Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See”

You know how I just said The Silkworm was terrific summer reading? Well, it is. But actually, the one book you want to drag around in your canvas tote bag and get sunscreen all over is this one, All the Light We Cannot See. That is, if you want to be completely transported. If you want to wonder, while you’re not reading, what the characters are up to. If you want to see life a little bit differently when you’re done.

Do you like historical fiction? Of course you do, right? But there’s a lot of it out there, and too much of it features minor characters walking through various famous historical episodes full of costume description and attempts at antique-sounding dialogue. (I mean, I love Hilary Mantel, but she has a lot to answer for these days.) What’s much harder to find is historical fiction that’s both completely absorbing and that illuminates the period in question. (Which Ms. Mantel does in spades, of course.)

All the Light We Cannot See is set on the Breton island of St. Malo in the summer of 1944, and in the lives of the two principal characters as they work their way toward that spot. On the one hand, the blind girl Marie-Laure LeBlanc, an intelligent and courageous teenager with a keen interest in natural history. On the other hand, Werner Pfennig, a mechanical genius swept up by the German army and sent to St. Malo to find illicit radio transmissions. The action toggles back and forth in micro-chapters, Werner/Marie-Laure, Werner/Marie-Laure, with forays into the long climactic days of the American bombing of St. Malo. It sounds confusing, I know, but Anthony Doerr keeps us firmly grounded. You will always know where you are, and when.

US 8th Air Force bombing St. Malo in August 1944

US 8th Air Force bombing St. Malo in August 1944

Oh, Anthony Doerr, what a writer! It apparently took him ten years to produce All the Light… and I’m not surprised. There is so much packed into it! Doerr is clearly a natural history buff and I am not, but he sweeps you right along with him — trees, clouds, insects, snails…. lots about snails. Trust me when I say that’s a good thing. And we’ve all read plenty about war, but Doerr’s treatment of the fear, the hunger, the grayness, the despair, and the aftermath is remarkable. It has much of the immediacy of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française, which is saying a lot.

There’s a great deal of lyrical musing in this novel — not ordinarily my favorite thing. But Doerr’s point of view swoops in and out from the most private secrets of a character to the movements of the stars and those shifts in perspective help us put the personal, national, and even natural dramas into perspective. There’s been a lot of rumination and memorializing in this summer of military anniversaries. So much ruin trails in the wake of war. Doerr makes it personal, and vivid.

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Robert Galbraith, “The Silkworm”

Only you’re not fooled, are you? You know that Robert Galbraith is J.K. Rowling’s nom de plume. So you’ll probably be entertained by the conceit of The Silkworm, which is all about the true authorship of a novel. Oh, wait, I mean murder. No, actually, I do mean authorship. Because this second outing for the appealing detective Cormoran Strike is actually solved by high-powered literary analysis.

"Bombyx Mori" is a silkworm's Latin name. Here it is in all its life stages, except perhaps an Hermes scarf.

“Bombyx Mori” is a silkworm’s Latin name. Here it is in all its life stages, except perhaps an Hermes scarf.

Well, we never thought Ms. Rowling was going to write naturalist fiction, did we? And anyway, we mystery fans expect artificiality. We find it reassuringly unlike messy real life. That cosy closed world, where every piece of information may be valuable and the close scrutiny of the attentive reader is rewarded, lets us believe briefly in an ordered universe. But there’s something very stagy about The Silkworm. Yes, each chapter comes with a remarkably appropriate quotation from one of those vicious violent 17th-century English dramatists. And yes, the publishing characters are all quite satirically written. What’s more they even appear in the work-within-the-work, the novel Bombyx Mori that provides the McGuffin for the whole piece. This is where Galbraith/Rowling departs from mystery writers like Susan Hill or Tana French, whose plots derive from the everyday atmosphere of their books. With Galbraith/Rowling, the crimes seem to belong to another register entirely. It’s as if the characters in a slice-of-life drama suddenly stepped to the apron of the stage and started bellowing arias.

And yet weirdly, The Silkworm is not annoying. On the contrary. J. K. Rowling knows how to breathe life into a story. And while the solution to an especially gruesome murder is worked out, Strike limps around and pines for his brilliant assistant Robin though he’s too dense to realize it. And it snows all over London, a mentally challenged teenager hides clues in a stuffed monkey, people smoke too much and drink endless cups of tea. And before you know it, you’ve wolfed down a 450-page murder mystery without even realizing it. Three cheers for summer reading!

