“ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE” Ruined My Trip

All the Light We Cannot See

By Paul Levine

Anthony Doerr ruined my vacation. He also destroyed the confidence of blossoming writers and set an impossibly high standard for other novelists.

What’s the matter, Tony? Winning the Pulitzer wasn’t enough?

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE author
Anthony Doerr, author of ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr is the author of All the Light We Cannot See, the lyrical, compassionate, hauntingly gorgeous novel that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

And it’s kept me indoors on vacation. Fleeing the Miami heat and humidity, my wife Marcia and I escaped to Boulder, CO. My intentions were sincere. I’d hike, bike, sample the local brews. But instead of enjoying the glorious Colorado outdoors, I’ve been hunkered down on the porch, immersed in All the Light We Cannot See, reading and re-reading many of its elegant passages.

“All the Light We Cannot See” an Epic Tale

The novel is an epic masterpiece of fate and love, myth and imagination, humanity and inhumanity, tenderness and cruelty, and what happens to dreamers during the utter insanity of war. It’s the story of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy and how they’re destined to come together during the darkest of times. Indeed, it’s a novel of light and darkness.

All the Light We Cannot See
“All the Light We Cannot See” is a Masterpiece.

The portrait of 1940 Paris, on the eve of war, rings true. SPOILER ALERT: Germany invades France. SECOND SPOILER: The French put up as much resistance as an éclair to a butcher’s knife.

All the Light We Cannot See overflows with melodic phrases, magical imagery and dazzling wordplay. Of the blind girl who learns to navigate the streets from scale models lovingly built by her father: “She walks like a ballerina in dance slippers, her feet as articulate as hands, a little vessel of grace moving out into the fog.”

Most writers struggle to describe characters’ voices in original ways. Not Doerr, who floored me with this: “His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.”

There is even a rumination on the possibility of life after death. In less than a page, the author posits a theory more persuasive than a thousand Sunday sermons. HINT: Souls travel on electromagnetic waves.

Oh, the Damage to Writers’ Fragile Egos!

So here I sit – on the front porch – entranced as I finish this unforgettable novel. But I complain not just on my behalf. Consider the young writers studying their craft at Stanford, Iowa, and the back booths of countless Starbucks. Does Doerr comprehend the fragility of their egos? The plenitude of their neuroses? Even without this daunting book, they fear their work will just add to the tsunami of swill, the endless tide of mediocrity pouring from laser printers and overflowing publishing platforms.

So, yes, I blame Doerr for nipping the buds of blossoming writers. And what about the environmental damage? The hardcover I purchased is from the book’s 37th printing. That’s a lot of felled trees, Mr. Doerr. Consider that, too, the next time you sit down to work your literary magic.

Paul Levine

Paul Levine’s “Bum Rap” is available in trade paperback, ebook and audio.

Best Books Ever…My List or Yours?

"Rabbit, Run" tops my best book list

By Paul Levine

A “Best Books” list is inherently flawed.  Just as with “best teams” or “best movies” or “best pizza,” beauty is in the eye of the blogger.

A meme has been spreading through Facebook — as memes are inclined to do — asking people to name the ten best books they’ve ever read.  Or the ten “most influential.”  Or the ten that have “stayed with you.”

Using those standards, two of my choices were easy. Without these books — both Florida novels I’ll discuss below — I never would have become a writer. I wouldn’t have sneaked home from the law office to secretly write a spec manuscript that became “To Speak for the Dead.” That’s right. I’d still be wearing fancy suits, billing time at enormous rates, and eating stone crabs at the Banker’s Club instead of working in my underwear all day at home with a can of tuna for lunch!

Let’s admit it.  Any best books list is intensely personal and changes over time. When I was a teenager, I was mesmerized by “The Fires of Spring,” by James A. Michener, a coming-of-age novel based on the author’s impoverished childhood. I haven’t gone back to the book, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t find a spot on my best books list. And in fact…it hasn’t. Instead, I chose “Back Roads” by Tawni O’Dell, the least known author on my list. It’s a heartrending coming-of-age novel set in the slag heap poverty of rural Pennsylvania.

My Best Books List

To ease the task of compiling my best books list, I chose only fiction. Even then, I could only pare the titles to an even dozen.

1. RABBIT, RUN by John Updike.
2. FAREWELL, MY LOVELY by Raymond Chandler
3. BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe
4. PRESUMED INNOCENT by Scott Turow
5. BACK ROADS by Tawni O’Dell
6. MISERY by Stephen King
7. ANATOMY OF A MURDER by Robert Traver (John Voelker)
8. THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck
9. THE LOCK ARTIST by Steve Hamilton
10. GORKY PARK by Martin Cruz Smith
11. TOURIST SEASON by Carl Hiaasen
12. THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY by John D. MacDonald

Breaking Down the Best Books List

I was in my 20’s when I read “Rabbit, Run” about the angst of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who was my age and living not far from my hometown. Updike, Michener, and I were all raised in small Eastern Pennsylvania towns.  (That is the only time you will see us mentioned in the same sentence. Tawni O’Dell and John D. MacDonald were raised in western Pennsylvania, but I swear I have no geographical bias!)

I could just as easily have chosen two later books chronicling the older Angstrom. “Rabbit is Rich,” and “Rabbit at Rest.” After all, both won Pulitzer Prizes, but I’m sticking with the first of the series.

