I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
March 1, 2022: Lee Zacharias
When Lee Zacharias’s sixth and most recent book, the novel What a Wonderful World This Could Be, begins, it’s 1982. The main character Alex is thirty-six, and she’s swimming laps in a pool, thinking of one of her students. It’s a short chapter at six pages, at the end of which Alex receives some startling news. But no spoilers here.
I loved this somewhat disorienting first chapter, which serves to underscore Alex’s state of mind, and then I loved the second chapter that takes place in 1960, and then I loved the whole book. If you’re looking for a thick novel to curl up with, one that will take you back to the sixties and cause you to forgo your current Netflix series, this is it. The story is told in three different timelines: Alex’s 1960’s childhood spent, instead of with mom and dad, with a twenty-seven-year-old photography professor; her young adulthood in 1964 with Civil Rights activist Ted Neal; and the current 1982 thread, which connects the other two from that very first chapter.
I was taken by the story and equally by the writing. So much happens in each sentence, between the sentences, and between the paragraphs. And Lee Zacharias expects you to keep up. On page twenty-eight, I wrote that the opening pages had a jagged feel, and I mean that in the best way.
Circling back to the sentences, I loved them. They involved me in the story. Back in 2013, I wrote an essay for Brevity on ways to take a sentence from boring to good. I could use only this novel and teach a whole class on how to write interesting sentences. Let’s look at some.
The writer Pam Houston is always saying the power is in the nouns. Here, in addition to making the sentence more concrete, choosing the noun over the adjective evokes other collective names for animals, for example, an unkindness of ravens.
Only kids used the pool and an irrelevance of young mothers…
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, but the words have the wrong size in her mouth.
“It was the first time Ted brought her home, and she’d been nervous, a nineteen-year-old fiancee, a bastard daughter who’d already married one man and lived with another, surely not the bride his parents had imagined.
She had forgotten the most staggering thing about grief–that the acts it inhabits are so ordinary…
They are still standing beside the car, their awkwardness lit up for each other by the small lamp on the ceiling.
“I’m sorry.” She puts her face down on the steering wheel. What she means is that she doesn’t want to know anything about his life.
She had a laugh that ran through her voice like a silver ribbon.
What a Wonderful World This Could Be was a Finalist in the category of Literary Fiction for the 2021 American Fiction Awards from American Book Fest. It was a Distinguished Favorite in Literary Fiction at the 2021 NYC Big Book Awards. And it was included in Best Historical Fiction of 2021 at Hungry for Good Books.
Lee is in fact a swimmer and a photographer. She is also the author of a collection of short stories, Helping Muriel Make It Through the Night; three other novels, Across the Great Lake, Lessons, and At Random; and a collection of personal essays, The Only Sounds We Make. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council. She is a two-time recipient of North Carolina’s Sir Walter Raleigh Award and has won the Southern Humanities Review‘s Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award, Prairie Schooner‘s Glenna Luschei Award, and two Silver Medals from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (the IPPYs). She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Come back on MARCH 1st to read how LEE ZACHARIAS spends her days.