Aldous Huxley once famously said, "Every man's memory is his private literature." In this luminous collection of short stories (including an 83 page novella), Anthony Doerr probes the fragility and endurance of memory, in locales that vary from South Africa to Hamburg...from Lithuania to Wyoming...and from the heinousness of the Holocaust to an immediate dystopian future.
This masterful collection is bookmarked by an opening and an ending story with two diverse elderly women as key protagonists. The title story, Memory Wall, presents the elderly Alma, who lives in South Africa where she undergoes periodic "harvesting" of memories, stored on a series of numbered cartridges. By "hooking herself up", she is able to recreate experiences to stave off her worsening dementia. She falls victim to a criminal and his accomplice "memory hunter" who attempt to rummage through these cartridges to find the location of a rare and lucrative gorgon fossil - one that will be the ticket to the good life that has been denied them. The young accomplice muses, "Dr. Amnesty's cartridges, the South African Museum, Harold's fossils, Chefe Carpenter's collection, Alma's memory wall - weren't they all ways of trying to defy erasure? What is memory anyway? How can it be such a frail, perishable thing?"
The ending story also focuses on an elderly woman - in this case, Esther, an orphan and an epileptic, who was spared the fate of her many close friends in Birkenau. Now in her early 80s and living in suburban Cleveland, her seizures are getting worse and she returns again and again in her mind to poignant, nightmarish memories of her times in ravaged Hamburg, as she relives her survivors guilt. As he watches her deterioration, her grandson Robert reflects, "Every hour...all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during the same hour, children are moving about, surveying territory that to them is totally new."
As in most short story collections, each reader will likely have his or her favorites. One of mine is the fable-like Village 113; the Three Gorges Dam is about to be built, submerging a village and forcing its inhabitants to relocate. The tale is relayed by seed keeper, whose engineer son is spearheading the project. Doerr writes, "Memory is a house with ten thousand rooms; it is a village slated to be inundated." The seed keeper and the schoolteacher are quite literally drowning in memories.
Each of Anthony Doerr's well-crafted stories focuses on the most important things in life: birth, death, survival, solace, but most of all the memories that - according to the epigraph from Luis Buñuel - are "our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action."
The wise, deep stories of Anthony Doerr are a literary treasure. They are written with tenderness, perception of character and compassionate insight into the human heart. The collection centers around memory and their settings vary widely: an old woman remembering her long murdered girlfriends in a Nazi Germany orphanage; a woman seed keeper in a remote Chinese village which will soon be submerged by a dam, drowning her heritage and her own past; an American couple in such a desperate search to conceive a child that their lives are condensed to a singular purpose.
Though old people die and are "glowing atlases dragged into graves," new generations of children are born and accumulate memories. "They push back the darkness; they scatter memories behind them like bread crumbs. The world is remade."
How real the characters are! How deep their dreams; their past is as vividly alive to them as their present, in many cases more so. We are, the writer says, our memories. He writes with reverence and poetry of the incredible kindness between people in the worst of times and a singing belief in the human spirit.
on August 2, 2010
For many, including this reader, Anthony Doerr is not a household name, though his resume is quite impressive. Doerr is an accomplished writer, having received multiple O. Henry Prizes, awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship. He is currently the Writer-in-Residence for the State of Idaho. MEMORY WALL,a thematically linked collection of short stories, is Doerr's second such effort, having also written two novels. The offerings here share memory, the source of meaning and coherence in our lives as a common theme. The result is a powerful and thought-provoking series of stories.
The novella-length "Memory Wall" is set in modern South Africa. Alma Konachel is a 74-year-old South African widow suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Surgery allows her to recall her life's experience by implanting encapsulated memories into her brain. When not in use, those memory capsules are stored in her private memory wall, and one of them contains a memory noteworthy for its value. Two young, unscrupulous men break into Alma's home seeking to discover and seize this unique treasure. The beauty of the story is what it asks and tells the reader about memories. Even our private memories do not really belong to us. In many ways, the only value of a memory comes from sharing it with others. "Memory Wall" is also a mysterious and thrilling story that has already been optioned to Hollywood; its unique plot has the potential for a thrilling movie.
