Thunder Dog – by Michael Hingson (2011)

Thunder Dog

Michael Hingson has been blind since birth, but that hasn’t keep him from doing most things. As a child, he explored the neighborhood and even rode a bike down the street. Although the school system recommended specialized education, he attended regular schools all the way from kindergarten through high school. Michael learned Braille, used a white cane, and had a seeing-eye dog, but did not consider himself to be handicapped. He attended college, married, and got a job on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center in the north tower.

Michael and his guide dog Roselle were in the office on September 11, 2001 when terrorists flew airplanes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers. With the building on fire and ready to collapse, Michael and Roselle headed for the stairwell, along with hundreds of others. The book toggles back and forth between escaping the burning building, and describing Michael’s unusual childhood.

I enjoyed reading about Michael’s childhood. I admired his parents for refusing to let their son feel any different from the other kids. Their attitude rubbed off on Michael, and he was able to find ways to do things without having sight. The book also showed how invaluable guide dogs are in helping those who are blind live a normal life. The story of the terrorist attack on September 11th is a sad one, but Michael and Roselle’s story brings light to a dark day.

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All The Light We Cannot See – by Anthony Doerr (2014)

All The Light We Cannot See

I waited a long time to get a copy of this novel at my local library. It seemed that everyone and his brother was trying to read it. After all, it had been on the New York Times best-sellers list for over a year, and had won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction as well as the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence In Fiction.

The story spans from 1934 to 1974, following the lives of Werner and Marie-Laure from childhood to adulthood. Marie-Laure is the only child of a widowed master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She becomes blind at a young age, and her father builds her a model of their French village so that she can “see” it with her fingers. She learns to maneuver around town because she has memorized everything from the model.

Werner is a poor German boy being raised, along with his sister, in a charity house. He has a brilliant mind, and teaches himself all about radio technology. At 16 he is forced to join the Hitler Youth. When his superiors find out how great he is at understanding and repairing radios, they put him in a special unit that seeks out and confiscates them. It is supposed to be an honor to be in this special division, but he and his bunk-mate Frederick dislike the increasing brutality they see. There seems to be no way to get out; they are reluctant participants in a war neither one of them wants to be in.

The book oscillates back and forth from Marie-Laure to Werner, and back again. Each one has a part to play in the war, but they are on opposite sides. They are enemies, yet when they finally meet (more than 400 pages into the book) they are not enemies.

“All The Light We Cannot See” is a well-written story with a minimal amount of wartime horror spelled out. Still, it conveys the fear and uncertainty and darkness that most people felt during that time in history. Even those who survived physically carried the emotional scars the rest of their lives.

 
Excerpt #1:

(Part of a conversation when Werner and Frederick are on leave from training camp)

“Do you ever wish,” whispers Werner, “that you didn’t have to go back?”

“Father needs me to be at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”

A stillness in the room. Out there in the trees beyond Frederick’s window hangs an alien light.

“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.”

 
Excerpt #2:

It was hard to live through the early 1940s in France and not have the war be the center from which the rest of your life spiraled. Marie-Laure still cannot wear shoes that are too large, or smell a boiled turnip, without experiencing revulsion. Neither can she listen to lists of names. Soccer team rosters, citations at the end of journals, introductions at faculty meetings – always they seem to her some vestige of the prison lists that never contained her father’s name.

Scattered Shadows – by John Howard Griffin (2004)

Scattered Shadows

John Griffin kept a journal for many years. It went far beyond the journals of most people. He wrote of Gregorian chants, his struggle with believing in God, his joy in seeing ordinary objects, monastic life, medieval music, Catholicism, and confession of sins. The keeping of a journal was a deeply personal thing for him, and was not originally written to be read by others. John died in 1980, and his wife Elizabeth held his journals. She later married Robert Bonnazi. When Elizabeth passed away in 2000, the literary rights of John Griffin passed on to Robert. He went through John’s lengthy journals, selected some of them, and published them as “Scattered Shadows”.

The book began with John on Morotai Island in the South Pacific during World War II. The year was 1945, when he was injured in a bomb attack,and began to lose his vision. After being discharged from the military, he went to France and lived in a monastery. When his eyesight was gone, he returned to the United States to lived with his parents. There he learned to function without vision. John fell in love and married Elizabeth, one of his mother’s piano students. Together they started a family. In addition to the blindness, John spent a year with severe back pain and paralysis in his legs from an unusual strain of malaria he had been exposed to during the war. But through all his physical problems, John refused to give up or be treated as a handicapped person.

The most inspiring parts of the book were the chapters where John appreciates his last days of vision, his description of what life was like immediately after he became blind, learning how to move around without getting lost or crashing into things, and finally being totally shocked by his returning vision.

However, Mr. Bonnazi did a great disrespect to John by publishing some of the entries from his journals. There was just too much of the book that was private introspection. It would have been better to leave it as such. There were also parts that veered too far from the main point of the book. The book bogged down in many places. I would have enjoyed the book far more if it was half as long, and stuck to the main story line. However, I am glad to have read it, as it gave me a better understanding of the man who would later disguise himself as a black man, and go on to write “Black Like Me”.

The Day Of The Triffids – by John Wyndham (1951)

Triffids_Pair

 

In this classic science fiction novel, triffids are plants that have been bio-engineered to produce a high-quality oil extract. They give off a poison, however, and have to be handled carefully. Catastrophe strikes when their spores are released into the atmosphere in what looks like a beautiful meteorite shower. Every human who sees it is left permanently blind. To make matters worse, the triffids have somehow learned how to walk!

The main characters are Bill Masen, a biologist who used to work with the plants, and Josella, a popular writer. The two of them are among the fortunate who did not see the triffid shower, and therefore still have their vision. They have to provide for themselves and the blind around them, while fending off the increasingly-aggressive triffids.

The story actually fits with today. We live in a world where science is constantly looking to alter nature. Animals are bred for specific traits. Our vegetables and fruits are genetically modified to produce higher yields. Chemical fertilizers are mixed into the soil to enrich it. New types of flowers are developed. Genes are spliced. Animals are cloned. When you consider all this, the idea of the triffids is not all that far-fetched.

This was a fun read for me. It was ridiculous and horrifying at the same time, much like a crazy dream that wakes you up with a pounding heartbeat. There was nothing very gory or graphic in the story, which was fine with me, as I have a very good imagination. I also liked the way the author focused on just a few characters, which kept the storyline simple and clean. If you’re in the mood for some old-fashioned sci-fi, this is your book!