"Here it is, his prose insists, right here on the page: a world made of words, a world we make up in our heads as we read, using all the light we cannot see."
20 Bookers met at the home of Jean Alexander to discuss this graceful masterpiece set in Hitler’s Germany, Paris, and the walled seaside town of Saint-Malo in Brittany during World War II. We meet an orphaned German boy, a visionary blessed with intellectual curiosity, and a blind French girl able to see light only through her imagination. Congratulations to Barbara Creach for guiding us through a decade of story zigzagging back and forth between timelines and settings and offering the author’s voice detailing the underpinning and motivation for writing this historical novel, ten years in the making.
To honor this novel, the store manager of Books, Inc., the West’s oldest independent bookseller in Alameda, California developed a Sea of Flames cocktail. Mix 1.5 ozs. Hendrick’s Gin; 1 oz.Byrrh (red wine based aperitif born in France prior to WWII); ½ oz. St. Germain; 2 tsps. lemon juice; 2 dashes of Germany’s The Bitter Truth bitters with ice, strain and pour into chilled glasses. The saga of the stone centered on the largest raw diamond ever seen. It was a brilliant blue and at the center a “touch of red like flames inside a drop of water” and came equipped with a curse – the keeper of the stone would live forever, but those he loved would suffer misfortunes. If thrown back into the sea, the curse would be lifted, but the last “keeper” ordered it locked inside a deep vault for two hundred years. Cheers…hopefully the cocktail doesn’t possess anything other than a slight headache.
The author wanted to tell a story in a time in history when hearing the voice of a loved one in your home, in your ear, was a magical thing. The focus landed on the role of the radio “when a war was fought in static waves instead of trenches” waging through the air invisibly and the front lines are anywhere.” Thus, the stories of Marie-Laure LeBlanc in France and Werner Pfennig in Germany paralleled the other until their paths collided in occupied France as they both tried to survive the devastation of World War II. She lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural history, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. At six, she goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. At twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives. They carry with them what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel, The Sea of Flames. Werner lives in a mining town with his sister, his expertise in building and fixing communication instruments landing him a place in a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then on to a special assignment to track the resistance traveling through the heart of the war and reaching Saint-Malo. Through it all, their story, against all odds, shows how people try to be good to one another and how “light and grace inextricably bubble up in the midst of banality, deprivation, imbalance, and even downright evil.”
The majority of our group loved the book and the writing, but acknowledged it was at times difficult to keep up with a timeline. It opens a month after the Allied invasion of Normandy and the two main characters are young adults…then we go back to 1934 when they were children…forward to 1940, forward again to 1944, back to 1941 and ahead to 1944, and so on. The author wrote it in this sequence to gather narrative momentum and suspense trying to “interweave all the pieces the way a puzzle comes together.” We talked about the life lessons throughout the novel and wondered about the symbolism associated with the frog and owl. FYI, some cultures see the frog as a communicator, the voice of the people, a survivor who exists in two worlds, of land and water, while the owl is linked with wisdom and foresight, the ruler of the night, the seer of souls. After all the emotion of the story, the ending seemed rushed and to some unsatisfactory, but the author explained by showing an elder Marie-Laure interacting with her grandson, he hoped to emphasize this war was more than a video game to those who lived it. “The cult of personality built into Germany” at the time could happen again…all “it takes is a very powerful propaganda tool, like the radio, and a populace that’s maybe struggling for lots of different reasons.”
With every physical detail, every word of every sentence, and every metaphor Doerr treated us to an illumination of narrative precisely paced with a language as silken as angora wool. We could see “each needle of a cypress tree, a polygon of light”…could hear a young man talking in “feathery accented French”…could question how the brain “locked in darkness, floating in a clear liquid inside the skull could create a world in the mind full of light”…could hear the sentimentality of ‘Claire de Lune’ “like a lonesome light wandering through the woods…of souls singing in a minor key, of victorious love and the opportune life…they do not seem to believe in their happiness and their song mingles with the moonlight.”
On the business side
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton is a historical fiction novel set in 1686 in Amsterdam centering on an eighteen-year old who marries an older wealthy merchant. His wedding gift to her is a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It starts slowly, the Dutch language is difficult to decipher, but about page one hundred, the plot lines twist and turn providing the intrigue. It’s a good book and in my opinion, would be color-coded RED, and included on our recommended reading list.
Donna Walter highly recommended another historical novel, The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin that tells the story of Ann Morrow, Charles Lindberg’s wife. Many top ratings by reviewers.
We voted on Cassie Dandridge Selleck’s The Pecan Man, for our March selection. It’s available on Kindle, audio, and paperback through Amazon and has over 1,000 reviews, 4.5 stars. This short novel is a work of Southern fiction, set in 1976 narrated by a recently widowed, childless woman who hires a homeless, old, black man to mow her lawn. It’s been described as To Kill a Mockingbird meets The Help.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is climbing the bestseller list. It’s a dark, haunting, depressing, psychological thriller that would appeal to fans of Gone Girl, unreliable narrator and all.
It seems that after fifty-five years, 88 year-old author Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird fame is set to release her second novel, Go Set a Watchman July 2015. The drama continues in the media as to the circumstances surrounding the new discovery, etc…stay tuned. It’s set during the civil rights movement and told through the voice of an adult Scout who returns to her Alabama home from New York.
The third annual Books in Bloom fundraiser benefitting the Henderson County Clint W. Murchison Memorial Library in Athens is slated for April 17th at the Cain Center. Bookers has supported this event for the past two years and we would like to continue our participation. Tables of 8 are sold at $30.00 per person for the luncheon only or $40.00 per person for the champagne author reception and luncheon. Participants bring their own china plates, water glasses, cloth napkins, silverware, and a small centerpiece for their table. Tablecloths are provided. MN and I will not be able to attend this year but we hope at least eight of will represent the Pinnacle Women’s Club and Bookers. Both Melanie and Patty Evans have expressed an interest in helping with the décor and we just need six more volunteers and someone to coordinate the funds, etc…It’s a cultural event right in our backyard! Please support this if you can.
COLOR CODING SYSTEM
WHITE: LIGHT READ
PINK: MODERATELY CHALLENGING
March 3rd : Note change of date
The Pecan Man by Cassie Dandridge Selleck
Home of Joanna Linder
Reviewer: Pat Faherty
April 14th: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Home of Kay Robinson
Reviewer: Jean Alexander
May 19th: Note change of date
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
Home of Beverly Dossett
Reviewer: Beverly Dossett
Summer Break: June, July & August
The Boys in the Boat, Nine Americans
and Their Epic Quest for Gold
at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
September 8th: Bookers 12th year
Let your fears and privation “be rinsed away by wind, and color, and light.”