The Buried Giant—NOT a simple story

The Buried Giant

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Published 2015

Read July 2016

This reader led a discussion of this book for her book discussion group in fall 2016.  It’s taken too long to prepare this essay about a really remarkable book.  Perhaps now is a good time to pick this book off the shelf and give it a go.

When released, the book got variable reviews, primarily because there are “fantasy” elements in it.  In fact, the book was considered for awards by a couple of fantasy book groups.  The book can be read quickly and lightly and put away at the end—or not because Ishiguro’s books are never just light and easy.

There is a “mist” over the land in ~450 AD after King Arthur has conquered the Saxons and the Britons and Saxons are living “peacefully” in the same countryside (although villages are still fairly segregated).  The “mist” seems to be the reason for everyone’s inability to form short term memories and for their near loss of longer-term memories.  Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple living in one of the villages who recall they have a son who lives in the next village.  They decide to go and see him.  The story then follows their adventures – which occur over only a few days if one stops to consider the timing. 

In the next village—where their son isn’t residing after all so the couple will continue forward—a young boy is discovered to have a strange bite which frightens the villages.  Axl and Beatrice agree to take him with them and leave him in their son’s village–which must be the next one.  Wistan, a young Saxon soldier recently arrived, gets involved as well and wants to take charge of the boy when it’s learned the bite is probably from a dragon.   Wistan has knowledge of this dragon and wishes to slay him, for reasons that slowly become apparent.  This offends Sir Gawain, whose mission has been for many years, to find and slay the dragon.  The reader comes to understand Sir Gawain’s mission more completely as the story evolves.

As the few but very event-filled days pass, Axl’s memory slowly returns.  These memories remind him of the role he played during the war between the Saxons and the Britons while a leader in King Arthur’s government. He also is slowly but perhaps not completely remembering a hurt inflicted by his wife on him.  He and his wife finally remember that their son has died and they decide they wish to reside on the island where he is buried.  There is a requirement, however, that for a couple to be together on this island, their love must be proven to be strong and proven.  They expect to meet this requirement and must trust the boatman, who will ferry them to the island, to help them prove it.  The novel ends before we know whether Beatrice’s notion to trust the boatman was correct or not.  This reader, although not all those in the book discussion group, enjoys such ambiguous endings. 

Once again Ishiguro provides the readers a seemingly simple story that actually holds many questions for the reader that are universally relevant including the following:  What are the reasons for war and for “fighting to the death” —are they valid?  Will mankind ever be able to move past them? Can mankind move past tribal loyalty?  How are the wars between nations/tribes different—or not—from wars between two people in a relationship that has encountered troubles.  What is the difference between “justice” and “vengeance” if any?  Is it acceptable to choose to not fulfill a commitment made if it proves injurious to others?  Does that then make you disloyal and/or a bad citizen?  Are all values learned or are some innate?  A simple story with some fantasy elements but a deep story indeed. 

Hamnet—a possible story of Shakespeare, Anne, and their son


By Maggie O’Farrell

Published 2020

Read June 2021

O’Farrell’s fiction gives us a possible story of Hamnet Shakespeare, the only son of William Shakespeare,   who died at age eleven.  The novel alternates between the stories of the last days of Hamnet and that of the courtship and marriage of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway to just after Hamnet’s death.  O’Farrell never actually names Shakespeare or give Anne’s last name in the book, but her story isn’t inconsistent with the limited history we have of Shakespeare.

This reader is always a little wary of fictionalized accounts of actual lives.  This particular novel avoided the aspects this reader dislikes—providing dialog of the person being described, especially when it pertains to how they are feeling about a situation. 

Her account is believable and engaging.  The descriptions of the concern felt by Hamnet of his sister’s illness, the birth of Anne’s first child, and especially the depth of her grief at Hamnet’s death are all very well done.

This reader does recommend this fictionalized account of this part of Shakespeare’s life as one that provides a look at aspects of his life and his family.

