The jacket notes of Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick promise readers that the novel they have picked up will "retrace the story of Henry James's The Ambassadors --- the work he considered his best --- but as a photographic negative, in which the plot is the same but the meaning is reversed." A tip of the hat to James promises Americans in Europe, and sure enough Ozick's tale involves one Bea Nightingale and her efforts to track and retrieve a nephew gone astray in post-World War II Paris.
Bea's journey [beginning in the summer of 1952] takes her inside the lives of her brother's family, forces her to retrace the path of her own life, and expands her world view as she comes into intimate contact with Europe's "ghosts," the waves of refugees displaced, wounded who have "washed up in Paris," the war "still in them."
The subtitle of A Brave Vessel by Hobson Woodward says it all: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest. The voyage of the Sea Venture, May to July, 1609, featured an encounter with a perfect storm that flung the little boat ashore on the island of Bermuda instead of its intended destination, the fledgling colony at Jamestown.
The author is a credible historian (the text is fleshed out with ample notes and an extensive bibliography) with a novelist's skill at telling a story enlived with fleshed out characters, dramatic tension, and pacing that make it a true page turner. One of the Sea Venture's passengers was William Strachey, a writer whose extensive chronicle of the castaways' experiences of the desert island was widely circulated on his successful return to England and clearly was familiar to Shakespeare who apparently wrote his play while the news was still fresh.
Who were these people? How did they survive? How did they hand build a boat capable of getting them up to Jamestown and what did they find when they arrived? What elements did Shakespeare incorporate into his play? Fascinating reading, with an amazing finish.
Howard Norman's newest novel takes the reader back to a setting - Nova Scotia - familiar to fans of his previous works, and back in time to the 1940s when the Canadian Maritime provinces were vulnerable to German attack and even more remote than they remain today. I am among the fans of this and two of Norman's earlier novels, The Bird Artist and The Museum Guard, where each offered a compelling mix of interesting characters and unique takes on love, death, and loneliness.
What Is Left the Daughter is structured as a series of letters from Wyatt Hillyer to his long absent daughter. The opening paragraph hints of the drama to be revealed if we read on:
"Marlais, today is March 26, 1967, your twenty-first birthday. I'm writing because I refuse any longer to have my life defined by what I haven't told you. I've waited until now to relate the terrible incident tht I took part in on October 16, 1942, when I was nineteen."
Even in those few words, something of the letter writer's gentle, thoughtful character reveals itself.
One of those classics that eluded me through high school and college English classes, The Good Earth surfaced for me recently as I read a favorable review of a new biography of Buck [Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling]. I was reminded that TGE had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and Buck the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938. Maybe I should see if the library still has a copy... Yes! Many copies, many formats. People are still reading it, these many years later. The CRRL paperback that came my way was identified as an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2004.
TGE tells the story of peasant farmer Wang Lung, his lifelong relationship with the land and the family he creates with his wife O-Lan. Buck makes these simple people the face of a China that is in the beginning throes of the political upheaval that would transform centuries-old cultural and societal norms over the course of the 20th century. At the outset we follow Wang Lung as he sets out to buy his wife, a slave in the house of Hwang; O-Lan is considered a good buy since she is too ugly to have been defiled by the rich men in the big house. The book is suffused with irony; the author draws her characters, paints the world for the reader as seen through their eyes. The devastating effect of years of flood and famine on the Wang Lungs across rural China is remarkably drawn without fanfare or hyperbole. Their brutal world where begging, infanticide, and mysogeny are unquestioned is filled with stoic, illiterate, patient people. In the end, the land enriches Wang Lung, and his epic rags to riches journey is a page turner.
With one voice, the critics have proclaimed Tom Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists, a zinger. Christopher Buckley, in his cover piece in the New York Times Book Review (April 29, 2010) says it was "so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how [he] pulled it off."
The book's story is essentially the 50-year history of an unnamed small English-language daily newspaper published in Rome. True to where the world of print journalism is headed, there is not a happy ending. The cast of characters --- the journalists, writers, publishers staffing the paper during its final days --- is paraded out in discreet chapters that could work as stand-alone short stories but that are neatly interwoven under often satiric banner headlines emblematic of each subject. (Obit writer Arthur Gopal's chapter heading is "World's Oldest Liar Dies at 126"). The portraits are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, frequently very sad, often ironic and always tightly constructed with description and dialog that bring each character to life. The arc of the newspaper's life is chronicled in chapters separating the staff portraits, functioning as a common backdrop against which the journalists' individual stories are acted out. Each of the stories and, indeed, the overarching tracing of the newspaper's demise touches in some way on death, loss, or grieving for happier days. Each of the staffers' stories is told in the present tense, tellingly juxtaposed against the newspaper sections - - past tense, history.
Anita Shreve's The Weight of Water has been around for a while , but I'd never read it until a friend suggested that maybe I could find it in the public library, and that it would be the perfect literary accompaniment to a summer vacation planned around Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the nearby coast of Maine. How right she was.
Shreve structures a page-turner around a murder that occured on Appledore Island, one of the tiny rocky components of the Isles of Shoals, located in the Atlantic less than ten miles out from Portsmouth. The murder occurred in 1873, scandalized and horrified at the time, and resulted in the last hanging in the state of Maine.
The novel is a first-person narrative set in our own time, the protagonist a photographer on assignment to capture images of the island to accompany a magazine article about the murder. As she explores the dramatically isolated harsh and rocky terrain where the crime occurred, the narrator's artistic eye captures and renders surface detail and her mind's eye envisions what life must have been like for the individuals inhabiting that confined space.
Just listen! Barbara Kingsolver has earned a world-wide reputation for her writing, but who knew she is a fantastic reader as well? Her performance of her newest novel, The Lacuna, kept me looking for errands to run so that I could hop back in the car to hear more. The 16 CDs brought the story to life in a way I doubt I would have appreciated in reading the words without her voice in my head.
The book jacket blurb summarizes the plot:
"BK takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J.Edgar Hoover ... a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identity."
True enough, but doesn't get at the nuances of character development Kingsolver accomplishes in her extended portrait of protagonist Harrison Shepherd and the people impacting his life.
Harrison Shepherd is a writer, following from boyhood that compulsion common to many writers to chronicle their days. Year in and year out Shepherd fills notebooks comprising a detailed journal of his life. How we come to read those journals and empathize with the writer and move with him from the "interesting times" he experiences in mid-1950s Asheville, North Carolina, back to his coming of age in Mexico is to acknowledge writer Kingsolver's extraordinary skill in structuring her narrative. On paper, the novel is 500 pages long, yet the tension as the story develops keeps the reader [or listener] hooked. As her protagonist says, more than once, "the most important part of the story is the piece of it you don't know" --- until the end!
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE
Alicia Suskin Ostriker is one of our country’s finest poets. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey. I thought that today you might like to have us offer you a poem full of blessings.
The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog
To be blessed
said the old woman
is to live and work
washes right through you
like milk through a cow
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE
Equipment. I like to paint and draw, and I own enough art supplies to start my own store. And for every hobby there are lots of supplies that seem essential. In this poem we get a whole tackle box full of equipment from Michael Sowder, who lives and fishes in Utah.
Fishing, His Birthday
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE
Whether we like it or not, we live with the awareness that death is always close at hand, and in this poem by Don Thompson, a Californian, a dead blackbird can’t be pushed out of the awareness of the speaker, nor can it escape the ants, who have their own yard work to do.
My leaf blower lifted the blackbird—
wings still spread, weightless,
floating on the loud, electric wind
almost as if it were alive.