On the theory that every list should include one book of “Required Reading,” there’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”  Why not “To Kill a Mockingbird?”  It was listed by too many Facebook friends! But for fans of courtroom fiction — and yes, I know, “Mockingbird” is far more than that — I have three other choices. “Presumed Innocent” and “Anatomy of a Murder” are splendid murder trial sagas, and “Bonfire of the Vanities” has some of the most spectacular and hilarious courtroom scenes ever written.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker brought realism (and skepticism) to the legal thriller in “Anatomy” while Scott Turow’s “Innocent” and Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire” are works by master wordsmiths.  Yes, I’m giving away my biases, as we do when we create lists. I’m a former trial lawyer and the author of legal thrillers, so you have to give me a pass on all the courtroom tales.

My Best Books List Must Include Noir

I’m also an admirer of noir crime fiction, so there had to be a Raymond Chandler novel featuring hard-boiled P.I. Philip Marlowe. That’s where “Farewell, My Lovely” comes in.  I could have chosen “The Big Sleep” or “The Long Goodbye.”  All three are classics.  Who could forget this ditty from “Farewell…?”

“It was a blonde.  A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”

best books, Philip Marlowe
Humphrey Bogart portrayed Philip Marlowe on the screen.

My last two choices, “The Deep Blue Good-By” and “Tourist Season” had profound influence on my life. I never would have written “To Speak for the Dead,” my first novel, without them. John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, a self-described “beach bum” and “salvage consultant,” furnished the inspiration for my “Jake Lassiter” character, an “ex-football player, ex-public defender, ex-a-lot-of-things.” Carl Hiaasen’s ability to bring humor to Florida crime fiction was a revelation. His deceiving ability to make the writing look easy also suckered me into writing that first book.

That’s my list. What’s yours?

Paul Levine

Best Novels vs. Favorite Novels

 

By Paul Levine

Did anyone ever ask Herman Melville which was a better book, “Moby-Dick” or “Billy Budd, Sailor?”

No, I’m not comparing myself with Melville. For one thing, he had a big, bushy beard. For another, I get seasick.

Still, I’m always fascinated when readers ask, “What’s the best book you’ve written?”

(Sticklers will likely say that no one asked Melville that question because “Billy Budd” was unfinished at his death and not published for another 30 years, but you get my point).

What were Herman Melville's best novels?
Herman Melville: What were his best novels? Who is to say?

When asked about my best novels or favorite novels, I usually give a smart-ass reply. “Who’s your favorite child?” That either gets a laugh or a promise never to buy another of my books. So today, I’m going to be serious and talk about the issue of best novels versus favorite novels.

First, disregarding the question about my own work, I have lots of “favorites,” including “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “Rabbit, Run,” “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Big Sleep,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Presumed Innocent,” and a bunch of others I can’t remember off the top of my head. Are they the best novels I’ve read? I can’t say. But they’ve stayed with me…in some cases for more than 40 years.

"The Grapes of Wrath"  Is it one of the best novels of all time
Is “The Grapes of Wrath” One of the Best Novels of All Time…or Just One of My Favorites?

What Are the Best Novels of All Time?

Now, what about the best novels of all time? Oh, there are lots of lists. The Modern Library names 100, with James Joyce’s “Ulysses” – the bane of students everywhere – at the top. Library readers have their own list, naming Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as the greatest novel of all time. So much for popular taste! (I might complain that “Don Quixote,” “Gulliver’s Travels” and “David Copperfield” aren’t on the list, but this is the “Modern Library.”)

My point is this. No survey of readers or poll of academics can choose the “best” novel, any more than they can select the best pizza in town. It’s all personal. You may love Margaret Mitchell’s iconic melodrama, “Gone With the Wind” (number 24 on the reader’s list), while I prefer Vladimir Nabokov’s satiric comedy “Lolita,” (number 4 on the board’s list). Neither of us is right or wrong.

I apply the same reasoning to literary prizes. Many years ago, on a self-improvement kick, I decided to read every novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction since 1980.

Are the Pulitzer winners of the 1980’s the Best Novels of the Decade?

Here’s the list:

“The Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer

“A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole

“Rabbit Is Rich” by John Updike

“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker

“Ironweed” by William Kennedy

“Foreign Affairs” by Alison Lurie

“Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry

“A Summons to Memphis” by Peter Taylor

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison

“Breathing Lessons” by Anne Tyler

Is "Lonesome Dove" one of the best novels of all time?
“Lonesome Dove” is a Pulitzer Winner, but is It one of the Best Novels of All Time?

Who can dispute the quality of these books? At the same time, we might ask what made “The Executioner’s Song” better than Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer,” nominated the same year. Or “Lonesome Dove” better than Russell Banks’ “Continental Drift,” also a finalist. The answer is that the Pulitzer Committee says so. The choices are, by necessity, subjective. Bluntly stated, the Pulitzer winners aren’t the “best” novels of the year. They’re simply the committee members’ “favorites.”

There’s even an entry for “great American novel” in Wikipedia, which defines the term as:

“[T]he concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen.”

And yes, Wikipedia lists “Moby-Dick” as one of the great American novels.

So back to my original question. Which novel of mine is my favorite? The answer may surprise long-time readers and friends. Most expect me to name “To Speak for the Dead,” the first of the Jake Lassiter series. Or “Solomon vs. Lord,” the first of that series. But my favorite is “Illegal,” a tale of human smuggling, loosely based on a true story. The plot involves a harrowing midnight crossing of the Mexican/U.S. border, a child separated from his mother, and a down-and-out lawyer’s attempt to reunite the pair after the mother is held against her will as a sexually abused migrant laborer. Unlike my hard-boiled legal thrillers or my lighter capers involving bantering lawyers, there’s more meat on these bones. I like to think that “Illegal” delivers an empathetic, layered story with strong thematic material that was treated seriously by the critics. I don’t know if it’s my best work, but it’s my favorite…for now.

Paul Levine