Are You Not Entertained?

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I was. Here continues a monthly series featuring the music, the books, and the movies that occupied my time.  

MUSIC

Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos epitomized the Baroque period. Introduced to them twenty years ago, and despite my leaning toward the passionate Russian romantics, I learned to appreciate the symmetrical beauty of Bach’s piano works. In the 1950s and 60s, no one denied Glenn Gould the title of genius when performing them. A quirky man in a world of his own, humming on his own recordings, I highly recommend the unusual, artistic film of 32 vignettes by Director François Girard (The Red Violin) and Colm Feore starring as Gould.

And then, for a musical treat, I got a kick out watching an old television program which featured some fabulous icons–Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould, and Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky. You can watch Glenn Gould play around the 18:00-minute mark.

BOOKS 

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It’s been all about Steve McQueen in my house this past month. For the winter project, I’ve immersed myself in Marshall Terrill’s biography. As a cultural icon of the 1960s and 70s, I was reminded how free-flowing the sex, drugs, fast cars, and fashion mattered. McQueen loved it all and was an international star, commanding at his zenith almost a million dollars a film. In 1980, he died at the age of 50 of Mesothelioma from his days as a Marine, scraping asbestos off the walls of a ship. Did I like Steve McQueen after reading all about him? Not particularly, but he was cool to watch on the screen, and the biography was fast and fun, just like the man. 4/5.

MOVIES (TV)

st-vinyl-vol-1-front-cover_3000Stranger Things, the Netflix series starred a shrilled, hyperventilating Winona Rider, an ensemble of geeky pre-teens, stereotypical high schoolers, and two actors whose characters were interesting: Chief Hopper (David Harbour) and the fantastic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who reminded me of a young Natalie Portman. Nostalgic, dripping with Steven Spielberg tricks, it is my new guilty pleasure. 4/5

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Controversial director, Roman Polanski, has a gift for making beautiful films, and this political thriller is no exception. You may think you are on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, but not so. The sand dunes, bulbous gray clouds, and windy spray was located on the North Sea island of Sylt. The Ghost Writer matched style with substance. Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan lead a fine ensemble cast with enough twists and turns to keep you engaged. And that closing shot is one of the best I’ve seen in a while.   4/5.

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Quiz Show(1994). Directed by Robert Redford. Stars Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, and Paul Scofield. It’s funny. It’s smart. Based on true events, Ralph Fiennes plays Charlie Van Dorena WASP, a professor of literature, whose ivy-league-Brahmin-of-a-father has basked in fame and respect for decades and junior sets out to make a name for himself. Unfortunately, his moral dilemma piques the journalistic interest of a brilliant investigative reporter played by Rob Morrow. The acting is outstanding and Paul Attanasio‘s adapted screenplay is an English major’s dream. Who wouldn’t want to sit at the family picnic table with academian greats and listen to them recite Hawthorne and Shakespeare while munching on corn on the cob? Okay, well, I would. Robert Redford warns us of television’s manipulative power, run by executives, who will do anything for ratings. Sound familiar?  Mark Van Doren: Cheating on a quiz show? That’s sort of like plagiarizing a comic strip.”  4.5/5. 

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For the Love of Spock (2016). Even if you aren’t a Star Trek fan, I forgive you; everyone should watch this outstanding documentary for the cultural-historical relevance (breaking television boundaries with interracial mixing and science fiction influencing the leading scientists of today) and insight as to why Star Trek fans are a loyal bunch. On Netflix, it’s perfect entertainment during a work week evening when you are loafing on the couch with not much going on. Nimoy’s son chronicles his father’s life with balance and grace. I vividly remember as a girl lying on the floor in front of the TV mesmerized during all 79 episodes. Then came the movies. That’s a lot of emotional bonding and why creator Gene Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy are tops in my book. 4.5/5 

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The Innocents (2016). At first, I wondered if this was a remake of the 1961 Jack Clayton film with the same title starring Deborah Kerr during Victorian England. Looks great! However, this is not the case. This French film directed by Anna Fontaine is about a young French Red Cross doctor (Lou de Laâge) who is sent in 1945 Poland to assist the survivors of the German camps and discovers several nuns in advanced states of pregnancy during a visit to a nearby convent. It is a fantastic based-on-true-events effort by Fontaine.  My only criticism is the space between the doctor and the nuns. The nuns remain “others” and in spite of the intimacy of delivering baby after baby; the nuns remain foreign entities other than a couple of brief conversations. On the plus side, I thought it a good call in the script to avoid flashbacks of the rapes. 4/5.

