Week 6: Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Serena and I would like to welcome you to the sixth and final discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments.

Were you surprised that Volkheimer encouraged Werner to save Marie-Laure? What did you think about Werner’s actions in the Le Blanc house and the time he spent with Marie-Laure?

SERENA: I wasn’t surprised by Volkheimer’s encouragement. It seems that he always looked out for Werner and wanted the best for him. He seemed to know that saving Marie-Laure was important to Werner.

I didn’t actually think too much about Werner’s actions in the house other than hurry up and save Marie! I was glad that he made it in time, even though there was some big tension there with von Rumpel. I also think that in times of war, emotions are heightened, and his connection with Marie-Laure is something that can’t be explained too rationally.

ANNA: I agree. I’m glad that Werner was able to do the right thing when it counted. Overall, I think he was just a kid who grew up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He really wanted to become something, and his intelligence was twisted by the Nazis and used in deplorable ways.

In addition to the heightened emotions that accompany war, Werner was really just a child, and Marie-Laure’s connection to his childhood and a less complicated time played into his feelings as well. He wanted to be done with the war, and he wanted something good to come out of it, and a love story would be one way that could happen.

I was torn about Marie-Laure’s reaction to finding out about Werner years after the war. It seems that she meant so much more to him than he meant to her. That broke me up, but of course, we saw both sides to the story. Marie-Laure was grateful for Werner saving her, but when it boils down, he was a German and she’d lost her father, so it was so much more complicated than that. Also, Marie-Laure has decades of hindsight and life that Werner was never able to have.

SERENA: I think because he heard her great-uncle on the radio, Werner’s connection to her is stronger. Really she doesn’t meet him until he saves her and he only tells her of what he has done to protect her afterward, so it’s hard for her to feel the same connection. I wasn’t surprised by her reaction because she’s so removed from it now and the loss of so many has left her with little connection to the past. Her only connections now are her work, her lovers, and her daughter, so much more of her life is grounded in the present than in the past.

It’s sad we don’t get to see what would have happened had Werner lived. I wonder if the war would have broken him so much that he had given up his dreams, but he was so creative, maybe not.

ANNA: I wasn’t surprised by her reaction, really. Just knowing how much she meant to Werner from following his thoughts and being sad about his death made me wish it could be that way.

Unfortunately, I think he was already broken by the war. Frederick and the little girl affected him so deeply that he was haunted by them. Maybe that would have lessened over time, and his saving Marie-Laure seemed to redeem himself in his eyes a little bit. His death shows just how sick and beaten down he was, the visions he was having, and his longing for home, the light, etc.

What did you think of Jutta’s meeting with Volheimer and with Marie-Laure?

ANNA: I think Jutta needed Volkheimer’s visit and her subsequent visits to Saint-Malo and to Paris to see Marie-Laure for closure. Werner’s notebook brought her back to the happier, simpler times when they were children, and her visit to Saint-Malo helped her try to understand Werner’s last letter to her about the sea. And I think knowing that he had fallen in love, whether it was real or not, whether it was just for a moment, made her feel as though Werner had lived and done something good despite having gone to the Hitler Youth school and fought for the Nazis, which were things she couldn’t talk about after the war.

SERENA: I think the meeting with Volkheimer was so odd, but he never really talked much. He sort of just drops the duffle off, eats food, and then spends some time with Max before leaving. It’s funny that the husband doesn’t really interact or think much of the meeting…like its normal. But we also get a much more internal story here from Jutta, who has been so much out of the story. It’s good to see her reflect on her brother.

I love that the meeting between Jutta and Marie-Laure is not overly emotional; it seems that they both have moved beyond the past and have their own lives. They have moved on but this gives them the closure they need.

ANNA: It seems like Jutta and her husband had the kind of relationship where they respect their wartime experiences and whatever ways they’ve used to move past them. He seemed to know about Werner but also that Volkheimer’s presence upset or at least jarred Jutta. A lot of the WWII novels I’ve read that focus on Germans in the aftermath seem to portray them as stoic and not overly emotional. Not sure how accurate that is or whether it plays into Jutta’s reaction here.

