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April books: the good and not so great

My book reviews for this month include two non-fiction, one fiction from an esteemed author and, yes, finally, some chick lit, to ease things up a bit. Let me know what you think!

Klara and the Sun

By Kazuo Ishiguro

It seems almost sacrilegious to write anything but praise for anything Ishiguro writes. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, winner of the Booker Prize, and knighted in his long-adopted home in the United Kingdom, he’s an intimidating writer to criticize. One of my favorite novels of all time (although I wasn’t fond of the movie) is his Remains of the Day, which I found profound, surprising, and beautiful.

Klara and the Sun certainly displays Ishiguro’s incredible literary talents, by which I mean his ability to create intriguing characters, set up beautiful plots, and compose elegant sentences. The world the author created in Klara is both not that much different from ours—no aliens, no time travel, no teleporting—and yet different—cyborg “artificial friends” powered by advanced artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering employed to make children smarter, if socially awkward. I was fascinated by his examination of what it means to be human, and what kinds AI will force us to consider as a society as it is inevitably advanced. In reading this novel, I was pleasantly captivated by the voice of the narrator, Klara, a cyborg, and the dire challenges faced by Josie, Klara’s human friend. I also was intrigued by his allegory of religious belief and the power and folly of religious faith, especially since it was the cyborg, not the human, who explored this aspect—but more on that later.

As I was about two-third of the way through reading the novel, it was getting late at night, and I had to stop reading. Things were getting creepy. Great! I thought. Great, but better to tackle this in the morning and not have nightmares. So, I waited until the next morning to finish reading, and for me, at about three-quarters of the way, the story deteriorated. At this point, much of the focus shifted from the two characters who drove the story, and Ishiguro introduced an old love affair between Josie’s boyfriend’s mother and a man who might hold the key to the boy’s future. While the connection to the main story wasn’t invisible—the boyfriend wasn’t genetically engineered, and thus had little chance of competing in the world without help from his mom’s old beau—the thematic core of the novel was set aside, giving the entire section a tangential feel. And that continued to the end of the book.

But the main problem I had with this story is Josie’s transformation, which in the end has nothing to do with a lesson learned or agency gained. It’s due to a deus ex machina (act of God). Suddenly plot and theme are detached from each other and the resolution never comes to terms with the thematic issues raised in the novel—what is unique about individual persons and what it means to be human; and what happens when humans or cyborgs rely on an imagined supernatural being, or deity, to solve earthly problems.

I was disappointed. I thought the issues Ishiguro raised in setting up this not-quite-science-fiction were as profound as those in Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, two of his novels where plot and theme stay entwined, even if the questions they raise aren’t fully answered. I wish he hadn’t reached here for an easy plot solution, one that leaves his big questions abandoned and unanswered.

What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era

By Carlos Lozada

It might seem at first glance like the four-word title of this book should have a question mark, as in “What the heck were we thinking?” However, the meaning of Carlos Lozada’s thoughtful title is less pejorative. What Were We Thinking, is a survey of what the opinion writers, pundits, and ex-administration officials who wrote books during Trump’s four-year reign of terror thought about him, his party, his followers, and his administration. (Note: “reign of terror” is my phrase, not his.)

My sister-in-law, a Trump supporter, gave me this book for Christmas, which was a bit surprising, as I was aware of Lozada’s opinion of the ex-president. I had the book on my wish list, but I didn’t pick it up until this past week (April 19, 2021) because I, like many people I know, was just sick of politics. The Jan. 6 insurrectionists’ attack on the Capitol made me more so, not less.

Lozada, however, did both my SIL and me a favor: He read about 150 of the books (both pro and con) written about Trump’s disastrous term in office so we don’t have to, and organized and summarized them in such a fashion as to create a narrative of the four years like none other I have seen. I had read four of the books he chose (out of hundreds published), but most of them I had only read about. His erudite and pithy reviews (150 books in 240 pages) have now saved me a lot of time and a lot of anguish.

Lozada’s book doesn’t do all of our work for us. As he does in this book, we need to continue to evaluate and rectify what Trump did to the cause for democracy, equality, voting rights, world opinion, immigrants, Blacks, Hispanics, the elderly, children, the poor, COVID victims, and the political and administrative institutions that are supposed to hold up all of those ideals and protect our citizens. We have to figure out how to restore decency to public office and respect for the idea of public service. We must continue to search for answers to the question: What were we thinking when we elected this man to office? What kind of a country did we think we wanted?

But after our four-year obsession with the man (whether with dread or elation), we need to look forward as well. I felt that reading Lozada’s thorough review gave me permission, finally, to do that.

Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature

By Angus Fletcher

Do you ever get the feeling as you’re reading a book that the author is trying a bit too hard to appear erudite? To prove he is a polymath? An author who ties in extraneous material just to prove that he can?

