My two cents

Books, Writing, and Reading Free Associations

Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See

All The Light We Cannot See is a modern day existentialist novel. A book in the tradition of Dostoevsky, although that may not be obvious right away.


The title alludes in different ways to the juvenile main protagonists of the novel, Marie Laure and Werner. For Marie Laure, the allusion is more literal. She is blind, from a congenital vision disorder. Nurtured by a loving father, she sees, not with her eyes, but with her ears, her nose and her fertile imagination.


For Werner, an orphan and part of Germany’s World War II youth indoctrination program, the allusion is more figurative and a little more complex. He chooses to be blind to the destructive effects of war because the program promises a way out of the coal mines―his inevitable future, asserted orphanage officials.

These two characters meet only at the end, but in so many ways, they are connected from the beginning. By time, if not by place. By their youth. By their intense need to know. By their extraordinary gifts. Finally, they meet as kindred spirits, drawn together by an illegal radio broadcast that cuts through prejudices and stereotypes, suspicions and enmities that divide people.

You cannot think of this novel in terms of a sweeping plot with several subplots. All the individual stories carry about equal weight, if not equal appeal: Marie-Laure moving through and surviving the war; Werner curbing a role in the war using his native gifts for electronics; the trajectory of the Sea of Flames diamond and the search for it by an obsessed German officer desperate to believe it would cure his decaying body; the healing of Marie-Laure’s great uncle, traumatized by his experience in the previous world war.

The setting for the story, the catastrophic event of the second world war, fits the meditative mood of the narrative. The characters live inside their heads a lot, not only about what they’re experiencing (seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling), but also about what those experiences mean, what each individual life really means. The prose flows effortlessly and images are vivid. The novel reminds me of Terence Malick’s atmospheric, meditative war film, The Thin Red Line.

Ultimately, though, what I took away from the book is the author’s view of what life is all about, woven into the many themes of the novel and often expressed in the musings of characters. You feel the author throughout the story, editorializing about events, characters, scenes, time. For example:

That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough?

Four years of occupation, and the roar of oncoming bombers is the roar of what? Deliverance? Extirpation?

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.

But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?

The book is rich with such passages. A book to be read and savored more than once. As I intend to do and as I did with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamasov. Timeless and unforgettable.

The Portrait o a Lady: Henry James's Case Study of Isabel Archer

The Portrait of a Lady - Henry James, Patricia Crick

When we first meet Isabel, she is in the prime of her youth—beautiful, irresistible to men (every male character seems to eventually fall in love with her), intelligent, poised, vibrant, hungry for life, and marching to her own drums. She has all the potential to be an exceptional woman. To remove the obstacles of poverty that can hinder realizing that potential, her admiring dying cousin, Ralph, shares half of his inheritance with Isabel who, of course, is unaware that she owes her wealth to him, instead of his father. Ralph believes that with this money, Isabel can do what she wants—marry (or not) as she pleases and live in a style and manner based only on her good judgment.


Isabel travels to satisfy her curiosity and to learn about the world in order to grow her mind. After a year or so of travel, she seems to think she has seen and learned enough. She thinks of marriage. She has already rejected the suit of a fine-looking Lord with “radical” views and who is liberal with his tenants—“half of England,” as someone joked. Among the eligible candidates, you get the feeling James might have considered him the best match for her own exceptional characteristics.


But Isabel chooses Osmond, a man who looks polished and impeccable on the surface but whose shallowness is evident to many people including her cousin Ralph. Although Isabel, generally values his judgment, she dismisses it in this case because Ralph confesses to being in love with her. Osmond is not rich and not seemingly interested in doing great deeds—someone relatively ordinary. It is a choice that seems out of character for Isabel. Is she afraid to be outshone by Lord Warburton? Does she think he is too good for her? Or, is there simply no physical attraction towards him?


In fact, Isabel has been duped into marrying Osmond by her friend, Madame Merle, with whom Osmond had an intimate history. Isabel proves to be naïve enough not to know that charming and worldly but calculating Madame Merle has worked her like a pawn. In this decision—probably the most important one in her life—Isabel appears to have squandered her gifts and exhibited poor judgment.


I am actually rather appalled and incredulous to see someone described as having superior attributes prove herself so dense. How is that possible? It seems to me inconsistent, from a psychological perspective. James does not enlighten us too much on Isabel’s choice. Maybe, to him, it is also a puzzle, but he does suggest that by this marriage, Isabel might think herself benevolent by bringing wealth to the man she is marrying. Does she, in fact, feel that she can maintain a certain level of freedom by marrying someone not quite so superior? Will marriage to a nobleman stifle her?


