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All the Light We Cannot See

In My Book Club Books, My Favorites on June 13, 2015 at 3:57 am

The Literary Epicurean Book Club Selection June 13, 2015

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 by Anthony Doerr

2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Winner

(Also, a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and the 2015 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction; winner of the Australian International Book Award; a #1 New York Times bestseller; the 2014 Book of the Year at Hudson Booksellers; the #2 book of 2014 at Amazon.com; a LibraryReads Favorite of Favorites; named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review; a best book of 2014 at Powell’s Books, Barnes & Noble, NPR’s Fresh Air, San Francisco Chronicle, The Week, Entertainment Weekly, the Daily Beast, Slate.com, Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, the Oregonian, the Guardian, and Kirkus)

Book Description (Courtesy of Goodreads): Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When Marie-Laure is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel. In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge. My Thoughts: What a great piece of historical fiction, brilliantly plotted and beautifully told.  I thought the plot was complex and unique, jumping back and forth as it told the two very different stories of the two children, one German and one French, and how they were caught in the horror of WW II . The author developed these protagonists, as well as other meaningful supportive characters, so well that I  deeply cared about what would happen to each of them. Not just Marie-Laure and Werner, but also Papa, Uncle Etienne, Frederick, and Jutta. The author did a masterful job developing them and thankfully didn’t leave too many threads hanging at the end. All the characters served a purpose in terms of giving the reader a little more insight into what people on both sides of the conflict were going through and how that influenced the choices they made. I thought I knew quite a bit about WW II, but there were still so many things throughout the book that I hadn’t considered or been aware of. The plot, the characters, and all the historical details were all exceedingly well presented, but the writing itself was, for me, just the best part about the book. Such incredible sensory details (“His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.”) and so many specific quotes that just resonated with me (“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.” ) Beautifully written, utterly fascinating, and incredibly enlightening pretty much sums up my reaction to this book. This is just one of those books that is going to stay with me for awhile. My Rating: 5/5 Book Club Discussion: What a great time we had discussing this book! I think it was one of our longest and most in-depth discussions ever. We had decided on this book just before it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so we started our discussion questioning what exactly made this book worthy of such a prestigious award. One member immediately brought up the excellent point about the degree of research that went into this story and how all the different parts managed to connect as it came to an end. We found the plot to be well thought out and thoroughly researched resulting in a very intense read that grabbed our complete attention from the very beginning. That definitely made it award worthy. Not that this book did not have its shortcomings, because there were a few. There were many side stories and assorted characters, and that caused a bit of confusion for each of us and left us with some unanswered questions at the end. None of us was really convinced that the whole story line about the search for the missing jewel even needed to be in there. However, one member noted that it may have been included just so there would continue to be discussion about it long after you finished the book. Authors do love doing that to the reader. Another minor issue was that not everyone was satisfied with the ending. At least two of our members didn’t expect that Werner would die at the end. That was all just so senseless, but, then again, so is war so that may been exactly the point. Also, when Werner’s sister Jutta went to see Marie-Laure after the war was over, at least one member was disappointed that she didn’t want to know more about her late brother. Jutta just wasn’t able to get past all the horrors she had suffered, and that was unfortunate. What was satisfying about the ending, however, was that it did give some closure to what happened to some of the characters after the war, how some were able to forgive and move on to useful lives, and some were not, such as Jutta, who didn’t seem able to forgive and unable to truly move on and reach her full potential. Overall, the tone at the end was one of hope which was desperately needed after the telling of such a sad story. Another discussion question brought us back to the two epigraphs at the opening of the book. I think we all quickly read them and moved on when we first started reading the book, but each of the two quotes now held incredible meaning as we reread them and discussed them after having completed the book. The Joseph Goebbels’ quote was especially significant about the role of the radio and how it helped Hitler and the Nazis gain power. From there we discussed the impact of the internet on our society, how overloaded we are with information and misinformation and superficial information. Then as now, we as a society really should pay more attention to what we take as truth… Moving on, our next question was whether the book reaffirmed or changed opinions we held. For some members, the book gave a better understanding of how WW I and the treaty set the German people up to put their trust in Adolf Hitler then subsequently become the aggressor in WW II. While we were all aware that propaganda was widespread and powerful, I don’t think any of us were aware of what was being done to the boys in the Hitler Youth Group training. That was absolutely chilling. This book impacted us each in a different way, and we believe we are coming away with a stronger intent of putting things in perspective, the best intentions of maintaining our integrity and values as best we can in even the most challenging situations, and being more compassionate of others and less judgmental taking into account that everyone comes with experiences that shape them. All in all, it was a story worth telling, and we loved reading and discussing it. Book Club Rating: 5/5 Resources: Similiar Books: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah Favorite Quotes Time Lapse WWII/Modern Photos of France Book Club Discussion Questions

All the Light We Cannot See Menu

Aperitif French Martini

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Appetizers Fig and walnut confit with goat cheese Herb garlic soft French style nut cheese