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Susan Hill, “The Various Haunts of Men”

Actually this is a three-fer because I’ve just whipped through the first three of Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler novels. You might remember that last time I said I was slowing down the posts, and would share only what delighted me.

Well, friends. When a murder mystery you’ve already read seems more interesting the second time around, that’s reason to cheer. And when the first three books in a series are this complex and ambiguous — while still ticking all the boxes for us mystery-series junkies — I need to tell you about it.

J.M.W. Turner, "Scarborough Town and Castle" -- relevant to "The Risk of Darkness," but much more cheerful

J.M.W. Turner, “Scarborough Town and Castle” — relevant to “The Risk of Darkness,” but much more cheerful

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Susan Hill’s detective Simon Serrailler fits neatly into the mystery canon. Tall, handsome, charming, clever, he’s got a secret life as an artist (sensitive drawings of Venice: not sure I’d like them) and a complex family life. And while he’s total catnip to women, he is a real jerk to them. In fact at the end of The Risk of Darkness, which I just finished, we find Simon coming close to boorishness, and rescued only by his resolute introversion. But, hey, he’s coping with a serial child-murderer whom it took him two whole books to snag. (The first being The Pure in Heart.) So I guess he’s got an excuse.

His bad behavior isn’t quite so obvious in The Various Haunts of Men but this is a fellow who’s an expert at compartmentalization. This habit is threatened by his gifted and attractive new subordinate, DS Freya Graffham. Pay close attention to the way Hill uses her points of view: we get liberal doses of Freya here, as she tracks down a nasty psychopath. In fact throughout these books, Hill’s broad empathy and imagination take us into the minds of victims and criminals, cops and bystanders. She’s comprehensive and un-judgmental. Best of all, her startling plots breathe new life into a conventional literary form.

No, wait: best of all, there’s a new Susan Hill mystery coming out in November.

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Benjamin Black, “The Black-Eyed Blonde”

I was a teeny bit underwhelmed by Benjamin Black/John Banville’s most recent offering, Holy Orders. And suspicious, as I read it, that LA gumshoe Philip Marlowe had replaced Quirke in Black’s affections. After all, writers do sometimes get bored by their characters.

Not that there’s a huge difference between Marlowe and Quirke when you get right down to it. Oh, sure, they have different accents and vocabularies. They’ve been formed by different countries and different landscapes. But they’re both fundamentally solitary men with disastrous romantic track records and poor senses of self-preservation.

Inglewood Public Library 1950: the kind of street scene Marlowe would have known. Plus, big cars.

Inglewood Public Library 1950: the kind of street scene Marlowe would have known. Plus, big cars.

What makes the Quirke books special is Black’s narrative voice. What makes The Black-Eyed Blonde special is Black performing a ventriloquist’s version of Raymond Chandler. For instance: “The world, when you come down to it, is a scary place. And that’s not even counting the people.” Or

There’s something grand and thrilling about the rolling burble of a big V-8 engine when it’s idling; it always makes me think of one of those turn-of-the-century New York society ladies, the statuesque ones with bustles and hats and soft pale prominent throats. When I gunned the engine, the thing turned into Teddy Roosevelt, all noise and bluster.

Or “Around here there are days in summer when the sun works on you like a gorilla peeling a banana.”

Is it the Chandleresque rhythm, that playfulness with the language, the muffled melancholy peeking through that I so relish? Black seems to have captured the mood, the pacing, the setting of Chandler’s work while still managing to deliver a satisfactory plot. Actually, for my money he goes one better, because this was a plot I could actually follow. (More or less: Marlowe is hired by the gorgeous blonde of the title to find a dead man whom she’s seen alive. Mayhem and heartbreak ensue.) Much as I have enjoyed the Quirke books, and despite my usual skepticism about re-booting cultural franchises, I wonder if Black wasn’t born to write as Chandler. It’s that good a fit.

The Author’s Note at the end says that Chandler kept a list of titles to use for future work. One of them is “Stop Screaming — It’s Me.” I hope he’s working on that one right this moment.

On another note  — it’s been a month since my last post, and this doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. I actually reread Rebecca (so much fun!) and dog-eared pages and summoned opinions and then just could not make myself sit down and write the post.

