Tuesday, May 11, 2021

"Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro, a Review

Spoiler Alert!! 

I am going to talk about the end of the novel. If you haven’t read it, I don’t want to ruin the read for you. 

Klara and the Sun, the new novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, is sad, beautiful and haunting, as are all of his eight novels. Each of the eight novels are different in setting and characters and time period. His main character can be an English butler, a single mom in post-war Nagasaki, a teenager raised to be an organ donor, an old couple in medieval England losing their memories as they wander in search of their son, or an aging Japanese painter remembering his life after World War II. 

In Klara and the Sun, the protagonist is an “Artificial Friend” always referred to as an AF*. She is an AI (Artificial Intelligence) robot companion for a teenage girl named Josie. At the beginning of the novel, we see Klara in the store that sells AFs and other household items. She is very curious about her world, more curious than other AFs, even the new B3 AFs that have recently been added to the store’s inventory. 

We see the world through Klara’s eyes from within the store until she is purchased by Josie’s mom. Through most of the novel Josie’s health is in decline and only Klara maintains hope that Josie will get better. Klara’s hope is based on her deep and serious, almost primal, worship of the Sun. AFs were designed in a way that required solar power. Klara observed this and spoke often of “the sun’s nourishment.” Not just for herself, but for humans and animals. 

Klara believes the sun goes into the ground at night. She twice goes to a barn to address the sun on Klara’s behalf and finally make a deal with the sun to heal Josie. Then, at the worst of Josie’s decline, her bedroom is suddenly flooded with sunlight and her rapid recovery begins. But this story is Ishiguro, not Disney. 

As Josie recovers, both Klara and Josie's neighbor/boyfriend Rick become less and less important. At the end of the novel, Klara is confined in some kind of junkyard, still conscious, but no longer humanoid. Like someone who loses the use of their body, but keeps her memories, Klara can review the events of her life while she waits for the slow decline to nothing that seems to be the lifecycle of AFs. 

The story is not as wrenching as Never Let Me Go—the story of young people bred and raised to be organ donors. It is not quite as ironic as The Remains of the Day and the mountain of regrets that haunt the late life of an English butler. Nor is it quite as odd as The Buried Giant and its quest through medieval England to find a son who may or may not exist. But Klara and the Sun is thoroughly sad, especially if Klara, the AF with the truly sunny disposition, is telling her story from a junkyard. 

We get hints of rebellion against AFs and AI from the people in the city so we don’t know why Klara is in the scrapyard. As with the end of other Ishiguro novels, the protagonist is in a terrible place with little hope, but there is still life: whether it is the aging butler who knows that his world has passed away and love has passed him by, or the organ donor barely alive and one operation of from certain death, or the old couple lost in the mists of memory loss, or Klara still exploring her world with the senses she has left. 

I have read all of Ishiguro’s novels and re-read Remains of the Day. I may re-read that again. I might also re-read Klara and the Sun to look more closely at how Ishiguro portrays misplaced faith and deep misunderstandings. The future of AI looks hopeful for the rich and privileged and bleak for everyone else. Klara and the Sun captures that perfectly. 

Here is a review of three of Ishiguro’s novels related to war and its aftermath.

Here is a contrast of Ishiguro and Mark Helprin, my favorite living authors.

Here is a look at the similarities between and army Sergeant’s Major and an English butler.

*It took me about 50 pages to get used to the AF acronym. I am an Air Force veteran so AF wants to be Air Force in my head. Also, some of my friends, including younger Army friends, use AF as an emphatic suffix: Shamrocks are lucky AF (for As Fuck). Einstein is smart AF. An Artificial friend in the Air Force would be AF AF AF!

Friday, May 7, 2021

May 9: Victory Day for Russia, Crash Day for Me


In Russia, May 9 is Victory Day, the annual celebration of defeating the Nazis in World  War II.  I am happy to celebrate dead and defeated Nazis any time.  But May 9 has a new significance for me.