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Main Dishes

French Onion Soup

French Bean Salad

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Dessert Julia Child’s Reine de Saba avec Glacage au Chocolat Macaroons

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Wine Island Girls of Corsica Chardonnay Reserve De L’aube

After Dinner Tea Harny and Sons Fine Teas from Paris

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

In My Favorites on October 19, 2014 at 7:43 pm

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by Gabrielle Zevin

Publisher’s Comments (Amazon):

“This novel has humor, romance, a touch of suspense, but most of all love–love of books and bookish people and, really, all of humanity in its imperfect glory.” —Eowyn Ivey, author of The Snow Child

A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner of Island Books, has recently endured some tough years: his wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and his prized possession–a rare edition of Poe poems–has been stolen. Over time, he has given up on people, and even the books in his store, instead of offering solace, are yet another reminder of a world that is changing too rapidly. Until a most unexpected occurrence gives him the chance to make his life over and see things anew.

Gabrielle Zevin’s enchanting novel is a love letter to the world of books–an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.

My Thoughts:

What is there not to love about this book? I love how it was organized. Each chapter begins with the title of a short story or a book and a note from Fikry describing what he likes about it, essentially introducing each character by what they read. I love the quirky characters and how their lives intertwined and connected. I love how A.J.’s sad life gradually changed (as did those of the people around him) and opened up with the introduction of Maya, Amelia, and Chief Lambiase into his life. I loved how Chief Lambiase evolved as a reader. I loved how books played a major role in the story. I love the plot, with all the unexpected twists and turns, with all its tugging on the heartstrings, with all its humor, and with all its references to books and reading. This is a quick read, but it packs a punch. All in all, a gem of a book and well worth a read, especially if you love books and shopping at independent book stores!

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience

In My Book Club Books, My Favorites, Non-Fiction Reads on October 13, 2014 at 8:51 pm

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 Compiled by Shaun Usher

Non-Fiction/©2014/

Publisher’s Comments (Goodreads):

This spectacular collection of more than 125 letters offers a never-before-seen glimpse of the events and people of history—the brightest and best, the most notorious, and the endearingly everyday. Entries include a transcript of the letter; a short contextual introduction; and, in 100 cases, a captivating facsimile of the letter itself. The artfulness of Shaun Usher’s eclectic arrangement creates a reading experience rich in discovery. Mordant, hilarious, poignant, enlightening—surprise rewards each turn of the page. Colorfully illustrated with photographs, portraits, and relevant artworks, this handsome hardcover is a visual treat too, making Letters of Note an utterly distinctive gift, and an instant classic.

My Comments:

This book is, indeed, an Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience. Each letter touched and enlightened me in some way. A few of the ones that especially stand out for me include Bill Hicks on Freedom of Speech, the two letters from former slaves to their former masters, Jackie Robinson’s letter to President Eisenhower, Alabama attorney-general Bill Baxley’s 1976 response, on official headed paper, to a white supremacist’s threats (“Kiss my ass”), Dr. Ernest Shuhlinger’s response to a question about why we explore space, JFK’s correspondence carved on a coconut shell to the Allied Forces letting them know he and his men were alive, and Francis Crick’s letter to his 12-year-old son Michael explaining, with illustrations, his joint discovery of the “very beautiful” structure of DNA. There are more, and each one is well worth reading. The book’s size and content make it the ultimate coffee table book, where the letters can be conveniently read or constantly re-read and enjoyed. I found this to be an absolutely fascinating read.

Book Club Discussion:

Our discussion started with one member stating that she thought this book was the best book she has ever read for our book club. That was high praise, indeed, and a great start to a great discussion! We all took turns talking about the different letters that spoke to us, and those included most of the ones that I mentioned above. Additional letters that were singled out for discussion included the two letters written to the London Times regarding the man known as The Elephant Man (such empathy and compassion for a fellow human being!), the Kurt Vonnegut letter to one of the school boards that banned his book Slaughterhouse Five, the letter written by Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, a young boy’s letter to Frank Lloyd Wright asking him to design a dog house for his dog, the letter of condolence written to the aunt and uncle who had raised James Dean, and Einstein’s response to a sixth-grader who had asked him if scientists pray. There was just one letter after another, each one meriting the spotlight.

We also agreed that Shaun Usher did an amazing job compiling this collection. It is truly a work of art, with each letter getting an introduction with a short descriptor piece giving invaluable background and context to the letter. Each entry also contained the formal transcript of the letter itself, and, in most cases, the copy of the actual letter, as well as an additional photo or illustration that added the perfect extra touch. It is an absolutely visually stunning book, as well as an absolutely stunning reading experience.

Our Rating: 5/5

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Menu – Book Club Luncheon – October 12, 2014
Eclectic Collection of My Favorite Recipes Deserving of A Wider Audience

Sunday October 18

Eclectic Collection of Cheeses

Autumn Chopped Salad

Caramelized Onion Quiche

Apple Crepes

 

The Goldfinch

In My Favorites on May 12, 2014 at 2:30 am

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 by Donna Tartt

©2013/771 pages/Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014

Publisher Summary (Goodreads):

“The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind….Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction.”–Stephen King,

The New York Times Book Review Composed with the skills of a master, The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present day America and a drama of enthralling force and acuity.

