The Five Wounds: Struggles Abound

The Five Wounds

By Kristin Valdez Quande

Published 2021

Read July 2021

This reader obtained this book as an e-book through her library system when a “hold” turned into a “borrow”.  Since she was fully engaged in two other books at the time, she returned it, only to find out sometime later that the return hadn’t been successful and there were three days before the book would be automatically returned.  So, this reader began to read and she read with urgency both partly because of the looming deadline but also because the book was quite engaging. 

The book is structured in several quite long parts with breaks intermittent but not numbered in any way.    Within any given part, the narrator provides the point of view of one of several characters:  Amedeo, who has suffered five wounds as part of an annual reenactment of Christ’s Passion; Angel, his almost sixteen year old pregnant daughter who moves from her mother’s house to live with Amedeo during the Passion Week; Yolanda, Amedeo’s mother, who owns the house in which Amedeo lives and who supports him, his daughter, and her baby once born; and Brianna, Angel’s teacher at the Smart Start! for unmarried pregnant teenagers run by a local agency. 

Amedeo is thirty-three, is an alcoholic, and is unemployed.  His mother, Yolanda, urged her uncle, Uncle Tive, The Hermano Mayor, to choose Amedeo to play Jesus in this year’s reenactment of the Passion.  The first part provides a summary of Amedeo’s initiation into the hemandad, which Uncle Tive personally revived after his son’s death, the various ceremonies it executes during Lent, and the Good Friday reenactment.  Amedeo decides to “ask for nails” so his wounds go from the usual three slashes on his back to five when nails are driven through his hands.  He alternates between pride for asking for the nails and embarrassed by his wounds which he tells people are from an accident with a nail gun.  We learn from these episodes and others that Amedeo has not matured beyond adolescence on most accounts and the Passion Week events have done little to spur him forward.

Angel was born when Amedeo was eighteen and her mother was sixteen.  Amedeo was apparently the center of attention at the baby shower the parents put on for the couple but the hoped-for wedding didn’t occur.  Marissa, Angel’s mother, stopped trying to engage him in parenthood fairly early in Angel’s life.  Angel has left her mother’s house when Marissa doesn’t take seriously Angel’s story about a violent act by Marissa’s boyfriend against Angel.  Unlike her mother’s pregnancy with her, Angel’s pregnancy isn’t associated with a real boyfriend.  During a somewhat aimless period of promiscuity Angel hooked up with a boy in her geometry class once; he doesn’t even know he is the father nor does she have immediate plans to let him know.  Fortunately, she is enrolled in a Smart Start! program for pregnant teenagers that has a committed young teacher, Brianna, who is teaching them useful personal and self-organizational habits with the intent that the girls will create for themselves and their baby a more stable environment than most of them had themselves. Child-care is provided once the baby comes so that the girls can stay in the program while preparing for GED examinations as well as learning about child care and parenting.  Angel has thoroughly engaged with this program and the teacher. 

The author provides us with three adult women characters in different stages of their lives.  Each is employed in full-time jobs that provide well enough for themselves and those they are supporting.  Yolanda is the matriarch of her family.  She drives about an hour each way for her job in at the state capital.  She has been supporting her grown 33-year-old son, has added full time support of her pregnant granddaughter, and will support her grandchild when he/she arrives.  She learns she has brain cancer but doesn’t reveal it to her family or workplace until things get pretty dire.  Brianna is at the beginning of her career.  A recently minted college graduate, she has lots of energy for the Smart Start! program but is troubled her personal life isn’t progressing as she hoped, having had no boyfriends yet.  Marissa, Angel’s mother, is 32.  She has an administrative position with an architect firm.  She is challenged by Angel’s teen-age years at the same time she would like to find someone with whom she can have a stable romantic relationship.  We don’t hear from Marissa directly, unlike the other two women, but certainly her relationship with Angel is an important element.

The only other male character with any sizable role is Uncle Tive.  He is actually Yolanda’s uncle.  He has had problems of his own, having lost a son to drug overdose.  However, he is a leader in the hermidad community, which he revived, that provides some focus for the men of the community to go beyond their own troubles and issues.  He also has some source of stable income as he regularly helps his great-nephew and great-great grandniece finically and with transportation.

While the situation of the various characters was clearly difficult in general, individual characters experience hope and joy at times.  Angel is excited about the habits she is being taught at Smart!Start and is clearly learning to apply some of them.  The initial parts of Yolanda’s vacation with her boyfriend are quite exciting and enjoyable for her.  Angel experiences some substantial setbacks, but she rallies to help her grandmother as her condition worsens and sets on a path to improve her relationship with her mother and her baby’s father and his family.   Whether Amedeo can actually grow up and take responsibility for his own life remains unclear but there is some indication he’s at least starting to try when the book is concluding.