Sunday, May 9, will be the 1-year anniversary of my 40th broken bone. I smashed my left (dominant arm) elbow in a low-speed (10mph) crash.

On May 9, 2007, I broken ten bones including C7 in a high-speed (50mph).

I realized this morning that all of the bones I have broken this century were on May 9--about 1/3rd of all the bones I broke in my life.

Also, in this century, the only bones I have broken have been from bicycle accidents. In the rest of my life, motorcycles, missile explosions, football, car accidents, along with bicycle accidents were the causes of broken bones.

I was thinking of wearing bubble wrap on Sunday. Especially if I ride.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Talking About Veterans with Paws for Purple Hearts


This evening I had the chance to speak with several staff members of Paws for Purple Hearts: an organization that provides and trains service dogs for recovering veterans. 

The people I spoke with train dogs to be companions to veterans and provide training for veterans who bring the dogs into their lives.  

My daughter is a clinical consultant for Paws for Purple Hearts. She asked me to speak to the group about my experience serving in the military during and after the draft and the Vietnam War, and then returning in 2007 and deploying to Iraq.  

I spoke about soldiers I served with in both time periods: how they were the same and how they were different in the 1970s and 2010s.  Paws for Purple Hearts works with veterans from our recent wars and from the wars of the last century.  Soldiers, like all of us, are shaped by the society we live in.  The difference in the experience of draft-era veterans and current veterans is most evident to me in the subject of suicide. 

I told the group about how suicide was treated in the 70s and in the 2010s after I returned from deployment.  It was so different. I wrote about it here. Suicide was condemned by everyone in the 70s. The soldiers I knew who took their own lives after Iraq were treated the same as combat deaths.  

In both the 70s and the 2010s, I knew soldiers who could not stop their hands from shaking and were kept on limited duty so they could retire.  They were combat veterans suffering with PTSD but wanted to finish their careers.  The military is certainly better about dealing with PTSD now than during the Vietnam War, but the kind of person who becomes a soldier has trouble dealing with personal weakness.  So it is important to deal with soldiers as individuals who need help but do not want to feel weak. 

I got a lot of good questions in the Q&A.  One was about how counselors could best work with older veterans.  The soldiers who served during the draft era in general and the Vietnam War in particular often deeply mistrust the government and authority.  I knew and know many veterans of that era who felt betrayed and abandoned by the government that sent them to a hopeless war.  I said it was important to acknowledge the importance of their service and the sacrifice they and their friends made.  Being part of the welcome home they did not get 50 years ago could help establish trust.

Next time I go to Richmond, I hope to visit Paws for Purple Hearts in Ruther Glen, Virginia, near my daughter's home.  

The Mission of Paws for Purple Hearts: 

Paws for Purple Hearts improves the lives of America’s Warriors facing mobility challenges and trauma-related conditions such as PTSD and TBI by providing the highest quality assistance dogs and canine-assisted therapeutic programs; and by building public awareness about the important role dogs play in helping Warriors along the road to recovery.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Free At Last! No Mask for the Vaccinated!

 In Cold War West Germany in the 1970s we wore our masks at least two hours every week while working and training.  

I can still remember the relief I felt every week taking that sweaty rubber gas mask off.  

I felt that way this week when President Joe Biden confirmed that vaccinated people do not have to wear masks outdoors or when with other vaccinated people.  

Europe is now welcoming vaccinated Americans to visit.  

In the 1970s, I did not like wearing the mask, but wore it because that was my job.  During the pandemic I did not like wearing the mask, but it was necessary to keep the epidemic from getting worse.  

Now we are moving past the mask and life is returning to normal. 


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

War Movies Across Seven Decades

Band of Brothers--My favorite war drama

I am part of a Facebook group called War Movie Zone.  I read posts looking for other people's views of war movies that I loved, liked or hated.   

Because there are fans from all over the world with a variety of backgrounds, I get perspectives on movies that are interesting, even when I disagree. 

