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Archive for March, 2021

I loved Never Let Me Go when I read it, so when I saw that Kazuo Ishiguro had a new book out, Klara and the Sun, I got on the hold list for the library eBook. Although I also loved The Remains of the Day, I was excited to see Ishiguro return to a dystopian story. A beautiful and disturbing one.

The title character is an AF — artificial friend — and when the novel opens, Klara and her fellow AF Rosa are taking their turn in the window of the store where they hope children will choose them. The Manager trains and prepares the AFs, but it becomes clear that Klara learns a great deal simply by observing, and she picks up on subtle things Rosa can’t or won’t try to make sense of, like two taxi driver fighting. The AFs receive their “nourishment” from the Sun (capitalized, like God) and one day Klara observes a homeless man and his dog, who appeared to be gravely ill, returned to health in the sunlight.

Josie, a young teen, visits Klara in the window, and promises to come back; Klara senses that her mother isn’t necessarily on board. Eventually, Josie does get her way and Klara goes to live with them, out of the city. And through Klara’s eyes we learn that privileged children are “lifted” through some kind of procedure that can sometimes make them weaken or die, but if successful, gives them a boost that will ensure their entry into elite colleges and, it’s implied, successful futures.The lifted kids seem to need to be re-introduced to social life; Josie gets all of her schooling remotely, and specially arranged social sessions are meant to prepare them for “society.” Josie is also one of the people weakened by the lifting.

Klara’s observations are finely tuned but she only knows what she observes, and so our view of this world is limited to her vision of it and her conversations with others. We meet Josie’s childhood friend and neighbor Rick, whose aging actress mother chose the unconventional path of not “lifting” him. He is brilliant, but probably won’t go to college because of her choice. And we meet the strange Henry Capaldi, a man in the city who is making a “portrait” of Josie — one which causes a great deal of tension between her mother and father, particularly when Klara is drawn into the Mother’s plan.

On a visit to the city so Josie can sit for Capaldi, Klara persuades the Father to help her on a mission to do something special for the Sun, so that he might provide “special nourishment” for Josie as Klara observed the Sun do for the homeless man. As they drive, the Father tells her “I think I hate Capaldi because deep down I suspect he might be right. That what he claims is true. That science has now proved beyond doubt there’s nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer. That people have been living with one another all this time, centuries, loving and hating each other, and all on a mistaken premise. A kind of superstition we kept going while we didn’t know better. That’s how Capaldi sees it, and there’s a part of me that fears he’s right. “I won’t give away any more of the story, but I will say that this question of what it is to be human and live a good life suffuses the story with a kind of low grade tension.

Klara never stops having faith in the Sun, and to think well of just about everyone she meets. She is a unique narrator that I felt enormous empathy for; Ishiguro left me feeling more for the robot than the humans in this novel. It’s not a long book, but he captures so much. Klara has more simple faith and hope and gentleness than the parents maneuvering to get their kid a place in the world that will set them up for the future combined. But she is herself already old fashioned — a new generation of AFs will make her kind obsolete even as they cause people to be afraid that robots are becoming too smart and taking over too many things.

Ishiguro even makes her aging — her “slow fade” as the Mother calls it, poignant. Klara notes, “Over the last few days, some of my memories have started to overlap in curious ways.” That seems reasonably similar to what humans experience, but again, Klara observes it with an innocence that I found touching.

I loved Klara and the Sun and I think book clubs will find much to discuss. A really lovely and profound read.

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I’ve had I told my soul to sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson by Kristin LeMay for some time; I bought it during some kind of special Paraclete Press was running a few years back. For some reason, I had pulled it out and set it on the teetering pile of books on an end table to remind myself that I wanted to read it. I’m on a committee to revise the reading/resource list for discerners in The Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, and it occurred to me this book would be an interesting addition.

And I was looking for a Lent book. Flipping through it, I thought this seemed like a good choice. I started it, reading here and there from it, around Ash Wednesday, and as you know, read a few other things in that time. Sometimes I keep “spiritual reading” for the weekend, when I have more time and am less apt to be reading myself to sleep. But I’ve found myself dipping into it on weeknights as well.

