Images courtesy of Juan Carlos Guerrero

All images courtesy of Juan Carlos Guerrero

All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr

One evening last week, I cracked open the World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See and began reading the opening scene, in which American bombardiers fly over the French town of Saint-Malo, liberating it from German occupation. As I sat in my cozy living room in Berkeley, the sound of (I kid you not) helicopters began to fill the space. It was a dramatic coincidence but I remained reasonably certain that the Bay Area wasn’t being bombed. We were several days in to nightly protests over police violence and the helicopters belonged to law enforcement and the media.

I’d been feeling ambivalent about whether or not I should join the protests, demonstrations that were intended to be peaceful but were turning dangerous due to a small group of people who were using them as an excuse to antagonize the police and damage property, which had led to aggressive police tactics in response. Each evening the protests continued and every morning I saw another boarded up storefront. I remained ambivalent about what was being achieved.

Then last Wednesday, I learned that the students at Berkeley High had walked out of their last class of the day in an organized march that led them through downtown Berkeley and onto the university’s historic Sproul Plaza, site of many a student protest. They chanted, “UC Berkeley join us now, you’re the ones that showed us how.” They walked peacefully through campus and ended at the bell tower, where they staged a die-in with Black students lying on the ground while their White peers stood in a circle around them, paying witness before joining them. At one point a few onlookers began heckling the crowd and the scene could have turned ugly. But how did the BHS kids respond? They began yelling “We love you” to the hecklers and they diffused the conflict.

Some of these kids are my clients, others I work with on a volunteer basis – and I couldn’t have been prouder or more moved to learn that they had managed to accomplish what their adult counterparts couldn’t. They demonstrated exactly what I most appreciate about teenagers: their innocent spirits and ancient souls. They have the ability to recognize injustice and they’re optimistic enough to try to do something about it. It’s why we put so much hope in the generations that succeed us.

“That’s great T,” you may be saying, “but what the heck does any of this have to do with All the Light We Cannot See? I mean, I heard it was one of the best books of 2014 and everyone I talk to raves about it. Couldn’t you spare a few words for this modern masterpiece 10 years in the making?”

Folks, everything you’ve heard about the book is true. It is wonderful and I highly recommend it and it just so happens to have two teenage protagonists. And although the story takes place 70 years ago, it feels very timely. In fact, I couldn’t help but take note of the following passage, which describes the senseless shooting of a civilian woman and child.

“Werner waits for the child to blink. Blink, he thinks, blink blink blink. Already Volkheimer is closing the closet door, though it won’t close all the way because the girl’s foot is sticking out of it, and Bernd is covering the woman on the bed with a blanket, and how could Neumann Two not have known, but of course he didn’t, because that is how things are with Neumann Two, with everybody in this unit, in this army, in this world, they do as they’re told, they get scared, they move about with only themselves in mind.”

all-the-lightI can’t think of a better way to articulate the root of so many of the problems we have today.



One of my writing teachers in Chicago kept a sign taped to her office wall that read, “Art Saves.” I can’t think of a more eloquent way to explain why, in a world that already feels so bogged down by content, opinions and general over-sharing, I would decide to start blogging.  You see, art — most often in the form of literature — has been saving me for a long time now.

It’s safe to say that (with the exception of my family) books have been the steadiest and most consistent presence throughout my life. They’ve offered refuge and escape and entertainment and education, but they’ve also been a way of connecting. Readers and writers come together on the page. When we read someone else’s words, we spend a little time inside their head and their heart. Beyond that, reading connects us with each other. When we read stories, we parachute into the characters’ points of view and thus, we become more open-minded and empathetic people. If you don’t believe me, check out this study published in Science Magazine about literature’s impact on empathy.

And so by writing about reading, I’ll try to forge a bond with you as I tell you a little bit about what I’m reading and I hope you’ll send your own reading lists my way. I tend to read a lot of contemporary novels, so my write-ups will focus on that particular category, but I do try to shake it up from time to time. I may even go crazy and write a little about TV or a movie once in a while. As we’ve heard many times, we’re in a “new golden age of television,” where the powers that be have finally figured out that people really like long-form storytelling. And ultimately that’s what I’m interested in – storytelling.

(Important Note: This particular post is a fairly earnest one, but I’ll do my best to inject my typical hilarious wit into regular posts.)

With that, I’ll use some television lingo and give you a teaser for my first real post coming soon: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. Coincidentally, salvation is one of the book’s themes.