Pride and Prejudice–an appropriately beloved classic

Pride and Prejudice

By Jane Austen

Published 1813

Read June 2021

The June 2021 reading of the book was the first for this reader.  The general story was well known to her based on having watched, multiple times, the 2005 Kierra Knightley movie based on the book.  This reader listened to the 2015 Audible production read by Rosamund Pike, a British actress and narrator, who played Jane Bennet in that 2005 movie production of the book.   

The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet is the second oldest daughter of five.   Her father’s estate is entailed so will pass to a male cousin, Mr. William Collins upon his death since the Bennet’s did not have a son.  As Mrs. Bennet has no income from an inheritance of her own, she and the daughters will be destitute upon the death of Mr. Bennet so it is very important that at least one of the daughters marries into a monied state and can support at least the mother if not them all.  However, the daughters, having had a “liberal” upbringing, are more inclined to marry “for love”. The daughters aren’t as well prepared to marry “up” as they could have been had they spent more time on literary and musical education.  Only Mary seems to be interested in showing off her (limited) musical capabilities.  She doesn’t have the beauty of her older sisters Jane and Elizabeth nor Jane’s sweet demeanor so she’s searching for some foot forward.  Younger daughters Kitty and Lydia are silly and enjoy flirting.  The consequences of their “liberal” upbringing come to bear when Lydia’s flirtations take a step beyond.

The arrival of Mr. Bingley, a wealthy young man, to the neighborhood begins the reader’s introduction to the manners, rites, and rituals of England in 1812.  Jane Austen’s opening two lines of the book are quite telling: 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

Mr Darcy accompanies this single mand and his friend Mr Bringley to a dance and Miss Austen begins her tale of how the  unfortunate first impressions (the draft title of the book) of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy slowly evolve and are overcome.  While the Kierra Knightley movie captured the primary story quite well and used Austen’s dialogue quite often, the limitation of 90 or so minutes in cinematic format leaves out much of the detail that the book covers.  There are quite a few characters that drive various aspects of the plot and we learn about each of them to some extent.

While all of the characters are gentlemen and ladies, there are substantial differences between them driven by the source and extent of their wealth.  Mr. Bennet’s income is sufficient to maintain a household of five daughters but his wife needs to stretch the income to cover their expenses and she frets about their future when Mr. Collins will inherit the estate.  Mr. Bingley rents, vs owns, an estate, but has a substantial income from some undefined source. George Wickam, the son of the steward of Mr. Darcy’s late father and who has obtained a position of officer in the militia decries Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth that he has been denied the income of a clergyman by Mr. Darcy’s doings.  Mr. Collins has obtained a position of clergyman and has sponsorship from Mr. Darcy’s wealthy aunt.  Mr. Darcy makes quite clear to Elizabeth Bennet in his offer of marriage (which is denied) that, while she may be a gentleman’s daughter, her economic and social standing is quite different than his (her being lower) and their marriage will cause some stir in his social circle.   His aunt seeks to warn Elizabeth away from her nephew as she is totally unacceptable as a potential wife.  But, of course, love wins out in the end. 

This reader now understands why this book has remained a beloved classic.  This reader was much more delighted than she anticipated she would be to spend 11.5 hours with the multiple characters in this book.  Previous encounters with Austen books (all driven by the reader’s book discussion group) were almost painful for this reader—the language of the time, the incessant focus on the amount of income of potential suitors and the corresponding prejudice against those who actually work for a living, etc.  However, the last book read before this one, via audiobook, showed that Austen could be enjoyable in the audiobook format.  Such was the case with this book.  While the text seems quite formal, it is quite witty and often quite humorous as the characters of different strata within the class of gentlemen and ladies seek to find their way through the myriad of manners, rites, and rituals of the time.  Austen’s sly commentary about the “classes with a class” situation is available to the reader in addition to the enchanting Elizabeth/Mr Darcy love story.  Well done Miss Austen.  My “prejudice” against her has been vanquished. 

Troubled Blood–another Galbraith hit

Troubled Blood

By Robert Galbraith

Published 2020

Read May 2021

This reader chooses to listen to books by this author on long road trips.   Like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, each book in this series gets longer than the last one.  The stories are a little more complicated each time and the descriptions of the actions, places, and feelings get increasingly more detailed. In addition, the number and details of side stories increases.   That all suits this reader just fine.

