This was my first introduction to Cynthia Ozick. I read two reviews of Foreign Bodies; both said it was a clever re-working of Henry James' The Ambassadors, and both assured me that one could read, understand, and enjoy the former without having read the latter.
So, I read and enjoyed Foreign Bodies in a couple of days. Did I understand it? Hmm...I think so. Although I must admit, I feel like I'm missing... something.
Quick plot summary: It's 1952 and Marvin Nachtigall has asked his sister Bea to interrupt her European vacation in order to locate Marvin's wayward son Julian and make him return to his studies in America and the life Marvin feels he should lead.
Bea does as she is asked, sort of. Resenting her horrid brother's presumptive attitude (and he really is horrid), she does locate Julian, now living in Paris with his older and traumatized wife, a Romanian refugee, but she makes little effort to repatriate him. Instead, she takes matters into her own hands.
Bea, who has been virtually absent from her brother's adult life and the lives of his children, now interacts not only with Julian, but also with Julian's narcissistic sister Iris and their mother Margaret, who has been shunted off for a stay at an asylum. (Evidently she can't take the strain of missing her son for so long, but the reader understands that she must really want to escape her horrid husband.) Bea also interacts, not only through memories but also in reality, with her former husband, Leo, another semi-horrid person.
Interacting is big for Bea, because she hasn't done much of it (that the reader can see) up until now. A life passing one by, or living the life that others have chosen for you, or being an observer of the lives of others--are all themes running through this novel, and Bea falls into all three categories. Until now. Now Bea asserts herself, and the consequences are...startling.
I liked this book, or I should say I liked Ozick's writing. It's sparkling. And inventive. And captivating. It kind of dazzles. However, I can't help feeling that I came away from the book with an appreciation of the surface of the story, but not the depths. As horrid as many of the characters were, I wanted to know more about them, and maybe in not such a clever way as Ozick delivers them.
Somehow I feel (and I could be wrong) that if I read The Ambassadors, I just might gain greater access to Foreign Bodies. Or perhaps I should have the members of my Literary Masters book groups read it, and together we can "dig deep" into it and see just what kind of literary gem we have unearthed.
What about you? Have you read Foreign Bodies? What do you think about it?
WHIRL (What Have I Read Lately) Books is a site for readers to find books for themselves and their book clubs. Liz at Literary Masters runs book groups and literary salons where we "dig deep" into literary treasures.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Monday, November 22, 2010
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker first came to my attention as I sought recent prize-winning novels for my Literary Masters book groups to read. The Twin won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for 2010. I read a couple of bloggers' reviews and the book sounded a tad slow and dull, not something that would appeal to my members. My library doesn't carry it, and I never saw it in any book store, so it sort of fell off my radar.
Then one day recently I visited a local school's book fair and there it was. And it just looked so...inviting. I know that's silly. I mean, I've blogged about whether one should judge a book by its cover, but there was something about the aesthetics of this book that compelled me to buy it.
I'm so glad that I did.
I felt like I escaped into a different world while I read this book. The prose is spare but so captivating, I had a hard time putting the book down and looked forward to curling up with it whenever I had the chance.
The setting is a farm in Holland that seems to have escaped the progress of time. Helmer, the narrator and son who lives on the farm with his now dying father, seems to have missed the progress of time, but not of his own choosing. We find out that Helmer is the surviving twin of Henk, who died twenty years previously in an accident caused by his then fiance, Riet. Banished from the family, Riet hasn't been heard from in twenty years. Out of the blue, she contacts Helmer to ask if he will take on her somewhat troubled son, also named Henk, as a farm-hand. Young Henk comes to stay for awhile, and the reader now not only spends time with Helmer, his dad, and the young Henk, but also encounters the many ghosts that Helmer conjures as he shares his memories.
The thing about this book is that the writing makes it seem like there's nothing going on; the daily life as described by Helmer, the narrator, isn't exactly exciting. He tells us about his redecorating the house, taking care of the farm animals, interacting with the few people he comes in contact with.
