Review: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a World War II novel about children, the kind of undertaking that requires a lot of work to rise above emotional manipulation. For the first hundred or so pages, the book seems to rely on ready signifiers of heartbreak and grandeur: a motherless blind girl, a white-haired orphan boy, a cursed diamond, lots and lots of bombs.

But once he hits his stride, Anthony Doerr takes these loud parts and builds a beautiful, expansive tale, woven with thoughtful reflections on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc (introduced as “the girl”) is the daughter of a master locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She loses her vision at 6 years old and spends the rest of her childhood studying mollusks, reading Jules Verne novels in Braille, and navigating her neighbourhood with the help of a faithful wooden model built by her loving, storybook-wonderful father.

When she is 12, the Germans occupy Paris, and she and her father flee to Saint-Malo, a walled city on the Brittany coast, where her great-uncle owns a six-story home he hasn’t left since the last World War. They carry with them a 133-carat stone that is either the Sea of Flames, the museum’s most valuable diamond, or one of three convincing replicas. The stone attracts the attention of the novel’s primary antagonist, Nazi Sergeant Major van Rumpel, a treasure collector for the Third Reich. Van Rumpel, who is dying of cancer, becomes fixated with the Sea of Flames, which is rumoured to protect its owner from death while drawing disaster on his or her loved ones.

Werner Pfennig serves as the corresponding boy to Marie-Laure’s girl–a young orphan with a scientist’s mind and all the grim opportunities available to a brilliant youth in Nazi Germany. He grows up with his little sister in the orphanage of Zollverein, a 4000-acre coal-mining complex, where their father died in an accident underground.

The orphanage boys have one known destiny–to go straight to the mines when they turn 15. Werner lives in claustrophobic fear of his fated existence, and when he sees a ticket out, he seizes it. His talent for radio repair attracts attention to his genius, and he leaves Zollverein for a Hitler Youth academy, then for a special assignment that uses mathematical methods to track and destroy the Resistance.

The bulk of the novel takes place between 1934 and 1945, with a particular focus on the siege of Saint-Malo in August 1944, where the two stories finally converge. Despite the time frame, Doerr largely avoids the topic of the Holocaust, focussing more on warfare than on genocide. We are meant to identify with Werner as he slips into his useful role within the Wehrmacht, and perhaps it was better to have him take out enemy combatants than innocent Jewish children.

That said, Doerr never lets Werner off the hook, and Werner’s arc–his increasing tolerance for ugliness and violence, “his ten thousand small betrayals,” his struggle to find volition and redemption in a life that offers few apparent choices–is the most compelling part of the book. The other characters are easier to qualify as good or evil. Marie-Laure’s struggle for survival is captivating, but her journey is more external than Werner’s–we are never forced to doubt the purity of her heart.

Werner and Marie-Laure are the focal points for not only the war but the whole of human existence. Throughout the novel, Doerr draws attention to all that is fine-grained and infinite in the world: barnacles, snowflakes, “the filaments of a spiderweb,” “many thousands of freckles,” “a million droplets of fog,”; even a network of trenches like “the circuitry of an enormous radio, each soldier down there an electron flowing single file down his own electrical path, with no more say in the matter than the electron has.”

The title refers to the endless run of the electromagnetic spectrum, a scale so large that “mathematically, all of light is invisible.” This motif runs through the whole novel, imparting texture and rhythm as well as a thematic tension, between the insignificant and miraculous natures of mankind and all the immeasurable components that make up our lives.

The characters are constantly searching–for forbidden radio transmissions, for the Sea of Flames, for each other–locating tiny points in the chaos of the universe. (“Needles in the haystack. Thorns in the paw of the lion.”) They look for meaning while facing the vastness and “the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world,” and their fates hinge on their ability to act when everything seems to be determined they can only imagine.

The prose is lovely, with the sort of wondrous, magical, humour-free tone that could be cheesy in the wrong hands. Doerr’s novel is ambitious and majestic without bluntness or overdependence on heartbreak–which is not to say it won’t jerk those tears right out of your head.



Review: “The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar

Art of Choosing

Sheena Iyengar is the psychologist responsible for the famous jam experiment. You may have heard about it: At a luxury food store in Menlo Park, researchers set up a table offering samples of jam. Sometimes, there were six different flavours to choose from. At other times, there were 24. (In both cases, traditional flavours like strawberry were left out.) Shoppers were more likely to stop by the table with more flavours. But after the taste test, those who chose from the smaller number were ten times more likely to actually buy jam: 30 percent versus 3 percent. Having too many options, it seems, made it harder to settle on a single selection.