The investigation business of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott (now a salaried partner) has grown and they employ a few additional contractors to stake out various people they’ve been engaged to investigate for various reasons.  They are approached by a woman to find out what really happened to her mother, Margot Bamborough, a general practitioner who disappeared 40 years ago.  Was she a victim of a now jailed serial killer or did something else happen to her?    The woman’s partner is concerned about the financial and emotional stress of the investigation so Coromoran and Robin have 12 months to solve the mystery.

During this evolving investigation, the side stories that provide various amounts of distraction to them include: Cormoran’s siblings’ desire to have a reunion of all of Cormoran’s father’s children from various liaisons and Cormoran’s refusal to participate;  the illness and subsequent death of Cormoran’s aunt, who raised him when his mother left and who he considers his “true” mother; Cormoran’s ex’s mental breakdown and hospitalization; Robin’s move into a shared housing arrangement following the breakup of her marriage; and the lengthy negotiation of Robin’s divorce from her estranged husband.   And —since Robin is now divorcing, will the relationship between Robin and Cormoran develop beyond their professional one.

This reader enjoys the somewhat leisurely but engaging telling of all these stories with all the details Rowling/Galbraith cares to include and looks forward to future installments. 

Klara and the Sun-another from the master Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Published 2021

Read June 2021

Once again, this reader was struck by the power of Ishiguro’s seemingly simple but actually extremely deep work.  Once again, this reader couldn’t start another book for several days after finishing this one so there was some time for it to settle in her brain.

The story is set in an undefined time somewhat in the future and in an undefined place in the US.  We hear the story through Klara’s first-person narrative and the dialog she recounts.  Klara is an AF—an Artificial Friend.  She is a B2—a second generation model in the “B” line.  When we meet her, she is for sale in a shop that sells AFs.  All the AFs in the shop are solar power so her initial conversation with the reader is about how the sun comes into the shop and how the AFs view it.  A question she is pondering—Can one AF consume all of the power in a single patch of sunlight on the floor? 

Klara and another AF, Rosie, are delighted to get their turn in the shop window.  Klara enjoys watching all the happenings outside the shop—the runners, the taxis that drop off people, the people that go in and out of the building across the street. Klara is very concerned when a construction machine blocks their view for several days and billows pollution.  Likely this is a machine that is breaking up the macadam and prepping the street for repaving.  The manager assures her that the machine will eventually leave but doesn’t explain further.

A girl whose age Klara estimates to be 14 talks to Klara through the window one day.  The girl’s manner of walking indicates some sort of medical issue but it hasn’t lessened her sunny disposition.  The girl visits several times and they form a bond.  The girl clearly wants to convince her mother to buy Klara.  When another customer considers Klara and Klara isn’t her usual self to avoid being purchased, the manager cautions Klara that children sometimes make promises they can’t keep and she should welcome becoming the AF for any child that expresses interest in her.

Eventually the mother and the girl, Josie, do come to the store looking for Klara who is now relegated to the back part of the store.  Josie fortunately does locate Klara and presses her mother to buy her.  The mother is concerned that Klara is a B2 and a new improved B3 line is available.  Manager remains fairly neutral but does highlight Klara’s unique ability to observe and learn.  The mother tests this by asking Klara to walk as Josie walks which she does with amazing accuracy which leaves the mother seemingly stunned but convinced this is the right AF for her daughter.

In the next sections Klara tells us about Josie’s home and we get an interesting picture of life in these times.  Josie and her mother, a “high ranking professional”, live in a rural setting with few other houses around.  Their house is large and modern and a housekeeper maintains it, cooks, and babysits Josie while her mother is at work.  Josie, like most teenagers, no longer attends in-class school but uses “an oblong” for her studies and has various tutors with whom she interacts using “the oblong”.  Parents are concerned about the social development of their children since they no longer have daily interactions with others, and they arrange social interaction events, reminiscent of “play dates” that are common for young children in our current times.  The parents try to eavesdrop on their children in the “open plan” at Josie’s house and all turn to stare when Rick, Josie’s good friend and next-door neighbor, arrives to join the event.  Rick is different from all the children at the event as his mother has decided not to have Rick “lifted” which will certainly limit his prospects including what colleges might accept him.  As usual, Ishiguro doesn’t explain what “lifting” is but we do come to learn that there are risks involved with the procedure and that perhaps this is a root cause for the death of Josie’s older sister and for Josie’s medical issues.