 A Man Called Ove (2016) This Swedish gem directed by Hannes Holms and his screenplay adapted from Fredrik Backman‘s novel of the same name was a surprise treat. This dark comedy affected me to tears which I wasn’t expecting. The grumpy old man, Ove, (Rolf Lassgård) who can’t come to terms with his wife’s death, discovers there’s still meaning in life. He seems like the dull model of mediocrity, but his love story told through flashbacks about his beautiful wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) provides depth and surprises. The grumpy old man stereotype turns into a complex character when the people in his present like the Middle Eastern young wife (Bahar Pars) who helps him realize that life has a purpose even when you think you’re done with it. Touching and beautiful. 4.5/5.

 

Are You Not Entertained?

Here continues a monthly series featuring the music, the books, and the movies that occupied my time.  

MUSIC

For anyone who likes 60s Rock and Roll music and music history in general, check out the 2008 documentary, The Wrecking Crew.  On Netflix,  it is easy to be absorbed with a unique story about the Los Angeles entourage of approximately fifteen session musicians who made groups and singers like The Mama and the Papas, Elvis, and The Beach Boys sound great. Their names didn’t make it on the album, but for fifteen-odd years, they played on hundreds of albums and created the iconic sounds we take for granted today. 4.5/5.

BOOKS 

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Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride

What does Margaret do best? She creates a cast of characters, rich with dimension, and stages each with a different perspective about the world around them. First published in 1993, Atwood adapts the Brothers Grimm story, “The Robber Bridegroom.” Three friends are connected by Zenia, who rises to monstrous proportions and wreaks havoc on their lives. My favorite character is Tony, a professor of military history who sees the world via tactical advances and retreats. Tony plays word games by spelling them backward and noticing the how the spin transforms the word into a new connotation thus expanding her vocabulary in an atypical way. This is a clever example of how Atwood drapes details around her characters to breathe originality into her creations. If you appreciate character-driven stories, you’d like this one. 4/5.

MOVIES

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After watching director David Mackenzie’s efforts in Hell or High Water (2016), I want to see his British prison film, Starred Up (2013)Taylor Sheridan has an authentic, dialogue-rich script on his hands. As regionalist American writer William Faulkner was famous for revealing the death and disillusionment of the deep south in the early twentieth century, Sheridan and Mackenzie paint a gloomy, desperate rural Texas. Add the outstanding acting by Ben Foster and Chris Pine, brothers who are a believable team, and Jeff Bridges who reprises his guttural mutterings from True Grit to play the smart, irascible Texas Ranger, Marcus. His friendship with his Mestizo partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is endearing. 4.5/5

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople(2016). The first third of the film was great. However, as the plot devolved into the ridiculous, I wondered what I was watching. Was it made for a young adult audience? The over-the-top she-cop (Rima Te Wiatta) made sense then. Was it a dark comedy for adults along the lines of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom? The violence of the animal hacking and skinning and the themes of death and hopelessness made sense then. Sam Neill performed well as the hairy, grieving misanthrope and Ricky (Julian Dennison) was at times annoying to watch with alternating moments of flatness and sincerity. The lush New Zealand landscape was a plus. 3.5/5. 

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Dr. Strange (2016). I’ve read a lot of varying reviews regarding this new addition to the Marvel galaxy. Benedict Cumberbatch, who did his best to sound just like Harrison Ford, becomes the protegee under the marvelous sorceress, Tilda Swinton. I enjoyed the relationship between Stephen and Christine (Rachel McAdams), and appreciated the new spin on Inception/The Matrix borrowings of dimensional shifting and appearance vs. reality. The time-moving-backward scene was brilliant. I was less enamored with the talk and the trap of the golem. I loved the red cape that functioned as a cool suit of armor. Overall, it worked for me. 4/5.

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Congratulations, Viggo Mortensen, on another great performance. Wouldn’t it be cool if your brilliant parents hid you out in the middle of the woods, gave you lots of siblings, and you all grew up in harmony as a cult of the Übermensch? Captain Fantastic is a heartwarming tale that satirizes everything wrong with modern society. In the end, the individual vs. society argument ends with a compromise. The freak must conform to find happiness. The conformist must break free of materialism and live pro-actively. Far-leftists and homeschooling parents will love Captain Fantastic. Survivalists and naturalists will love Captain Fantastic. There is a lot to think about with this dark comedy. Let’s all turn off the television and pick up a book. I’ll start with Chomsky. 4.5/5  

mv5bmtyxmjk0ndg4ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwodcynja5ote-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_ Manchester by the Sea (2016)Yes, I agree with everyone that Casey Affleck gave an outstanding performance as the passive-aggressive janitor Lee Chandler. He wasn’t the only one. His ex-wife Randi played by Michelle Williams was outstanding.  Lucas Hedges played the tossed around nephew, Patrick, yet he annoyed the heck out of me. Many people know Matt Damon produced the film and indeed, writer and director Kenneth Lonergan, created a realistic, Bostonian culture with all the profanity that you’d expect. When the reason for Lee Chandler’s despair was exposed, I wept all over my buttered-popcorn stained napkin. I am not suggesting there should have been a happy ending, but I hoped for some type of resolution or redemption. Instead, this is a tale of a man who is lost and finds no solution to his guilt. It’s one of the more depressing films I’ve seen in ages. 4/5.  