And then I realized, in the second week of Lent, that Kristin LeMay is also recording conversations with the brothers of SSJE, who she mentions often in I told my soul to sing, this Lent: you can find the videos on the Brothers’ YouTube page (it’s the Come, Pray series). I realized I pulled the book off my shelf for a reason!

LeMay is a warm and intelligent guide to Dickinson’s work, and goes into great detail in analyzing poems. I admit to having no more than a survey course understanding of her work. More recently, I’ve tried to visit her house in Amherst twice and both times arrived when it was closed. Like many people, I’d heard that she was a sort of recluse, seeing only family (not entirely accurate) and that she was not religious. And that her poems were a little mysterious.

LeMay sets readers straight on the popular misconceptions and opens up the poems. And she makes the case, poem by poem, theme by theme, that Emily ( as LeMay calls her), had profound experiences of God in her life and wrote copiously about God.

For example, in the section on prayer, LeMay explains how Emily wrote this poem:

The Infinite a sudden Guest

Has been assumed to be —

But how can that stupendous come

Which never went away?

LeMay muses that this poem addresses her own sense that we don’t need to “find” God but rather, become aware that God is present. She writes, “Emily’s poem records precisely such a dawning of awareness. The poem is actually crafted out of two distinct couplets, each one penciled on a separate scrap of paper. The two scraps become a poem only through the presence of a pin, which literally holds the two thoughts together. . . . Emily pinned the poem together when she knew, at last, and for herself, that God cannot come because God never goes away.”

I appreciate LeMay’s own “wrestling” with the Emily’s poems and letters as well as with her own faith. She weaves the story of her own seeking and doubt into the story of Emily. If you’ve found it hard to pray, or felt your faith wax and wane, or wondered about immortality, or felt God’s presence in some beautiful music or even birdsong, there is something here for you.

It’s a lovely book, one to read slowly. And yes, it makes me want to watch Dickinson on Apple TV. And read more of Emily’s writing. And someday, get back to the house when it’s open!

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I’ve read a few of Sarah Moss‘s other books (Night Waking, Ghost Wall, and her memoir, Names for the Sea) and they all followed a fairly regular narrative arc, albeit with some shifts in time and place. Summerwater tells a story but not in a traditional way. Instead, Moss reveals pieces of the lives and experiences of several different people staying in vacation cabins — think small and inexpensive places with thin walls, close together — in Scotland. It’s summer, but it’s been raining hard for a week. The inhabitants are restless, tired in spite of being on vacation.

The views we have of them provide a view into one small aspect of their lives, on one day in one place. It’s a little more detail than you’d get from standing in the window of your vacation cabin staring into others’ windows, but only a little. Moss shows us an older couple, one of whom seems to be losing her grasp on memory, heartbreakingly able to recall poetry from childhood (which is where the novel’s title comes from) and even what she wore to recite it but not more immediate things like what she was looking in her purse for, the other of whom is impatient with that. A little girl from the “party” house, whose family are Eastern European, who isn’t dressed for the weather (another of the children in another cabin wishes she had “shiny patent shoes and white lace tights like that girl”) and who draws the attention of several other mothers, and a manipulative girl a little older than she is.

The mothers, and some of the fathers, are mostly on edge. Struggling to have a break while doing housework and cooking with shabby rental cabin kitchenware and tired ingredients because there are no stores nearby. I loved the description of being unable to slice some mushrooms past their prime so just hacking them up for a pasta sauce — been there! And entertaining kids without their usual toys and no internet, and trying to be sexy for their spouses (it’s a vacation, expectations or at least hopes are high). Worrying and tired and wondering if their kids are ok. The kids are also worrying — about their pecking order among siblings, about their fussing parents, or if they’re older, about being stuck with their parents. One teen discovers a veteran living in a tent in the woods and visits him. Another escapes by kayaking, even in a driving rain. Moss captures all of these different perspectives astutely, and slips from one to the other in brief chapters.

She even slips into the perspectives of the wild things nearby. I loved “Maybe They Dream” — a two paragraph chapter. “The trees change shape at night. In the darkness, limbs relax, leaves droop. Branches reach out for each other, like holding hands.” You have to read the rest. It’s lovely and, actually, dreamy. I will look out at the thin woods behind our house differently for having read this.