That’s how I felt when I read this book.

I was intrigued by the central idea of Wonderworks: that there have been 25 inventions that authors have engineered over time that have made literature more penetrating, more effective, and better at telling a story. Even after reading this book, I believe that’s true, even though this author, in proving how impressive is his range of academic and neurological interests, beat the subject to death.

I had no issue with his process of first choosing certain plays and later novels to showcase the literary devices that playwrights and novelists have used over time to serve their thematic ends. When he expands that concept to examine the emotional and intellectual effect certain themes have on an audience, it seems like a logical extension of his arguments. I found these first couple of steps helpful for another reason: it reminded me of so many books I haven’t read for a long time, or that I have never read but feel I should have.

But … (yes, there is a but). I didn’t buy the idea that these literary devices are “technologies.” Come on, they’re literary tactics. Technology implies that a scientific discovery is behind the development of tools to solve a particular problem. (I attended the Iowa State University of Science and Technology, so perhaps my impression of what “technology” means is old school.) In most cases, there’s no evidence that the author had any concept of the science behind their techniques or literary innovations. Even if a conscious application of science to a problem isn’t required to create a “technology” solution, there should be some tangential connection between a scientific concept and the solution that one can suggest was inferred or intuited.

Further, Fletcher tries to argue that in many instances there was an author – just one – who invented this “technology,” and that it was more or less developed by that author in a vacuum. He argues that the author knew he/she was solving a particular problem and seeking a technological solution. Frankly, I don’t think authors work that way. Whether they write from the seat of their pants or from a long, detailed outline, their concern is not to solve a literary problem. Their concern is writing a great screenplay or novel that touches readers’ emotions. The idea that there was one author who developed this solution even goes against his own caution to avoid the “great man theory of history”—that is, the idea that if it weren’t for Edison, we never would have had electricity.

Bad enough. But then the author tells us what part of our brain is activated when we experience the purported emotional problems that these authors are fixing. This comes across as pedantic and tangential—not a great combination—and leads me to double down on my feeling that this author is trying too hard to impress us with how much he knows. It bloats this book. Does anyone care whether their frontal cortex or amygdala is causing their discomfort as they face the question of their own mortality?

Perhaps one word sums up my impressions of this book and its author is this: overreach. I imagine that it will appeal to some readers—maybe in particular neuroscientists who will be thrilled that their study will be seen as relevant in another sphere of our lives and culture. But I’m not sure it succeeds in speaking to either writers or readers—even erudite, well-read, serious ones.

I Thought You Said This Would Work

By Ann Garvin

I tell myself this: There’s nothing wrong with reading a little chick lit now and then, especially if it’s well-written, has good characters, and includes dogs.

Ann Garvin delivers on all three with I Thought You Said This Would Work. I needed a break after reading a number of non-fiction and literary fiction tomes in a row. Sometimes, girls just want to have fun.

Samantha’s friend Katie’s cancer has come back, and she desperately needs to have Peanut, her big Great Pyrenees, by her side in order to even dream of recovery. Peanut was absconded by Katie’s ex-husband who now lives in California, thousands of miles away from Wisconsin. Samantha is suffering the onset of empty-nest syndrome as her daughter leaves for an internship for the summer, and when Katie asks her to retrieve Peanut and drive the dog back from California, Sam sees it as a way to postpone dealing with her own anxieties.

Immediately, the task is complicated when competitive Holly, the third of their tight threesome in college, decides to go along, even though she doesn’t like dogs. Holly and Sam haven’t spoken for years, although Sam, the narrator of this novel, has no idea what she did to break them apart.

The drive back from California promises to be tense, difficult and no antidote to Sam’s anxieties, but Katie insists Holly and Sam go together. I was worried about how I could abide this difficult two-some together in a car with a big dog for the bulk of the novel, but the story is saved by the sudden and weird appearance of Summer, a B-list (and that’s an exaggeration) celebrity with lots of chutzpah, style, a bit of unexplained clairvoyance, and questionable ethics.

Sam hasn’t had a serious male relationship since her husband died 18 years before (before the birth of her daughter), and she doesn’t paint herself as a very attractive target. But she is suddenly and somewhat inexplicably the object of much romantic interest from both Griff, a veterinarian at the animal sanctuary where they find Peanut, and Drew, a doctor at the hospital where Katie is being treated. Their romantic entreaties serve up a great deal of the novel’s intrigue, even as they seem to have come out of left field.

I see Garvin has quite a following among readers, and I can see why. The story is laugh-out-loud funny at times, and the characters are likable and (perhaps with the exception of Summer) believable. I found the novel irresistible once I’d started it, and I recommend it for readers of this genre.

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