The Wrong Man(1956) This American docudrama film directed by Alfred Hitchcock starred Henry Fonda as Manny, a poor musician from New York, who is in love with his wife Rose and his two sons. He is a sincere man, who cooperates with detectives who claim he has held up various stores and an insurance company. His wife, Rose (Vera Miles), cannot handle the scandal and upheaval of her life. Bernard Herrmann‘s score is a chisel to the brain. Hitchcock includes ingenious camera angles like the simulation of Manny’s panic in his cell by shaking the camera in a circle or the appearance of the real thief transposed over Fonda’s face. I expected something more from Fonda who felt wooden to me. Did you think it was suspenseful? 3.5/5.

 

Are You Not Entertained?

How many times a day do you seek to be entertained? It is elusive. It is dangerous. The rush of stimulus bombards us. The mob mentality of pop culture is easily distracting and much is nonsense. Yet, I love music and books and movies and have no intention of stopping my search for fine entertainment. Here continues a monthly series of the entertainment that has occupied my time, for better or worse.

MUSIC 

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Former member Don Felder, who complained about his place in the hierarchy as an Eagle, including this documentary from 2013 in which he co-starred, was a constant thorn in the side of Glenn Frey, but that’s only one element of the long, complicated marriage, divorce, and reconciliation of the 1970s band, The Eagles, explained by everyone in the band. The birth of classic rock stations erupted to carry their songs forward after The Eagles disbanded in 1980, and when they reunited in 1994 for their Hell Freezes Over tour, fans were ecstatic. Even if you don’t care for their harmonies or musicianship (Really?), I find it hard to think about the 1970s without them. In the 1980s, Glenn Frey and Don Henley pursued single careers, but I respect their work more as group members of The Eagles whose success and influence in the history of Rock and Roll are undeniable. We’ve all heard “Hotel California” probably 300 times, but when I’m alone in my car with the windows down, and the sun is thinking about setting, the guitar harmonies of Joe Walsh and Felder still resonate and transport me back to the pleasure and pain of younger days. I highly recommend it for those who know little about them, forgot a little, or have loved them for decades. RIP Glenn. What a collection of beloved celebrities who have passed in 2016!  5/5.

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As an American history buff, I love social history, so what could be more fun than looking at our great-grandparents values and feelings through the lens of music? Therefore, The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music captured my imagination. Many are aware that Rock and Roll has been heavily influenced by Gospel and Country, which fused the chords and set the seeds to influence future giants like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and a host of British invaders who appreciated the musicianship and heartfelt songs. I can’t say I’m a big country music fan, but I respect its place, its singers, and I admire the pluck of “Big Daddy” Brinkley who created a national audience from a “border town of Del Rio, Texas, (and) set up a new radio station across the river in Mexico. With 500 kilowatts of broadcasting power, XERA was ten times as powerful as the biggest American stations, which were forced to live within the federal ceiling of 50 kilowatts. Its signal easily reached all forty-eight states, not to mention much of Canada, and within a few years spawned a slew of copycat border stations.” Read more about the Carter Family and XERA found here:  PBS.ORG, THE CARTER FAMILY

Or, rent and watch Beth Harrington‘s 2014 informative documentary.  4/5. 

Speaking of Documentaries…

People criticize the attention and profits made by the discovery of photographer, Vivian Maier. The questions raised in the 2014 documentary Finding Vivian Maier cannot compete with the woman and her captivating photography. There is a mystery surrounding this nanny-recluse who played a life-long game as a secret observer of people and treasure hoarder. When she died in 2009, obscure and alone in Chicago, director John Maloof and Charlie Siskel pulled the threads and discovered an amazing story about this 20th Century version of Emily Dickinson. Both were shy, atypical, prolific artists caught in the moment of creating poems and pictures than selling themselves. Posthumously, their art soared in popularity. In Vivian’s case, right or wrong, her work is admired around the world. It’s the complexity of Vivian that makes the documentary compelling. I disliked the directors filming themselves in the narrative. Their inclusion was offputting. The people who employed her and the children she nannied have warm as well as alarming stories that create a haunting portrayal of a very talented woman who was fiercely independent and bizarre. Would she mind the hoopla surrounding her work? She lives through her work as a ghost, garnering admiration without intimacy, and somehow I think she would like that.  4.5/5 

