Whereabouts

A sense of accomplishment is overwhelming me. I donated three large boxes of books ( my covid year of reading) to the Friends of the Library this morning, and it wasn’t easy. After driving past a guard gate and through a tunnel, and stopping to ask a few masked strangers, I finally found the donation pallet described in their email among a warehouse of boxes. I just hope someone finds mine.

I’m reading Jhumpa Lahiri‘s new book “Whereabouts.” She is among my favorite authors and she reached a higher rung on my authors to emulate list when she moved to Italy to study the language and translate books. It’s been over ten years since “The Namesake,” and I was anxious to get lost in one her stories again.

But “Whereabouts” has no plot like her other books. Following a middle-aged woman’s thoughts and observations “on the couch, on the balcony, in bed…” was mundane at first and unclear where it was leading. Lahiri wrote the book in Italian and translated her words to English. Being somewhat biased by my own Italian heritage, I love the flow of the Italian language, and l appreciated the phrasing and descriptions she offered in translation. Sometimes a sentence would offer a window into my own world – “feeling reassured but also dazed by the outside world.”

As the short chapters evolve into a retrospective of her life, the narrator seems to emerge from complaints and despair of the past, and begins to appreciate the present. In the end, she has received a fellowship and is traveling to an unknown country for a year of study. The last short chapter shows her with a mix of hope, anxiety, and anticipation, leaving this reader a little befuddled but nonetheless satisfied.

NPR says “Whereabouts” is the literary equivalent of slow cooking; it demands patience.”

I bought a signed first edition of this book and I plan to reread it now and then. It will not be going to the library warehouse.

Audio Books – Just Listen

Some habits might be good to recover, post vaccine – walking a few more blocks to hear the end of a story or driving another mile to hear the next chapter on audio.  This year’s list of audiobook winners from the Audio Publishers Association has a few I may listen to, but also gave me some ideas for books I may order online to read.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke won Audiobook of the Year. When I asked my local librarian about it, she said she “liked it but it is different.”   Piranesi is a fantasy novel by English author Susanna Clarke,  her second novel and her first since her debut Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, published sixteen years earlier.  It’s about wizardry and magic, and Ron Charles for the Washington Post says “Susanna Clarke’s infinitely clever ‘Piranesi’ is enough to make you appreciate life in quarantine – about a man trapped forever indoors…”  Sounds deliciously weird, and I plan to try reading it.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo, narrated by Elizabeth Acevedo and Melania-Luisa Marte, won both the 2021 Young Adult Audie Award and the Multi-Voiced Performance Award.   The title is intriguing and this novel, in verse, about two sisters losing their father, their hero, and finding each other along the way, caught my interest. Acevedo is a National Poetry Slam champion, and she won a National Book Award for her first book, The Poet X.

A Very Punchable Face by Colin Yost of SNL fame won the Humor award.

The full list is here – Audio Book Winners 2021

And a few more stories not on the winner’s list:

  • The Push by Ashley Audrain   – nothing like listening to a psychological thriller.  This one follows a new mom, Blythe Connor, whose concerns about her children are repeatedly dismissed—until a devastating incident sends the entire family reeling.
  • Infinite Country by Patricia Engel – five members of a family that left their roots in Colombia for a better life in the U.S., only to be met with an entire new set of challenges with being undocumented in this country. Written by Patricia Engel, a daughter of Colombian immigrants.
  • The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner – with a trio of narrators,  flipping back and forth between the 18th century, when a London apothecary sold poison to women solely to be used on men, to the present, as a young historian finds herself tracking down a series of clues to solve the infamous centuries-old “apothecary murders.”
  • Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid – author of Daisy Jones and the Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.  This story follows follows four famous siblings over the span of one all-night, ultimately disastrous party.

The Code Breaker

Inspiring and difficult, Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker brought me back to graduate school, but this time the reading was not compulsory for a course, but for my sense of wanting to learn. Science is not my favorite subject; I favor literature, but Isaacson’s conversational style easily led me through the story he wanted to impart.

Although the title identifies Jennifer Doudna as the focus, the book is more than her biography. The subtitle may have been more telling – “The Future of the Human Race.” Isaacson neatly uses Doudna as the fulcrum for the emanating circle of collaborators and influencers in her life and work. I read this book very slowly, trying hard to digest all the information. Despite Isaacson’s easy style and simplified explanations, it still required my concentration and focus. I wanted to understand, and, in the end, I did.

Doudna’s journey as an educator and researcher had some connections that resounded with me, but her level of dedication and enthusiasm clearly soared beyond the norm, and she deservedly won the Nobel Prize. But Isaacson is able to draw out her personal background with arrows pointing to progress and success in her professional life. She is human, after all, and Isaacson does not shy away from her mistakes or misjudgments. Her meeting with James Watson later in life when he is ninety and she is well revered, was poignant; here was the man whose book The Double Helix had inspired her as a girl to study science, yet his prejudices had destroyed his reputation.

