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

Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

I just finished reading Hannah’s newest book, a tribute to courage and hope during the Great Depression. The Four Winds is not a happy book. It does have its moments, but maybe this is not the best time to read it.

The heroine of The Four Winds is Elsa Martinelli, a single mother of two who, in 1935, heads to California from the Dust Bowl in the Texas Panhandle in search of fresh air for her son, who is recovering from “dust pneumonia,” a then-common ailment on the Great Plains. Just as in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, leaving the drought-ridden farm does not yield the promised land in sunny California, and her life only gets worse when they reach the San Joaquin Valley, where the family settles into a squalid camp on the banks of an irrigation ditch and become migrant field workers. One of the minor characters (and Elsa’s love interest) is based on American journalist and socialist John Reed. Hannah references his book Ten Days That Shook the World in the story; you might remember a handsome Warren Beatty playing him in the movie Reds.

Dorothea Lange’s
Migrant Mother

Through grit and resilience, and with the help of a friend, Elsa overcomes miserable circumstances, and after pages of despair, Hannah finally ends the story on a sad but hopeful note. Among Hannah’s inspirations are Dorothea Lange’s portraits of Dust Bowl Women. Lange, best known as a documentary photographer during the 1930s, included reports from the field with her photographs. Some of her quotes from people with whom she had spoken make their way into Hannah’s dialogue. “Somethin’ is radical wrong,” one told her; another said, “I don’t believe the President knows what’s happening to us here.” Lange also included her own observations. “They have built homes here out of nothing,” she wrote, referring to the cardboard and plywood “Okievilles” scattered throughout California’s Central Valley. “They have planted trees and flowers. These flimsy shacks represent many a last stand to maintain self-respect.”

Hannah acknowleges her story’s connection to the current global catastrophe in an Author’s Note at the end of the book:

“My husband’s best friend, Tom, who was one of the earliest of our friends to encourage my writing and who was our son’s godfather, caught the virus last week and has just passed away. We cannot be with his widow, Lori, and his family to mourn.  Three years ago, I began writing this novel about hard times in America: the worst environmental disaster in our history; the collapse of the economy; the effect of massive unemployment. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the Great Depression would become so relevant in our modern lives, that I would see so many people out of work, in need, frightened for the future.


As we know, there are lessons to be learned from history. Hope to be derived from hardships faced by others.  We’ve gone through bad times before and survived, even thrived. History has shown us the strength and durability of the human spirit.”

 

Quick Reads and Lists of Books

Although my tastes these days tend toward feel good stories, and I’ve forgotten about checking on all the award winners this year or grabbing new publications as soon as available,  I am still always looking for a good book to take me away from reality.

Fiona Davis took me to the New York City Library and favorite neighborhoods I wonder if I will ever see again in The Lions of Fifth Avenue.  An historical novel framed around a series of book thefts spans two generations of women as they navigate family and careers.  With a smattering of women’s rights and a big dose of family drama, the story is easy to follow and with a read-it-in-a-setting vibe.  It was a Valentine’s present to me through Libby, the library’s email guru, after a friend recommended it.  If you are a lover of New York City, a lover of libraries, or just want to escape into the stacks again, The Lions of Fifth Avenue will satisfy.

William Kent Krueger’s Thunder Bay also has an historical bent, with a suspenseful plot and a taste of the Old West in the seventh book in Krueger’s Cork O’Connell mystery/detective series.  Search for a long-lost son mingles with gold in Canada and the Ojibwe tribe in Northern Minnesota.  In his style of rich character development and slow moving plot, Krueger gave me a different perspective and a reason to turn the pages.  This paperback has been sitting on my shelf, and now Krueger has his eighteenth to be published in August, 2021.  I need to catch up.

I’ve preordered a stack of books:

  1. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro    The story of Klara, an Artificial Intelligence Friend, who observes behaviors from her shelf in the store, hoping someone will choose her.
  2. Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams    The misadventures of a lovelorn Victorian lexicographer and a young woman investigating his adventures a century later.
  3. The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan     During World War II, a BBC radio program hold a cooking contest with the grand prize as the program’s first-ever female cohost.  Four women vie for the chance to change their lives.

and, in case you are wondering, some of the award winners for 2020 are:

  • Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown for the National Book Award
  • Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain for the Man Booker Award
  • Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet for the Women’s Prize for Fiction
  • Raven Leilani’s Luster for Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

Have you read any of them?