This reader was initially disappointed that the book might be another depressing story of an unwed mother, seemingly a frequent theme in her reading lately.  But the author provides generally credible characters and their stories are told in a non-judgmental way.  She doesn’t ask you to like any of them nor does she let any of them off-the-hook for their situations, but rather she shows their challenges, how they sometimes meet them and sometimes don’t, and the corresponding consequences for themselves and their families.  She incorporates some Spanish words and idioms which appear authentic and helps create the setting more completely.

This reader recommends this novel as one that will make the reader look at a segment of society to which they may not belong and give that reader a more complete picture of it than they had when they start reading the book.

What Comes After–Dealing with a Murder/Suicide +

What Comes After

By Joanne Tompkins

Published 2021

Read July 2021

This novel is actually the first of several books this reader read this summer that includes a pregnant teenager and/or teenage girl(s) living in tenuous situations due to their single mother’s decisions.  In this case, Evangaline actually can be considered feral — literally living in the woods—after leaving her drug addicted mother’s trailer slightly before the mother will be evicted.  She ends up on the property of Issac Balch, the divorced father of Daniel Balch.  We have already learned that Daniel, a popular football star in his senior year of high school, was recently murdered by his friend and next-door neighbor, Jonah.  Daniel and Jonah’s families had interacted frequently when the boys were younger but since Jonah’s father’s death and Daniel’s divorce, the remaining adults (Daniel and Lorrie) had little contact.  Little did they know that their sons’ relationship had also degraded so were taken by surprise by Daniel’s murder and Jonah’s subsequent suicide.  (Jonah’s suicide note explained where Daniel, who had been missing for a few weeks, could be found and that he had caused Daniel’s death).  Some speculations about this horrific murder/suicide suggested that perhaps a girl might be part of the cause of the murder/suicide.  The parents were also unaware of Evangaline’s interactions with their respective sons and that she might be that girl. 

So this is not a murder mystery novel.  We know who committed the murder.  In fact, the murderer is one of the voices from whom we hear throughout the novel.  His chapters, told in first person, are focused on the day of his suicide but as well we learn much about his previous family life that impacted his personality and view on life.  There is definitely mystery about the paternity of Evangaline’s baby.  We hear her story and thoughts in chapters told in third person focused on her viewpoint.  Issac and Lorrie are each wondering if their son is the father.  Evangaline lives in Issac’s house but Lorrie gets involved when Issac needs to be away for a few days and he asks her to keep an eye on Evangaline.  Although Evangaline doesn’t tell either that she had been intimate with each, we learn that had been the case and they assume it could be the case.  Issac’s evolution of thoughts and feelings are told through chapters told in first person focused on his viewpoint.  Issac is a Quaker and his chapters include sessions with a clearness committee he asks to form to sort through some of his feelings. 

It is likely more accurate that this reader pushed through this book rather than was compelled through this book.  This reader found several aspects of Issac’s story distracting or unconvincing.  While this reader was engaged by Issac’s willingness to take Evangaline in from the cold and his encouragement for her to make a home there, the clearness committee scenes and the emphasis on his being a Quaker to explain his quietness/stoicism seemed forced.  His relationship with his school principal was distracting and confusing at times.  Despite being 400 or so pages long, Lorrie’s character is not well developed.  We actually almost hear more about Jonah’s dog than Lorrie.  Fortunately, for all the pain and despair felt by Issac, Jonah, and, presumably Lorrie, and Evangaline’s miserable home life, there is some hope in the ending.  

The Brief History of the Dead–Is This What Comes After?

The Brief History of the Dead

By Kevin Brockmeier

Published 2006

Read July 2021

The first chapter, or a version of it, was published as a short story in the New Yorker in2003.  Indeed, the first chapter is highly engaging and sets the stage for what follows.  It introduces a basic premise:  after death, a person “passes over” and finds themselves in The City populated by other people who have died.  The person remains resident in The City until there is no one alive that remembers them.  Thus, people can often reside in The City for decades.  They don’t age during this period not do they have new children but they may develop new relationships and they certainly need to find a place to live and to work so they can provide for their material needs while in The City.  This chapter also provides an indication of timing—sometime in the not-so-distant future. 

The novel alternates chapters between what’s happening in The City and with a story of (living) Laura Byrd.  Laura is one of three people Coca-Cola has sent to Antarctica to study some things as they progress development of a new product line made with water from the ice of Antarctica.  After the communication system with the US stops functioning, two of the team leave to get help from a research station a few days walk from their station.  Laura waits for them to return.  When they don’t return, she decides to take off to find them. These chapters include an engaging adventure story as she deals with the harsh climate. 