So maybe I’m tired — this is the 544th post on BGOO. Or maybe I’m too busy. (Nah — my nap schedule is intact.) But something needs to shift. So for now I’ll just post when a book really delights me. By the way, if you read one First World War book for the centenary,  consider Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow which follows the war through individual primary sources on all sides of the war, military and civilian. Riveting.

 

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Marie Vassilitchikov, “Berlin Diaries 1940-1945″

I cast around rather wildly to find background reading for a recent week in Berlin. Friends loaned or gave us novels, guidebooks, recommendations. Beloved Husband settled on a massive history of Prussia called The Iron Kingdom and I spent a lot of time with a biography of the Krupp family (which I may or may not finish). And of course I have read Philip Kerr’s “March Violets” series about Bernie Gunther so I loaded his If the Dead Rise Not onto the Kindle. But when that story lurched to Cuba I lost interest. And once I actually got to Berlin, what I found most gripping was Marie Vassilitchikov’s Berlin Diaries 1940-1945.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, with new spire built in the 1960s.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, with new spire built in the 1960s.

Marie, or “Missie” as everyone calls her, was not a professional author. The book was put together by her brother after her death, using her diaries and letters. But she was a good observer and a clear, vivid writer. Born a Russian princess in 1917, she arrived in Berlin in 1940 to get a job. Her parents and younger siblings were living on their Lithuanian estates but had lost a great deal in the Revolution. Missie and her elder sister Tatiana were the only family members capable of earning money and Berlin was one of the few cities in Europe where, as stateless individuals, they could find employment.

What timing! At first this is a madcap narrative populated with young aristocrats from every corner of central Europe, all of whom seem to be related. Missie works as a secretary for the German Foreign Office but her social life is her real vocation. And then we have a front row seat as the war surges closer. Her family is separated, with a sister in Italy and a brother in Paris. Nazi policies become more and more frightening — and then, in 1943, the bombing starts.

The morning after the first raid I had an appointment to try on a hat at a small neighborhood shop. All around the houses were burning, but I wanted that hat badly and so I now went over and rang the bell and, wonder of wonders, was met by a smiling saleswoman: … ‘Your Highness may try it on.’

That’s her last act before leaving town because the house she was living in had been bombed. And then it keeps going, worse and worse. The light-hearted tone darkens. Missie is involved — to what extent, we never quite know — in the famous “Valkyrie” plot to assassinate Hitler. Many of her friends are arrested and never seen again. And between November 1943 and April 1945 Berlin was bombed 24 times. Some 92% of its buildings were destroyed. Which is why you still see the occasional empty lot on a major street in Berlin, and why some charred ruins still punctuate the skyline. This is not a world I know first-hand, but Missie did, and we’re lucky she shared her memories.

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Sarah Dunant, “Blood and Beauty”

Actually the full title is Blood and Beauty: The Borgias; A Novel. And there’s so much punctuation in that title that I didn’t dare continue the sentence lest we all be terminally confused. Granted, the titles are not the strongest features of Sarah Dunant’s three previous historical novels about Italy, all of which are wonderful. But maybe the name “Borgia” had to be in the title to link to the Showtime series (anybody seen it? care to weigh in?). And then, of course, you’d have to add “The Novel” lest potential buyers think it was a published script?

Pope Alexander VI, by Pinturrichio. The Pope had himself painted as a presence at the Resurrection.

Pope Alexander VI, by Pinturrichio. The Pope had himself painted as a presence at the Resurrection.

Whatever. This is a book. This is a terrific, meaty historical novel that even tops Dunant’s previous Italian novels. And why not, with the great Rodrigo Borgia as the central character? Possibly better known as Pope Alexander VI, and as wily as Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell. Only, no, the Holy Father is less steely, more emotional, more, well, Latin in his emotions than Cromwell. He storms, he cries, he hugs and rants. He’s a fool for his beautiful children and his beautiful mistress… up to a point. Lucrezia’s value to the Borgia family is as marriage material so married she must be and children she must produce. Marriages that don’t work politically can be ended, legally or violently.

Lucrezia, also by Pinturicchio.

Lucrezia, also by Pinturicchio.