And then every so often, something happens--something significant--and the reader realizes that there is a whole heck of a lot going on. The writing is so subtle, though, the depth of the story as well as the depth of the characters can be missed. You know by now that when I read a book I always have my book groups in mind. Will the members find it fascinating? Does it lend itself to a good discussion? Well, I can't say the tone and pace of the book are for everyone, but there is plenty there to "dig deep into."
There is emotion and feeling pulsing beneath the restraint of the surface--of both the writing and the characters. And there's plenty of metaphors sitting there just waiting to be 'dug into' by a book group. Clocks, crows, the rooms of the house and other spaces, are just a few.
I look forward to reading this book again so I can glean more than I did the first time. And I know I'll enjoy re-reading it; it's just that pleasurable.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
I loved this book! I sat down and practically finished it in one reading. Written in 1955, it tells the story of Judith Hearne, a woman with a limited life view, a rigid code of behavior, an imagination that often supplants reality, and a wicked secret that threatens to destroy her.
Judith has done the right thing, much to the detriment of her own happiness. Caring for her dying aunt, Judith has missed out on life. No husband, no job, no opportunities. But she has a way of coping. Well, more than one way, but I don't want to give too much of the story away. Suffice to say, and this is what I loved about this book, one way she copes is by imagining an alternative reality. And she does it so subtly (Moore's writing is so brilliant) that you go along with her, thinking it's real until you realize, hold on, she's got it all wrong. However, by that time you can see just how and why her fantasies would have carried her so far; after all, you've been carried along as well. Moore makes Judith such a pitiable character, not only do you allow her those fantasies--you wish for them to come true.
I finished this book and put Brian Moore on my list of authors that I must read more of. His writing immediately carried me to a place and time that I now feel I know intimately. This book is a winner--run, don't walk, to your bookstore and enjoy it!
Monday, November 15, 2010
Thanks for all your emails and phone calls; I am doing just fine, thanks. The reason I've not blogged in a while is that I've been reading! As you know, my Literary Masters Book Groups' selected book for this coming February has not yet been announced. I purposely left that month open so I could choose a red-hot-just-won-the-award prize-winning novel. After all, this time of year is quite exciting; we have the Nobel in Literature, the Man Booker, and, days away, the National Book Award.
The book I'm blogging about today--Great House by Nicole Krauss--is a finalist for the National Book Award. I read a great review of this novel, and I love last year's National Book Award Winner, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. You know I love that book--it's this month's selected novel!
But back to Great House. I am so torn about this book. I feel like the author wrote the book on a pile of cards, shuffled the cards, dropped the cards, picked them and shuffled them some more, then published the book. I get the post-modern literary thing, really, I do, but I just kept thinking while reading this book, did she have to make it this so bloody difficult to follow? Is the structure carrying some meaning to me as reader?
The different chapters or sections of the book are mirror-imaged against each other, with the center (or roof if you like an image of a house) being "Lies Told by Children." The chapters are tied together through the seemingly disparate characters and a certain significant desk, although I can understand an impatient reader missing the connections altogether. I confess, I finished the book--and believe me, I read this book carefully--and I am still wondering who was related to whom and who did what. I think the lies (referred to above in the chapter title) are actually told by the father, not the children, but I'm not sure.
There are certain books with a complicated structure whose writing is so beautiful it pulls you through the difficulty of the plot and in the end you realize that the structure of the story is indeed perfect to its whole. I'm thinking of The English Patient, for example. And Let the Great World Spin, while not having an extremely complex structure, still demands a certain amount of attention from the reader to make all the wonderful connections between the ostensibly separate chapters. But McCann's writing is so poetic, the effort that the reader makes is a pleasurable one.
I'm sorry I can't say the same for Great House. Perhaps a second reading with illuminate a lot for me, but I'm not sure I want to spend my time re-reading it. On the one hand, I'd like my book groups to read it, so we can all figure it out. On the other hand, I'm not sure I want to subject my members to such a task.
I'm going to wait for the National Book Awards announcement this week. Should Great House win, I'm sure lots of people will write about it, and perhaps I can glean something from what they say. Perhaps even Nicole Krauss will shed some light on her work. So, stay tuned. Perhaps there's more to come.