"The River Nemunas" is haunting because it is so untraditional. Fifteen-year-old Allison has lost her mother and father to the ravages of cancer. Her only living relative is Grandpa Z., who lives in Lithuania. Allison's story is told in her voice as she travels from Kansas to Europe to live with her grandfather. This unique moment in her life is captured by her comments to Grandpa Z. as they eat their first dinner together. "It's okay," I say, "I've been saying it's okay a lot lately. I've said it to church ladies and flight attendants and counselors. I don't know if I'm fine or if it's okay, or if saying it makes anyone feel better. Maybe it's just something to say." As Allison settles into her new Lithuanian life, she experiences some of the same events that her mother recounted to her about her childhood. Experiencing these memories after her mother's death creates an upside down view of life, making "The River Nemunas" provocative as well as entertaining. They also allow Doerr to devote part of the story to one of his favorite motifs: fishing.
"Afterworld" takes readers to a German orphanage where a dozen Jewish girls live as Adolph Hitler rises to power. Esther Gramm is one of the 12 who somehow manages to avoid the death camps of the Holocaust. This story reminds us of the never-ending life cycle, where each day memories are dragged to the grave while others frolic and new ones are created. Each day, the world is remade.
MEMORY WALL is a beautiful book that my miserly words cannot truly capture and describe. In an era of glitzy and gaudy stories, this is a collection that will rekindle a fire in readers, that there are still top-notch writers whose stories are to be savored. Those who still appreciate great literature will enjoy Doerr's latest effort.
on September 26, 2010
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr
This is a remarkable cluster of short stories spanning continents and generations, all manifesting the author's embrace of humanity and the natural forces we interact with. The young, the old, the sick and those pulsing with life and strength; snows-scapes and burned cities;ever-rushing rivers and fairytale tent-cities - all have their place.
A nameless great river in China and the Nemunas river in Lithuania which harbors an unexpected secret, both serve as metaphors for the never-ending flow of time's river. The horrors of the Holocaust in Hamburg; of Soviet rule in Lithuania; and the oppression in today's China, are all seen afloat in that river.
The river is not only ever-moving and ever-changing with each part of its flow as real as the segment before and after, it is also a great connector. The mountains from whence the rivulets begin their journey, tumbling down to the broad expanse between its banks,all the way to the ocean where it empties, are bound together by its watery movement. So too, are the generations joined through the river of memories we have of those who came before us. And thus will we be remembered and connect with others beyond our time. Our humanness and our memories flow together, and those who would erase them through mass geographical dislocation, as well as mass propaganda strike us in a core place.
The writer's prose-poetry - ".. the moonlight landing on rows of distant corn and the silver lines of riffles where the river wrinkles along its banks" ; "Saplings grow from ruptures in the street. Flights of pink-rimmed clouds sail overhead."; " He's wearing a cashmere vest. She waves a wine glass as she talks. Her pants are shiny and gold; I've never seen them before. On the counter behind them sits a ravaged turkey" - lights up each story and makes reading them a continuous delight.
I'm amazed by Doerrs' ability to write from the vantage point of an adolescent American orphan trying to adjust to life in a suburb of Vilnius; an epileptic Jewish girl living in Hamburg during the Holocaust and at age eighty-one, spending her last days with her college-age grandson at her home by the shores of Lake Eire; and an old Chinese woman seed-collector and vendor stubbornly refusing to heed her son's warnings and staying on in her ancestral village as the time of the state-planned flooding approaches.
There is so much perspective, wisdom, and beauty woven through these stories. It's as if Doerr were both of us and above us, seeing us clearly and compassionately from a Parnassian perch.
As you may gather, I highly recommend this book.
August 22, 2010
on August 9, 2012
Wow. This book really knocked me out. The six stories in Anthony Doerr's fantastic collection each deal with memory--what memories (and their loss) mean to us, how they move us and how conscious we are in the creation of new memories. (A character in the first story says "Remember a memory often enough and you can create a new memory, the memory of remembering.")
