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Book review: Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See”

AllTheLight

I usually avoid reading novels and short stories with characters who are blind. Too many fiction writers portray blind characters one-dimensionally — we’re either heroic or tragic, bumbling or, particularly lately, blessed with super-powers.

But Anthony Doerr isn’t like other authors.

One of the main characters in Doerr’s current best-selling novel All the Light We Cannot See is blind, but there’s much more to Marie-Laure LeBlanc than that. She grew up in Paris, her father is raising her on his own. The two of them evacuate to a village in Brittany called St. Malo after Paris is invaded by the Nazis, her father goes missing, and she’s a teenager by the time the Americans arrive on D-Day.

Doerr writes in third-person, and his chapters are very short — they swing back and forth between the changes young Marie-Laure is enduring in France and those that Werner Pfennig, an orphaned teenager in Germany, faces when placed in an elite Nazi training school there during WWII.

The author avoids using visual descriptions in the chapters about Marie-Laure, since they are written from her point of view. So here’s a question for you blog readers who’ve read the book already: I bet you can describe Marie-Laure’s beloved Papa , but any idea what he looks like? Probably not, because the author never tells us that. There is little, if any, visual description of Étienne or Madame Manec (the pair Marie-Laure and her Papa live with in exile) either, yet readers come to know these characters very well, too. Here’s an example from early in the book, before Marie-Laure’s cigarette-smoking Papa goes missing:

Every time she comes within earshot, Marie-Laure hears the “Pfsssst!” of her father lighting another match. His hands flutter between his pockets.

Afternoons he repairs things around Étienne’s house: a loose cabinet door, a squeaking stair board. He asks Madame Manec about the reliability of the neighbors. He flips the locking clasp on his toolcase over and over, until Marie-Laure begs him to stop.

Marie-Laure doesn’t have to be able to see her Papa to know he is anxious, and neither do we. If Marie-Laure could see, the author wouldn’t have pointed out that she sees the cabinet door he is fixing, he would have just said “he’s fixing a cabinet door.” And so, he doesn’t use extra words to point out Marie-Laure hears the squeaky cabinet door, either. We know he’s fixing the cabinet door the same way Marie-Laure would know, and that helps us stay right in her head and experience her life during WWII the way she is.

As I continued reading, I noticed how often Doerr chose the verb “find” rather than describe Mari-Laure “feeling through” something or “”touching” an object. Sounds simple, I guess, but to me, keeping it simple like this is brilliant. Over and over again, the author resists the temptation to sound trumpets to remind the reader that Marie-Laure can’t see, and that keeps readers in the moment. Here’s another example, this one from later in the book when Marie Laure is alone and escaping into the attic:

Only thing to do is climb. Seven runs up into the long triangular tunnel of the garret. The raw timbered ceiling rises on both sides toward the peak, just higher than the top of her head.
Heat has lodged itself up here. No window. No exit. No where else to run. No way out, except the way she has come.

The passage continues:

Her outstretched fingers find an old shaving bowl, an umbrella stand, and a crate full of who-knows-what. The attic floor boards beneath her feet are as wide across as her hands. She knows from experience how much noise a person walking on them makes.

Isn’t it something, the way that using senses beyond the visual can make writing more colorful? I’m hard at work on a book of what I’m learning from the memoir classes I lead, and now I just might borrow some of the verb choices and twists of phrase that Anthony Doerr used in All the Things We Cannot See in my own writing. Downright enlightening to learn that a sighted writer is teaching me new ways to describe the way I do things!

I’ll leave you with a quote from Marie-Laure near the end of All the Light We Cannot See. I especially related to this quote, and if you haven’t already, I heartily recommend you read this book. It’s très bien.

“When I lost my sight, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”

Our friends raised this adorable puppy for Leader Dogs

When our friend Mary Ivory told me early last year that she and her husband were going to volunteer to raise a puppy for Leader Dogs for the Blind, I asked if she’d be willing to write a blog post about the experience. Mary is a clinical professional counselor, social worker, life coach, and co-author of Parenting by Strengths: A Parent’s Guide for Challenging Situations — she’s a busy woman, but she said yes to my offer right away, feeling sure she’d find the time to write. 