The study hardly seems mine anymore, now that it has received so much attention and been described in so many different ways,” Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, writes in The Art of Choosing. “From the various versions people have heard and passed on,” she adds, “a refrain has emerged: More is less. That is, more choice leads to less satisfaction or fulfilment or happiness.”

Now Iyengar is having her own say about the jam experiment and the many other puzzles and paradoxes of choice. More choice is not always better, she suggests, but neither is less. The optimal amount of choice lies somewhere in between infinity and very little, and that optimum depends on context and culture. “In practice, people can cope with larger assortments than research on our basic cognitive limitations might suggest,” Iyengar writes. “After all, visiting the cereal aisle doesn’t usually give shoppers a nervous breakdown.”

A congenial writer, Iyengar is less hard-edged and ideological than Barry Schwartz and less glib than Malcolm Gladwell, who she says encouraged her to write this book. The Art of Choosing should appeal to fans of both writers. It’s full of the experimental results that make for good cocktail party chatter, but it offers fewer explicit lessons. Iyengar favours exploration over conclusions. “Isn’t this interesting?” she asks, rather than “Isn’t this awful?” or “Isn’t this useful?”

Take a mundane question: Do you choose to brush your teeth in the morning? Or do you just do it? Can a habit or custom be a choice? When Iyengar asked Japanese and American college students in Kyoto to record all the choices they made in a day, the Americans included things like brushing their teeth and hitting the snooze button. The Japanese didn’t consider those actions to be choices. The two groups lived similar lives. But they defined them differently.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Iyengar is drawn to such cross-cultural comparisons. Consider an experiment she conducted with elementary-school children in San Francisco’s Japantown. Half were what Iyengar calls Anglo Ameri­can, and half were the children of Japanese or Chinese immigrants who spoke their parents’ native language at home. “Ms Smith” showed each child six piles of word puzzles and six marking pens. Each pile contained one category of anagram — words about animals, food, San Francisco, etc. — and each marker was a different colour. A third of the children were told to pick whichever category and marker they wanted to play with. Another third were told they should work on a specific category with a specific marker. With the final third, Ms Smith riffled through some papers and pretended to relay instructions from the child’s mother. In the latter two cases, the category and marker were, in fact, the ones picked by the most recent child to select freely.

The two ethnic groups reacted differently. The Anglo kids solved the most anagrams and played the longest when they could pick their puzzles and markers, while the Asian children did best when they thought they were following their mothers’ wishes. To the Anglo children, their mothers’ instructions felt like bossy constraints. The Asians, by contrast, defined their identities to a large extent by their relationship with their mothers. Their preferences and their mothers’ wishes, Iyengar writes, “were practically one and the same.” Doing what they thought their mothers wanted was, in effect, their first choice.

Anglos and Asians did share one critical reaction: “When the choices were made by Ms Smith, a stranger, both groups of children felt the imposition and reacted negatively.” Just because people happily comply with the choices of an intimate — or, for that matter, an authority they’ve selected themselves — does not mean they want bureaucratic strangers making their decisions. Advocates who want to use psychology experiments to justify choice-limiting public policy should keep that lesson in mind.

Iyengar began her scholarly exploration of choice with an undergraduate research project. She suspected that religiously observant people who obey lots of behavioural restrictions would feel unable to control their lives and thus pessimistic. To test this hypothesis, she interviewed more than 600 people from nine different religions, ranging from fundamentalists to liberals. She surveyed their religious beliefs and practices, asked questions to test optimism and had them fill out a mental health questionnaire. What she found surprised her.

Members of more fundamentalist ­­faiths experienced greater hope, were more optimistic when faced with adversity and were less likely to be depressed than their counterparts,” she writes. “Indeed, the people most susceptible to pessimism and depression were the Unitarians, especially those who were atheists. The presence of so many rules didn’t debilitate people; instead, it seemed to empower them. Many of their choices were taken away, and yet they experienced a sense of control over their lives.”

In retrospect, the result seems obvious. Even many atheists would agree that believing that God cares about you or that your life is part of a cosmic plan can be a powerful source of hope (or, to put it pejoratively, a crutch). Meaning is as important as choice. Besides, Iyengar conducted her survey in the United States, where people are free to switch religions and often do. If keeping kosher or refraining from alcohol makes you feel constrained and helpless, you can abandon those strictures. The only people left in the restrictive groups are those who value the rules. In a modern, liberal society, religious observance does not “take away” choice. It is a choice.

Unlike “provocative” books designed to stir controversy, “The Art of Choosing” is refreshingly thought-provoking. Contemplating Iyengar’s wide-ranging exploration of choice leads to new questions: When is following custom a choice? How costly must a decision be to no longer qualify as a choice? Did Calvinism spur worldly achievement because its doctrine of predestination removed all choice about the hereafter? Do con­temporary Americans adopt food taboos like veganism because they crave limits on an overabundance of choices?