The City readily grows to accommodate all newly deceased people if the rate of departures is lower than the rate of arrivals.  Famine, war, and disease can radically alter the death rate on earth driving a need for more room in the City.  In this story, a pandemic is playing out on Earth and it is impacting The City in a number of ways.  This reader will leave the connection of the two sets of chapters and the rest of the plot for other readers to learn themselves.

This reader found this speculative fiction to be engaging and generally well done.  There are some sections that dragged a bit for this reader and further exploration of some of the characters would have been nice.  The editing decisions seemed a little uneven at times.  Overall, however, this reader was quite appreciative of the inclusion of the Coca-Cola employee who finds himself in The City and how he views the situation in which he found himself.  This reader does wonder if the Coca-Cola company read this book and if they just hoped that few people would read it.  This reader doesn’t harbor any bad views of that company after reading this book and anticipates the author just needed to pick some company whose product line might work for his plot devices.

In summary, this reader found this to be an extremely interesting read.  Reading it during the current Covid-19 pandemic provides the reader with a different mindset coming into the book than they might otherwise have.  For this reader it certainly made the book quite relevant. 

This reader will likely investigate other books by this author. 

The Memory Police–A Simple but Complex Story

The Memory Police

By Yoko Ogawa

Published 1994

Translated by Stephen Synder

Published in English 2019

Read July 2021

Ogawa, author of The Professor and the Housekeeper, sets this story in some unidentified isolated island.  The protagonist is a young novelist who has lost both parents and continues to live in her childhood home.  Since before the novelist was born, things have disappeared, apparently on command of the Memory Police, and they continue to disappear.  Perfume, birds, roses, and more.  Most everyone follows the Memory Police’s direction to forget the item and they also help out in making the item disappear–like dig up their rose bushes and throw them away.  Then the island inhabitants actually cease to remember the thing that has disappeared.  Some people, however, like the novelist’s mother, continue to remember.  In fact, her mother also kept some of the disappeared items in a set of small drawers, including a small bottle of perfume. 

Another person that continues to remember is the novelist’s editor.  The Memory Police sometimes round these people up and disappear them—this is what happened to the novelist’s mother.  Wanting to protect her editor, the novelist, with the help of her friend, an old man, builds a hidden room under the floor in her home and convinces him to leave his pregnant wife to live there.  While hidden, he tries to help the novelist and the old man remember things that have disappeared, and to retain memories of things that are disappeared, they don’t succeed at remembering. This reader won’t reveal more of the plot here. 

This is clearly not an American novel.  The protagonist does not fight overtly against the Memory Police.  She doesn’t organize her neighbors to protest the policies the Memory Police enforce.  She is among those who can’t remember the things that are to be forgotten and who seem to accept this as a matter of course.  But she does hide the editor, a very risky proposition, reminiscent of the hiding of Jews during Hilter’s reign.  She also retrieves disappeared items her mother hid in her studio so the editor can see them and help the writer and the old man try to remember them.  After novels are disappeared (and the island inhabitants burn all their books), she does try to continue writing her novel (the story of which is quite disturbing itself) with the encouragement of the editor.    

There is no explanation of why or how the Memory Police are executing their policy of disappearing things.  There is no explanation of how this process started.  There is only the quietly stated story of a single woman, her interactions with her editor and her friend the old man, her rebellious actions, and her considerations of whether remembering things disappeared is a worthy concept or not.  

This simply stated story left this reader wondering what items and concepts have disappeared during her lifetime, why they disappeared, and whether that disappearance matters.  For instance, technology has led to the disappearance of the slide rule, typewriters (which play an interesting role in this story), and portable CD players, to name just a few.  While printed photos haven’t disappeared completely, a vast number of photos remain on the cameras that took them or on computers of one sort or another.  An interesting question for this reader—how many photos will remain for future generations when those cell phones no longer operate.  Similarly, how will histories be written when hard copy documents aren’t available and the media on which they were stored can’t be accessed.  What will biographies be like when written correspondence can’t provide a primary source revealing information about the writer.   Species of animals and plants have been disappearing though out time, and glaciers and shorelines are disappearing now.  Aspects of culture have disappeared—dressing up to go on a plane, conversing around the office water cooler about the TV show everyone watched the previous evening, and even leaving the house to go to work during the pandemic.  How do we even know what is disappearing and what has already disappeared?  Which of these disappearances matter and in what way?  What acts of rebellion are we willing to take to remember them and/or preserve them? 

Once again Ogawa’s simply told story leads to more questions than answers. 

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.

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. 

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.