And then, the puppy arrived.

Mike and Mary live on the 12th floor of our apartment building. Imagine how many trips they took up and down the elevator for house training – and that was just the beginning! Mary explains it all in this lovely guest post.

Puppy raising: it changes the street life

By Mary Ivory

Everybody say aaaahhhhhhh! That's Ananda at a very young age taking a nap.

Everybody say aaaahhhhhhh! That’s Ananda at a very young age taking a nap.

My laid-back husband Mike came home one day in early November sounding defeated. “I just walked up the street and no one said ‘Hi’ to me!” We’d been living with Ananda, a female Black Labrador Retriever for ten months, and we’d just returned her to Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Mich., two weeks earlier. Mike had forgotten what urban life without a puppy is like.

We live in a very friendly and close knit neighborhood, but it’s still the big city. Everyone is in a hurry and distracted with their own lives, but you have to slow down when you are walking a puppy, and when others see you with the puppy, they often slow down, smile and say hello, too.

Watching and knowing what a dog can do for a person’s quality of life is a bit of happy mystery. Watching and knowing what a trained service animal can do for a person who needs assistance is the mystery turned into a real miracle. I have always had animals in my life, and as life would happen, I found myself with time and energy to volunteer to raise a puppy for Leader Dogs. Lucky for me, Mike was agreeable to this adventure.

As the job title implies, puppy raisers are charged with creating an environment and focusing on skills to help a puppy become a candidate for a career as a leader — a guide dog for a blind or visually impaired person.

Puppy raising is about nurturing a calm and focused dog to prepare them for the actual skill training that takes place after they are returned. For the first months of life after they leave the litter they live in homes to learn such skills as becoming house broken, yes that means going outside hourly when awake when they are very small. Yes, that means even in the winter of the polar vortex you go for a walk. You also are taught how to teach calm walking on a leash, not easy when your pup is sweet and just full of friendly wiggles and licks, and the other ‘basics’ like sit, stay, come, no, heal, down……oh yes and ‘drop it’ or ‘leave it’ as she snuck a sock from the dirty clothes or found a stray chicken bone on the street.

Everybody say "thank you" to Mary, Mike and all the puppy raisers for all the schools. It's a tremendous and generous effort.

Everybody say “thank you” to Mary, Mike and all the puppy raisers for all the schools. It’s a tremendous and generous effort.

And all of this happens during all hours of the day, which means you walk down the street a lot. It’s a busy but fun time — strangers snap out of a distracted or grumpy state to talk about the dog, and people seemingly down on their luck rise up to chat about and pet a friendly puppy.

That mystery of connection with animals and people is powerful and amazing to me. My busy city street transformed into a small town lane during the ten months Ananda was living with us. And yes, it was hard to take her back to her career home. Ananda, which means joy or bliss in Sanskrit, was an intense and wonderful presence in our lives.

Today I got an email from the Puppy Development Department at Leader Dogs with this picture telling us she is progressing in her career training. We miss her but are so happy we had this chance to be a part of this great big task, and who knows? We may do it again. Next time, though, we’ll sign up when the dog doesn’t need hourly walks in deep freeze weather.

Interviewing someone without looking them in the eye

Unbroken

Turns out I’m in good company when it comes to interviewing people without seeing what they look like. Laura Hillenbrand (award-winning author of Sea Biscuit and Unbroken) and Fresh Air’s Terry Gross were both quoted in a New York Times Sunday Magazine story recently saying they actually prefer interviewing people that way.

The article explains that Hillenbrand has been sick with chronic fatigue syndrome since 1987. She has been mostly confined indoors ever since, and she doesn’t get out to do face-to-face interviews with the people she writes about. The New York Times Sunday Magazine article says most reporters would regard this as a terrible handicap, . “One hallmark of literary nonfiction is its emphasis on personal observation.” More from the article:

Hillenbrand found that telephone interviews do offer certain advantages. No one appreciates this perspective more than the radio host Terry Gross, who performs nearly every interview on her program, “Fresh Air,” by remote.