Check out her photography at http://www.vivianmaier.com

BOOKS 

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David McCullough‘s easy style is graceful, well-researched, and entertaining. He’s my go-to historian regarding all things U.S. History. The Wright Brothers(2015) continues Professor McCullough’s elite reputation for portraying the human side of famous Americans. Orville and Wilbur are two boys from Ohio who are armchair scholars and possessed a drive to achieve flight. Their family helped shape them. Their father was a minister and their sister a Latin teacher. They shared the same house, and they shared the trait of inquisitiveness. All were all productive and supportive. It’s the Wright Brothers who attain the fame and the patents. Their trials at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, surviving mosquito swarms, and wind storms while they practiced their contraptions was my favorite section. Once they flew, you would think the story was over. But their involvement with the French and the U.S. military adds depth to their plane story as it gave flight to the First World War. 4/5

TELEVISION 

Game of Thrones Seasons 1 – 4. 

(Spoilers) Now here’s  a guilty pleasure. I love the cinematography and the developed characters. I love the Magical Realism. Yay for Giants and three-eyed crows. Was I glad when Joffrey died? You bet. Was I troubled when Khaleesi frees the slaves only to chain up her dragons? Yep. Was I sad John Snow’s red-headed wildling died in battle? Yes!  If I had a broadsword would I stab Ramsey Bolton for torturing Theon? In a second. I will miss The Hound. Which character would I be in the series?  Gwendoline Christy’s Brienne of Tarth. I love everything about her.  Obviously, I’m hooked with the Medieval soap-opera which must find room to show a bum and boob in every episode. Thankfully, they have also included chunks of dialogue to develop the characters (i.e., brothers Jaime & Tyrion in the cell, bonding over the simpleton who beat the beetles). They all have good qualities and disgusting qualities which make them very human. Tyrion is an original character you don’t often get to see on television. His smarts and kindness and retribution are very interesting to watch. What’s there not to like? Probably the violence. And if you have something against boobs and buns. However, it’s more than a junior high video game. It’s wonderfully done with characters I care about and root for. Now on to season 5. Don’t tell me what happens. 4.5/5  

Beryl Markham (1902-1986)

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Getting to know British pioneer aviator, Beryl Markham, came about in a roundabout way. The first instance came this summer when I was attracted to the cover and bought a copy of Paula McLain’s 2016 best seller, Circling the Sun. Blending fact with fiction, her prose aroused the stunning setting of 1920s Kenya with authenticity.

Do you recommend 'The Paris Wife'?
Do you recommend ‘The Paris Wife’?

As I read the novel, I vaguely remembered it was based on a true person. About half way through the story, the life of Beryl Markham began to feel like an epic romance novel, something from Margaret Mitchell’s imagination, the heroine’s life too outlandish to believe. The ingredients included the British Royalty, Kenyan tribes, eccentric personalities and their parties, horse breeders, big game hunting, love triangles, Beryl’s swinging passions between horses, men, and aviation. Include other associations such as coffee-plantation owner Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke whose memoir Out of Africa(1937) inspired me long ago. It followed with the film adaptation in 1985 starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford–still one of the best films of that decade. After reading Circling the Sun, I itched to read Beryl Markham’s memoir; a colleague passed along her copy to me three years ago. West with the Night was one of those books I knew I needed to read, but it collected dust on my bookshelf instead.

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West with the Night, published in 1942 did not do well at first publication. Thanks in part to Ernest Hemingway, his praise for her writing precipitated the second publication forty years later with success. She was four when her family moved to Kenya from Britain. Raised by her father, she learned to ride and train horses and became the first licensed female to train horses in Kenya. In the 1920s, her relationship with the dashing Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford’s character in Out of the Africa) inspired her into aviation. In 1936, she became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east (Abingdon, England) to west (Nova Scotia).

Over the years, critics have raised doubts whether her beautiful prose was an original effort or perhaps shaped in part with her third husband, Raoul Schumacher. Regardless of the controversy, I’d like to think the descriptions and tales of Africa–the animals, the horses, and the people, like her wise childhood friend, Kibbi were expressed by her. Here is a hefty sentence, a sampling of her writing from West with the Night (160):

The shores of its lake are rich in silence, lonely with it, but the monotonous flats of sand and mud that circle the shallow water are relieved of dullness, not by only an occasional bird or flock of birds or by a hundred birds; as long as the day lasts Nakuru is no lake at all, but a crucible of pink and crimson fire–each of its flames, its million flames, struck from the wings of a flamingo. 

