I have only one regret when it comes to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See: that I waited all this time to read it when I’ve had the book since 2015. I received this book as part of a book club from my first job, but I was too overwhelmed learning about clients and portfolios and all to read the book. And then I came up with more excuses through the years: the book was too long; the story seemed too sad (this was not false), and I didn’t want to feel sad at the moment. Whatever possessed me to finally pick it up this month is probably the biggest blessing the bookish me could have received in a while.
The book is set during the rise of Nazism through the German occupation of France, and it alternates points of views between Marie-Laure, who grew up solving puzzles that her locksmith father made for her and reading books that her father could procure for her (she’s particularly attached to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), and Werner, who grew up taking care of his younger sister Jutta at an orphanage and tinkering with radios and listening to broadcasts about science. I grew incredibly attached to all of the characters, especially Werner and Etienne. Although they had a different energy from the usual hero types, they didn’t go unnoticed.
And the story itself, wow. It breaks my heart to think about how everyone’s stories unfolded. It’s the kind of story that will gently take your heart, tickle it a bit, and then crush and tear it into tiny little pieces because that’s just how life is. The story is set during the war, after all. How could I have even been tricked into thinking that it could end happily? No, I am making excuses; I was not misled by the story, but I was hoping against all hope that it would end well. Hope is dangerous. So many emotions.
It’s been a long time coming, but I finally decided to read this book. I have a bad habit of purchasing books despite the size of my to-be-read pile, which never seems to stop growing. It should be no surprise that I bought Dinner at the Center of the Earth way back in 2017 despite only reading it in 2019.
I first encountered Nathan Englander’s writing when I read The Twenty-Seventh Man back in college. I liked the short story so much that I bought For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Since then, I never forgot the name. Come 2017, I found out that Green Apple Books on the Park was hosting a reading by Nathan Englander; I made it my mission to attend the event. After the reading, I shamelessly asked him to sign a book and to take a picture with me as I embarrassed myself with my fangirling. It was worth it.
Dinner at the Center of the Earth goes back and forth between 2002 and 2014, chronicling the experiences of several characters and how they were affected by the Gaza conflict. The book was more about personal experiences than the conflict itself, so it was quite easy to follow the story despite knowing very little of the conflict.
There are several characters involved, and throughout the story, all of their actions had been tied to the orders of the General (most clearly demonstrated by Prisoner Z’s imprisonment). It only took twelve years and some horrific events, but, by the end of the book, the characters have taken back control over their own lives. I felt a certain satisfaction that it ended in the characters’ own terms, even the General’s.
There’s a quite the history to go through before we even get to that point though. The chapters switch off across different characters at different moments in their lives, and at first, this comes off as choppy. The story gets a bit confusing to follow, mainly because the story lines and identities turn around pretty quickly, but don’t let that discourage you from reading on. Eventually, everything comes together as we learn more about the characters, and it’s all worth it.
An office book club read, The Underground Railroad was compelling and unfiltered—a refreshing change from somewhat controlled environments. To me, the main character was intelligent though uneducated. I found myself triggered as I came upon the main character’s harsh realization about life: equality is but an illusion.
The Underground Railroad took me through an emotional roller coaster. Here are some questions that I asked myself as I read the book and some snarky questions-as-answers from yours truly because fake closure:
How do you know whom you can trust?
You don’t. You don’t know if they’ll help you, and they do. You think they’re going to help you, but they won’t. It’s hit or miss, so how incredibly lucky can you get?
Why would you risk your life for another person?
Why does anyone do anything anyway? What makes another person’s life more valuable than yours? Can you even make a difference? Will anyone even care?
Will you take a leap of faith?
How do make that life worth living?
Read it. I hope it sparks a fire in you as well.
Bookish Plug: Another book that got me triggered as well was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.