What do you think about what happened to the diamond, in terms of its overall importance to the story?

SERENA: That diamond…I want to believe that Werner released it into the sea and that he saved the house model to remember Marie-Laure. I want to believe that he let that go for something much more precious — a symbol of the boy with the hopes and dreams he once had before the war tore it up.

ANNA: I wish we’d been given a glimpse of Werner fishing the house out of the ocean and what his thought process was there. Von Rumpel seemed to think Werner was at the house for the same reason he was, but Werner didn’t know anything about the diamond. So it’s likely that he didn’t grasp it’s value, especially not in the midst of the chaos of the cease fire, and that he would believe the house that Marie-Laure set free and the key she gave him to be more precious.

SERENA: Von Rumpel had a one track mind where that diamond was concerned. I’m glad he was dispatched and not by his disease.

ANNA: I agree. He exemplified the Nazi greed and superstition.

What did you think about the scene with Frederick, three decades after the war?

SERENA: As for Frederick, I love that his mother — even though she seemed like she was a social butterfly and not really connected to her son before — continued to care for him after the war. I wonder what happened to his over-bearing father. I love the symbols of birds and how that seems to bring Frederick back to life even if for an instant. His love of birds seemed to be something that was really ingrained in him. It makes sense that a bird would awaken him, even if it wasn’t the picture Werner kept for him.

ANNA: I didn’t know what to think of his mother at first, but she turned out not to be so bad. She truly seemed to care about him, especially when she gets the picture of the birds Werner had meant to send him all those years ago. I thought it was telling that in the midst of getting Marie-Laure out of the house, amid his hunger and thirst, he saw the book of birds and pulled out a specific picture for Frederick. I know Werner felt guilty about what happened with Frederick, but he also was his friend first.

SERENA: I loved that he still thought of Frederick as a friend even though he was guilt-ridden about what happened. I was glad to see that the mother was not that high-society, stuck on connections, and not-caring mother that I thought she was.

I wonder if I would have just been satisfied with the scene where you see Marie-Laure and Etienne reunite and not all this decades later stuff.

ANNA: I don’t think the very last scene in 2014 was necessary, but I’m glad for the ones in 1974. I myself found some closure in learning what happened to Marie-Laure, Jutta, Volkheimer, and Frederick in the years after the war, what they had accomplished and learned. I think for some it is important to how those who survived moved on, whether they made something of themselves, etc.

Do you think the book was deserving of the Pulitzer Prize?

SERENA: As I didn’t read any of the other finalists, I can’t really say. I do think this is a good read and very well done. Is it my favorite in WWII historical fiction, probably not. Not to say that I didn’t find it engaging from start to finish.

ANNA: I agree. Without having read the other contenders, I do believe it is worthy. It is well written, complex, and seems well researched. I really liked it — I think it’s worthy of a 5-star rating — but it isn’t my most favorite novel set during that time.

We hope you enjoyed the book and our discussions as much as we did. Please feel free to answer the questions in the comments and continue the discussion by asking questions of your own. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

We’ve made a slight change in our readalong schedule for the rest of the year. We will announce the next readalong soon. Stay tuned!

WWII Reading Challenge 2017

wwii-2017

Happy New Year! Welcome to the WWII Reading Challenge for 2017.

This is a no-stress reading challenge. Feel free to set your own goal. Read fiction, nonfiction, poetry, children’s books, etc. Whatever strikes your fancy. These can be the years leading up to the war, during the war, or in the few years after the war.

Please link your reviews (blog, Amazon, GoodReads, wherever you post) below:

As a thank you for participating, we’ll host an end-of-challenge giveaway for those who read the most WWII-related books between Jan. 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2017. (Details coming later in the year!)

Pearl Harbor Remembrance

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Final Weeks: The Monuments Men Read-a-Long

Welcome to the final week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. For this discussion, we have read from Ch.29-end of the book.

