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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog


Archives for January, 2015

Thursday, January 29, 2015

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, by Eve Silberman

cover of the book All the Light We Cannot See

In his best-selling novel set in Europe during WWII, Anthony Doerr follows the fortunes of two adolescents as they struggle for survival, moral and physical. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind French girl who memorizes her village through an exquisitely designed miniature made by her father. German orphan Werner Pfennig, a math whiz with a gift for mechanics, chooses to attend a Nazi youth military camp rather than be sent to work in the mines. In alternating chapters, Doerr tells each young person's story.

Contrasts soon develop. Marie-Laure moves from a doll-like passivity to anti-Nazi activism; she delivers messages hidden in a loaf of bread from a nearby bakery, and later broadcasts for the Resistance on a forbidden radio. The reflective Werner becomes increasingly aware that in aligning his lot with the Nazis, he's crossed over to the dark side—but he sees no way out.

He doesn't openly rebel; his moral conflicts take the form of wistful reminiscences of his astute young sister and the gentle woman who ran the orphanage where he and his sister grew up. His gentle friend, Frederick, finds escape from the Nazi camp—a place where boys are asked to turn on the "weakest" among them—by scanning the skies for birds, using a pair of antique field glasses, but ultimately defies the Nazis at a terrible price. Werner, drafted into the Reich army, uses his technical ability to hunt down –what else?--Resistance wireless broadcasters.

A third story heightens the tension. When it's clear the Germans will take Paris, the director of the museum where Marie-Laure's father works decides he must find a hiding place for the museum's most valuable possession: a diamond named "The Sea of Flames." He enlists the senior LeBlanc in a scheme to hide the precious albeit scary stone—it's rumored that a curse will follow the owner––with the result that even while Germany slides into defeat, a Nazi officer is on the heels of Marie-Laure and family.

The "Sea of Flames" adds some needed suspense to a story that, though it has a lot of beautiful writing, sometimes drags under its reverential telling. Describing Marie-Laure's blindness (congenital cataracts that left her blind by age six), Doerr writes, 'In her imagination in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel . . . piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues . . . "

Regrettably, Doerr doesn't develop characters as skillfully as settings. Marie-Laure, her father, Werner, Frederick, even the surprisingly amicable Nazi Sergeant Major von Rumpel remain as lifeless as Marie-Laure's miniature house. A bit weirdly, the book comes most to life life when Marie reads aloud a Braille version of Jules Verne's watery adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. When Captain Nemo and his guys are "flailing away with their axes" at sea monsters, it's like break dancing transforming a dance hall where you're tired of watching waltzes. Guess there's reasons some books are for the ages.


posted by John Hilton at 4:23 p.m. | 0 comments


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A FUTURE PHILOSPHER COMES OF AGE, by Tom Cudney

Tom Cudey, 1998

I was in the inaugural class of the Washtenaw Technical Middle College. Since 1997, the Middle College has let students take college classes while still in high school. When I came to the school, I had barely passed my freshman year at Lincoln High. At the time, I was fourteen years old and reading Darwin's Origin of Species.I enrolled my sophomore year, taking algebra, robotics, and some high school classes, which were easy and uninteresting.

We were a diverse group, so there were some odd ways we spent our time. There were only thirty seven of us, and we were closely-knit. There were no real cliques. Rich and poor kids blended without much emphasis on either polarity. Devout Muslims, skater punks, vague philosophers, and causeless rebels all mixed rather freely. The first student I talked to had bright blue hair, which impressed me, since I wasn't used to aesthetic freedom. There was at least one rock lifting contest in the woods, which I lost.

There was still time to wander around and cause trouble. A typical day that first semester included roaming the lawns and adjacent woods, and annoying people with pointless questions about reality. My friend lost his virginity in those same woods. There were some boulders by a break in the tree line, where we would give each other bear hugs until we fainted. Then there were the drugs. Lots of them.

The ski trip that December was a landmark of our achievement, though not exactly in a scholarly vein. I knew a girl whose boyfriend took all our liquor orders in advance. I personally brought two fifths of whiskey and a pint along in my suitcase. I was well-equipped, but I wasn't alone in that. Everyone had brought contraband to those two cottages, resting by the snowy hills in Michigan. I wonder if the tale is still recounted by students today.

The first night was our triumph. The boys' two-storey cottage had a balcony that looked out into the blackness, lighted over peaceful white. It invited us. There was no moderation in our impulses or appetite. Friends gambled, speculated, and got owned in GoldenEye 007. It was like I had stumbled into a palace of surreal possibility, alive with all my teenage fantasies of indulgence and popularity, a type of madhouse wherein we could be whatever we wanted, and we were all the more glad for it. A kind of existential insurrection through which there were no roles to play or desires to compromise. We were happy then. The girls' cottage was more subdued, though several groups crossed over as emissaries. While a bit more reserved, they partook in the fun, too, and were happy.

I remember standing by a bed amidst the clamor as I looked out past the crowded balcony. The boy next to me was rolling a marijuana blunt, a drug from which I had abstained for several months. I was drinking Canadian Mist whiskey, which is what I had drunk my first night in foster care, when I was eleven. It went down my throat uneventfully. I thought about smoking this blunt. All the conversations in the room weaved together in a whisper. I had a fleeting but clear premonition of myself as having failed and given in to something, somehow; but in the vision, I no longer cared. In that preview of a memory, I saw what it was like to no longer feel how I had in the past. Then I had smoked the blunt, and the experience was relegated to a memory.

We all went outside, up the hill, borrowing thick inner tubes, and were scarcely discreet or stealthy, even though we were quiet and sneaking along in the crunchy snow. We stood atop the hill. We sailed in those tubes, our chariots on a winding track of polished destiny, down to the surface of the everyday. But what a flight it was! We clung to one another, defying the momentum that would see us scattered, flakes gleaming as they danced along in the early morning air.The group did break apart, but my friend and I were stronger than the rest. We sustained our bond, and the force of our imbalanced weight thrust us clear off the hill, narrowly past a tree, and saw us land gingerly yet unfazed, still together in our tubes, ten feet out and below. Only one person was hurt: A chaperone whose reckoning was a bloody lip from the illicit tubing fray.

We went back to the cottage, and a few of us sat on the couches downstairs. I passed around the fifth of Jack Daniels I had brought. We didn't talk. One kid had locked himself in the bathroom. His friend was with him. We didn't care anyway. No one had bothered us. That's what happened.

I took my first philosophy class later that winter. I was fifteen, arrogantly inflated, and most of all, starving to find ideas that were meaningful to me. My philosophy instructor was somewhat of a Nietzschean iconoclast, film critic, and honors advisor at a university up the road. He had been teaching for fourteen years already, and he still does to this day. John was fiercely articulate, honest, and approachable, his lectures were dynamic and conversational. He once told us how he had sat on his car down in Texas, surrounded by coyote eyes that glowed out of the night. I was able to apply myself in the course, largely because I was challenged, and sometimes, clueless.

I ended up dropping out of the Middle College and getting my GED. I finished my associate's degree, earned a BA, learned three languages, and studied abroad before going to graduate school with full funding. I earned an MA in philosophy in 2010.

I came back to Washtenaw Community College and taught philosophy that same year. One or two of my own students were in the Middle College.


posted by John Hilton at 12:09 p.m. | 1 comment


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