THE LIGHTS OF BERKELEY

BHS I

BHS II

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.

 

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER

Autobio of MotherThe Autobiography of My Mother
by Jamaica Kincaid

This little book showed up in my mailbox recently courtesy of our favorite patron of the arts, my father. He’d heard Jamaica Kincaid speak recently (give it up for the Chicago Humanities Festival) and he liked her and thought I would too. The book’s equivocal title clues us in that this is not, in fact, an autobiography or a memoir or even a biography, but rather the fictional, first-person narrative of Xuela, a Dominican woman whose mother dies in childbirth. The loss of a mother she never knew shapes Xuela’s life and their two stories become intermingled in her mind.

Although this book is considered a novel, I would categorize it as being closer to a long-form poem. The writing is lyrical and elliptical, so those fully drawn characters and clever plots that I like to latch on to in most novels were missing here. But while I was in the beginning stages of this book, I happened to read A.O. Scott’s review of the film adaptation of Wild, which I believe opened this weekend (yay!).

Here’s what Scott had to say about Wild, the movie. “In its thrilling disregard for the conventions of commercial cinematic storytelling, ‘Wild’ reveals what some of us have long suspected: that plot is the enemy of truth, and that images and emotions can carry meaning more effectively than neatly packaged scenes or carefully scripted character arcs.”

Now as someone that fully enjoys a good, neatly packaged scene, not to mention a carefully scripted character arc, Scott’s comments could have caused me some consternation. But reading them when I did–while still in the early pages of Kincaid’s book–instead I took them as a measure of unsolicited enlightenment. I realized that this book runs closer to the short-form storytelling of a film, rather than the more expansive style of a novel, and so I read it with an eye toward those images and emotions that Scott mentions, accepting that it would be a different reading experience from the typical novel.

What I found was a story operating in the sensory, which clicked when I read these lines toward the end: “It is sad that unless you are born a god, your life, from its very beginning, is a mystery to you … Who you are is a mystery no one can answer, not even you.” Xuela’s story, being that of a Dominican woman in a time period left ambiguous (but probably somewhere around the first half of the 20th century), is ultimately a story of the victors and the vanquished, although Xuela refuses to be one of the vanquished, putting down stakes where she can: with her body and the physical world around her. For that is what you do when you’re left with very little that’s yours, you take what is tangible.

Up Next: The Berkeley Public Library (possibly my favorite institution in the world) informs me that my next book is in transit. Finally! I won’t tell you what it is, but I’ll give you a hint: when I first put my name on the book’s hold list, there were 132 people ahead of me and it was just named one of the NYT’s 10 Best of 2014. Any guesses?

 

WE ARE NOT OURSELVES

we-are-not-ourselves

We Are Not Ourselves
by Matthew Thomas

Lately I’ve been writing about my skepticism toward some of the “Big Books” that are released each year by established authors with strong platforms. While I don’t think there’s an official definition for the term Big Book, I associate it with a book that its publisher is expecting will sell well and therefore received a large advance and a lot of subsequent buzz. Written by a debut author rather than an established name, We Are Not Ourselves is an interesting addition to the conversation.

I loved the beginning of this book. In fact, for the first 200 pages or so, I thought it might end up being one of my favorite books ever as I followed Eileen Tumulty, born in Woodside, Queens in 1941 to Irish immigrants, from age 10 to somewhere around 45. This part of the story is as close to my version of The Great American Novel as any I can recall. Through Eileen’s coming of age, Matthew Thomas creates a bigger narrative about the dreams, expectations and realities of post-war, middle-class, first-generation Americans moving through the 20th century.

If this is the kind of story that appeals to you as much as it appeals to me, you can probably imagine that the last thing on my mind was any concern about the book’s length (just north of 600 pages) or any sort of editing treatment it may or may not have received. But I wondered just where this was heading, with 400 pages to go and a 45-year-old protagonist.

It’s around this spot in the book that Something Happens. If you don’t already know what that something is, I don’t want to tell you. I find that it’s a much more powerful experience to be surprised by a story’s events rather than to be waiting for them and that was certainly what I found so gripping about the second 1/3 of this book. At this point, though, the book’s pace slows down significantly, matching the course of events, and I realized that the rest of the book would focus on this thing that happened (again, very much in keeping with how the characters are experiencing the events being described).

So while I still enjoyed the rest of the book—the characters are incredibly well drawn—the things that make it so good can also make it difficult to read. Thomas is portraying events that are, at times, upsetting and scary and are, at other times, arduous and mundane. He does so in a style that mirrors these experiences so that the reader is that much closer to the characters.

This all comes around to an issue of realism. One of the topics that came up in my post about My Very End of the Universe and my accompanying interview with Chris Bower was how the succinct nature of flash fiction can lend a story a sense of realism, particularly as it reflects memory. In We Are Not Ourselves, the opposite effect is at work. Many have called this book an epic saga and while I wouldn’t categorize it that way, I do think that Thomas needed every one of his many words to accurately reflect his characters’ experiences.

Phew. I need a break from fiction, folks. This last one nearly did me in with all my worrying about these poor characters. Up next is something self-helpy, for those of us gearing up for our New Year’s resolutions.

 

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU

H Halloween

Z Halloween

Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng

(Note: This book has nothing to do with Halloween, but accompanying pictures were too cute to ignore)

The surface story of Everything I Never Told You is a mystery. It is the spring of 1977 and sixteen-year old Lydia Lee has been found at the bottom of a lake in her small Ohio town. These tropes may sound familiar but I promise, this book is the farthest thing from formulaic. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this before.

At its core, this is a story about disappointment; the searing, haunting disappointment of having one’s dreams fade away unfulfilled. As a first-generation son of Chinese immigrants, Lydia’s father has never fit in among his white peers, even after marrying a Caucasian woman. Before they met, Lydia’s mother was a science whiz and planned to become a doctor. Neither of their lives has worked out in the ways they wanted, but even more tragic is the alienation they’ve experienced as a result, an alienation from themselves and each other. As the title implies, this is also a story about the tragedy of failing to communicate.

“Geez, T,” you might be thinking, “that sounds like a real buzz kill. I don’t like to read anything depressing.” So yes, this is a sad book; I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. But it’s good sad. In fact, the small cast of characters is so well wrought and their emotions feel so genuine and true that I found myself whipping through the book, compelled by the tension of their emotional lives. Through gradual reveals that flash back to the characters’ individual histories, their inner tensions are woven into the story’s surface mystery.

Beyond doing a really fine job of telling a story about a family and its failings, Celeste Ng manages to tell a more universal story about the ramifications of institutionalized discrimination. What do people do with their frustrations? If they can’t talk about them, how do they deal? Do they end up expecting more from other people because they’re not satisfied with themselves? For some, they project their quashed hopes onto their children. They begin to conflate their sense of self with their child’s identity. But this desire to want for one’s children what you couldn’t have for yourself can be a dangerous, destructive force. Ng’s powerful depiction reminds us that systems of oppression don’t disappear in one or two generations’ time.

On that happy note …

Next Up: The much-anticipated new release of My Very End of the Universe by hometown hero and old friend, Mr. Chris Bower (and others). Look for an upcoming interview (a first for this blog) with Bower and some other new features in honor of his publication!