This reader won’t dwell on further details of the plot and leave that for future readers to discover. However, this reader will comment on some of the aspects of the culture of Josie’s world. 

As in our current society, there is much emphasis placed on getting into the “right” college.  In our current society, SAT classes, special tutors, torrents of extra-curricular activities to build the student’s resume, and coaches to help prepare college applications are commonplace.  We now understand that certain celebrities paid $500,000 + to secure college slots for their children, some of which had no interest themselves in attending college.  In Josie’s world, something has led parents to put their children through dangerous medical procedures to “lift” their children’s brains, take them out of in-person schools, pay for remote tutors, arrange for structured social interaction events, and buy AF’s to ease their children’s feelings of isolation.  Klara’s mission is laser focused to care for and support Josie in any way possible, which eventually leads her into an interesting relationship with the Sun that this reader won’t reveal here.  Rick’s mother seeks to use a “secret weapon” to help Rick get into a particular school—her past romantic relationship with a person (perhaps Rick’s father?)  now on the admissions committee of that school. 

Other aspects of today’s society remain including:   Marriage remains common but so too does divorce and the challenges it places on all parties.   Parents want what is best for their children and will do nearly anything to make that possible, but at the same time dread their children leaving.  (Josie and her mother’s visits to the city near the AF store were to have a portrait done of Josie.) Teen agers haven’t developed mature social skills and so can be mean to each other and even bully others to prop up their own self-esteem.   Childhood friendships can endure others’ taunts, parents’ concerns, and provide support that is unique.  Klara’s recounting of events that demonstrate these is interesting since she is trying to learn these cultural elements which her previous training and Manager’s input hasn’t covered.  

The conversations between Josie’s parents and Rick’s mother while they are all in the city together provide the author a means of showing other aspects of their society.  As in our current situation, jobs can be eliminated due to productivity increases and automation.  Josie’s father and his engineering colleagues were apparently displaced, possibly by AF’s.  He now lives in some sort of community of individuals who have experienced this situation.  Rick’s mother expresses some disparagement of the community but little is explained except that Josie’s father anticipates some violence in the future for unspecified reasons. 

The author gives us various glimpses of technology—recall we only learn about things through Klara’s narration, an approach this reader very much appreciated.  Cars are still used as a standard mode of transportation although taxis (or possibly “Ubers”?) are very common as well.  Rick is working on an operating system for his “birds” (drones). The author provides some insights on AF technology and its implications.   Klara describes how her visual system sometimes breaks the data it is capturing into some number of cells, each of which has a particular focus. It seems this isn’t always the case, but most likely when new or unusual situations arise.   While AFs are commonly used by families to help their children, AF’s aren’t universally embraced.  Being replaced by AFs in the workplace is a concern and, in one scene, someone going to a theater production is annoyed that a paid seat for the sold-out show might be going to an AF vs a real person.

This reader listened to an audiobook production.  The voices used by the reader gave appropriate “life” to the various characters—parents, Rick, Josie, and Klara.  This reader took longer walks/jogs than usual, and got closets and rooms tidied than might not have otherwise for reasons to have the audiobook playing.  This reader saved the final 41 min chapter to be read while driving to visit someone.  Then this reader re-listened to this very remarkable chapter again on the way home and was stunned by it both times.   In 10 short hours of listening, the author takes you into a simply told story that says much about where we may find ourselves in the not-too-distant future, and also about our current state:  what is important to us and how do we show it; what do we teach our children about what is important in life and what do they learn. 

Kazuo Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017.  Their stated prize motivation: “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

 Kazuo Ishiguro – Facts. Nobel Media AB 2021. Mon. 17 May 2021.