When someone mentions a movie I saw one or two or five decades ago, I try to remember how I saw the movie the first time in contrast to later. The same movie looks very different to the veteran approaching 70 years old than the same movie did to a 12-year-old in a Boston theater.   

"Battle of the Bulge" 1965

I recently watched "Battle of the Bulge" with one of my sons. I first saw it in a theater in Boston in 1965.  My twelve-year-old self saw a vast drama of arrogant Nazis stopped by ingenious Americans.  Since that time I spent nine years a tank commander and last in a war zone in 2010.  The big Hollywood drama looked much smaller in 2020.  

"Fury" 2014

In 2014 I took my son to see "Fury" in a local theater.  Compared with the 1965 movie, Fury used actual Sherman tanks and even had a fully operating German Tiger tank.  It had a lot of contrived Hollywood drama, especially at the end, but I saw the movie several times, delighted with the way the crew joked, and talked and fought with each other.  

My favorite war drama ever is "Band of Brothers." I have read the book and had the unusual (for me) experience of liking the HBO drama better than the book. When I deployed to Iraq in 2009 we watched a lot of movies in pre-deployment training.  Soldiers, both now and when I served during the 70s and 80s love to make fun of war movies.  But I never heard anyone make fun of Band of Brothers.  

Look up War Movie Zone on Facebook if you want strong opinions about war movies.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

My Last War (Almost) Ends

U.S. Army Stryker vehicle in Afghanistan

 In 2012, I was on a roster of soldiers who were supposed to deploy to Afghanistan with a Pennsylvania National Guard Stryker Brigade.  President Obama cancelled the deployment.  It was the fourth and last war I volunteered for.

Nearly all of the Afghanistan veterans in my unit agreed the country is beautiful.  Many wanted to go back. During the 20 years this war lasted, many did go some on multiple tours.

Now the longest American war is over. President Biden said we will be out by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the attack on America that led to our invasion of Afghanistan.  

The British and the Russians both suffered major defeats in Afghanistan. The country has a reputation as "the graveyard of empires."  

My fondest memories of the deployment that wasn't was training with these guys:

I am glad to see American troops will be leaving Afghanistan.  Soon after we leave, the Taliban will be in charge, the corrupt officials in Kabul will escape the country or be executed and life in that country will return to horrible under the fucked up fundamentalists of the Taliban.  

I will be re-reading my favorite book of 2020 about the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The thesis of the book is every war is fought twice, on the field and in memory.  Nothing Ever Dies is about the war fought in Vietnam and about every war ever fought. 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

My Love-Hate Relationship with the Military


Next month I will be talking to a veterans support group about PTSD in the 70s Army and during the Iraq War.  It was fun to try to put my military career in 100 words:

Neil Gussman has a love-hate relationship with the U.S. military. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1972. He was trained as a missile electronics technician. For two year he did live-fire testing of missiles from the Sidewinder wing rocket to the Minuteman ICBM. He was blinded in a testing accident, left the Air Force, then a year later re-enlisted in the Army.

He then served four years as a tank commander in Colorado and West Germany. He left the Army in 1979, but served in a reserve tank unit from 1982-85.  He was a bearded civilian writing about chemistry and electronics until 2007 when he re-enlisted in the Army National Guard at age 54.  On his 56th birthday in 2009 he began a one-year deployment to Iraq with a Combat Aviation Brigade.  

He finally left the National Guard on May 2, 2016, on his 63rd birthday.  

Outside of the military, Gussman is the father of six children--three adopted, two the old fashioned way and one step daughter.  Between leaving the Army in 1985 and civilian retirement in 2015, Gussman worked for chemical and electronics companies as a writer and occasionally as a journalist.  

In his long life, Gussman has owned 40 cars, trucks and motorcycles and broken 40 bones, repaired by 26 surgeries. He was never the safety NCO in any unit he served in.

"Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro, a Review

Spoiler Alert!!   I am going to talk about the end of the novel. If you haven’t read it, I don’t want to ruin the read for you.  Klara and t...