About Grace, by Anthony Doerr

about grace

By a strange coincidence, I stumbled on another story with a protagonist whose dreams interact with our waking world. Unlike in The Lathe of Heaven, David Winkler’s dreams do not change the world, but they sometimes predict with uncanny accuracy what will happen.

It’s a heavy burden: to see unfolding before you the events you alone know are leading to tragedy, unable to convince others. Only his mother believed him, after an incident when he was a young child. He dreams of meeting a woman—the woman, as Sherlock Holmes would say—in the grocery store and when he does, pursues Sandy despite her wedding ring.

He does win her, but when later he dreams that he accidently drowns their infant daughter Grace, he is unable to persuade her of the looming danger. The only way he can think of to prevent that tragedy is to run away from both of them. Landing in St. Vincent with no means to support himself, he is eventually adopted by a local family.

Winkler is more sensitive than most people. Isolated since his mother’s death, struggling with social norms, he makes strangely self-destructive decisions. These put him in challenging and life-threatening situations, whether it’s starving on a Caribbean beach, lost in a desert without his glasses, or suffering through a bitterly cold winter in the northern Yukon with only a wood stove for heat.

There he again takes up his study of snowflakes, abandoned when he ran off with Sandy. Water in all its forms is a recurring character in this book. “We live in the beds of ancient oceans.” Doerr brilliantly integrates the science into the story so that it doesn’t stand out.

I had spent a long time dissecting Doerr’s incredible second novel All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Like Winkler incredulous at the intricacy of a single snowflake, I looked at a single page of that book, a single paragraph, a single sentence. I was in awe of the brilliance of the overall structure and of each atomic fragment.

While the language here is equally gorgeous and has moments of transcendence, especially when describing nature’s power and beauty, this first novel of Doerr’s does not quite hang together for me. The jolting movements between the phases of Winkler’s life left me gasping for air; the mentally and physically punishing stretches made me want to skip ahead; and most of the major characters did not fully come to life for me.

This could be because I was reading the book during a stressful time. The great teacher/writer/agent Donald Maass asks us writers to consider if our protagonist is someone readers will want to spend a substantial amount of time with. Ultimately, for me at least, Winkler was not interesting enough to engage me for the days it took to read this book.

Yet I loved the role of nature in all its majesty. I loved the poetry of the writing. I loved the liminal space between opposites: heat and cold, love and hate, conflict and reconciliation. I loved the ending.

Have you read a novel where you loved the ending?

Passing: Poems, by Eloise Klein Healy

passing

I’ve been meaning to read Healy’s poetry for some time and was happy to find this 2002 collection. Unlike Nella Larsen’s novel, passing here has no racial connotations. Instead, as indicated in the title poem, “These are the days that must happen / to you, Mr. Whitman says.”

The passing days embodied in these poems are ones that happen to many of us: the loss of a father, a friend’s breast cancer. And even if the experiences are unfamiliar—such as when she writes about the impact of her coming out: the end of her marriage, the changes in other relationships—the emotions are all too recognisable.

Her elegies for the friends who have died too soon of AIDS or other causes are particularly moving. She finds just the right balance of praise, grief, beauty, and occasionally humor. Sometimes it’s an image that surprises me into grief, such as in “Postcard” the sudden vision of “a room in which the chair of an artist / painted by another artist sits empty” reminding me of all the grief and loss around the relationship between Van Gogh and Gauguin. Sometimes it’s a particular memory, such as in “Louganis” the way people turned on the beautiful and celebrated diver when he contracted AIDS.

One of my friends gets wrought up about poems where, if you remove the line breaks, read like prose. Lovely prose, perhaps, but prose nonetheless. It’s a danger when you employ a conversational style. There are a few like that here, sometimes redeemed by a gorgeous or startling image at the end. Curiously, these are mostly ones about hackneyed or sentimental themes: a sunset on the beach, a spiritual experience. It makes sense to choose a more prosaic style for these to undercut any tendency toward grandiosity.

There are many more pieces that do work beautifully as poems, making me go back and forth trying to pinpoint why they work and not the others. What I found were the usual suspects: compression, fresh imagery, word choice, gaps we must leap over. Sometimes repetition. Sometimes the spacing lends a weight to the words that they would not have if run together like prose, making us stop and pay attention in a different way.

And I found one of the things I love best in a poem: a gradual unfolding, as though a flower opens petal by petal to reveal its heart. Such is the poem that is my favorite, partly because it speaks so intimately to me. The title is a line from Rilke’s “The Torso of Apollo”, one that has dominated much of my life. It sent me on a year-long journey during which I wrote the poems in my own first collection. And, well, trees. Here is the beginning of “You Must Change Your Life”:

The stories say your animal will tell you
what you must do.
The tale from Nicaragua adds this—
that life in the city is cleansed of the animal
and you must go to the trees
so your animal can tell you what to change.

When I write about trees
I know I’m talking about love.

My animal is a tree
and my trees are birds
and my birds are animals
who burst from there walking
into a sky waiting for this transformation
as if it had nothing else to do
but receive.

