All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Book– Do not let the book’s thickness fool you. Knowing that I gravitate towards historical fiction novels, a dear friend of mine recommended All the Light We Cannot See and I could not put it down!

Doerr uses succinct, alternating chapters narrated by a blind French girl and a German boy, illustrating different perspectives of World War II from a child’s point of view. Although the Holocaust, Russian sieges, invasion of Paris, and the Allied Invasion of France are acknowledged, it is worth noting that the author assumes readers have some background on World War II, as the novel’s focus is on how the character’s development is shaped by war conflict.

Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, who works at the Museum of Natural History. The museum is rumored to hold The Sea of Flames, a jewel whose beholder becomes immortal at the expense of all their loved ones fatal suffering. At six years old, Marie-Laure’s vision deteriorates and she eventually loses her eyesight completely. Despite Marie-Laure’s visual impairment, her father makes it his mission that she learn to navigate on her own. He builds a miniature model of the town so she can tactilely memorize her way about the neighborhood. Fast-forward six years to Nazi-occupied Paris. Seeking refuge, Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo and stay with her agoraphobic great-uncle, and with them, they carry the most valuable and dangerous stone, The Sea of Flames.

Werner is an orphan boy who lives in a mining town in Germany. Fond of applied mathematics and science, he is fully enticed with the processes behind operating and maintaining devices, so much so that he becomes the town’s go-to person for fixing various radios. After another successful repair, Werner is recruited to an academy for Hitler’s Youth, where his talents will be put to use. Werner is kept in the dark regarding the implications of his special assignments to track the resistance. At first, he creates triangles and finds points on a map, and only later comes to realize the destruction caused by his seemingly innocuous actions. Torn between doing what is expected and understanding what is moral, Werner questions his loyalties when he and Marie-Laure’s paths converge in their attempts to survive Saint-Malo’s bombings.

All the Light We Cannot See poses compelling questions about fate, free will, and making the right choice in a time when the pressures of political forces meet moral ambiguities. It is available in book, audiobook on CD, and e-audiobook via OverDrive formats.

Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Book–Oliver Ryan, famous children’s book writer, and his loyal wife Alice, who illustrates his books, have a seemingly happy life until one night, after a very good dinner, he hits her, leaves, then comes back to beat her into a coma. The rest of the book is like peeling the layers of an onion. Nugent jumps around in chronology and in viewpoint, each character giving their take on Oliver, their past with him, and why he did it. From his harsh upbringing in a Catholic boarding school, to a fateful summer in France, to his current success, the reader gets more insight into Oliver’s character and motivations with every chapter. By the end, the reader should understand why he did it. Whether you find him sympathetic or a monster is up to you.

Like many books with this structure, it can get a little repetitive. We read tellings of the same scene from so many viewpoints that the details can wear thin by the second character’s take. Also, the story is full of too-convenient coincidences that stretch belief. Nevertheless, I read it in one sitting and found myself sucked in to Unraveling Oliver the way the best domestic thrillers suck you in. While I still found him absolutely monstrous at the end, I could see a different reader coming around to find him at least pitiable, if not sympathetic. This should appeal to people who like the recent spate of compelling Girl novels (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, etc). If you’re looking for your next read, try B. A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors, or, in fact, any of B. A. Paris‘ domestic thriller novels.

The Hundred Foot Journey (2014)

The_Hundred_Foot_Journey_(film)_posterMovie – The Hundred Foot Journey is a wonderful movie about rivalry, family, love and self-discovery. In the midst of political unrest, the Kadam family’s restaurant is set on fire resulting in the death of their matriarch and chef and loss of their family business. The father and his children flee India for Europe and by chance they settle in a small village in France. The oldest son Hassan learned much about cooking from his mother, so the family decides to open a restaurant. It is located directly across the street from an exclusive haute cuisine restaurant owned by Madame Mallory, who is obsessed with earning another Michelin star for fine dining. As you can imagine, Madame is none too pleased with her new neighbors’ eatery complete with a garish Taj Mahal facade and blasting Bollywood music. To further complicate things there is a growing romance between Kadam and Madame’s sous chef, Marguerite.  Totally delightful and guaranteed to stimulate your culinary senses.  We also have the book by Richard C. Morais, The Hundred Foot Journey, that the move is based on.

Provence 1970 by Luke Barr

provenceBook – This book, which is drawn from the letters and diaries of twentieth century gourmet personalities, may have you raiding your fridge as you read, due to the mouth-watering descriptions of tasty meals throughout. These personalities include writers as well as chefs such as Julia Child, Richard Olney, and James Beard. However, the focal point of this text is the food writer M.F.K. Fisher, whose revealing journals inspired her great-nephew, an editor of Travel & Leisure, to author this book. His narrative focuses on a wintry period in 1970 when his great-aunt, a columnist for the New Yorker, was traveling in France, meeting up with her fellow food connoisseurs for communal dinners in Provence, and searching for nostalgic French cuisine on her own. Intimate and not always charitable thoughts of how these characters truly viewed each other are revealed, based upon a wealth of their correspondence. The author points to this time as a turning-point, when the titans of American tastes began to question the romanticized ideal of the superiority of French cuisine.

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

stella bainBook – This novel begins with a compelling mystery as the main character awakens in a field hospital in Marne, France during World War I, not knowing her name or anything about herself beyond what is evident from her British nursing uniform and her American accent. This beautifully written historical fiction has the reader rooting for the courageous nurse as she forges on with nursing the wounded, pursuing threads of her identity, and ultimately facing a court trial. The audiobook is narrated by Hope Davis, and her pleasant, soothing voice matches Shreve’s spare, graceful presentation of a tragic yet intriguing story revolving around the development of psychotherapy for victims of shocking events. The courage, generosity, and intellect of individuals who aid the victims of war and prejudice are highlighted in the telling of “Stella Bain’s” story. The historical setting also provides a nostalgic backdrop for a love story that develops sweetly during this hopeful tale of rebuilding. If you enjoy this book, the library collections contain numerous novels by this award-winning author.