Paris, by Edward Rutherfurd

Paris

In my virtual travels this winter I’ve most recently been in Venice; before that I was in Paris for several weeks. Rutherfurd’s book had been on my shelf for a long time, so that was a great opportunity to read it.

Like his other books that I’ve enjoyed, London and Sarum, this big book follows a handful of families from the earliest days of the city (here 1261) to the modern day (1968). The families vary: thieves, nobles, merchants, craftsmen. As they act and interact, we get to know the history of Paris itself, highlighting important events but more importantly taking us into their daily lives. We walk the streets with them, navigate the surge of Protestantism, mount the barricades, help build the Eiffel tower, hide a downed RAF pilot.

There’s a Jewish family that includes a physician, an antique dealer and an art dealer, through whose eyes we see the shifting political and social winds that dictate their lives, seeing the effects on individuals as tolerance veers into pogroms.

There are Brits and Canadians, tying France to the Western world and introducing the effects of immigration. There are country houses and political refuges that bring in regions outside the city.

I loved getting to know the city, relying heavily on the maps in the front of the book (as well as the family trees). Never having been there, I was always a little unclear about the geography, but now I have a good sense of it. It was also fascinating to see how the character of individual neighborhoods changed over the centuries. The Marais, for example, housed the Templars starting in 1240 which led to many churches also being built there. Royal palaces and aristocratic mansions proliferated. After the French Revolution, though, with the nobility gone, the mansions deteriorated and the area became home to Jewish and working class families. The Marais began to be rehabilitated in the 1960s and now hosts numerous art galleries.

In Rutherfurd’s novel, each of these transformations is tied to individuals and families. We escape in the middle of the night with Jacob and his family and later sell our paintings with Marc Blanchard. One of the most fascinating parts for me was Thomas Gascon’s work building the Eiffel Tower where I for the first time grasped what an engineering marvel it was, the vision of its architect Gustave Eiffel, and the courage of the men who built it.

You may start this book as I did intending to learn about the history and geography of this remarkable city. But I defy you to resist getting swept up in the stories of these individuals, their dreams and passions, their choices and chances. If stories really are the way we best remember things, as current research tells us, then what better way to learn about Paris than through these stories?

What book about or set in Paris have you read?

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, by Cherie Jones

sister

This debut novel with an intriguing title is set in Barbados in 1984 where Lala makes a living braiding hair for tourists on the beach. She lives right there in a rickety shack with her husband Adan, a petty thief. Eight months pregnant, she strains to manage the steep, railingless stairs to their home.

When she goes into labor she struggles through the night looking for her husband. Washing up against a gate in the tourist enclave, she rings the bell, only to have Adan himself appear. As they race to the hospital on his bicycle, Lala hears a scream, one that will echo in her throughout the book.

We move between Lala and Mira Whalen, originally a poor white from Barbados, whose wealthy white English husband Peter has been killed in a bungled robbery. The couple has come to Barbados on holiday, Peter hoping to win back Mira’s love after she’s had an affair. Even as the two women highlight the differences between wealthy tourists and poverty-stricken Bajans, Mira’s grief and regret resonate with Lala’s increasing recognition of the mistake she made in marrying the sociopathic Adan.

Jones deftly weaves in stories of Lala and Mira’s mothers and grandmothers and how their lives echo—or not—their daughters’. Jones also brings in other other characters such as Adan’s friend Tone, whose concern for others contrasts with Adan’s violence.

And there is a lot of violence. This is a terrible and devastating story, certainly centering on threats women face, but also touching on men and the things they are driven to do. We move back and forth in time, unearthing secrets buried too long, coming to know all these characters. This book is a brilliant example of how to bring in backstory: only telling us a story from the past when we need it to understand something that is happening in the present.

I listened to the audio book, not sure at first how far I wanted to go into such a story, but found myself riveted by the prose and seduced by narrator Danielle Vitalis‘s voice. It was so soft and lilting, so gentle that I sometimes had to shake myself to remember that these were stories of abuse and injustice and helplessness in the face of danger.

My only quibble with the book is that the ending tied everything up a little too fast and a little too neatly.

If you are willing to face the underside of life on a Caribbean island and recognise that poverty’s insults and injuries aren’t that different even in paradise, this is the book for you. Gorgeous prose, great pacing, vivid characters: this first novel has it all, if you can bear it.

What first novel have you read that you thought brilliant?

