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[792] All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

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“For portions of every day, she manages to lose herself in realms of memory; the faint impressions of the visual world before she was six, when Paris was like a vast kitchen, pyramids of cabbages and carrots everywhere . . . ” (325)

The story, told in flashbacks, is set in Germany and France before and during the German occupation of France. Marie-Laure becomes blind when she is six; she lives with her father, a locksmith and keeper of the keys at the National Museum of Natural History, in Paris when the novel begins in 1934. There, hidden, in its vaults for the past two hundred years, is an accursed gem, a greyish-blue sea diamond with a red hue at its center, that will bring misfortune to its possessor.

Marie-Laure’s father is also the creator of ingenious puzzles and miniatures—of the streets and houses of Paris. He makes wooden model of the neighborhood so Marie can memorize it by touch and navigate her way. He hones her sense of touch by placing unexpected objects in her hands. The intriguing miniatures teach her, using fingers as eyes, how to navigate her way around the city. She develops a love for reading; ultimately she survives the destruction and desolation of the Occupation through the books she can read in braille up in the attic of her reclusive great-uncle’s house in Saint Malo.

Parallel to Marie-Laure’s story is that of Werner Pfennig, who and his sisters are orphans living in the German mining town. He has gift for science, and the intracacies of radios in particular. His talent wins him a spot in the brutal academy of Hitler Youth, which trains him to become an elite cadre for the Third Reich. His schooling is evidence of both ambition and brutality of the Nazi national psyche.

The story ziplines back and forth, until Marie-Laure and Werner are converging in saint Malo, on the coast of Brittany, as Werner is probing for a radio signal emitting from her house. Her father has been entrusted with the gem and is arrested. Werner is given the task to locate radio transmission, which brings him to the island, where Marie’s great-uncle Etienne uses his radio-transmitter on behalf of the Resistance.

All the Light We Cannot See is a literary feat: mixing fable,, nature, and mechanical inventions. Doerr’s prose style is lyrical, operatic and relentless, with an attentiveness to details. It is an emotionally plangent tale of morality. As the children’s paths converge, Doerr has created nearly unbearable suspense. Every piece of the back story reveals information that changes the merging narrative with significance. There is this kill-or-be-killed theme, the morality of doing what is right and not what power is bestowed upon one to do.

530 pp. Scribner. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“The Fall of Hong Kong”

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Another great find from the used bookstore. The Fall of Hong Kong has been out-of-print and I have never set my eyes on a copy—until today. On December 8th, 1941, Japan launched an all out offensive against Hong Kong. On Christmas Day—just seventeen days later—the Colony was surrendered. This is the story of those seventeen days. It is the long, true, and terrible story of a battle and of the men who fought it: British, Indian, and Canadian soldiers; sailors and airmen; civilians of many different nationalities. These are the people who, with sudden and violent unexpectedness, were jolted from security into a maelstrom of savagery. In face of the recent China’s “celebration of victory over Sino-Japanese War”, this book is a timely slap in the face to the Communist Party, which hardly played a role in liberating Hong Kong.

Reading “Empire of the Sun”

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A movie on TV familiarizes me with the book from which it was adopted, Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard. I hunted down an used copy at the indie and started reading. The book was actually published in 1984, forty years after the author’s own experiences in a Japanese internment camp during World War Two in China. For the most part the novel is an eyewitness account of events Ballard observed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and within that camp at Lunghua.

In an interview with the UK Guardian, Ballard was frank about the difficulty in conveying the surrealism of war.

I waited 40 years before giving it a go, one of the longest periods a professional writer has put off describing the most formative events in his life. Twenty years to forget, and then 20 years to remember. There was always the possibility that my memories of the war concealed a deeper stratum of unease that I preferred not to face. But at least my three children had grown up, and as I wrote the book I would never have to think of them sharing the war with my younger self.

Knowing the movie would ruin my reading pleasure, I immediately switched off the TV. My principal is to always read the book first. I crave to hear the story from Ballard’s perspective. Even after 40 years, Ballard found it difficult to begin the novel, until it occurred to him to drop his parents from the story. They had lived together in a small room for nearly three years, eating boiled rice and sweet potatoes from the same card table, sleeping within an arm’s reach of each other, an exhilarating experience for him after the formality of their prewar home, where his parents were busy with their expat social life and he was brought up by Chinese servants who never looked at him and never spoke to him.

The interview foreshadows a poignant story. It’s more than physical survival—a mental one that mandates him to find a strength greater than all the events that surrounded him.

