The Glass Hotel—not so engaging

The Glass Hotel

By Emily St John Mandel

Published 2020

Read June 2021

This is the third Mandel novel read by this reader.  This book was written and published following her highly successful Station Eleven.  This reader had high expectations.  Once again Mandel uses an asynchronous story telling approach and there are a number of characters.  The book starts and ends with a death of one of them. 

Station Eleven had a unifying character and event for the various characters, Arthur, and the Georgian Flu pandemic that provided a central thrust—what’s lost/ what’s gained by the pandemic, how did it impact various characters, how is it see by various characters, etc.  The Lola Quartet also had a unifying character—Anna. Her on-the-run story and pursuit of her by one of the characters forms the thriller aspect of the story. 

When considering the unifying theme or character in The Glass Hotel, it is less obvious.  Vincent (a girl) and Paul are half-siblings whose individual stories of personal loss, seeking a place in the world, and art are told in pieces across the novel.  A third character, Jonathan, owns The Glass Hotel at which Vincent and Paul both work for a short time.  Vincent, the hotel bartender, serves Jonathan drinks one night and shortly thereafter readily accepts a role as his apparent (but not actual) second wife (first died of cancer) and lives in the world of the wealthy.  We eventually learn Jonathan’s wealth was gained by a Ponzi scheme which crashes.  Vincent leaves him and starts a new life on a transport ship as a cook and ends up in the ocean– providing the scene that starts and ends the book. 

Amongst all of this we learn about some of the victims of the Ponzi scheme including Leon, who was Miranda’s boss in Station Eleven.  Miranda is mentioned as well as is the Georgian Flu which apparently comes and goes without devastation in the background of this novel.  Leon and Miranda have different stories than they did in Station Eleven.  Some reviewers discuss this in terms of Mandel’s exploration of transience of life and multiple potential paths.  This reader found the presence of these characters somewhat off-putting and wondered if the author was trying too hard to be literary.   

This reader anticipates that her views of the book may not reflect other readers’ reactions.  Perhaps this reader’s lack of engagement by the characters was because none of them were particularly likable or even that interesting to this reader.  This reader does expect to read more by Mandel in the future.

The Lola Quartet–another great read from Mandel

The Lola Quartet

By Emily St John Mandel

Published 2020

Read June 2021

This is the second Mandel novel for this reader.  Mandel shows off her talent for slowly revealing the stories of multiple characters who are connected in some fashion.  In this case, the four characters she gives us were members of the Lola Quartet in high school:  Gavin, Jack, Sasha, and Daniel.  While they all take different paths after high school, Sasha’s half-sister Anna, who was the (probably simultaneous) girlfriend of Gavin and Daniel while they were in high school, provides a connection that complicates all their lives and provides the suspense/thriller aspect of the story.

Gavin left Florida which was literally too hot for his body to handle.  He majored in journalism and lives and works in New York City.  When his fiancée leaves him and his newspaper begins slicing off personnel, he invents a quote for a story to make it more interesting.  That first lie leads him to more made-up quotes and he is eventually discovered and fired.  He returns to Florida to bunk with his sister and work with her in a real estate bankruptcy business, hopefully all temporarily.  She shows him a photo of a young girl she took at a foreclosure property which triggers the possibility that Gavin is the father of a child ex-girlfriend Anna really had.  (There had been rumors she was pregnant when she left town shortly after Gavin’s graduation.)  Gavin’s hunt for the child and Anna provides the suspense/thriller plot and her connection with the quartet provides the means for the author to explore these characters through a series of current day/flashback scenes parsing between the various characters. 

Jack also went to college, but studied music to follow his passion.  His roommate, Liam Deval, has true talent as well as passion for music.  Liam agrees to drive Anna, who shows up at their dorm room one night, to a place she’s trying to reach that isn’t too far from their college town.  Liam’s semester, and college career, get derailed when he gets involved with Anna.  We learn Jack realizes his passion isn’t enough to fuel a musical career and he manages to get addicted to pain killers and ends up back in his home town, unemployed, living in wreck of a house in a bad section of town. 

Daniel had left town with Anna right after graduation, assuming her baby was his.  They make it to his aunt’s place where he expects they will be able to stay for a while only to find out that won’t be the case.  They end up in a garage of an acquaintance who is now a meth dealer. When the baby is born and it’s clearly not Daniel’s (per skin color), Daniel leaves Anna.  Anna stays in the garage for a while with the baby and managers to steal from the meth dealer a satchel containing about $120,000 and she starts a life on the run with her infant daughter.  We learn that Daniel is now a police officer in his home town and has two sets of children, from two failed marriages, whom he is supporting financially and with whom he is trying to remain a relevant parent

Sasha is the product of a very dysfunctional family.  Anna is her half-sister.   She started playing poker for money in high school and when the story picks up, she is working as a waitress in a 24-hour diner and fighting her addiction.