Thimble Summer, by Elizabeth Enright

thimble

With all the political turmoil here in the U.S. last week, I turned for comfort to this middle-grade novel by the author of the Melendy Quartet (The Saturdays, etc.) and one of my favorites from childhood: Gone-Away Lake.

First published in 1939 and winner of the Newbery Medal that year, Thimble Summer is the story of nine-year-old Garnet Linden who finds a silver thimble in a dried-up waterbed. She wonders if it might be magical, and indeed that night rain finally comes to her family’s drought-stricken farm, saving their crops.

Depression-era Wisconsin is beautifully captured in this story, as is life on a small family farm. Garnet adopts the runt in a litter of pigs to raise and by the end of the summer is ready to show him at the fair. The joy of a dip in the river after a day in the fields or threshing is captured with imagery appropriate for someone of Garnet’s age.

It’s not all swimming holes and ice cream cones. During an all-night vigil tending the lime kiln that must be continually stoked if they are to have the necessary lime to build their new barn, a mysterious figure appears in the woods. It turns out to be a boy not that much older than Garnet who, left parentless, has been hitchhiking around the country taking jobs as a farmworker when necessary. The Lindens ask him to stay on to help with building the barn, wanting the help but mostly wanting to feed the undernourished boy.

In another adventure, Garnet and her friend Citronella stay too long at the library and are locked in for the night. What starts out as a fun adventure gradually becomes something more, as Enright expertly channels the mind and heart of a young girl.

Last week someone who is writing a memoir questioned her right to do so when her life has no terrible tragedies. I have come across this fear in the memoir classes I teach, so I told her that every life, no matter how blessed, has setbacks and difficulties to overcome. Handled well, these create the necessary conflict to drive the story. Memoir doesn’t have to become what some have called the trauma olympics. What matters most is the quality of the writing.

As noted in Anita Silvey’s The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators, in writing this book Enright called on memories of summers spent on Frank Lloyd Wright’s farm in Wisconsin, as well as family stories passed on by her mother and grandmother.

Knowing this adds an extra dimension to the story for me, but truly I was just grateful to be back in the world of my own childhood, happily curled up in a corner of our neighborhood library reading everything from fairy tales and King Arthur stories to books about the adventures of ordinary children like me.

What is a favorite childhood book of yours?

The Charming Quirks of Others, by Alexander McCall Smith

quirks

I’ve been working my way through this series set in Edinburgh featuring Isabel Dalhousie. Well, work isn’t really correct since each story is delightful. As a moral philosopher, Isabel “considers” problems and mysteries that others request her help with. Once someone has asked for her help, she believes she is morally obligated to try.

In this, the seventh entry in the series, Isabel has been asked by the wife of a trustee to help an exclusive boy’s school in their search for a new headmaster. The shortlist contains only three names, but the trustee has received an anonymous letter saying that one of the three has a skeleton in his closet that would disqualify him. Isabel is asked to look into their backgrounds to determine which is the problematic candidate.

After agreeing, despite her fiancé Jamie’s usual objection to her investigations, Isabel is surprised to discover that her niece Cat’s new boyfriend is one of the three. Cat is rather intense, going through boyfriends like candy and frequently arguing with Isabel, yet the young woman runs her successful deli with a firm hand. Jamie was once one of those boyfriends, and his relationship with Isabel—they have a charming toddler and plan to marry imminently—is a constant, if minor, source of tension between Cat and Isabel. However, underneath it all, the two women are devoted to each other.

Isabel practices her philosophy not only as editor of the Review of Applied Ethics and the now-defunct Sunday Philosophy Club of the earlier books in the series, but in every aspect of her life. When one of her former colleagues-cum-enemies on the Review magisterially informs her that he is going to write a review of the new book from his partner in crime—the crime of trying to force Isabel off the magazine—Isabel debates the ramifications of each possible response. If she refuses, would that be seen as an act of vengeance? Should she be generous and forgive the two men for present and past indignities?

She also considers just how generous she ought to be when a tragic young cellist falls for Jamie. Jamie is a bassoonist and rather younger than Isabel which feeds her insecurity about their relationship.

It is this application of philosophy to the smallest details of life that I find intriguing in these books. Many people know the author from his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Like those books, the Dalhousie books belong to what Dave King calls the gentle genre: “straightforward tales of ordinary people in mostly every-day, low-key situations.” Authors like D.E. Stevenson, Miss Read, and James Herriot manage the difficult task of composing these stories that become comfort reads for many of us, without falling into “either banality or saccharine gooeyness.”

