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

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“All the Light We Cannot See” is a rich, evocative novel set during World War II. The third person narrator primarily follows two characters: a blind French girl whose father is a locksmith at a museum in Paris, and an orphan boy who is part of Hitler Youth and then conscripted into the Nazi military due to his mechanical gifting, particularly with radios. Doerr is a master of showing, rather than telling, and creates a world with as much texture as the real one. His characters are three-dimensional, conflicted, believably inconsistent. And the story that he weaves between them is equally heart-warming and heart-wrenching, stirring contemplation about how we fit into the world we’ve been given and what it means to have a choice regarding how to live our lives.

It’s only August, but this will probably be the best book I read all year.

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If you’ve read this book, I recommend reading this interview with the author.

Book Review: A Fifty-Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in FranceA Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Miranda Richmond Mouillot was young, romantic, and naive when she set out to retrace her grandparents’ story, one she imagined to be like a fairy tale, full of love but with stars crossed that tore the two apart. What she found was much more complicated.

Mouillot’s grandparents were Jews in France during Nazi occupation in World War II. They successfully escaped to Switzerland where they stayed in refugee camps. Her grandmother was a doctor; after the war, her grandfather worked as an interpreter in the Nuremberg Trials.

Mouillot grew up in the United States, and as a child did not associate her grandparents with each other. They were never in the same place at the same time, and whenever her grandmother was spoken of around her grandfather, he scoffed and said something hurtful. When her grandfather decided to sell a ruined house in France — bought by her grandmother; the deed was in her name — a spark ignited in Mouillot to find out exactly what had happened between her grandparents. That’s what this book is about.

Written in smooth, vivid prose, A Fifty-Year Silence, tells the story of Mouillot’s efforts to solve her grandparents’ mystery while also finding and living a life of her own. It’s a beautiful book that makes the time period real to the reader. This isn’t just another book about World War II. It’s the story of real people with real lives who lived through a real, horrifying time in France and Switzerland.

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Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's EnemiesThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My expectations for this book were pretty high: I’ve followed Jason Fagone’s magazine work for a while and know him as a strong writer and evocative storyteller. I bought The Woman Who Smashed Codes for myself as a birthday gift and was excited to crack it open.

Let me tell you: It delivered above and beyond my expectations.

First, let’s just look at the physical hardback. Published by Dey St., an imprint of HarperCollins, the book is 444 pages thick (don’t let that scare you — notes and the index occupy a sizable chunk) and is beautifully designed. Many of the chapters have an accompanying photo on the first page and a quote to set the tone for the oncoming narrative. The typeface is welcoming to the eyes, and the paper is soft and thick.

Now, the writing. Fagone’s nonfiction narrative draws you into the story and introduces you to scenes and characters in a way that makes you want to keep reading and reading. The book is divided into three sections, each of which encompasses a specific period of time in Elizebeth Smith’s (later, Friedman’s) journey in codebreaking and in life with William Friedman. Each chapter ends with questions that drive the narrative forward, propelling the reader into the next chapter and then the next.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is truly narrative nonfiction. Thoroughly researched (with pages of notes to prove it) and grounded in history, it doesn’t at all read like a textbook. It reads like a story. One with surprises, mystery, intrigue, and even romance in various corners. The narrative about Nazi spy operations in South America was especially interesting to me, as I wasn’t familiar with that part of history, and the drama around U.S. government agencies, particularly the FBI versus everyone else, was fascinating.

This book followed through on the promise to educate and inform regarding World War II history and a particular woman codebreaker, while also entertaining and delighting on a storytelling level — from overarching narrative all the way down to the sentence level. I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they know everything about World War II, has an interest in women’s history, or simply enjoys a good book.

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Good reads: Obscure, fascinating pieces of history

This post is part of a series recommending longform, narrative nonfiction (as well as other worthwhile writings).

The Forgotten Internment by Eva Holland, Maisonneuve

You probably know about the Japanese internment that took place in the United States during World War II (if you’re like me, you learned about it through Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower). But did you know that the U.S. interned a tribe of North America’s native people in Alaska? Yeah, me neither. This piece by Eva Holland, a Canadian freelancer, tells the story from interviews she conducted with those who lived through it. Fascinating, thought-provoking history.

Frank Sinatra has a Cold by Gay Talese, Esquire

What’s a star like when he’s passed his prime, other pieces of life aren’t going his way, and he’s no longer “got the world on a string“? This piece (which has been on my list for a while — it’s probably the most referred to work of narrative nonfiction) paints a three-dimensional portrait of Sinatra on the downswing of his career. My favorite quote is from Sinatra’s son. See if you can find it.

How a Fake Typhus Epidemic Saved a Polish City from the Nazis by Matt Soniak, Atlas Obscura

This piece isn’t really narrative nonfiction, but it is an interesting, well-researched piece of obscure history. Good for stimulating thought, adding dimension to your understanding of World War II (slight theme here), and possibly inspiring some fiction.

And finally, a piece that contains no storytelling whatsoever, but involves storytelling as the priority of a discussion around digital books:

Future Reading by Craig Mod, Aeon

Craig Mod tackles the questions of ebook (and e-reader) design: why/where it falls short, what is blockading improvement, and whether or not ebooks will ever actually overtake print. A while back, Mod also wrote an excellent piece about digital publishing for magazines.