Thursday, May 19, 2011

Smart Women

Oh, how I love them. Outspoken, opinionated - remember how Theresa Heinz Kerry was lambasted for calling herself that? I've just finished two books, a novel and a memoir, that went a little way toward satisfying my curiosity about these two women.

Susan Sontag. I have no idea how it is that she's always been on my radar screen, but there it is, she has. Whenever I go to a book sale I look for books by her because I suspect that they're too in-depth and erudite for me to read just for a weekend's pleasure. My overdue fines are high enough as it is! The Volcano Lover is supposed to be the most accessible of her novels and I may just take it with me on vacation this summer.

In the meantime I decided to read Sigrid Nunez's memoir of her time living with Ms. Sontag as her amanuensis and, later on, as her son David's lover. Sempre Susan is the name of this one day read and it provided a light look at the everyday life, quirks and foibles of the notoriously brilliant and, some say, difficult Ms. Sontag. Ms. Nunez does not presume to evaluate Sontag's huge body of essays or her fiction. She simply give readers a glimpse of a woman who was driven to write.

Do you think that she was considered "difficult" because she was a woman? Because she was such a provocative writer and purveyor of ideas that she confounded people? Are scholarly men considered "difficult" when they profess their beliefs for all the world to read? Quick - answer! Time is up.....

Cynthia Ozick has been a finalist for most every prestigious literary award out there: Pulitzer, Man-Booker, O.Henry, etc. Several years ago at a library conference she was on a panel, along with the delightful Liesl Schillinger, frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review. In fact, I believe they were touting all the great new books that were coming out that year. Ozick, who reminds me of my mother, impressed me with her smart, sassy observations and I made a pledge to catch up on her fiction.

I picked up a used copy of Heir to the Glimmering World, you know, one of those books I'm saving for my retirement. But when I saw her latest, Foreign Bodies, with the glorious Parisian skyline at sunset on the cover, I decided I'd better not put her off any longer. So glad I didn't!

One of the most worrisome, difficult things about reviewing literary fiction is the possibility of totally missing the point of a novel. When I see that a book I've reviewed in a lukewarm manner is raved about by someone like my idol Barbara Kingsolver, I just want the earth to open up and swallow me. (this actually happened with E. O. Wilson's Anthill)
 Therefore, I was grateful to the reviewers who pointed out that Ozick's novel is a reverse take on Henry James' The Ambassadors. I never would have figured that out on my own! Note to self, download a free copy of the James novel to my Nook.

In 1952 Europe is still reeling from WW II but siblings Julian and Iris are drawn to the dark mysteries of Paris when their father Martin refuses to stop orchestrating every aspect of their lives. In desperation, the egocentric Martin contacts his estranged sister, Bea, expecting her to drop everything (she is a divorced teacher living in relatively poor circumstances in Manhattan where she teaches Shakespeare to low level learners) and fly to Paris to coax Julian back to the states.

Bea arrives in Paris to find Julian married to an older woman, a Jewish refugee whose husband and child were killed during the war. She works for an agency that places immigrants in housing and jobs, yet supports the rather listless, unattractive Julian. Iris is in an experimental relationship with an unsavory man who's passing himself off as a doctor, duping people out of hard earned money.

Why the Americans yearn for these "foreign bodies" is at the crux of this complicated, dispiriting novel,  which is so well written that the reader forgives the slimy way the author makes us feel about being so devil may care about our wealth and advantages. Bea is a wonderful, tough character, a feminist before her time and I just loved the clever way she was able to win over her niece and nephew with her open, sensible, smart attitude!

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