Oh, am I giving too much away? No, I’m really not. There are almost 550 pages in Blood and Beauty and other central characters include the charismatic, brilliant, fatally charming Cesare Borgia, cardinal at eighteen, military commander thereafter. Which is important, because Italy, as the fifteenth century becomes the sixteenth, is a collection of warring states controlled by powerful families with names like Este and Sforza and, of course, Borgia. The King of France invades, bringing the new and lethal “French disease” with his troops. (That would be syphilis, naturally blamed on the French.)

So the basic story arc is the struggle for power. But Dunant has always had a strong feminist bent and this Lucrezia is no mere marital pawn. She is patient, canny, self-controlled. She grows, over the course of the novel, from a lovely teenager to a powerful matron, possibly a match for her brother Cesare. Possibly in more ways than one. (Dunant hints at sexual tension between them.) She is even capable of besting her father; when he comes to visit her shortly after the death of her second husband, the Pope is appalled by the grief.

‘Is she still crying?’ he says one morning, though the question is surely rhetorical.

‘Either the duchess or some of her ladies.’ His chamberlain is anxious. He has seen the Pope buried under a ton of rubble, but never have his master’s nerves been quite so frayed. A house of men besieged by women’s tears: it is a novel form of warfare.

‘Don’t they ever sleep?’

‘I think not all at the same time, Your Holiness.’

What is a man to do?

Blood and Beauty ends with Lucrezia about to depart for her third marriage. Dunant finishes her Epilogue with these words: “Fate — a capricious goddess, as we know — permitting, there will be a concluding novel in a few years’ time. It may not surprise you to learn that the story of the Borgias does not get any less exciting.”

I’m waiting.

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Anne de Courcy, “The Fishing Fleet”

Do you know what “The Fishing Fleet” was? We’re not talking about sou’westers and cod here. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, young Englishwomen who had trouble finding husbands at home often traveled to India in search of an eligible mate. And because of their enormous numerical advantage, girls who were overlooked on London dance floors could have their pick of suitors in Delhi or Calcutta or Simla.

Anne de Courcy has written several solid biographies or group biographies, focusing on England’s upper classes in the last 150 years. She was, for example, Lord Snowdon’s official biographer. The Fishing Fleet is something of a departure in that it looks further back in time than most of her previous books but the hallmarks of her work are present here: thorough research, sympathetic narration, and a gift for explaining social context.

For instance, I’ve always taken for granted the English presence in India, but de Courcy spells out precisely what the various services did, how they were staffed, and what life was like during the near-century of the British Raj. In 1861, the British population of India was around 125,000, about a third civilian and two-thirds attached to the armed forces. Of course India was crucial for British prosperity during this time, so the investment of manpower made sense.

Stereoscopic view of Victoria Terminus, completed in 1888 in what was then Bombay.

Stereoscopic view of Victoria Terminus, completed in 1888 in what was then Bombay.

I’ve known about “the Fishing Fleet” for years; Joanna Trollope wrote a couple of good historical novels as Caroline Harvey that focus on Fishing Fleet characters. So I was thrilled to receive the paperback of this book from England, where it was a best seller.

Figuring out how to organize the book must have been a challenge, because de Courcy uses material from diaries, memoirs, journals and letters, published and not. Dozens of women are mentioned and indeed come briefly to life. Cleverly, de Courcy takes a rough chronological approach following the career of an average fishing-fleet girl. Chapters cover the voyage, arrival, the climate, the characters, the interplay between the British and the Indians, engagements and marriages. She highlights the careers of several women for whom, presumably, she had especially good material. (These women also appear in the inserts of photographs, especially fascinating.)

And what an adventure it was! One girl was met at dockside by “a tall fierce-looking Indian” who had been dispatched by her hostess with a letter that said, ‘”My personal bearer, Dost Mahommed, will escort you on the journey. He speaks adequate English and you can trust him with your life.’… in no time my status was transformed from buffeted nonentity to veritable princess.'”

Everything was bigger and brighter in India, from the crowds to the natural settings to the colors of the clothes, the size of the insects, the maharajahs’ jewels, the houses, the distances, the military uniforms. The dangers, especially of illness, were greater, too. For women who married planters or men whose work took them “up country,” life was as harsh as for any American pioneer. And as de Courcy points out, the great grief at the heart of these marriages was that children were always sent back to England to be educated. Thousands of mothers put their five- to ten-year-old children on board ship, knowing they would not see them again for years. Some “Raj orphans” went to extended family but some were treated very badly indeed. Yet many returned to India, to perpetuate the cycle — and de Courcy helps us see why.

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