It goes on, opening more and more, as does this collection, rewarding closer study.

Is there a poem or perhaps an image from a book that has stayed with you? One that speaks to you and what your life is like right now?

The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin

lathe

I read a lot of science fiction in my teens, mostly because my older brother was into it and let me raid his library. Then I read a lot of scifi/fantasy in my late twenties; I was in a difficult place and wanted to be anywhere else. It helped. So during this tense and terrifying week, I returned to that strategy. It’s been long enough that those books are ripe for rereading.

This 1971 novel begins with a man waking up amid fallen concrete blocks feeling dizzy and nauseated. Eventually a medic brings him around, shocked by how many different meds the man had taken.

George Orr has been taking multiple medications to keep himself from dreaming, because his dreams come true—literally. Not all of his dreams, but now and then he has what he calls an “effective” dream and when he wakes, the world has changed to conform to that dream. And he is the only one who knows that has happened; he is the only one who remembers the way the world was before.

As a result of his overdose, he is sent to Dr. Haber, a psychiatrist working on a machine similar to an EEG that can control the type of waves in a patient’s brain to induce dreaming. Over the course of the book Haber uses his machine coupled with hypnotic suggestion to try to instigate and control George’s dreams. But the effect is usually unpredictable and sometimes catastrophic, because dream logic comes up with its own way of implementing Haber’s directions.

One constant, though, is that with each dream Haber gets a promotion and more power. He claims he only wants power in order to help people by solving the terrible problems in society. But Haber’s vision of an ideal society is a little scary given his belief in utilitarianism and eugenics. Haber’s ability to implement his beliefs using George’s dreams combined with his own insatiable hunger for power and fame drive the world down a dangerous path.

We writers are advised that, along with hooking the reader’s attention, we should use the first page to teach the reader how to read our book. Make sure they know what genre it is. Identify the protagonist, their goal, and what or who is preventing them from achieving it. Give at least a hint of what themes will be explored. I have to say that rereading the first page of this book after finishing it changed the story for me and filled me with awe at Le Guin’s mastery of the craft.

What’s also interesting is how much Le Guin is able to explore different philosophies and approaches without slowing the story. In my workshops we’ve been talking about generating suspense, and she has definitely crafted a page-turner. George’s dreams and the new world each creates are fascinating. And often destructive, to the point where one wonders how this world can possibly survive.

Well, out of the frying pan, as my mother used to say. It felt like the story of the last four years, right from the first page: waking up to an unrecognisable world, one that has changed in catastrophic ways. Still, I’m glad I read it this week. And now things have changed again. Someone has had a good dream.

Do you read scifi/fantasy? Why?

Blackberries, Blackberries, by Crystal Wilkinson

blackberries

Wilkinson’s first book is a collection of short stories—perfect for my attention span just now! These stories feature Black women in rural Kentucky, young and old, each with her individual take on the world, her own idea of herself.

In some stories, such as “Tipping the Scales”, we meet women who can’t be bothered by society’s conventions. A big woman, “not sloppy fat, though,” Josephina Childs has “sure had her hands full in the men department most all her life.” All her life she’s been aware of how “the whole town ‘bout tripped over” themselves to find out what was going on with her mother in the house Ethel’s lover build for them. So when Josephina wants children, she goes ahead and has them. I could hardly wait to find out what happens as she charts her own path among the gossiping townsfolk.

A few stories are from a man’s point of view, such as “Mine” in which Joe Scruggs complains about his former girlfriend Racine. She’d left him when she found out he was cheating on her. Now he sees that she has cut the long, straightened hair he’d loved in favor of short natural hair. Worse than that, she’s had breast reduction surgery and “black women do not get their breasts worked on.” The voice is pitch perfect as Joe thinks about what he sees as Racine’s insult to him and about Darlene, the woman he cheated with, now his wife. It’s a strong indictment of a man’s idea of ownership.

Wilkinson’s use of voice carries each of these stories. Without resorting to dialect, she captures the individual rhythms of her characters’ thoughts and speech. In “Mules” she finds just the right voice for a naïve girl, just starting to develop and learning to navigate the complicated and risky world of men. In “Deviled Eggs” Wilkinson gives voice to a young girl who is dragged along when her mother goes to her job as a domestic servant and has a startling lesson in racism from the elderly white woman who thinks she is doing the child a favor. In “Need” we meet three characters in a café, two women embarking on a difficult conversation and their male waiter, each with a distinctive voice.

I’ve been thinking recently about the shape of short stories, how they begin, how they end. The variety of story shapes is this collection is part of what makes it so enticing. Some stories spiral back to their beginning, while others rise to a new understanding. Many for me ended in ways that surprised me, taking a direction I hadn’t expected: Wilkinson displaying the penchant for independence we see in many of her characters. I love being surprised!

In every story, Wilkinson demonstrates the writer’s mantra that the personal is universal. These may be Black women in Appalachia, but I saw myself in each of them. Reading their stories has been a gift, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Do you like reading short stories? Can you recommend a collection?