The Plot

While some of us were wallowing in our discontent in 2020, Jean Hanff Korelitz was writing another bestseller. If you enjoyed the thrill of “The Undoing,” the HBO series based on her book “You Should Have Known,” The Plot will be no less satisfying. Perhaps you’ll figure out the true villain before the end, but getting there will still have you reeling.

Looking for his next book, after having two mediocre tomes published, Jacob Bonner hits the jackpot with a story told him by a student in his creative writing workshop. When he discovers Evan Parker has died of an overdose without finishing his book, Jacob seizes the opportunity to appropriate Evan’s narrative and write it himself. The book “Crib” is an instant success, with a movie directed by Spielberg in the offing.

While on his book tour, he has two life-changing occurrences: he meets Anna, his future wife, and he receives the first of a series of threats accusing him of plagiarism. Korelitz then begins to insert excerpts from the popular “Crib” as she continues with Jacob’s successful yet now harried life as a writer. The conceit is mesmerizing and clearly leads the reader into a series of complicated but satisfying plot twists.

As Jacob tries to confront the author of the threats to reveal his plot source, he finds himself in the middle of a family saga and another murder. Eventually, he seems to solve the mystery, but Korelitz has one last reveal at the end of her story, and it’s a good one.

Elizabeth Egan in her review for the New York Time says:

“It keeps you guessing and wondering, and also keeps you thinking: about ambition, fame and the nature of intellectual property (the analog kind). Are there a finite number of stories? Is there a statute of limitations on ownership of unused ideas? These weighty questions mingle with a love story, a mystery and a striver’s journey — three of the most satisfying flavors of fiction out there.

Jake Bonner’s insecurity, vulnerability and fear are familiar to those of us who have faced a blank screen, wondering how or whether we’ll be able to scramble letters into a story. Korelitz takes these creative hindrances and turns them into entertainment. Not only does she make it look easy, she keeps us guessing until the very end.”

A page-turner I could not put down, The Plot. Read and enjoy – just don’t give away the ending.

Thrillers for a Quick Fix

Nothing like a fast paced page-turner to get me motivated these days. Chris Bohjalian delivered again with The Hour of the Witch and Laura Dave with The Last Thing He Told Me.

Although “witch” is in the title and the setting is witch-ridden New England, the Hour of the Witch was more of a feminist approach in dealing with an abusive husband. Divorce was not easy back in colonial times, but living with a monster was not an option for Mary Deerfield, especially after her drunken husband drives a three-pronged fork into her hand. Of course, the elders decide she must either live with it or be labelled a witch. Sometimes, being a witch isn’t a bad alternative. A great story from one of my favorite storytellers. I finished it in a day.

In The Last Thing He Told Me, Hannah Hall finds herself in a twisted plot as she tries to escape FBI agents and U.S, Marshalls with her teenage stepdaughter after her husband disappears. Turns out he is not who she thought he was, and you will keep reading to find out not only why he is hiding but what he did in his past. True love prevails in the end, and I had to read this in one setting to find out how.

Next on my wild and frenzied ride through satisfying fast reads is Cynthia D’Aprix new book. Remember the author who caused a controversy when she sold her debut novel “The Nest” to a publisher for a seven figure deal? Turns out she’s not a one-hit-wonder. Her new book Good Company promises another good read. ” On the day of her daughter’s high school graduation, happily married Flora Mancini is looking for an old photograph when she discovers an envelope containing her husband’s wedding ring – the one he said he lost over a decade ago.”

What scintillating fast reads are you reading these days?

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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.

What Makes a Good Book and How Do You Talk About It?

The zoom book club meetings with posted unattractive snapshots of attendees does not appeal to me, but I’m still a fan of book discussions. Therese Anne Fowler’s A Good Neighborhood would be on my list for a book chat whenever small groups can meet in person again.

Two catalysts motivated me to find this book I somehow missed last year: one was Jung Yu’s review of the book in the Washington Post, comparing it to one of my favorite pieces of literature, A Rose for Emily by Faulkner; the other an inquiry from a friend asking for books about the writing process which led me to think about Henry James’ essay, The Art of Fiction.  

A side note was the current discussion of writers addressing characters’ viewpoints with racial identities different from their own, begging the question whether or not white authors are entitled to create thoughts out of their experience for people of color.  Yu neatly puts this latter to rest with the comment: “Execution, however, does matter. And what Fowler has executed is a book in which the black characters are thoughtfully rendered and essential to the story being told.”

Which leads me to Henry James and his ideas about what makes a novel “good.” A friend summarized his essay into three questions: What was the artist trying to achieve?  Did he or she succeed? Was it worth doing?  You don’t need to like a work to know what the artists were trying to achieve or if they succeeded, but the last question asks for an evaluation – not really whether a book was well written (a construct I’ve often heard argued in book clubs without merit) but whether the book is to your taste – pretty easy to answer and may not have anything to do with the quality of the book.

James noted the novel, for both the writer and the reader, is the road not to moral principles, but to the moral sense.  “Where the novelist is intelligent, the novel will offer an experience that has the potential for shaping and developing the reader’s own intelligence. {The novel is} the great extension, great beyond all others, of experience and of consciousness {and experience is} our appreciation and our measure of what happens to us as social creatures.  If the novel is intelligently controlled, all the necessary moral ground will be covered.”

In an essay on literary criticism, Mambrol wrote:  “Novels should not transmit moral principles and rules as such, but renovate and develop the mind by attempting to engage the reader in the pursuit of intricate combinations of form, content, and germinating subjects.”

Maybe all this is a little highbrow for the book club discussions I have heard but perhaps it would help to steer ideas into a more thoughtful hour of reflection rather than the norm of dissecting the details.

 

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