Each story has a wholly different premise and different main characters, and takes place in a completely difference place and time, from the lengthy opening story about a town in South Africa where doctors have developed a procedure to harvest memories from those suffering from dementia in the hopes of rebuilding some of the brain's connections, to the concluding story about a dying woman struggling with early memories of growing up in Nazi Germany. And each has its own power--some hit you between the eyes while some slowly build in your mind.
This is a tremendously well-written book that really has me thinking about my own memories. Doerr has done a fantastic job, and I can honestly say this is one of the best books I've read all year.
on August 22, 2010
What are memories when you are the only one that has them? What are you when memory fades? "Memory Wall" is a book of stories, each interesting on its own, that are tied together into a cohesive whole, bound by a familiar and universal theme.
The settings are diffuse: South Africa, China, Lithuania, wartime Germany, wartime Korea, Ohio, Wyoming, and Idaho. The portraits of human effort, cruelty, charity, frailty and longing are written with the care of a poet. Various forms of memory are explored related to:
Seeds, "What is a seed if not the purest form of memory, a link to every generation that has gone before it.";
Places, "Every stone, every stair, is a key to memory.";
Possessions, "Everything, all of it, our junk, our dregs, our memories.";
Fossils, "Nothing lasts, for a fossil to happen is a miracle... It's the rarest thing that does not get erased, broken down, transformed.";
Personal history, "Memory builds without any clean or objective logic: a dot here, another dot here, and plenty of dark spaces in between. What we know is always evolving, always subdividing";
Aging, "with the lamp extinguished beside her, streams of unbidden memories rise---decades old, deeply buried.";
Going home, "We return to the places we're from; we trample faded corners and pencil in new lines... You bury your childhood here and there. It waits for you, all your life, to come back and dig it up."
These topics and quotes are simple examples of what flows through each unique story. Standing alone they in no way capture the beauty of this book that may be, just maybe, found in the eyes of a reader. "Memory Wall" is pleasantly mesmerizing. Some introspection is required. It comes naturally.
on June 1, 2015
Having loved "All the Light You Cannot See," I've now started reading Doerr's short stories. This collection was amazingly diverse and complex. The title story takes place in South Africa and takes completely unexpected twists and turns, introducing characters and plot twists from dementia to race relations, urban poverty to fossil hunters. All bound together by how memories are held and recalled. Doerr is a brilliant writer who draws you in with his story-telling. In other stories, you can find seeds of what bloomed into full plot lines in "All the Light," such as scenes of life in an orphanage, fascination with water and sea life, relationships between young people and the elderly -- each one leaving you wanting more.
on August 31, 2010
Memory Wall stands as a new marker in the history of the finest literature in English and a link to the traditions that precede Doerr's work. His stories hold the lyrical language of the 19th century, the engrossing story lines and character development of the 20th century, and the compelling human narrative of the ages. Doerr achieves this while embodying the sensibilities and ethos of his own 21st century world. These stories are not precocious representations of these past traditions, but rather fresh and honest interpretations of timeless human experiences. I cared about the individuals in each of these stories in a way that creates the most satisfying reading.
on July 27, 2013
The first story (novella almost) was fabulous. Mr. Doerr managed to combine memory loss, sci fi, robbers, a father's love for his son, and fossil hunting into a touching, wide-reaching whole. All the characters were real and the ending was totally satisfying. I was less enamored of the middle, shorter stories, although again, the characters were well-drawn. The last novella was beautiful, although I figured out the "trick" of the story early on, it still engaged me. As might be expected, the writing was terrific.
I have to say the first story was one of the best things I've read this year and worth the whole book. It reminded me of George Sanders at his best - the morality, the futuristic quality, the variety of people.
Get this book. You won't be disappointed.
on June 26, 2015
This is the third Doerr book I've read and, it seems to me, he never writes less than a masterpiece. The stories in the Memory Wall are poignant and thought provoking. All the stories ranging from China, Ohio, Hamburg, South Africa, Wyoming, Kansas and Lithuania. All the characters are well developed and likable. Memory links all these wonderful stories together. I cannot wait to read my next purchase, About Grace.
I'm thrilled that Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer for Fiction: All the Light We Cannot See.