Isaacson inserts his own conclusions and predictions in many of the chapters, but especially when discussing the possibility of gene editing, not only for improving health but also for improving the human species. That controversy was paused when the coronovirus took hold of scientists’ and the world’s attention, but it is still there. Dava Sobel’s book review for the New York Times is titled “A Biography of the Woman Who Will Re-Engineer Humans.”

Reading this book in real time has been strange. While reading, Doudna and her collaborators created a test for Covid-19. While reading about her efforts to create the vaccine, I actually received mine. And the news of two women receiving the Nobel Prize made the evening news not long ago. For a while, we all wondered who would win the race – the virus or the vaccine, but Isaacson closes his story saying we should be cautious, slow down, especially with the genetic engineering that helped create those recent saviors.

The book encompasses so many ideas and people, it would take a second read to capture all the details of biotechnology. But I probably won’t read it again – after all, there is no test I need to take on it, and I can always go back to find what I need in its extensive index. It is worth reading at least once, however; the story will leave you in awe and with a new appreciation of science.

Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro’s futuristic novel Klara and the Sun may not be that far into the future; Ishiguro says his story is not so much futuristic as it is “a distorted view of our present.”

Klara is an AF, acronym for Artificial Friend, with the brains of Watson and the empathy of Oprah.  Klara is not the latest model AF, but is unique with her amazing observational qualities, giving her the ability to connect with her new owner, Josie.

Ishiguro eerily includes details echoing modern day.  Josie is a fourteen year old who uses an oblong – not too different from an iPad or Iphone – to log on to online lessons and connect with friends.  Her health issues seem to have been caused by her mother’s desire to have her daughter “uplifted,” a possible gene altering operation to provide a more competitive brain (today some students dangerously use Adderall to uplift their brains before tests). The world has other predictive qualities:  Artificial Intelligence robots taking over jobs, pollution spewing machines contaminating the air, and major divisions in the haves and have nots.

The winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, Ishiguro was born in Japan and educated in Britain.  Fluent in both Japanese and English, Ishiguro’s language in this novel sometimes seems translated, adding flavor to characters in the novel, especially Klara, giving them a nonhuman quality.  Nevertheless, Klara may be at heart more human than her handlers.

As the story evolves, characters change in their motivations, sometimes in nefarious ways. Josie’s mother has made a deal to clone her daughter in the event of her death, and the clone creator confirms he believes “Our generation … wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know now.”

Klara, however,  is sure there is more to being human than replication, no matter how ingenious, and she is determined to save, not replace Josie.

Klara’s cells are solar energized, so she already has a special relationship with the sun, but Ishiguro creates a magical and almost religious connection for Klara with the Sun.  Have you ever made a deal with higher beings, promising something in exchange for a better outcome?  I’ll stop smoking, if only you’ll let my dog live; I’ll change my diet, if only you’ll let my cholesterol fall back down…  Klara makes a deal with the Sun, and is willing to sacrifice herself to make Josie better.  If she can make the right offering to the sun, he might be able to heal Josie.

As Klara “fades away’ in the end, Ishiguru reframes the question of what makes a person who they are, and reminds the reader how magical it is to be alive and loved.

We’ll Always Have Paris

Although Hawaii has its pluses, mostly the weather, I’ve never found my tribe here. Only two places have ever felt like home – Pennsylvania and Paris. And Paris is always a good idea.

The last time I was in Paris, someone asked me for directions, thinking I was local and, of course, not knowing about my directional dysfynction. I held my head high, sometimes literally lost, looking for Rue Cler until the smells of the vendors drew me there. I never minded being lost in Paris.

Since Dr. Fauci still recommends staying off planes even after getting the vaccine, Paris in person is not an option. Pennsylvania may take a while too, but that is easier to forego.

Vicariously going to Paris is easy; there are so many books. What are your favorites?

Here are a few of mine – some I may reread.

  • Paris by the Book by  Liam Callanan
  • Paris Letters by Janet MacLeod, matching my postcards with hers
  • Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer, a memoir of a writer living inside Shakespeare and Company
  • A Moveable Feast.  This classic by Hemingway visits places that still exist.
  • Paris Metro Tales.  Helen Constantine’s short stories will take you to all the arrondissements.
  • Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant – move over Bridgerton for French sex and scandal
  • The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurraine  A bookseller’s search for a woman in Paris
  • Lunch in Paris  by Elizabeth Bard   I’ll meet you there

and one I missed when it was published in 2018 – my next read:

  • Paris Adrift by E.J. Swift   Time travel to Paris – sounds perfect