Sorry for the delay.

At the same time Adolf Hitler was attempting to take over the western world, his armies were methodically seeking and hoarding the finest art treasures in Europe. The Fuehrer had begun cataloguing the art he planned to collect as well as the art he would destroy: “degenerate” works he despised.

In a race against time, behind enemy lines, often unarmed, a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Momuments Men, risked their lives scouring Europe to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture.

Focusing on the eleven-month period between D-Day and V-E Day, this fascinating account follows six Monuments Men and their impossible mission to save the world’s great art from the Nazis.

Here’s the read-a-long schedule:

Feel free to add your thoughts or questions.

Wow, for the last two sections, I’m again blown away by the modesty of these men and their accomplishments in the final years of WWII.  As the Nazis are running away with their tails between their legs, grabbing what they can, and destroying what they cannot take with them, the Monuments Men are pushing forward with their units to secure mines, castles, and holes in the earth to save precious art stolen not only from France but from personal collections.  The authors do an excellent job of giving not only the troop movements and the movements of the Nazis but also the more personal accounts of the Monuments Men, who are still struggling for supplies and support.

Even after finding the works of art, the men are pressured by deadlines beyond their control, as political leaders determine how to divide up the territories captured by the allied forces and the Soviets.  Rather than a week to take care of the art, George Stout finds that he has less than a few days.  Later the deadline is extended as the political powers squabbled about whether Austria’s territory was under the same deadline as Germany — a sense of confusion that Stout took full advantage of.

I am fascinated by these modest men and their accomplishments, and how they continued to praise one another.  Even when the war is over, there were still controversies…as people came out of the woodwork claiming to play roles in saving art or finding it.  Even the governments were involved in these controversies, which clearly has a lot to do with the legacy they wanted for their own people in the wake of the Nazi’s big loss.  Returning the work took six years after the end of the war, and there are still some pieces that are missing.

The existence of the death camps came to light as these men searched for art and the allied forces battled back against the Nazis.  It was interesting to see which of the Monuments Men decided to visit the camps and which did not, and what their respective reactions were and reasons were for seeing or not seeing the camps.  Beyond the destruction and looting of art, these men realized that the Nazi regime was even more destructive than they had imagined.

Some of the fun facts for me were that Lincoln Kirstein had written and published a book of poems, which unfortunately, my library system does not have and cannot be loaned through any of the other Maryland library branches, and George Stout had been a director of the Worcester Art Museum after WWII (1947), which is near my childhood home.

What were the most interesting parts for you?

What do you think? Feel free to respond to our discussion and/or post any questions you might have in the comments.

Come back in December, for a read-a-long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien for the Vietnam War.

Monuments Men Read-a-Long Update

We’ll be postponing the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long for week three’s discussion of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter and discuss both section 3 and 4 on Oct. 31.  Sorry for the delay.

If you are playing catch-up, here’s discussion 1 and discussion 2.

Discussions 3 and 4 will be held next Friday, Oct. 31, for Ch. 29-the end of the book.

See you next week!

Week 2: The Monuments Men Read-a-Long

Welcome to the 2nd week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. For this discussion, we have read through Chap. 28.

At the same time Adolf Hitler was attempting to take over the western world, his armies were methodically seeking and hoarding the finest art treasures in Europe. The Fuehrer had begun cataloguing the art he planned to collect as well as the art he would destroy: “degenerate” works he despised.

In a race against time, behind enemy lines, often unarmed, a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Momuments Men, risked their lives scouring Europe to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture.

Focusing on the eleven-month period between D-Day and V-E Day, this fascinating account follows six Monuments Men and their impossible mission to save the world’s great art from the Nazis.

Here’s the read-a-long schedule:

Sorry today’s discussion is a little behind, but here are my initial thoughts and Anna will chime in later in the comments.  Feel free to add your thoughts or questions.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on section one of the read-a-long, and we look forward to the next section: Chap. 29-42.  We’ll post the next discussion on Friday, Oct. 24.

