Friday, April 29, 2016

Steamed Clams Inspired by Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See

We live in a world where many people live their lives following the same basic pattern: Go to school, go to college, get a job, maybe get married, hopefully don’t get divorced, work for most of your remaining life, then retire when you’re old and too tired to do all of the things you used to think you were going to do.

This pattern has always seemed a bit odd to me. Because it’s not right, is it? Living your life in a way where you’re not really living it at all.

That’s why the All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr stood out to me so much. It caught me with a single theme that can be summed up in this one quote:

"Don't you want to be alive before you die?"

Marie-Laure’s father works in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. It’s a magnificent place, filled with rare and beautiful treasures. This Marie-Laure knows, though she cannot see them. Struck blind at the age of six, she has learned to see the world without the use of her eyes.

At 12 years of age, the Nazis invade Paris and she runs with her father to Saint-Malo, a beautiful town by the sea, where her reclusive great uncle takes them in. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most precious jewel: The Sea of Flames, a gem said to bring curses on whoever possesses it.

Werner, an orphaned German boy, grows up with a love for radios, fascinated by how unseeable wavelengths can fly through to air to share news and music and education. He becomes talented at the operation and construction of these radios, a skill that takes him away from his sister Jutta and into the folds of the Hitler Youth. There, he is assigned to use radios to hunt down those that resist Germany, a task he had once thought honorable but now begins to question. Tortured by the idea that his intelligence is being used to kill numerous people but unable to find a way out, Werner soon finds himself hunting down a resistance in Saint-Malo.

Here, the lives of these two connect: a blind French girl courageous enough to join the resistance and a conflicted German boy struggling to discover how to live before he dies.

The writing was gorgeous, the characters inspiring, the story intriguing, but that’s not why I liked it. I liked it because it made me stop and think, particularly these two quotes, which were reiterated throughout the entire book:

"Don't you want to be alive before you die?"

"A scientist's work is determined by two things: his interests and those of his time."

As I mentioned before, I’ve always been bothered by the zombie-like pattern of this world. Nobody really knows why they follow this pattern or stop to think where this pattern will take them. But is that right?

Should we really let our work be determined by the "interests of our time"? Shouldn't we strive to be alive before we die, to do something that matters? Sure, it's scary, and hard to find our own way, but it’s important to try. As the book puts it, "All your life you wait, and then it finally comes, and are you ready?" Will we be ready to be alive before we die? I hope so.

One of my favorite scenes is where Marie-Laure gets to go down to the sea. She’d never been there before, partly because she was afraid to, and partly because other people were afraid to let her. At first, she is scared to death, but this disappears when she gets down to the beach and hears and feels all of the beauty about her. This is her turning point, the point where she decides to let go of her fear and bitterness and instead be alive.

Because Marie-Laure grows to love the beach and starts collecting all sorts of shells, I thought making steamed clams would be a fitting recipe for this book of the month.
Making a clam dish has always looked really fun to me, but I never did it because I thought it was too complicated. But I decided to face my fears and be alive before….Okay, I’m kidding. That’s not what the book was talking about. Still, it was a fun experience. As it turns out, steamed clams are ridiculously easy to make.

Ingredients –
  •  2 pounds of steamer clams. I got the frozen kind from Trader Joe's. Yeah, very classy. As it turns out, Trader Joe's puts sauce on their frozen steamer clams, so I had to rinse that part off.
  • 1 cup vegetable broth. 
  • Juice from half of a lemon
  • 1 to 2 shallots
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 3 tablespoons of butter. I use cultured butter to make up for the frozen clams. I imagine one uncultured ingredient and one cultured ingredient cancel each other out, right? What, you're saying that's not what "cultured butter" means? *scratches head* That's confusing.
  • Parsley
  • French bread for serving (optional, but recommended)
Directions - 

1.  Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Slice your shallots and throw in the saucepan along with the two cloves of garlic, crushed. Sauté until the shallots become translucent. At this point, your kitchen will smell glorious.
2. Add the vegetable broth and lemon juice. Add your clams, stir briefly. Lower your heat to medium, then cover.
3. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, shaking the pan every once in a while. I know it's hard, but try not to peek. At the 8 minute point, check to see if the claims have opened. If so, turn off the heat and add the handful of parsley. Stir briefly, then serve.
4. The broth tastes awesome, so you might want to have some kind of bread to sop it up with.

This dish takes about 15 minutes to make and requires absolutely no skill. On top of that, it tastes really, really good. Seriously. Try it.

I think the best way to enjoy this dish is to eat it while curled up with All the Light We Cannot See, preferably with the French baguette. It'll make you feel more French, oui?
There was one passage at the end of this book that really stuck out to me. When Werner and Marie-Laure meet, he tells her that she is very brave. Her response (with an ellipses to cut out a spoiler):

"When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave.....But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don't you do the same?"

Bravery and living, truly living, are entwined into one. They are the same thing. By daring to be alive, we are brave. And by being brave, we are able to be alive.

That's a neat thought to me. All the Light We Cannot See had a lot of neat thoughts, but that was one of my favorites because it reminded me always strive to "wake up and live my life." Don't you want to do the same?

I highly recommend this book. It's a beautiful story that raises a lot of questions: Werner's fight to find what "the right thing" is and how to do it. Marie-Laure's determination to see the world in spite of her fear. It's a beautiful story of strength, resilience, love, and the struggle to discover what's right. 

Have you read All the Light We Cannot See? What are you favorite quotes or themes? If you haven't read it, go get yourself a copy. Then come back and tell me what you thought of it. I'd love to hear from you!

Related articles: 
Rosa Hubermann's Pea Soup Inspired by The Book Thief 
Paleo Chocolate Pie Inspired by Kathryn Stockett's The Help 
In Which I Make Mini Cottleston Pies Inspired by A.A. Milne's The World of Pooh 

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  1. I read & enjoyed it. I thought Marie-Laure was a truly memorable character. I think that most people, particularly as they grow old, begin to find patterns comforting. I know I do, lol :) Adulthood - and everything it entails - is by definition hectic, and routine is what provides a much needed counterbalance. Of course, not everyone is the same... We should come back to this topic in some 15 years, lol :) Great post, Hannah! <3

    1. Routine is definitely something I enjoy. I have chai tea and read a book every morning. =) Healthy patterns are...well, healthy. I also think it's good to get out there and shake things up when we see things that need fixing.

  2. Hannah, this is THE *perfect* post and recipe to share with my book club as we get ready to discuss Doerr's tale. Many thanks!

    1. Yay! That is so awesome. I hope your club went/goes well! Sounds like a lot of fun.


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