Terry Gross told the reporter that she began doing this out of necessity: The cost of bringing a guest to her studio in Philadelphia was simply too high. Now she believes there is intimacy in distance. “I find it to be oddly distracting when the person is sitting across from me,” she told the reporter. “It’s much easier to ask somebody a challenging question, or a difficult question, if you’re not looking the person in the eye.”

Hillenbrand never met Louie Zamperini face-to-face but she interviewed him for hundreds of hours over the phone while writing Unbroken, her story about his life. She said that doing the interviews without looking at Zamperini allowed her to visualize Zamperini in the time period of the book. “He became a 17-year-old runner for me, or a 26-year-old bombardier,” she said. “I wasn’t looking at an old man.”

I know what she means. Hearing the life stories of the memoir-writers in my classes every week without looking at them as they read? It has taught me something. Maybe, just maybe, we put too much stock in appearances.

Happy Birthday! (Or should I say “Bon Anniversaire!”),

Today, January 4, is the birthday of Louis Braille. He was born in France in 1809, and his father had a leather shop. Note to children: be careful out there! Three-year-old Louis lost his sight after playing with his father’s sharp tools and accidentally poking his eyes.

Louis Braille’s parents did what they could to give their son a normal life. He was the best student in his school, and he became an accomplished organist and cellist. When he was 15, he simplified an idea that had been used in the French army to send messages that soldiers could read in the dark, encoding individual letters rather than sounds. He represented each letter by a different arrangement of six dots packed close enough that each letter could be read by a single fingertip.

Today, reading and writing of Braille is something of a dying art. There are now far more audio versions of books than there are books printed in Braille, and there are software programs to convert written text into audio. Today fewer than 20 percent of blind children in this country learn to read Braille. Technology is cool, but how will these children ever learn to spell correctly? How will they know where to put commas, quotation marks, paragraph breaks and so on? I didn’t lose my sight until I was 26 years old, so I was fortunate to learn all of that when I could still read print. I’m not proficient in Braille now, but the little I know sure comes in handy when I want to confirm what floor I’m on when I get off an elevator or to label CDs, file folders and buttons on electronic devices at home.

S & S

You blog readers out there who have a print copy of Hanni And Beth: Safe & Sound on your bookshelf should pat yourself on the back. You know a good children’s book when you see it, and your purchase has helped create more Braille books for children: My publisher, Blue Marlin Publications donates a portion of the proceeds from sales of every print version of Safe & Sound to Seedlings Braille Books for Children, a small non-profit organization in Michigan that provides high quality, low cost Braille books for children.

Over the past seven years, Blue Marlin Publications has Seedlings Logodonated thousands of dollars to Seedlings.

By producing Braille books for children, Seedlings helps promote “literacy for the blind,” providing visually impaired children equal opportunity to develop a love of reading. Safe & Sound is one of the books available in Braille from Seedlings, which means I’ve been able to read parts of the book aloud at the presentations I’ve been doing since Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound was published in 2007.

To find out how to order a copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound in Braille, or to donate to Seedlings to help them create more books in Braille for kids, link to www.seedlings.org. Every ten dollar donation makes another Braille book possible.

Seven favorite Mondays with Mike posts for 2014

That's Mike with Gus during an earlier visit.

That’s Mike with Gus during an earlier visit.

2014 marks the year we inaugurated our “Mondays with Mike” feature on the Safe & Sound blog. My husband Mike Knezovich had been writing guest posts here for years (particularly when I was away training with Seeing Eye dogs), and it was high time to make his posts a regular feature. You blog readers reacted favorably, so to celebrate, today I’m sharing links to my seven favorite “Mondays with Mike” posts from 2014. Those of you who missed them the first time around can read them now, and those of you who liked them when they were originally published can link to them again. Cheers!