Similarly, she explores how birds, badgers, ants, foxes, and deer experience both the strangely torrential rain and the humans. Particularly the pounding music the emanates from the party cabin. It’s an interesting thought that even as the noise irritates the other vacationers, it disturbs all creation, right down to the ants in their underground nests. Even though this is really a book of character (and creature) sketches, not a plot driven story, Moss slowly builds tension, touching on many of the existential worries of our time — climate change, the hold our devices have on us, Brexit, gender roles. The end surprised me.

A quick read that will linger, with so many facets of human experience and range of emotions packed into a short, lovely book.

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We had 50 mile an hour winds overnight Monday night into Tuesday, and the cat and I were restless, listening to branches knocking into things. I finally decided I may as well read since I wasn’t falling back to sleep; also reading often helps me drift off. But not this time. Between the things that went bump in the night and the fact that The Cold Millions is hard to put down, I never really got back to sleep until early morning.

When I was describing this book to the Computer Scientist I explained that it’s set mostly in Spokane in the early 1900s and that I found the history interesting. He joked that he didn’t know there was anything interesting about Spokane. We lived in Seattle for five years, and Eastern Washington seemed like far off frontier. Jess Walter lives there, and through the stories of several different characters he shares bits of the city’s story, from occupation and murder of the indigenous people to the building up of the town into a place with glaring disparity between the very rich, who got that way exploiting the area’s natural resources (timber, mines, land) and the people who worked to extract that wealth for them.

The Cold Millions is mostly Ryan Barton’s story. Rye is a sixteen year old orphan when the book opens, but that doesn’t do justice to his situation. He’s had a whole spectrum of adverse experiences in his short life. The only person he has left is his older brother Gregory, or Gig. Rye goes to find him, and they stow away on train cars looking for work together, and eventually end up staying on the porch at a boarding house in Spokane run by a widow with an orchard in her backyard, who has promised them she’ll sell them the orchard so they can build a house among the trees. Gig is a self-taught man of ideas who joins the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, also known as the Wobblies. Among his few possessions are a few volumes of a five volume edition of War and Peace.

The IWW is planning a day of street speeches to protest the exploitative system of employment agencies, wealthy business owners, poverty wages, and abusive police. The city has banned speeches, so one by one people are arrested, and a riot breaks out. Eventually over 500 people are stuffed into the jails. That is all based on true events. As is the arrival of socialist speaker and writer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who arrives to protest the mistreatment of the prisoners, raise money for the IWW, and bring national press attention to the plight of the workers.

The trajectory of Rye’s life is altered by the riot, his (short) and Gig’s (longer) imprisonments, and the friends (and enemies) who circle around as he is freed from prison, helps Gurley, takes care of himself, and struggles to understand who he can trust or not. He is surprised that he, “Ryan J. Dolan of Nothing, Nowhere, having neither house nor bed, nothing a person might call a possession, somehow had a lawyer. Rye wondered if that, more than waking on a ball field or eagles, or George Washington’s hair, was what it really meant to be an American.”

Detectives and former detectives, the aforementioned lawyer, a pair of showgirls who perform with a mountain lion, a clothing salesman, a millionaire, machine shop workers, a librarian, the family of his Rye’s friend Jules who died after contracting pneumonia in prison, union members, police, all figure into the complex plot and what was, for me, a surprising climax to the story. Satisfyingly, there are some wins for the good guy (Rye) but Walter doesn’t make it all neat and tidy. And while this novel magnifies the brutality of its time, it also reflects some of the shameful inequities of our own times: racism, misogyny, classism, a nearly unfathomable wealth gap, blind spots and holes in public and private social safety nets and services for minors, abuse of power, policing, and prisons, bias in the justice system, the need for living wages and exploitation of workers.

The Cold Millions deals with all of this, but Walter spins it into a yarn – a well told tale that kept me reading through the wild windstorm. It’s in some ways a tender book. And I really love the way Rye decides to go to the library and get War and Peace so he can read what was important to Gig while he’s in prison, and how he learns from it and begins to form his own views. (Regular bookconscious readers will recall, I read War and Peace last spring with people around the world as the pandemic began.) Often when I read a book that deals with so many harsh realities I feel as if I’m glad I read it but I didn’t enjoy it. I can’t say that this time. The Cold Millions is both a good read and an enjoyable one.

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