Liam Deval and Anna are critical characters but get little character development.  The quartet members are Mandel’s focus.  Each had a great high-school experience in the Lola Quartet and for Jack and Sasha this may have been “the best years of their lives”. Mandel may or may not have had planned to make a point here but did so with this reader.   Jack goes to college to study music—to follow his passion.  Students going to college to follow a sports passion often get a scholarship to do so.  Few make it into the profession leagues and they may or may not have had good preparation for post-college but at least they may leave with limited debt whether or not they graduated.  Students going to college to follow a passion in music pay to get a music degree.  Again, few make it professionally and they may be strangled with heavy student debt, again whether or not they graduated.  Jack drops out early when he realizes he’s not going to be successful and doesn’t progress from there.  Gavin moved away from music immediately upon leaving high school and was seeking fame and fortune through journalism vs music.  He dreams of winning a Pulitzer but his short cuts eliminate that possibility and likely future journalism jobs.  So there also is a potential point that at least these characters are driven to achieve fame and fortune and fail. 

Mandel demonstrates her ability to draw engaging, rounded characters.  They have serious flaws but good points as well.  They make serious mistakes and suffer the consequences.  Mandel pulls no punches here, but also keeps most of the violence and other nasty scenes “off-camera” —an approach this reader has already indicated much appreciation in her Station Eleven novel.   The well-executed character studies and the particular suspense/thriller story—especially with its messy ending—make for a really great read.

North and South—a strong young woman in a time of change

North and South

By Elizabeth Gaskell

Published 1855

Read June 2021

This reader began listening to North and South immediately after finishing Pride and Prejudice.  This reader, like many others, found a number of similarities between the books as well as some contrasts.

The protagonist is again a young woman.  We initially meet nineteen-year-old Margaret Hale on her cousin’s wedding day.  Margaret has been living in London with her cousin and her cousin’s wealthy mother for the past ten years.   Once her cousin marries, Margaret returns to her parents’ simpler home in the southern village of Helstone.  There her cousin’s brother-in-law, Henry, an up-and-coming barrister, visits her.  They had enjoyed conversations while in London at the many social events.  Henry proposes marriage and is rejected by Margaret who indicates they are only friends and she couldn’t imagine feelings beyond that.  Shortly after his event, her father, the pastor of the local Church of England, decides to leave his position as a matter of conscience.  Further, with the help of his old friend, Mr. Bell, he has decided to move to a city in the north, Milton, and make a living as a tutor.  He informs Margaret and asks her to tell her mother, knowing his wife will be distressed. 

Thus begins the real story of this book.  Margaret helps her father find a small house to rent and outfits it as best as she can before her mother arrives.  She begins interacting with various residents of the town which has several textile mills that are the major source of employment for the town.  Margaret meets Bessie, a girl about her age, who is very sickly.  Margaret eventually learns that her illness was caused by breathing in cotton dust while she worked at the mill. She also gets to know Bessie’s father, Mr. Higgins, who works at the mills and is a drinker. One of her father’s students is Mr. Thorton, an owner of one of the mills.  We learn that his schooling had been truncated when his alcoholic father died and he had to work to help pay the bills.  He has since then become a successful businessman himself and is spending some time with Mr. Hale to catch up on classical literature he didn’t study when he would ordinarily have. 

As in Pride and Prejudice, Margaret is generally prejudiced against Mr. Thorton, this time due to being an industrialist vs a gentleman.  This corresponds to her general prejudice against the whole concept of the industrial north and she longs for her days in the south and the culture of the gentry.  Her mother shares her prejudice and can’t adjust to being in this town.  It’s implied that the environment is dark—air and water pollution?  It’s not clear.  At any rate her mother falls sick – likely a cancer irrelevant to the town–and dies.  She extracts a promise from an unwilling Mrs. Thorton (Mr. Thorton’s mother) that Mrs. Thorton will provide Margaret moral guidance if needed. 

Mrs. Thorton is quite concerned that Margaret wants to marry her son.  During a visit to Mrs. Thorton at their home, which is on the textile mill campus, strikers charge the house.  Margaret steps out on the porch and tries to calm the crowd (and is effective).   Mrs. Thorton is convinced this act was out of love for her son.  But (of course) Margaret has absolutely no interest in marrying Mr. Thorton and is only interested in the welfare of the workers and didn’t want to see them beaten up by the army that was on the way to break up the crowd.