It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher’s calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

My Thoughts: This a serious read and truly requires a commitment, but, in my opinion, it is well worth the read. As more than one reviewer has stated, “The Goldfinch” is a brilliantly written, compelling book. My thoughts exactly! The writing was truly incredible. I found myself stopping frequently to reread a sentence or passage just because it was so well written.  The plot chronicles how Theo’s life progressed after the death of his mother in a terrorist attack and how he worked through his grief. Though there were parts in the plot that were so depressing and detailed (especially the drug scenes) and parts that just seemed not really credible, I never once thought of just stopping mid-book. There were many secondary characters throughout the book that also added depth and interest to the plot,  and the author masterfully developed each one, especially Hobie and Boris.  Without giving anything away, the ending was well thought out and will stay with me for a long time. It is one of those books that you almost want to re-read because you know you will continue to get more out of it each time you read it. It is one of those books that you want to find out who else has read it so you can talk to them about it. It is just one of those books that you won’t soon forget.

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Other Thoughtful Reviews That Could Serve Well as Stimulating Book Club Discussion  (because this is a book that you need to talk about!)

http://thebookshelfofemilyj.com/2014/05/21/the-goldfinch-what-does-it-mean-to-keep-a-secret/

https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/greg-cwik-on-donna-tartts-the-goldfinch

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/books/review/donna-tartts-goldfinch.html?_r=0

http://www.npr.org/2013/10/31/242105656/dickensian-ambition-and-emotion-make-goldfinch-worth-the-wait

 

The Invention of Wings

In My Favorites on March 21, 2014 at 8:53 pm

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by Sue Monk Kidd

Historical Fiction/©2014/359 pages

Publisher’s Notes:

Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women. Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.

This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.

My Thoughts:

She is such an outstanding writer, so it is easy to understand why I always truly enjoy reading a Sue Monk Kidd book. The Invention of Wings did not disappoint.  This book is Southern historical fictional at its best. It is actually based on extensive biographical material of the Grimke sisters, who were at the forefront of the abolitionist and women’s rights movements in the early 1800’s and inspirational to Harriet Beecher Stowe subsequent novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin– yet, I had never heard of them.  That in itself is worth the price of the book.

I appreciate how the story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of the two main characters: Sarah, the daughter of the house, and Handful, a slave. The first has to deal with the social rigidity her time, and the second has to deal with living in slavery.  Handful, with amazing insight, noted that “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”

Their bond is firmly established at the beginning of the book when Handful is presented to Sarah as a birthday gift, and it is masterfully entwined throughout. There are several horrific scenes that all too clearly depict the cruelty of the slavery system, but Handful somehow still manages to keep above it all and push the confines of her role. She never loses hope or her independent spirit. The same can be said of Sarah as she walked the path to stretch the boundaries of acceptable behavior for women of her time as she spoke out against slavery and the rights of women. 

Overall, this book tells a compelling story with amazing primary and secondary characters (Charlotte and Sky come immediately to my mind), with the added bonus that it has its basis in historical fact. A very satisfying read.

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Wild

In My Favorites on March 18, 2014 at 2:44 am

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Publisher’s Overview (Barnes & Noble):

A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—and built her back up again.

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.

Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her. (Winner of the 2012 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for Nonfiction)

My Thoughts:

I had read and enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail, and thought that Wild, Cheryl’s recount of her experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on the other side of the United States, would be equally interesting. Well, it was definitely that, but you couldn’t find two more different books. Cheryl’s book was more about her journey within the journey, rather than the journey. She was such a mess through most of the book. Her mother had died, her family –what was left of it – was growing apart and moving on, her marriage had fallen apart because of her infidelities, and she dabbled with some serious drugs. Oh, and her father, while out of her life by that time, had been abusive and had left residual, long-term effects. Her solution was to hike the PCT in an effort to put her life back together. 

For the most part, I just couldn’t understand what she hoped to accomplish going on that trip alone and so unprepared. Most of the time she just annoyed me, but I still had a burning desire to see how it all turned out for her. This is one of those you-either-love-it-or-hate-it-books, and you are likely to have many questions when you are done – in other words, a perfect book club book. This, however, wasn’t one of my book club selections, so I turned to readers who blog for in-depth reviews of the book and garnered some helpful insights. 

This was not a relaxing, feel-good book for me, but it was a thoughtful read that helps me, I think, be a little more compassionate and do a little less judging and labeling of the people around me.

My Rating:  4/5 Stars

Other Reviews:

http://samannelizabeth.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/book-club-reflection-wild-by-cheryl-strayed/

http://blog.alpineinstitute.com/2013/03/book-review-wild-by-cheryl-strayed.html

http://boingboing.net/2013/01/24/wild-from-lost-to-found-on-th.html