The solution Dave King identifies is the use of a small town with many characters interacting, noting that “Even Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street books, technically set in Edinburgh, are limited to a neighborhood that acts in most ways like a small town.” “In fact,” he goes on, “most gentle novels draw their tension from this forced association. The connections with people who think very differently from yourself can help amplify the importance of small things.”

That’s certainly true here, with a variety of characters, some new and some familiar from earlier books. However, it’s the philosophy that elevates Isabel’s stories, not the labored dense prose that I struggled with in Philosophy 101, but a common-sense application of moral considerations to the minutiae of daily life.

Added to that are the descriptions of Edinburgh itself and the surrounding countryside. I recently visited that city for the first time, and I love the memories these books call up. The books aren’t perfect, of course. Jamie and Cat are rather two-dimensional, and Isabel herself doesn’t change much as the series progresses. Also, her rather privileged life may rub some readers the wrong way.

For me, they make a nice counter-balance to my other, more challenging reading. Like Alexander McCall Smith’s other books, these make for perfect bedtime reading, when you want to calm your mind and prepare to enter a world of good dreams.

Which Alexander McCall Smith series is your favorite?

Death in a Strange Country, by Donna Leon

Leon

It’s been a few years since I’ve read the early books in Donna Leon’s mystery series set in Venice. With all the nonfiction books I’ve been reading that are set there, it seemed like a good time to revisit them.

In this second book in the series, Commissario Brunetti is called when a body is pulled out of a canal, apparently the victim of a mugging. It turns out to be an American sergeant, a health inspector from the U.S. base at Vicenza. Brunetti’s superior officer, Vice-Questore Patta, whose only concern is politics, wants the case tied up quickly so tourists are not spooked and the Americans in Vicenza placated. However, Brunetti believes there is much more going on here than a mugging.

As you would expect for a senior police officer, Brunetti is working other cases, including the theft of paintings from a well-connected businessman—someone whom Patta wants to cosy up to.

One of the unusual features of this series is the weight given to Brunetti’s life outside of work, primarily his home life with his astute wife Paola and their two children—sixteen-year-old Raffi and thirteen-year-old Chiara—who are growing up too fast for Brunetti. The theme of parents and children runs through all the storylines here, subtly enough that I didn’t realise it at first.

We might all wish to have a Paola in our lives: a wise counselor who can bring us back to earth when we get carried away or confused, not to mention creating a delicious risotto for dinner. The warmth of their family life—Chiara bargaining to stay up to finish her book, Paola joining Brunetti on the balcony—is lovely, while the occasional irritations or silences keep it realistic.

Writers often talk about making the setting a character in a novel, and certainly Venice is a major character in Leon’s books. The author accomplishes this by incorporating details of the culture and customs as well as the buildings and canals. There are Brunetti’s movements around Venice, stopping for a coffee and noting the slight nod that orders a shot of grappa be added. There’s the game he plays with himself where he rewards himself with a drink when he spots a previously unnoticed architectural detail. And the way a night watchman slips an orange card into the iron grating outside each shop to prove that he has come by.

The evocation of Venice and Brunetti’s life there is more important for me than the mystery. I would be perfectly happy with these books even if there were no mystery at all.

Brunetti’s efforts to solve the mysteries are complicated by the corruption and profiteering in government and business, both deeply intertwined with the mafia (the novel was first published in 1993). Naturally this made me squirm a little, since here in the U.S. these crimes have been flagrantly committed at the highest levels of the government in the last few years.

Much here reminded me of John Berendt’s portrayal of Venice and the shenanigans around rebuilding La Fenice. My understanding of the geography gained from that book and the others I’ve been reading enhanced my enjoyment of this book, filling out my imagination as I traveled the streets and canals of Venice with the commissario, a character with whom I would gladly spend any amount of time.

Have you read a mystery or other novel set in Venice?

Best Books I read in 2020

Best Books I read in 2020

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the ten best books I read in 2020. In general, this year I gravitated toward books that either comforted me or gave me courage. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Horizon, by Barry Lopez
In this profound and generous book, Lopez looks back over some of the travels that have shaped his understanding and philosophy. We go from Oregon to Antarctica, from Nunavut to Tasmania, from Eastern Equatorial Africa to Xi’an in China. The horizon he explores is physically and metaphorically the line where our known world gives way to air, to the space we still know almost nothing about. That liminal space is where exciting things can happen. The quest for knowledge and understanding—along with compassion—are what I value most in human beings.

2. Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck
The main character of Erpenbeck’s novel is a plot of land by a lake in Brandenburg, and the homes built there, especially a fabulously detailed home built by an architect in the 1930s. The succession of people who live in this house and next door mirror the changes in East Germany during the ensuing decades. Though short, this novel is surprisingly intense. It made me think about what inheritances are passed on and what are lost, about the so-brief time that we inhabit this world that is our home, and how the earth itself, though changed, persists. Our cares and worries, even in this terrible time, will pass.

3. Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk
This unusual and fascinating novel explores the border between poetry and prose, story and fairy tale. The quirky voice of the narrator is firmly established with the first sentence and sustained throughout the book. Living alone in an isolated community in western Poland, Janina is an older woman who manages her vocation of astrology, the translations of William Blake’s poetry that she and a friend are doing, and the griefs that accumulate over the years. The story sometimes feels like a fable, sometimes a prose poem, sometimes a wrenching view of age and isolation, sometimes a paean to friendship.

4. A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell
Subtitled The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, this is a fascinating read. If you thought, as I initially did, that the subtitle is a bit hyperbolic, rest assured that it is not. Born in 1906 to a wealthy and prestigious family, Virginia Hall grew up in Baltimore but preferred adventure to marriage. During WWII, she became one of the first British spies—and the first female—in France where she organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies.

5. Abigail, by Magda Szabó
Originally published in 1970, it is the story of 15-year-old Gina who in 1943 is exiled from Budapest by her beloved father, sent to boarding school near Hungary’s eastern border. Headstrong, a little spoiled, Gina rebels, finding creative ways to break the rules at the strict academy. While having many characteristics of a traditional coming-of-age story, and echoes of books like Jane Eyre, Gina’s story is unusually perceptive and complex.

6. Blackberries, Blackberries, by Crystal Wilkinson
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 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.

7. Gellhorn, by Caroline Moorehead
Moorehead’s biography brings the brilliant war correspondent to life, enhanced by the hundreds of letters Gellhorn wrote during her life, openly detailing personal and professional undertakings as well as her own thoughts and feelings. The biography is subtitled A Twentieth-Century Life. Indeed, although she was always out ahead of others, few things could be more emblematic of that turbulent century than the life of this remarkable woman who challenged customary women’s roles, stuck to her own moral code, and worked relentlessly at her chosen métier.

8. The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This first novel from Coates is the story of Hiram Walker, a young slave in Virginia whose been assigned to be the personal servant for his half-brother: the white, legitimate son of the plantation owner. The writing, as you would expect from Coates, is gorgeous. I loved the first part of the book, but after that, the story seemed to bog down. Still, this coming-of-age story of a man’s journey to freedom is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I loved the unusual and nuanced way the story embodies the themes of family and memory.

9. Grace Notes, by Brian Doyle
These days I’m turning to books not so much for escape as for courage and comfort, and welcome anything that might help replenish my stores of both. For me, that often means returning to one of my favorite authors. In addition to writing unforgettable stories and essays, Brian Doyle, who died much too young in 2017, was a teacher, magazine editor, husband, father. In this collection of short essays, while not shying away from the darkness, Doyle reminds us of what is good in the world.

10. Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout
A book by Strout is a balm just now, when we are so traumatised by grief and fear and anger. Yes, she takes us into the terrible crimes human beings, even those in quiet Midwestern towns, visit upon one another, yet she also shows us the complicated people that we are. Without dwelling on the ugliness, Strout evokes in us the emotions of these characters, their trials, their loneliness, and sometimes their quiet redemption.

What were the best books you read last year?

Waiting for Time, by Bernice Morgan

waiting

This novel set mostly in Newfoundland seemed appropriate blizzard reading. It’s a sequel to Random Passage, which I haven’t read, continuing the saga of several families on a remote cape on the Atlantic shore. We learn enough about the characters that not having read the earlier book wasn’t a problem.

Lav Andrews, a civil servant in Ottawa, anchors the frame story. She’s sent to St. John’s to oversee a report on the viability of the Atlantic fishery and discovers a journal kept by her several-generations-back Aunt Lavinia. The main story is about the life of that aunt’s best friend, Mary Bundle, whose marginalia in the journal intrigue Lav.

Life on the cape is hard. There’s never enough to eat and no industry beyond fishing and salting cod to be sold in St. John’s. Mary is different from the others. Of course, she’s known poverty and starvation her whole life, as a child in rural England and as a servant in St. John’s. Where she’s different is that she’s always looking two steps ahead: not just at the next task to be done, but how to do things better so there will be a bit more food in years to come.