Once married, of course, both Madame Merle and Isabel’s chosen one show their true colors. He wants to conquer her spirits in the name of being the all-knowing authoritative husband. She does not take to that kind of treatment well, as we may expect, and a psychologist may say she responds by being passive aggressive. That is, by word and deed, she seems to comply with her husband’s wishes but by failing to produce what he wants of her, she actually undermines them.  It is a tug of war, barely disguised.


Isabel is profoundly unhappy—again, as we may expect—and her unhappiness is aggravated when she confronts the truth about why her husband married her. And yet, in the end, unhappy as she is, she chooses to suffer because she believes in the sanctity of marriage and considers herself bound to it. Remaining married to this man is looking more like the sacrifice of her life, although in her mind, it may be a heroic and romantic one. To my admittedly more modern view, Isabel is a coward. Not at all what I would expect from someone intelligent, vibrant and with a mind of her own.


I find it curious that Henry James would title his book The Portrait of a Lady. That definitive article “The” is what bugs me, especially coming from a man who never married and who may not have had lasting relationships with women. Why not A Portrait…?. Surely, Victorian ladies were not all like Isabel Archer.  Two of them, in fact, are relatively well-drawn in the novel—Madame Merle and Henrietta Stackpole.


Maybe, the point Henry James is trying to make is this: That the real Lady of Victorian times was, in fact, a tragic figure, possessing contradictions that can confound us. She could have wonderful attributes or, at least, wonderful potential, but she could waste them and sacrifice her own happiness in the name of being a lady.


My interpretation of the end of the novel does not jive with the more optimistic one of some who believe that Isabel, in fact, will finally be delivered from her misery, after an earlier suitor, Caspar Goodwood, shows her escape is possible (see, for instance, The Reading Life: Henry James in a Panic. Much has been made of this passage:

She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.

To me, “a very straight path” embodies the sense in which James thought of Isabel as the lady—one so exquisitely attuned to society’s standards of demeanor that she would follow them at all costs and reject the chance she has to leave a disastrous existence. By dint of personality and/or circumstance, Henrietta Stackpole and Madame Merle could not or did not choose to be so bound with those conventions. So, perhaps, by James’s—and Victorian society’s—definition, neither could have been “the lady”.


Victorian novels have heroines with more chutzpah than Isabel. Some of Elizabeth Gaskell’s heroines, for instance. You may argue that they are not in the same privileged class and, therefore not as beholden to conventions. But if you look at real figures, you’ll find some women of the period with feminist leanings, including a few who inherited money. Were they “ladies?” If Isabel Archer was “the portrait of a lady,” then perhaps they were not. Thankfully.


Heartache and the specter of revenge follow when sparring partners spend the night together two days before he weds someone else. This modern-day pastiche of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell novels is an engaging romp into deep powerful love, with a good dose of realism and a twist of mystery.


click here for more info on the book

Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Shadow of the Wind. I’ve puzzled over this title. Technically, a wind would not have a shadow. Or, maybe, it does; but we need a sixth sense to see it. If so, this title is the best anyone could give this novel, although I must confess, I did not feel that way until I got almost towards the end of the book, 358 pages later, to be precise. I found my initially strong interest waning and actually nearly lost about 300 pages into the book. I put it aside and wondered if I’d pick it up again.

Spanish writer: Carlos Ruiz Zafón in Barcelona...

Spanish writer: Carlos Ruiz Zafón in Barcelona (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, there was something about the beginning of the novel by Carlos Ruis Zafon that intrigued me. It hints at a mystery. But more than that, the novel is multi-layered, from the story within a story to the layers of subtext about life, about people, and about books of fiction and our relationship to them.

So, I picked it up again. I am glad I did. This novel reminded me once more of the ways in which fiction could be great. And why I read it. This is one of the best I have come across in a long time and yet, I cannot necessarily explain why. Greatness is probably impossible to understand and explain, anyway. If I read it a second time, I’m likely to find something in it I did not see before; or I might interpret the book differently.

One could see Gothic elements in the story, both in its plotlines—mystery, menace, obsessive romance—and, occasionally, in the style of narration. But, even in its translation to English (from Spanish), that sprinkling of Gothic seems to be thoroughly appropriate to the tale that is told. And it is told, not shown: You do not get a narrative of events as they unfold. What you get are recollections by people the narrator seeks out in his search for truth. This method served me quite well, at first, but it became increasingly frustrating to the point where I found myself reluctant to go back to it after setting it aside for the night.