I’m curious to hear what other readers think about the Monuments men and if anyone has a favorite.  I really like Stout because he seems to make things happen, even if he has to think outside the box a lot, and I really like Rose Valland.  She’s enigmatic as well as unassuming, which made her a great spy for the French Resistance while France was occupied by Germany.  It got me thinking about whether someone else like her could have made it through the entire war without being caught and that maybe the fact that France is the hub of art and artists made it easier for her to survive the war right under the noses of the Nazis.  She recorded as much as she could about the art they took and where they took it, as well as the conversations she heard them have.  I cannot imagine stealing documents, copying them at home, and returning them to the Nazis with them none the wiser.

This section also had some photos, which made some of the pieces and people become more real for me, like the tapestry they talked about.  I had an idea what a tapestry from that period might look like, but the photo showed me it was much longer than I had imagined.  Does anyone else find that the pictures helped them visual the pieces of art and people?

One of my other favorite anecdotes in this section was the entanglement of The Raft of the Medusa being caught in the low-hanging wires of the streetcars in Versailles.  I could picture that vividly and how shocking that might have been to see, especially afterward when they had a truck escort and men with poles moving the wires out of the way as they continued on their journey.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on section two of the read-a-long, and we look forward to the next section: Chap. 29-42.  We’ll post the next discussion on Friday, Oct. 24.

Week 1: The Monuments Men Read-a-Long

Welcome to the first week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. For this discussion, we read from the beginning through Chapter 14.

At the same time Adolf Hitler was attempting to take over the western world, his armies were methodically seeking and hoarding the finest art treasures in Europe. The Fuehrer had begun cataloguing the art he planned to collect as well as the art he would destroy: “degenerate” works he despised.

In a race against time, behind enemy lines, often unarmed, a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Momuments Men, risked their lives scouring Europe to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture.

Focusing on the eleven-month period between D-Day and V-E Day, this fascinating account follows six Monuments Men and their impossible mission to save the world’s great art from the Nazis.

Here’s the read-a-long schedule:

  • Friday, Oct. 10: Chapters 1-14
  • Friday, Oct. 17: Chapters 15-28
  • Friday, Oct. 24: Chapters 29-42
  • Friday, October 31: Chapters 43-end

Sorry today’s discussion is a little behind, but here are my initial thoughts and Anna will chime in later in the comments.  Feel free to add your thoughts or questions.

What I found so interesting is how disorganized this mission was, even though art historians and other experts in the military thought it was a good idea to preserve the great art of the world in spite of the destructive nature of war.  Even though there were no supplies given to this group, they were able to improvise enough to get themselves to the locations they needed to get to and to mark special sites in a way that kept people from destroying them — such as using signs that the place was full of mines and to keep out, rather than signs stating they were protected works of art and history … signs that likely would have been ignored by soldiers.  They had not set chain of command and no procedures to follow, it was interesting to see how they remained organized and able to accomplish some of their goals in spite of that — possibly because they were in the military already and were disciplined.

Included in the beginning about the mission was another example of the Nazi’s meticulous nature, having sent ahead soldiers and others from Germany to these foreign countries to make lists of art and historically significant buildings and more ahead of the German movement to conquer the rest of Europe.  The fact that the Nazi party and Hitler changed laws to make their actions legal doesn’t surprise me, but it is different than what most dictators would have done — they simply would have reached out and taken what they wanted without bothering to change the laws.  Hitler often made it a condition of a nation’s surrender to hand over art works, which was also unique.  It was interesting to note that Hitler even thought himself entitled to art work that was not Aryan or made by those of superior birth.  But there seem to be these contradictions all the time with Hitler.

Was anyone else appalled that Hitler and his soldiers were using the guise of the Red Cross to go into churches and other places to steal art?!  I know that this is war and he had an agenda, but it was even more appalling to me that he would use an organization meant to help the injured and in need to carry out his thefts of art.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on section one of the read-a-long, and we look forward to the next section: Chap. 15-28.  We’ll post the next discussion on Friday, Oct. 17.

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