Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

I want to hold this book up over my head and wave it around as an example of some of the best type of travel writing, the kind that makes you feel like you are traveling but not having to add your sweaty body to the over-congested, over-touristed spots. Doerr writes beautifully, and I didn’t realize I’ve already read him, All the Light We Cannot See was the book he was ostensibly working on during his year in Rome, but he found it impossible to keep his eye on WW2 France research while he was immersed in the wonder and beauty and chaos of Rome. He, Shauna, and their twin sons (only months old) arrive and occupy an apartment near his writing studio space at the American Academy.

While the boys crawl and later walk, Doerr and Shauna learn Italian, figure out how to navigate the city, survive hearing the thunk of pedestrians killed by a 70-year-old American tourist driving a rental car close by their apartment. A neighbor, Laura, tells them that if it starts to snow, get themselves to the Pantheon immediately because watching snow float through the hole in the ceiling—the eye, the oculus—is one of the most beautiful things they’ll ever see in their life. They never actually see this, but Shauna wisely notes that sometimes the most beautiful things in your life are the ones that you don’t see, the idea of a thing. Thousands of years of building and thousands of years of graffiti; in Trajan’s column, “there is graffiti in there four times older than the United States.”

Though the exploration, Doerr writes, working on short stories. “A journal entry is for its writer; it helps its writer refine, perceive, and process the world. But a story—a finished piece of writing—is for its reader; it should help its reader refine, perceive, and process the world—the one particular world of the story, which is an invention, a dream. A writer manufactures a dream. And each draft should present a version of that dream that is more precisely rendered and more consistently sustained than the last. Every morning I try to remind myself to give unreservedly, to pore over everything, to test each sentence for fractures in the dream.”

All the Light We Cannot See

As much as I liked this book, I got nauseated by the yanking yin-yanging of the ending, the way that all of today’s crop of novels seem to hummingbird hover over the end point but seesaw back and forth, coating layers of frill and fuss and loose end tying. That said, it was otherwise a quickly digested read, although not sure worthy of Pulitzer Prize. The story follows a German boy who’s a whiz with radios and engineering and a blind French girl whose father builds locks for the Parisian Natural History museum, all during the lead up to and daily muck of WW2. Like all tidily told stories, these two disparate threads weave together both at the end and also much earlier, when Werner listens to Marie-Laure’s grandfather broadcasting from the French coast on a radio he assembled in the orphanage. Naturally, there’s a MacGuffin involved, a precious diamond sent from the Nat History museum under the care of Marie’s father, with three fakes also headed out into the world. A greedy yet deathly ill Nazi is desperate to find it, and Marie broadcasts a signal reading from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with gasps of “he’s downstairs, he’s going to kill me” that eventually get Werner trotting up to her doorstep for the rescue. Short punchy chapters (lots less than a page long) round out this painfully modern story.