Thursday, 29 September 2016

All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr


Novels set during World War 2 are usually a huge challenge to read however we all found All the light we cannot see a real page-turner, despite the horrendous incidents portrayed. The young character’s lives and moral dilemmas are so engaging they make the reader keen to know what happens. Someone even wanted a happy ending! Interwoven with their lives are themes of luck, curses and superstition.  There are also the themes of logic and light (and its opposite).  There is also mention of numerous books through the text which play an important role in the lives of the main characters.

This novel traverses 1934 to 2014 in Germany and France, but the main action occurs in 1934 and 1940-1944.  The central characters are Werner Pfennig, a German orphan born in 1926, who is a gifted radio technician and mathematician and a courageous and blind French girl called Marie-Laure LeBlanc, born in 1928.

Werner has grown up with his younger sister Jutta in Zollverein in a Children’s House in Germany and Marie-Laure has grown up in Paris with her Papa, a museum locksmith. It is the story of their lives during the war and how they come together for a very brief few hours in Saint Malo in Brittany in 1944.  

Werner despite being very young is drafted into the army to work as a radio technician and travels from Germany into France and finally to Saint Malo trying to intercept enemy radio transmissions. Marie-Laure at the same time escapes from Paris and ends up in Saint Malo with her great uncle, Etienne. When her father is captured and taken prisoner in Germany she is looked after by Madame Manec, Etienne’s housekeeper, and she changes Etienne’s life. The link between the characters is through the radio broadcasts from Marie-Laure's grandfather and uncle, heard in Germany prewar and during the war by Werner in France.

The story’s structure is not continuous but flits around in time and place and most chapters deal with Werner or Marie-Laure separately. They are all short and punchy.

One of our members likened this novel to a ‘big baggy 19th century one’, in the way it has lots of stories within the work as well as lots of minor characters impinging on the main characters. There are some wonderful portrayals of people – such as Madame Manec who is a great cook and has looked after the reclusive Etienne LeBlanc for years but immediately warms to Marie-Laure and becomes a great support for her as well as dealing with practical matters. One member loved Jutta, for her wisdom and conscience helping her brother to work out deep moral concerns, even though she is stuck in Germany in the orphanage. We all admired Antony Doerr’s different perspective on war through these characters – he makes them very appealing despite the horrors they witness and experience.

Frederick, Werner’s sensitive friend is another person we found appealing, despite his tragic destiny.  While at the army training camp Werner learns from Frederick’s strength of character and morality and how to be human and survive the war.  He realised that picking on the weaker person was not going to help him. Frederick’s mother seemed to be so uncaring and nasty before the army inflicted the torture on the boy. This experience disables him. His mother felt guilty afterwards and showed her love by caring for him for the rest of his life.

Frau Elena, the matron of the orphanage is not a stereotype matron in that she is compassionate and caring and a good cook. She also recognizes Werner’s brilliance. As well she is feisty with the authorities. We all hated the rape scene in Berlin and were shocked by the girls’ submissiveness.

A different sort of person is the German army officer, von Rumpel, looking for the Sea of Flames jewel. We thought he was a stereotypical personality with his prostate cancer and his psychotic behaviour. He created huge fear for Marie-Laure and for the reader. In contrast we really liked the gentle giant, Frank Volkheimer who cares for little Werner through much of the war. 

The Sea of Flames, a precious stone owned by the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle impacts upon the lives of Marie-Laure, her father and eventually Werner. It is crux of the superstition and luck themes. The key from this museum also traverses the novel and turns up in unusual places.  

Logic helps Werner work out the radio frequencies so vital to the German war offensive as well as tracking down Marie-Laure. Marie-Laure and her papa use logic to get her around Paris and around Saint Malo after learning the streetscape through the wooden models. Logic has a calming influence too when trying to cope with living in a time when things are out of control.

Light in the title has to do not only with Marie Laure’s blindness but also with the state of the countries during the war and peace afterwards. Light is also an analogy for doing the right ‘thing’ which is a concern for both young people. Werner also experiences a period stuck in the basement of the bombed hotel when all is dark for him. When he escapes to the light he meets Marie-Laure. When Werner was very young he heard Marie-Laure’s grandfather talking on the radio saying ‘open your eyes … and see what you can with them before they close for ever’. (p. 86, Fourth estate edition). His father also dies in the coal mine in the dark, a memory which haunts Werner. 

Books are also important markers in this novel – for instance Frederick shows Werner the magnificent Birds of America  by Audubon. And Werner sees another copy but less splendid at Marie-Laure’s house. Her uncle gives her Twenty thousand leagues under the sea by Jules Verne which they read together and which gives her added strength when she is very frightened. While growing up she reads Around the world in 80 days.  Also Werner’s earliest book is The principles of mechanics, which he likes as much as Marie-Laure likes her novels. We were not sure of the purpose of the books except to highlight their importance in the lives of these young ones.  We also admitted many of us hadn’t read the French classics.

Bees are also another theme – the Bees hotel for instance and the crests of bees carved into the oak.

We appreciated the language as well – it is clear, concise and lyrical at times. One reader noticed that there were many descriptions of the environment. I must admit they escaped me completely. The language is very evocative and not overblown.

Only one member has been to Brittany and she loved it. She saw little villages and nuns in traditional garb and elderly ladies wearing traditional costume. It had great charm.

There were a few less complimentary comments about this novel, such as some members were not convinced by the ending and could not see the point of carrying the story up to 2014. It didn’t really achieve much they felt. One reader was disappointed that the children spoke like modern young Americans, ‘doing math’ for instance. She also felt that Frederick was weird. We were also a little confused about the destiny of the Sea of Flames – was it really gathering moss in the sea grotto or was it with Werner and that was why he had to die ?