[745] Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet – Jamie Ford

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” Until he was twelve, he had been forbidden to speak English in his own home. His father had wanted him to grow up Chinese, the way he had done. Now everything was upside down. Yet the cadence of the words seemed to have more in common with that of the fisherman who came over from China than with the English Keiko and her family spoke so fluently. ” (122)

This is a heartfelt, sentimental novel that portrays two children separated during the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War Two. In 1940s Seattle, ethnicities do not mingle. Henry Lee, American born, is a 12-year-old son of Chinese immigrants. He meets his true love, Keiko Okabe, at the all-white elite school, which his staunchly nationalistic father enrolls him in. Despite the Sino-Japanese conflict, Henry and Keiko, the only Asian kids in school, are like a pair of gloves. Friendly at the mercy of schoolyard bullies, Henry quickly forges a forbidden bond to the nisei Keiko, who speaks no Japanese.

His father hated the Japanese. Not because they sank the USS Arizona—he hated them because they’d been bombing Chongqing, nonstop, for the last four years. (14)

Undoubtedly, Keiko lies at the heart of Henry’s subsequent struggles, with his Chinese-patriotic father, his racist classmates, and his suspicious and xenophobic country. Whereas there’s a war going against the innocent Japanese-Americans, there’s a silent war going on at home. Henry’s father stops speaking to him upon the discovery of possessions of Keiko’s family hidden in the drawer. As Keiko’s family is rounded up for relocation, the relationship between Henry and Keiko ends abruptly.

The novel alternates between 1986, just after the death of Henry’s wife, and the 1940s, just before Japantown is shut down. A chance discovery of items left behind by the Japanese in the basement of Panama Hotel i Seattle provokes Henry to share this story of Keiko with his son. The 12-year-old boy in the flashbacks is one without a bone of rebellion, but slowly transformed, as he learns to stand up for what he believes. He also scrapes an acquaintance with a black jazz musician, Sheldon, who becomes his moral support in reaching Keiko’s family at the camp.

The beauty of this book is the evocation of rich period details on the eves of war. Like Henry and Keiko, Sheldon is also socially marginalized, being a black man who lives from hand to mouth by perform on the street. These relationships and episodes of racial discrimination keep the pages turning. The only downside is that Henry’s voice always sounds like that of a grown man, not apropos of a child, even a precocious child who is caught in a time of historical strife.

300 pp. Ballantine Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[731] The Zookeeper’s Wife – Diane Ackerman

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” One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties. ” (Ch.18, p.166)

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a true story of human resiliency and empathy during World War Two in Poland. It begins in mid 1930s, when Poland was the heartbeat of eastern European Jewish culture. Jon and Antonina, then a young couple, were directors of the Warsaw Zoo, which housed animals only only in cages but in their living space such that there was no conventional boundary between humans and animals. The Zabinskis also host artists and intellectuals who congregate the villa like a bohemian cafe.

But as zookeepers, the Zabinskis understood both vigilance and predators; in a swamp of vipers, one planned every footstep. Shaped by the gravity of wartime, it wasn’t always clear who or what could be considered outside or inside, loyal or turncoat, predator or prey. (Ch.28, p.242)

When Nazi bombarded Warsaw in 1939 and ruined the zoo, the Zabinskis joined resistance effort. They smuggled food into the Warsaw Ghetto of Jews, which was later ravaged by tuberculosis, dysentery and famine in such a way to give the Nazi an excuse to annihilate it altogether. They also used the zoo as an arm cache. Although the zoo was by no means ideal for hiding refugees, consider the setting being so heavy tread and exposed to public view, the Zabinskis managed to capitalize on the Nazis’ obsession with rare animals in order to save over 300 doomed people. Antonina was sensitive and high-strung, but very good with animals. She wasn’t involved in politics or war, and was timid, and yet despite that she played a major role in saving others and never complained about the danger.

The best camouflage for people is more people, so the Zebinskis invited a stream of legal visitors . . . and established a regular unpredictability, a routine of changing faces, physiques, and accents, with Jan’s mother a frequent guest. (Ch.14, p.115)

Ackerman’s descriptive prose evinces not only the horror of Jewish Holocaust but also the profound connection between humankind and nature. Her attentiveness to details of nature and animal could be a bane or a boon. She tends to elaborate on the natural habitat in which the fateful humans and animals co-exist. The expectation that the book is an intriguing melodrama of how Jews hid in the cages and escaped the Nazi horror might have brought the slew of negative reviews. Even the publisher markets this book with heroism being the gimmick. But if one looks beyond this shallow expectation, there’s beauty to be found.

The focus of The Zookeeper’s Wife is not so much the survival by deceptive tricks as life’s beauty, mystery, and tenacity. Ackerman after all is a naturalist and poet, who can tell the Zabinski story with a fresh perspective. It tells the frightening tale of how the Nazis’ obsession with dominating nations and purifying breed go so far as to alter world’s ecosystems and nature.

368 pp. W.W. Norton. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]