I remember in the film Out of Africa, the birds played a symbolic role romanticizing the beauty of Kenya. In Paula McClain’s novel, she includes this scene of flamingos, and the imagery stands out. I recommend all of it: Paula McClain’s Circling the Sun; Beryl Merkham’s West with the Night; Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you watch the film version. These leading women were fierce individualists and trailblazers.

Here’s an interesting article with Paula McClain about Circling the Sun. You can read it  HERE.

One of my favorite scenes from the film Out of Africa. It’s no wonder Beryl loved to fly. Ahh, that score by John Barry!

The Influence of Biographies

When I was a girl, I tagged along with mother to the library, and she would always check out two books of fiction and a biography. The yard sale pick up, the gift, and the loaner filled her bookshelves. When I was bored, I’d choose one and either discard or devour them depending on my age and mood. At college, I enjoyed reading those prologues in the anthologies about historical figures or literary greats in the canon and the non-traditional voices that bumped some out.

Snippets of other lives, the incongruous details of the famous and not-so, these strangers have fastened themselves like hundreds of post-its on my inner wall. Wisdom. Lessons learned. Questions left unanswered. A tragic insight. A horrifying detail. My ghosts follow me around during the day and whisper to me when I’m half asleep. Their mistakes, hardships, and triumphs keep me company for better or worse.

Michelangelo grumbled into his late 80s with arthritis. He was in constant pain and begged God to take him, but while he waited, he wrote sonnets about love and death that still ring true. When I creak and moan with stiffness, when I feel solemn and serious, when I’m creating characters, I think of him and remember what he said:  I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

Dorothy Parker was an accomplished drinker with a sarcastic mouth. She’s my 1920s soul-sister who sat at the Algonquin Round Table along with other American literary critics, actors, and writers. She walked right into a job at the burgeoning New Yorker  as a critic and writer. Her barbed tongue and clever witticisms give the insights of a wise, older sister.  I’ll be the way I was when I first met him. Then maybe he’ll like me again. I was always sweet, at first. Oh, it’s so easy to be sweet to people before you love them.

Benjamin Franklin was efficient. He’d tweak the hours of his day and followed a routine to satisfy all the aspects of his personality. A big fan of industry and self-motivation, he has influenced me more than any other historical figure. Quirky and ahead of the curve, there’s an epigram for almost every life situation. I drift and forget. His nuggets of wisdom realign my attitudes:

Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight. 

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

When in doubt, don’t.

God helps those who help themselves.

Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship.

Here are few recent reads I’ve liked:

Which people have haunted you because you’ve read a biography or their autobiography? 

Read This: All the Light We Cannot See

2015 Pulitzer Winner for Fiction
2015 Pulitzer Winner for Fiction

When I was in the Navy, “Radiomen” who sat in the transmitter room dialed up frequencies, turned the knobs, listened to the static, and locked in. Those out at the Receiver Tower caught the signals from the ships; sender and receiver linked, and the messages were sent.

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On a similar level, that’s what this remarkable historical novel is about–two youths, the transmitter, blind and aware Marie-Laure LeBlanc, who delicately probes her world with a fearless, quiet grace, and the receiver, Werner Pfenning, indoctrinated in the Nazi Youth Program, lost and crippled as he blindly receives the signals surrounding him. Anthony Doerr’s descriptive prose and poetic language carries the reader through the tumultuous years in France when the world was glued to the radio while World War II stripped away families and hope.

It is an easy read and entertaining novel with supporting characters that resonate. I haven’t loved a book in a long time, but this story, I can’t help but think anyone would like it.  However, I was surprised to read a NY Times book review from May 8, 2014 written by William t. Vollmann found HERE and his negative criticism of Doerr’s antagonist, Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, insinuating he was a cliche, too one-sided to be believed and that Doerr’s writing was lazy at times. I disagree.

When the two children finally meet, the sender and receiver connect, and the ending is satisfying. This is a Pulitzer winner I can cling to with enthusiasm. It is only a matter of time before it is made into a film. What child star could play the heroine Marie-Laure with the care that Anthony Doerr lovingly created in words?

Describing the science behind radios, gemology, and the animal kingdom with clarity and ease, this historical fiction novel is a mesmerizing page turner. 10/10. 

“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever” (48).

The Shell Collector, Four Seasons in Rome, and About Grace are Doerr’s three earlier novels. I am in a rush to read them. Is there one you recommend? What did you like about All The Light We Cannot See? 

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