Without revealing more of the plot, there is a misunderstanding that causes Mr. Thorton to protect Margaret from a lie she told.  She is mortified that he knows about this lie and hopes that it can be cleared up.  Mr. Bell, whom she asks for help in this matter, dies before he completes this task.

Pride and Prejudice, which was also contemporary to its publication, is set about 40 years earlier.  Both authors point out that women had few rights and limited opportunities to make their own way, especially if they are of the “gentlewoman” class.  “Service” is open to working women and, in the North, factory work is available.  However, that proved deadly for many, including Bessie.   After the death of her father, Margaret has no obvious option but to return to her wealthy aunt’s house.  There she has far fewer freedoms than she did either in her beloved village of Helstone or in Milton.  In these two places she was free to walk about, interact with her neighbors and other area residents.  In London, however, she must have her aunt’s permission to leave the house and must be accompanied by someone suitable. 

In this book, Elizabeth Gaskell also highlights the changes occurring in the country.  The South is still a land of land-owning gentry and the farmers that work the master’s land and who are afforded compensation for it.  The shopkeepers and merchants and even the lawyers and businessmen are recognized as essential but are generally outside the “gentleman” crowd.  (Though since only one son inherits the estate, the other sons generally have to go into some kind of occupation to make a living!).  The North is now populated with textile mills and other factories.  The master is now the factory owner and clearly not of the “gentleman” crowd, Mr. Thorton being an example as someone who has raised himself up from a very poor existence to that of master.  The relationship between worker and master in the North is also very different from tenant and master in the South.  The author highlights this with the strike and the willingness of Mr. Thorton and his peers to bring in Irish workers to replace their former employees to meet their contracts when the workers go on strike.  Margaret’s interactions with both the workers and Mr. Thorton help her understand the chasm between them and she seeks to heal it.  She convinces Mr. Higgins, a loyal union member, to ask Mr. Thorton directly for work in his factory.  His perseverance motivates Mr. Thorton to hire him which sets the stage for a different relationship between them.

Mr. Thorton in this book and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice love the respective protagonists and seek to win their love.  Mr. Darcy’s actions to repair damage he caused Elizabeth’s older sister and to save her younger sister from her reckless behavior demonstrated selflessness that won Elizabeth’s heart.  Mr. Thorton protects Margaret from a lie she told and is generally resigned to life without Margaret but that alone does not win her love but rather causes her embarrassment to be around him.  When his financial situation changes, and he seeks employment as a supervisor (vs master), his willingness to work with those he would supervise nullifies Margaret’s prejudices. 

Both novels have much to draw a female audience.  North and South’s focus on the industrial situation may have drawn male audiences as well.  It is interesting to note that North and South was first published as a serial in Charles Dickens’ Household Words in 1854 and 1855 at the same time that a his Hard Times was being similarly serially published in this journal.  Dickens required this title for the work over Gaskell’s preference of “Margaret Hale” or “Death and Variations”.  North and South was published in book form in two volumes of 25 and 27 chapters each and differed from the serialized version in several ways  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_and_South_(Gaskell_novel); July 18, 2021)

Both Austen and Gaskell have provided readers for over a century two interesting, strong women characters whose personal stories have and will engage readers indefinitely.  Their books showed women possible ways of being/thinking that weren’t “standard” at the time and as well provided some commentary on the impact of “standard” thinking on society in general.  These are classics that have been and will be read and produced in multiple formats well into the future. 

Anxious People–with some twists

Anxious People

By Fredrik Bachman

Published 2020

Read June 2021

This is delightful book.  Part mystery.  Part drama.  Part comedy.  The author has a dry sense of humor and a wonderful understanding of human nature. 

A person desperate to get enough cash to rent an apartment so that they don’t lose partial custody of their kids following a divorce decides to rob a bank—with the intention of returning the money at some point.  Unfortunately, the bank is a “modern” one that doesn’t use cash so that plan fails.  During the subsequent police chase the robber stumbles into an apartment in the midst of a real estate open house and the attendees become hostages.  Except that was not the robber’s intention. 

Over the course of the novel, we meet and learn about the robber, each of the hostages, and the two police that are trying to work the hostage crisis while the person from Stockholm assigned to lead the situation is stuck in traffic. The characters are quite a collection with a nice range of turmoil happening in each of their lives and we learn that their situation is not as it seems.  The novel shifts back and forth between interviews by the police of the various hostages after their release and the forward moving story in the apartment. 

The structure is great.  The characters are wonderfully messy.  The story has some twists and turns and, in the end, some commentary on how we perceive ourselves and each other. 

Bravo Fredrik Bachman!  Keep writing!

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

Hamnet

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. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2021. Mon. 17 May 2021. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2017/ishiguro/facts/

 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!