Human beings, Iyengar suggests, are born to choose. But human beings are also born to create meaning. Choice and meaning are intertwined. We use choice to define our identities, and our choices are determined by the meanings we give them, from advertising-driven associations to personal relationships and philosophical commitments. Some meanings we can articulate, while others remain beyond words. “Science can assist us in becoming more skilful choosers,” Iyengar cautions, “but at its core, choice remains an art.”

Review: “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (25th Anniversary Edition) by Richard Rhodes

Making of the Atomic Bomb

Whew. That was a big book. Took me three months to finish because of the copious amounts of notes I took. I’ve never reviewed non-fiction before and I don’t know what made me decide to start with a Pulitzer Prize winner but here goes.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is a major work of historical synthesis that brings to life the men and machines that gave us the nuclear era. Rich in drama and suspense, the book also has remarkable breadth and depth, revealing new connections, insights, and surprises. It bristles with detail and irony. There are raccoon coats and incendiary raids, heavy water and theatrical satires, patent fights and suntan lotion (worn in 1945 by physicists in the predawn darkness of the New Mexican desert to protect them from the flash of the first bomb). There was even a third “gadget” being readied to be dropped on Japan, even as Hiroshima and Nagasaki smoldered. The Making of the Atomic Bomb offers not only the best overview of last century’s pivotal event but also a probing analysis of what it means for the future.

Richard Rhodes has written a comprehensive work that moves from the birth of atomic physics in the early 1900’s to the postwar creation of the “Super,” or hydrogen bomb, in the 1950’s. It details a secret bomb-building race among the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan during the Second World War. Technically, it ranges from scientific discovery to industrial development, weapon design, and fabrication, describing each with clarity and precision. The book illuminates not only scientists and their insights but also the times they lived in, showing how these often eccentric individuals were shaped by the philosophies and atrocities that shook the first half of the 20th century. Happily, Mr. Rhodes avoids the sermons and apocalyptic overtones that often mar the subjects of nuclear arms and atomic creativity. Nor does he point accusatory fingers. Short on heroes and villains, his book is populated instead with complex figures in a compelling plot.

Best of all, the characters speak in their own voices, in long paragraphs of direct quotation. This chorus of self-expression was made possible by the vast literature that has accumulated about the building of the bomb. Mr. Rhodes’s coup was to realize that the time was ripe to tap this vast repository, which now includes memoirs, oral histories, and collections of letters, as well as scores of previously secret Government documents. The book’s bibliography is some 750 entries long, and Mr. Rhodes has fleshed out this archive by interviewing the living principals and by traveling to the sites and shrines of the atomic era. Even 25 years later, the freshness of Mr. Rhodes’s work seems to spring in large measure from his being neither scientist nor science writer but an intelligent layman freed from the norms and assumptions of the scientific discipline. It also derives from his novelistic skills. The author of several novels and works of nonfiction, Mr. Rhodes has used his considerable talents to find the natural depth and drama of the story of the atomic bomb, and has shunned any temptation to dabble in novelistic history.

All too often the moral drawn from the atomic saga and its legacy of arms development is, simply put, that science can lead to evil, and that since its temptations cannot be resisted, its powers should be sharply constricted. Yet no modern nation will hobble its physicists and engineers because of the inordinate power they put in the hands of the government. The inevitable march of technology thus leads some observers to despair.

Mr. Rhodes draws a different lesson from the history he has told. Although he finds little hope in the technical strides of science and dismisses the current quest for a Star Wars antimissile system, he sees great promise in the emergence of science as an agent for social change.

In the book’s epilogue, he points out that for the first time in history, science in 1945 became a force strong enough to challenge the power and authority of the modern nation-state, itself an institution which has not been an unalloyed power for good. Mr. Rhodes notes plausible estimates that say the nations of this century have managed to eliminate some 100 million people during wars and other man-made violence. Yet today the superpowers, their nuclear arsenals swollen with the destructive power of a million Hiroshimas, have lost much of their strength and influence in world affairs. So too, Mr. Rhodes notes, they have been forced to engage each other in scientific exchanges, negotiations, treaties, and have suffered an erosion of their sovereignties because of spy satellites and other means for monitoring the dangers of the nuclear age.

In all this Mr. Rhodes sees a glimmer of hope. Even though an instrument of terror, science may one day prompt the birth of a supranational order. “The preeminent transnational community in our culture is science,” Mr. Rhodes writes. “With the release of nuclear energy in the first half of the twentieth century, that model commonwealth decisively challenged the power of the nation-state. The confrontation is ongoing and inextricably embedded in mortal risk, but it offers at least a distant prospect of felicity. The different country that still opens before us is Bohr’s open world.”