While the others aren’t thrilled with her nagging, they do go along with most of her ideas. She speaks her mind and is famous for her rages, a powerful character. Shaped by hardship, she couldn’t care less what others think of her and doesn’t hide her opinion of them: that they are like sheep. Now 97 and nearing death, she is dictating to her great-granddaughter Rachel what to write in the margins of Lavinia’s journal, determined to correct what she believes are inaccuracies in her friend’s account.

Mary made me think of my mother, who became increasingly outspoken as she aged. I tried for years to get her to write a memoir but it took her brother writing one to finally get her going. Like Mary, she needed to correct his “mistakes”.

Morgan captures the details of life at the end of the 19th century in a tiny isolated fishing community. It is a hard life, for sure, but Mary’s invincible spirit and strong voice make for fascinating reading. She has a lot to say about the couple of dozen inhabitants of the cape, their squabbles and celebrations. And there is always the sea, relentlessly eating away at the land, and always winter just around the corner.

In the end we come back to Lav, setting off for the Cape to meet Rachel, now nearly 100 years old. It’s a challenge to fit so many lifetimes into one not particularly long novel. One of the ways Morgan handles it is to keep the number of named characters small and giving them distinct characters and voices, so that it isn’t hard to keep track of them. Both Lav’s and Mary’s stories are organised chronologically, which makes them easier to follow. Morgan dips in and out of their lives with scenes illuminating her major storylines.

As with other books about the first Canadian settlers, such as Charlotte Gray’s Sisters in the Wilderness : The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, I am shocked that people could survive such conditions. It makes our current pandemic lockdown that has spawned so many complaints seem like a picnic, and the blizzard outside something minor indeed.

What do you like to read when the weather outside is frightful?

The Word Is Murder, by Anthony Horowitz

Horowitz

Coming up with a title for the book you’ve written is surprisingly hard. It needs to be catchy while giving a hint about what the book’s about and its genre. The title here, which is a bit of a running joke in the story, certainly meets all three criteria.

This is the first book I’ve read by the prolific Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider YA series and two Sherlock Holmes mysteries among others, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The one thing I knew about him at first was that he is the creator and main writer for Foyle’s War, one of the best TV series I’ve ever seen. I wondered how that brilliance would translate to a genre mystery.

The answer is that it is unlike any mystery I’ve read, while still fitting within the conventions of the mystery genre.

What baffled me at the beginning is that our protagonist, our amateur sleuth, is Anthony Horowitz, author of Foyle’s War, the Alex Rider series, etc. Anthony is finishing up his Sherlock Holmes mystery House of Silk and ripe for a new writing project when he is approached by a curt and rather intimidating former policeman named Daniel Hawthorne.

Hawthorne has a deal for Anthony: write up the case Hawthorne is working on and the two of them split the proceeds 50/50. I had to laugh. So often that it’s become a running gag, writers get people coming up and saying they have a great idea for a story; the writer should just write it up and they’ll split the profits.

After initially refusing, Anthony agrees. It is a fascinating case: a seemingly healthy woman goes to a mortician to organise her eventual funeral arrangements and six hours later she is murdered.

The dynamic between the two is fascinating. Hawthorne immediately establishes dominance by calling the writer Tony, even after Anthony says that no one calls him that and he doesn’t like it. Hawthorne works as a consultant for the police on this case, and expects Anthony to follow him around and take notes but not participate. He also expects to critique the manuscript. Close-mouthed, he doesn’t want to share his thoughts on the case or any personal information. Reluctant to be relegated to the Watson role, Anthony tries to get ahead of Hawthorne in the investigation, with mixed results.

Disconcertingly, Anthony constantly refers to real people, many in his sphere: actors, producers, etc. I was surprised that he would name names: he takes a meeting with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson; he recounts an incident with Michael Kitchen; and so on. My writer’s mind whirled. Did he get permission or just assumed they are public figures? Would using them poison the well for him as a writer? Did it add to or detract from the story? It’s one thing for a novel like Ragtime to refer to real historical figures and another to refer to those still with us.

With all that swarming around in my brain, I still found the story engaging, both the interplay between the two men and the mystery itself. I’m not sure I’d want to read a lot of novels in this style—mixing reality with fantasy—but here I found it refreshing.

Have you read a mystery that stretched the rules of the genre?

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?

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?