Light We Cannot See (is a Hella Good Read.)

I’ll admit that when something is popular and gets a lot of buzz, I tend to deem it beneath my interest, at least at first. (I know- what elitism! But books are the only thing I get to be snobby about. I’m not good at anything else.) However, when the buzz extends to my literary circles, NPR critics, and most trusted colleagues, I roll with it. And I’m super glad I did.

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(I’ve officially become a #bookstagrammer because apparently I have too much free time.)

Fun fact: I taught high school English- various levels from advanced placement to “intensive”, grades 9-11, for seven years. I loved it but longed for the freedom entrepreneurship allowed: writing, family time, and sleeping in! This book makes me want to go back. Go back to that stuffy room (our school’s AC was ALWAYS out) and get those moderately apathetic teens engulfed in a great work of literature that is actually accessible to them!

On top of having a rich plot and well-developed characters, All The Light We Cannot See is chalk full of motifs- darkness vs. light, spirals, enclosed objects, man vs. nature and follows, but not obnoxiously so, the quest model, complete with dueling underdog protagonists, a wise but reclusive teacher, and the search for a magical object. What 11th grader wouldn’t love that? (Especially compared to the alternatives)

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(Me, center, with a few of my best AP Language students, circa 2014)

Anthony Doerr takes on what would seem an overwhelming task- producing a new take on a World War II novel. Unlike, Hannah’s The Nightingale, in which we get a clear distinction of “good” vs. “bad” guys, Doerr invites us to explore the multiple “sides” of war and we discern the varying degrees of helplessness and victimization of nearly  every character, and there are many. Cogs in a machine.

Reminiscent of Zusak’s The Book Thief, the characters of All the Light We Cannot See are quirky and endearing. Marie-Laure, a young, blind French bibliophile of sorts, is much more than her helpless visage conveys. Her curiosity and determination drive the piece and take the reader on, not just a journey, but a daunting quest. Werner, a young German orphan with a gift for engineering, is equally pleasant and driven to “solve” the puzzle that is war and how it affects everything around him.

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(Le Havre, France, decimated and rebuilt following WWII. Picture taken on our 10-night UK cruise in 2013. Take me back!)

Though the subject matter is decidedly dark, the book reads like a Wes Anderson film (think The Grand Budapest Hotel and/or Moonrise Kingdom) with plenty of wry, subtle  humor in each section. One of the German officer’s is described as having “a wife who suffers his absences without complaint, and who arranges porcelain kittens by color, lightest to darkest, on two different shelves.” And we meet many a character, sympathetic and less so, in just this very manner. I find it quite nice.

As my former colleagues discussed this work during our last book club meeting, we agreed that it is the kind of book you want to read again. As with The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, The Things They Carried, and the many great American classics we as teachers re-read each year, this is a work where you will always discover something new; your mind will connect a few more dots than it did the last time around. And to me, that is the true mark of a great piece of literature.

Let’s keep the World War II theme rolling with The Nightingale. Review coming shortly (read: when Shawn puts down the book(s) and/or camera and decides to actually write something)

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