Stand Out Historical Fiction—“All The Light We Cannot See”

Memorable and literary, I had double the pleasure with “All the Light We Cannot See,” which I read and listened to. This beautifully written historical novel by Anthony Doerr is set in the lovely, sea-washed walled-city of Saint-Malo, France, in the period leading up to World War II, and the ensuing years of the war.

The audio book, read by Zach Appelman, is poetic, the words lilting and beautifully rendered, a perfect accompaniment to the novel.

Marie-Laure Blanc, a teenager blind since age 6, and her father flee Paris when the city comes under siege from the Germans. The pair take refuge in Saint-Malo with Marie-Laure’s uncle, who suffers from agoraphobia resulting from shell shock in the first World War.

Prior to leaving Paris, Marie-Laure’s father, the keeper of the keys in a museum there, created miniature models of their neighborhood to help his daughter find her way around. Intelligent, sweet natured and courageous, Marie-Laure adores her father, and mourns him endlessly when he leaves Saint-Malo on an unexplained mission, failing to return. Marie is left in the care of her uncle and the housekeeper, as the war escalates and the Germans occupy Saint-Malo.

Marie’s narrative is intertwined with that of Werner Pfennig, orphaned after his father dies in the mines. The boy has a gift for building and operating radios, a skill that makes him indispensable to the Nazis.

When Werner is admitted to a select school for Hitler youth, he appreciates the preferential treatment he receives. That gradually changes as he sees instructors encouraging students to torment weaker boys. Cracks widen in the foundation of Werner’s loyalty to the Nazis when his brave best friend is cruelly victimized for refusing to abuse another student.

Marie and Werner’s stories are equally soulful and addictive. Add a driven Nazi obsessively trying to find an enormous diamond once housed in the Paris museum and other brilliantly drawn characters, and you’ve got a book with mass appeal. “All the Light You Cannot See” now lives on my “favorites” bookshelf.

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Memoir Not to Be Missed, “My Salinger Year”

Guest Review by Karen Cernich, Missourian Features Editor.

You don’t have to have read any J.D. Salinger to fully appreciate and love “My Salinger Year,” a memoir by Joanna Rakoff about how she started her literary career in the mid- to late-’90s working as an assistant to Salinger’s agent.

This story is less about Salinger and more about making that transition from school to career, finding your groove and learning a lot about yourself along the way. It also offers a peek into inner workings of the literary industry.

Joanna has dropped out of graduate school in London and is now living in New York City where she hopes to launch a career as a poet. But how do you do that?

She learns about a placement agency that editors use to find assistants. Publishing hadn’t been part of Joanna’s plan, but she needs a job, so she makes the call and quickly lands an assistant job at The Agency, where she’s given a Dictaphone and a Selectric typewriter to type letters and answer piles of fan mail that comes in for Salinger, whom Joanna doesn’t even realize at first is a client of The Agency.

She’s given a form letter to use in her replies to Salinger’s fans — he doesn’t want to see any of it anymore — and at first Joanna complies, but as she reads the many heartfelt letters, she is pulled off course. The form letter seems too cold and impersonal to reply to some fans, who share the most personal of details in their letters.

Salinger makes a few appearances in the story, mostly through phone calls to The Agency, but he also comes into the office once as he and his agent work with a small publishing house that wants to reprint Salinger’s short story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” that only ever appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, as a book. The deal ultimately falls apart.

Things are falling apart in Joanna’s personal life too. Her boyfriend Don is writing a novel while Joanna works to support them both. They live in a rundown apartment that has no kitchen sink and no heat in the winter. Making matters worse, her parents have handed over bills she never knew she was accruing — college loans and credit cards.

Joanna finds some success though, both with her poetry and at The Agency. She only worked there for one year, but the experience shaped and changed her life.

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Page-Turning-Fiction About Addiction to Painkillers

Jennifer Weiner writes fiction, but her new book “All Fall Down” tackles a true-to-life problem that affects all socioeconomic levels — addiction to pain killers. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says the trend is increasing with 54.2 percent of people getting prescription pills free from friends or relatives.

Often this dependence on Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycontin begins innocently, the pills initially prescribed to offer relief from everything from tooth extractions to herniated discs.

Allison Weiss’s problems begin with a back injury at the gym. Her “use of Vicodin and Percocet had ramped up over the past two years, from a once-in-a-while thing to a few-days a-week thing to more-days-than-not thing.”

To her friends, Allison appears to have it all — a wonderful husband, a gorgeous house and a job she loves, albeit a high-stress position. She’s also consumed with worry about her parents, a father with Alzheimer’s and a mother who never leaves the house.

Couple these factors with trying to raise a demanding daughter whose behavior would drive anyone up the wall, and Allison is set to crash and burn. Her downward spiral isn’t pretty to watch, but it makes for an entertaining read that might open some eyes.

Though the novel is trite in spots, especially when Allison gets on a bandwagon about women’s rights in regard to owning vibrators, the book improves as the pages fly by.

It might be necessary to remember an AA motto when reading “All Fall Down” — Take what you like and leave the rest.