  • Mike hit the ground running – his initial post was a tribute to troublemakers. We published it when the 2014 celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday came on the heals of Nelson Mandela’s death.
  • I especially liked his post about the kindness of strangers and how grateful we are to the people who have helped us get where we are today. Mike wrote this one after a visit with our son Gus in his Wisconsin group home.
  • A number of you ordered Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown after reading Mike’s review of that book here. The book, and Mike’s post about it, are two very honest and heartfelt accounts of what it is like to be the father of a son with a disability.
  • My mother died earlier this year, and Mike’s post about Flo during her final days was so beautiful that my brother and sisters and I had him read it out loud at her funeral.
  • His Thanksgiving post was a tribute to the parents we’ve lost, the work we still need to do to make our country better for everyone, and the babies who give us hope. Mike’s an award-winning photographer, and along with that particular post we published a very cute photo he took of Whitney the Seeing Eye dog with one of our great nieces. We’ve learned that posting photos of dogs and babies always results in a lot of hits!
  • We also received lots of positive comments when Mike took you along on his morning commute. We live in Printers Row, a Chicago neighborhood so close to the Loop that Mike walks to work.
  • And speaking of lots of hits, as NFL’s regular season draws to a close (thank God) all of us in Chicago look forward to the 2015 baseball season. Take a look back at Mike’s 2014 Time begins on opening day post, and I dare you to claim Mike’s cup is ever half-empty. When it comes to spring and baseball, the man is forever an optimist.

Mike, Whitney and I head off to Union Station for our train ride to Wisconsin later this afternoon – we’ve got a Christmas visit with our son Gus planned. If you want to keep up with what happens afterwards, consider signing up to follow the Safe & Sound blog (enter your email in the box at the upper right of the blog and hit enter to receive email updates anytime we publish a new post). Mike will be back with a new MWM post this Monday. Thanks for reading, everyone, and…happy holidays!

Mondays with Mike: Podcaster for a day

When we lived in Urbana, Ill., I had a morning radio show on a local community radio station called WEFT (WEFT, rhymes with LEFT). WEFT Radio was a nearly anarchical operation, run by citizen volunteers, meagerly funded by donations and grants, but thanks to dedicated people over the years, it
survives to this day.

Check out Beachwood Reporter, you'll be glad you did.

Check out Beachwood Reporter, you’ll be glad you did.

WEFT carries some syndicated programming, but mostly it is local volunteers who piece together each week’s shows. You find blues shows, jazz shows, old time country shows, political shows, gospel shows, GLBT shows. It’s sort of a grand mess, the airwaves version of a community parade.

So like I said, back in the 90s (boy, it hurts to write that), I was in the middle of it with a morning show, once a week, that I called Adult Children of Parents (ACOP). You may recall that the terms dependent, co-dependent,
enabling, adult children of (fill in the blank) and recovery-speak was entering the vernacular back then. The title was my snarky response.

I read headlines from the Chicago Tribune and sometimes the local paper, I commented, I played music, I had guests, Beth played the accordion during fundraisers. I came to love it. Put me in front of a large live audience and my palms sweat and my voice cracks like an adolescent. Put me in a studio with a microphone and I become, as one friend once put it, verbally incontinent.

So, last week, when I got an email blast from Steve Rhodes of The Beachwood Reporter linking to his latest podcast – and inviting volunteers to appear as guests on The Beachwood Radio Hour and The Beachwood Radio Sports Hour – I stepped up to the plate.

He wrote back right away and suggested we get together to record a show this past Saturday. Which gave me a quick shot of sweaty palms, I mean, in concept it sounded fun..

About Steve: He’s first and foremost a smart, affable, honest, witty and likable guy. He’s also a superb and accomplished journalist – he’s worked at dailies, at Newsweek, Chicago Magazine, among others. And he cares, deeply, about journalism. That led him to create The Beachwood Reporter, a Web publication that rounds up pivotal Chicago (and sometimes national) stories. (The name is borrowed from a classic old Chicago tavern called the Beachwood Inn, so named because it’s at the corner of Beach and Wood.)

The Beachwood Reporter is an indispensable resource for anyone who cares about public and cultural affairs in Chicago and beyond, and it’s a one-of-a-kind resource for people who care about the state of journalism.
Reading it gives you a sketch of the current news, but also tips you to what the reporter may have missed, the questions they should’ve asked, and what the politicians and bigwigs are getting away with as a result.