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Best Australian Science Writing 2015, edited by Bianca Nogrady

We've done essay collections before - by Peter Singer and Oliver Sacks, for a start - and we've done short story anthologies including our very first book, Room to move, but an anthology of science essays is new territory for us. It proved, however, to be a very successful choice, for a number of reasons, as you'll read below. The book, Best Australian science writing 2015, was edited by science journalist/communicator Bianca Nogrady, and contains articles or essays "celebrating the finest Australian science writing of the year".

While most hadn't finished the book by the meeting, all enjoyed it, for various reasons, including that:

  • it could be read in "small snippets";
  • several of the articles linked to radio and TV programs we'd heard or watched in recent years;
  • many of the articles challenge popular conceptions (or misconceptions) regarding, for example, cane toads, managing endangered species, placebos, and statins.

One member commented that there aren't always clear ethical standards by which the work of scientists can be evaluated. Another enjoyed Adam Spencer's introduction, and liked the links at the end of each article to related articles. In fact, one member read the book by following these links, whereas most of us read it in table-of-contents order.

To discuss it, we asked each person to name her favourite article. Following are our choices. We could have gone on much longer, except that Kate's delicious "healthy" banofee pie started to call:

Uncharted waters, by Daniel Stacey
Our member nominated this article about the search for Malaysian Airlines MH370 because it's an example of those events or activities that can have unintended spin-offs, that lead to the development of further knowledge or new technologies, the way, for example, that wars and space research do. One member, though, suggested that there's an opposite argument which is to keep this apparently unexplored area of the Indian Ocean pristine or free from interference.

Field guide to the future, by Ian Lunt
The member choosing this gorgeous article, which compares old printed field guides with their new digital counterparts, loved its tone and language. She shared a couple of quotes, including this one on how printed field guides (unlike digital ones with their audio features) must use words to describe bird calls:

With a budget for paint – one illustration per species – but none for sound, cheerful ornithologists turned to onomatopoeia: ‘Pee-pee-pee-peeooo, Wee-willy-weet-weet, It-wooa-weet-sip, Zzzt zzzt zzzt. Cher-cher-cherry-cherry, Wah-i-wah-i-wah-oo, Twitchy tweedle, Kupa-ko-ko, Lik-lik-lik’. Less cheerful colleagues followed suit: ‘Chop-chop, Four o’clock, Wide-a-wake, Walk to work. Want a whip? It’s for teacher. Tweet-your-juice, Sweet pretty creature’. (All real calls, I assure you.)

All dressed up for Mars and nowhere to go, by Elmo Keep AND Messages from Mungo, by John Pickerel
The member nominating these liked the jump from exploration in the future to research into Australia's deep past. She liked the way the Lake Mungo "story" was written,  and quoted from its last paragraph:

'Aboriginal people have an intense commitment to country even today. Europeans have lost that connection. Country to us is something you dig up and export to China', Jim says.

How I rescued my brain, by David Roland
Not surprisingly, one of our medical members picked one of the medical articles, this one about a man retraining his brain after suffering a stroke. She enjoyed thinking about it from a medical point of view. She liked that by telling it first person, the author took us on his journey with him. We all liked how this one provided a wonderful practical example of reports we've been hearing about plasticity of the brain. It also led to a discussion about ageing, memory and keeping our brains active! (You can tell we are all of a certain age!).

She shared an example of the writing:

As he talks, his words appear in my mind slowly. They often disappear before I can get hold of them, as if they are in line, each being jostled along by the next.

Aliens versus predators: The toxic toad invasion, by Michael Slezak
The member chose this one because it counteracts what we have been told about the devastating effects of the cane toad invasion. She shared this quote:

The toads are spreading further and faster than anyone expected, and they do have a devastating impact when they first arrive in a region. But most animals are adapting to their presence surprisingly quickly, and some even benefit. 

‘If you’re a frog, the toad is your superhero,’ says Shine. ‘You’ve got its picture up on the wall. This guy is coming in, he looks like a frog and is killing everything that attacks frogs. If you’re a green tree frog, what more could you hope for in life?’
[...] 
 ‘I’ve gone to thinking it’s a good-news story about the resilience of ecosystem.

The past may not make you feel better, by Christine Kenneally
The member who chose Kenneally's article about Huntington's chorea and genetic counselling was fascinated by the fact that the gene can be found way back in time in the slime mould. She felt that the gene must have (had) some benefits to have survived through evolution to humans. We discussed how research into DNA sequencing opens up our understanding of genes. We also discussed the ethics of DNA testing services, and how some people, who are at a risk of carrying or suffering from genetic conditions, choose not to be tested. It can be tricky to know what to do with information about health.

(Kenneally won the Stella Prize in 2015 for her book The invisible history of the human race).

Other articles named in the second round free-for-all:
  • Honest placebos, by Jane McCredie: we loved the word nocebo.
  • How dust affects climate, health and … everything, by Tim Low: we were fascinated by how far in place and time dust can extend and the information it therefore provides.
  • All dressed up for Mars and nowhere to go, by Elmo Keep: the idea of choosing to buy a one-way ticket to Mars to be part of experimental community sounded a bit "whacky" until someone suggested that this could be our equivalent of those 16th century seafaring explorers who set off not knowing what they would find, where they would end up, and whether they would come back.
  • The women who fell through the cracks of the Universe, by Lauren Fuge: of course, we liked the story of the unsung late 19th to early 20th century women astronomers of "Pickering's harem".
All in all, a very engaged discussion that didn't let up until we absolutely had to ...