 Hopefully Ishiguro will continue writing and making us think deeply.

My Cousin Rachel—an unusual mystery

My Cousin Rachel

By Daphne du Maurier

Published 1951

Read May 2021

This reader much enjoyed the mystery/suspense of de Maurier’s Rebecca and hoped this book would be similarly engaging.  This reader listened to an Audible production of the book and her level of engagement is demonstrated by this reader’s determination to find occasions to continue listening.  In addition to listening in the car and while jogging, there were additional walks, lots of closet cleaning and other general tidying.  Bottom line—it was hard to turn the kindle off.

The story is set in approximately 1830 with all the societal customs of the landed gentry of Cornwall.  Philip Ashley is the nephew of bachelor Ambrose Ashley.  Ambrose owns a large estate on the Cornish coast.  Philip’s parents died when he was three and his uncle raised him.  The nanny was released from service after a very short time so Philip has grown up with limited interaction with women save the daughter of his godfather who was widowed when his daughter was young. 

After Philip graduates from college and begins working with his uncle in earnest on the estate, the uncle starts spending his winters in warmer, drier climates for health reasons.  One winter he stays in Florence to visit its gardens and collect plants for his Cornish estate.  He meets a distant cousin of his, Rachel, who was raised in Italy and is now widowed.  Letters from Ambrose to Philip describe Cousin Rachel in flattering terms.  But very surprising and suddenly his letters indicate that Ambrose, the committed to bachelorhood uncle, has married and will be staying in Florence for the summer as there are a number of business issues to address.  When the letters become increasingly infrequent and suggest Ambrose is sick, Philip goes to Florence only to learn that his uncle has recently died and has been buried and Cousin Rachel has left her estate.  Did Uncle Ambrose die of a brain tumor as Ambrose’s father did?  Philip returns to England and learns from his godfather, who was Ambrose’s lawyer and is now Philip’s guardian, that Ambrose did not rewrite his will after his marriage and that Philip has inherited everything with nothing going to his widow.  The will also stipulates that Philip’s guardian is in control of the inheritance until Philip’s twenty-fifth birthday which is in about ten months.   Cousin Rachel journeys to England and sends a letter that she has Ambrose’s clothes and books and would like to return them.  Philip invites her to the estate and she arrives.   He is prepared to dislike and distrust Cousin Rachel based on the letters from his uncle, from his conversation with Cousin Rachel’s lawyer in Florence, and from his own knowledge that Ambrose had been such a “true bachelor”.

Thus begins the story of Cousin Rachel and Philip.   The story is told by Phillip.  In the first chapter he is looking back at an experience when he was just seven and people convicted of murder were hung on fence posts for all to see and for slow disposal by birds, beasts, and nature.  He gives us a hint of the story and wonders if Rachel was innocent or guilty and implies that he might be guilty of something himself.   What follows is Philip’s narration of the arrival of Cousin Rachel, development of their relationship, a series of decisions by Phillip made as his view of Cousin Rachel evolves from suspicion to total bewitchment, infatuation, and beyond, and the consequences of those decisions.  We see Cousin Rachel only through the eyes of this twenty-four-year-old who is clearly not yet an adult and who is quite good prey for a money-hungry thirty-five-year-old widow with expensive tastes, if that’s who she is.  Phillip certainly doesn’t see her that way, at least at first, but his suspicions are aroused again by another letter that is found in some of Ambrose’s clothes.

A triumph of du Maurier’s writing is that the answer to Phillip’s question of Cousin Rachel’s guilt or innocence is never answered. Another triumph is that we get the story of a highly intelligent and beautiful woman who is continuing to make her own way through a complicated life by means of her beauty, wits, and wiles in the absence of any other paths for women of her class in this society.  As well she gives us the story of a young man who has been raised to be another Ambrose Ashley, a bachelor and well-respected estate owner.  Perhaps du Maurier is showing us to what such a plan leads with the joke being on the actually guileless master–a reverse on a more usual romance story.  This is a superbly well written and engaging read!