We got to know each other years ago when Steve began linking to my now dormant blog called Reading with Scissors. We’ve stayed in touch since. Steve knows I’m a White Sox fan, and with the Sox making a series of big
trades and free-agent signings at Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings last week, he suggested I join him and regular sports contributor Jim Coffman to the Beachwood Sports Hour to add a Sox element. He also
invited me to join the Beachwood News Hour, which I did.

It was a gas. Jim’s a churning, burning urn of Chicago sports, we mostly good-naturedly talked about the Cubs-Sox rivalry, and a good time was had. The News Hour with Steve was a little more serious in tone: We talked about the Illinois Office of Comptroller, Torture, and the Chicago Mayor’s race. Also enjoyed that, but in a different way.

You can listen to the Beachwood Radio Sports Hour (free) here — there’s an audio player plus show notes.

You can listened to the Beachwood Radio Hour (also free) here–Steve also provides show notes for the news.

I’m not sure if or when I’ll be back on, but meantime, I hope you’ll give it a listen, and I hope you’ll become a Beachwood regular.

Thanks, but no thanks

In honor of Thanksgiving, I asked seniors in my memoir-writing classes to write on the subject “Thanks, but No Thanks.” To explain what I was looking for, I said, “Say you were offered an opportunity, a job, a marriage proposal, a real estate purchase, an adoption, anything, and are sorry you refused that offer, you could write about that.” I told them that on the other hand, if there was something in their lives that they were oh so thankful they said no to, they could write about how relieved they are that they said thanks, but no thanks to that offer.

Seniors worked on their essays over Thanksgiving and read them aloud in class this week. Shunned lovers and refused marriage proposals showed up in many of their stories. Other essays were about job offers they’d refused or schools they’d decided not to attend.

Ninety-four-year-old Wanda wrote that while she has learned how to use a computer to send email and write essays for class, she has no interest in tweeting or apps or looking at photos on instagram. When asked to embrace technology, she says “Thanks, but no thanks.” Judy wrote about how proud she was of the sit-upon she made while she was a Brownie, how intrigued she was by the wood-burning stoves they made from tin cans and cardboard toilet paper rolls once she’d “flown up” to Junior Girl Scouts, but then, when it came to joining a high school troop, she said no.

I can only think of one writer who wrote about regretting he’d said no to an opportunity, but even that essay had a happy ending. Dave hadn’t yet visited a foreign country by the time he graduated from college, but when he moved to Texas and a bunch of his buddies asked him to join them on a trip to Monterrey, Mexico, he decided not to go. His pals came back with all sorts of amazing stories. “I’ve regretted that decision ever since,” he wrote, but then acknowledged that foregoin Monterrey changed his life in a very positive way: he’s been adventurous ever since, taking on just about every travel opportunity that comes his way.

Mary’s essay was inspired by the title story in M. F. K. Fisher’s book Sister Age. Mary wrote that she noticed MFKSister Age visiting her 60-year-old mother, “softly draping a shawl around her shoulders on cold winter nights, fixing a breakfast of warm milk toast drenched in honey and butter, accompanying her to multiplying trips to doctors and hospitals, and comforting her in attending increasing numbers of funerals of old friends.” Mary’s mother died when she was 99 years old, and Mary said that by then “Sister Age was her constant companion and nurse.”

Now Mary sees Sister Age at her own door. “She brings pills and appointments with physical therapists for my hands that move with more difficulty and my joints that stiffen and creak, eyesight that requires stronger prescriptions, nostalgic conversations with friends from high school and college, rooms full of memorabilia from Japan and all our other travels around the world, and a list of things I want to do before I am slowed to a standstill.”

Mary explained how she knows Sister Age is there: she hears her knocking at the door, and when she peers out, she sees Sister Age through the peephole. “But I resist welcoming her completely into my life and accepting her invitation to pass the threshold into my consciousness,” Marywrote at the end of her essay. “I want to say to her thanks, but no thanks – but I know that I cannot do that forever.”


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