My estrangement from the book lasted for some time. And yet, when I finally did finish reading it, I was awed by how engaging and masterfully written this book was.

Shadow Walk

Shadow Walk

The story within the story spans several decades from circa 1919 to 1955 and emerges from the quest of the narrator who, as a boy of ten immediately after the second world war, is allowed to choose one, and only one, book from a place called Cemetery of Forgotten Books. He selects Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, an unknown author. The choice is not at all fortuitous, as it will turn out. The book so intrigues the boy that he wants to find more books by the same author and, of course, to learn as much as he could about him. (Strikes a chord?) Here is, in fact, where the book begins as a story within a story.

This obsession by the youthful narrator continues into adulthood to about ten years later when most of the puzzles he comes across in his quest are understood, if not tied together. The enlightenment begins on page 359 (print copy) with the telling shifted to a female character who knew Julian intimately.

Impatient souls might balk at having to wade through so many pages first before the truly exciting part but this is where you begin to feel, in your bones, the greatness in this book. And you might find yourself eagerly devouring the remaining 150-some pages.

At the Summit of Tibidaboo

At the Summit of Tibidaboo

You also realize why the first 358 pages are important. They present the characters in the story (about Julian) within the story (the quest) of the narrator. Not only are these characters useful devices for the telling, they also work up your anticipation for the remainder of Julian’s tale. But probably more than those reasons, you see the ravages of time on these characters—ravages that, in one form or another, descend upon all of us, if we live long enough. Thus you see: This story within a story is ultimately about time, about how each person’s life spins across it; how events beyond our control can propel lives forward into a miserable existence; how time wreaks its havoc and memories are all we’re left of past time. In those dark wet days in Barcelona, in the shadow of fascism, a civil war, and a world war, misery visits nearly everyone; and time is unkind to them.

But this is also a story of hope. Hope that infuses three love stories: Obsessive and tragic between Julian and his Penelope (allusions to Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey?); fresh and audacious between the young narrator and his Beatriz (allusions, perhaps, to Dante’s Beatrice?); and mystical and poignant between the author Julian and the narrator.

The last connection is the type that occurs between kindred spirits and reveals itself fully to the narrator only towards the end. It invites interpretations of reincarnation; or, maybe, it merely alludes to cycles of life repeated across time.  As repeated in the story of the narrator, so like Julian’s.  As it may be when  the narrator’s story comes to a full turn and he takes his son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

The novel ends in a phrase, by now full of meaning: “their steps lost forever in the shadow of the wind.”


The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

About three months ago, I got a copy of The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor. No, not that Elizabeth Taylor. The other Elizabeth Taylor. These are a couple of published reactions when articles are written about that other Elizabeth, a British writer in the mid-1900s. Unfortunately, that shared name may be one big reason so many people have not heard of her. I, for instance, only discovered her, as I was googling for writers who write like Jane Austen.


Yes, she has been called the Jane Austen of the 50s and 60s by at least one other British novelist (award-winning Anita Brookner). I imagine she’s earned that comparison for her preoccupation with the ordinary domestic lives of the British middle class of her time, as well as for her incisive vision.

Ms. Taylor manages, in spare but elegant language, to tell you so much. To wit, the opening sentence of The Wedding Group:

The Quayne ladies, adjusting their mantillas, hurried across the courtyard to the chapel.

She could have written this sentence several ways. For instance:

The Quaynes were a closely-knit family of Catholics, whose women went to church regularly. The Quayne ladies, observing the traditional custom of wearing veils, hurried across the courtyard to the chapel.

While this second version conveys what Ms. Taylor writes in her one sentence, her construction is arguably more graceful and pithy. Besides, it does more showing than telling and also exemplifies what Francine Prose calls energetic, specific (I would add “efficient”) use of language. I also think the choice of the word mantillas (from which I infer “Catholic”) is quite extraordinary. It is more evocative than veil, suggesting exoticism and grace.

Nothing truly sensational happens in this story about a Quayne daughter who attempts to escape the constricting atmosphere of her family and its tyrannical patriarch. It is a sort of coming of age, but you never feel that this young woman really matures. She does change, within her own limitations.

The other principal characters are just as intriguingly undefinable. You could say complex. They change, too, but not necessarily from their own initiative. Somehow that is all right because most of us don’t fully know ourselves and life does find us just bopping along. Life is like that. Or as the French say, “C’est la vie.”