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

Got Milk?

Hard to believe it’s been almost a year since I was planning to see old friends in California and attend the annual Literary Conference to meet authors and pick up ideas.  My airline ticket is still outstanding and I won’t be using it because the conference will be virtual this year.  I do plan to log on but it will not be the same.

Reading is not the same.  When I can muster the motivation to open a book, it’s more likely a sequel to the  Bridgerton saga or the wonderful fable by Jane Smiley – Perestroika in Paris – recommended by my good friend.  And I read much more slowly, but perhaps the story of the horse, the dog, the raven, the rat, and a couple of ducks in Paris – and the map inside the cover – was one I was reluctant to see end.  How else could I vicariously be in Paris, and will I ever be there in person again?

The newsletter announcing the virtual literary conference had a few recommendations for books, and one title inspired me to look for it in Libby.  Neil Gaiman, author of so many of my favorites – The Good Omen, Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and more – delivered another gem in 2013 I missed – Fortunately, the Milk.

The story is simple: Dad goes out to get some milk for his kids, taking a long time,  but eventually returning with a carton. When asked why he took so long, he tells them a fantastical tale involving a spaceship of green globby aliens.   But it was the first paragraph that grabbed me – possibly because buying cartons of milk has become the bane of my existence these days when I fully expect to meet virus laden aliens in the grocery store.  It could be my story.

“There was only orange juice in the fridge.  Nothing else that you could put on cereal, unless you think that ketchup or mayonnaise or pickle juice would be nice on your Toasties, which I do not, and neither did my little sister, although she has eaten some pretty weird things in her day, like mushrooms in chocolate…”

Maybe I’ll read a little Gaiman today and pretend it’s green globby aliens who’ve taken over the world.  Oh wait, they have.

Library Books to Start the New Year

Libby, the email librarian, has been offering me “skip-the-line” books lately, with a seven day deadline to finish.  Ready to meet the challenge, I finished two books in record time, while ignoring others under the usual three week time frame.  The pressure to finish before Libby surreptitiously swallows my book back into the void is a challenge I cannot ignore.

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half did not tempt me when it was first published, despite accolades from Barack Obama, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and others.  I usually buy a book immediately – hardback, if I can wait a few days,  or ebook, if I need it now  – sometimes even preordering, when a new book is one I want to read and review immediately.  When I order from the library, I  expect I will have forgotten why I did by the time it appears six months later on my screen, but Libby’s “skip-the-line” brought The Vanishing Half forward sooner than expected.

Mirroring the theme from the film Imitation of Life, with a black woman passing as white, Bennett creates a novel about twin sisters, one choosing to live her adult life as a black woman and the other as a wealthy white woman. Desiree returns to her mother’s house in the small Southern town where she grew up, while Stella moves on to the big city to marry a white man who knows nothing about her background.  Their lives grow predictably different, with one struggling through poverty and the other eventually becoming a college professor.  Their daughters meet as adults, with one in medical school in love with a transgender and the other a struggling blond actress.

A Local book club picked this book for a future zoom discussion and questions rifle through the story as well as in the ending. Looking beyond the issues of race, this all white female book group might consider Libby’s pointed analysis of the book: “how a person’s past shapes decisions, desires, and expectations, and explore… {how some} feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.”

Hidden in Plain Sight

Eighty year old author and former member of Parliament, Jeffrey Archer, is still writing compelling stories with delicious hanging threads at the end to tease readers into the next novel with his characters continuing their adventures.  Hidden in Plain Sight is the second book featuring Detective William Warwick. As with the Clifton Chronicles, the Warwick novels create a family saga, as the novels follow William through his career, his loves, and his family.  Using his trademark twists, Archer chronicles the characters’ triumphs and tragedies,   This one was easy to finish quickly, and a nice distraction from the present day world.