Some Novels I've Enjoyed Recently
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder ( originally published 2003, translation published 2009)
This simple, elegant work tells the story of the relationship that develops between a young Japanese woman and her 10 year old son with an elderly mathematics professor for whom she is hired as a housekeeper. The professor had suffered a serious brain trauma in an automobile accident in 1975 and consequently can retain memories for only 80 minutes; for him, it's still 1975 rather than 20 or so years later, but he has at least developed a unique method to help him overcome his loss of memories of the present. There are no particularly dramatic fireworks in the novel; rather, it's simply the story of how these three people come to develop a close, emotionally important relationship despite the obstacles of age, background, and the professor's reiterated loss of the present. It's also, interestingly, a book about mathematics and baseball (no background in either is required, I should mention), two of my favorite subjects. I can sum up my feelings about this book very simply: it's the best novel I've read so far in 2009.
The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (1940)
This novel was recognized as a classic not long after its original publication 69 years ago. It is, on the one hand, very much a typical Western novel featuring cowboys, poker games, barfights, ladies of ill repute, gunfights, stagecoaches, rustlers, and a posse; at the same time, it is a profound philosophical and ethical meditation on the interrelationships that do exist and should exist (those two definitely not necessarily being the same things) among the individual, society, justice, and the law. While it perhaps moves a bit slowly at times, it is always fascinating and suspenseful. I highly recommend it.
Desert by J. M G. Le Clezio, translated from the French by C. Dickson (originally published in French 1980, translation published 2009)
Le Clezio won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008, and Desert was specifically mentioned as one of his most outstanding works by the Nobel Committee. The novel tells two interrelated stories in alternating fashion: the first set in 1910 deals with a tribe of North African desert nomads known as the Blue Men who are forced off their traditional lands by Europeans, their futile attempts to fight back against a technologically superior enemy, and their desperate flight in one final hope of finding safety and a home, as seen through the eyes of one young nomad Nour; the second story, set some 70 years or so later in the late 1970s deals with one young girl Lalla who is a descendent of Nour's family and her attempts to make a meaningful life for herself first in Morocco and then in France. Both stories illustrate clearly the devastating, degrading consequences of colonialism in North Africa on those who were and in many ways continue to be its victims, but -- particularly in the character of Lalla -- it also offers hope for a dignified, meaningful life in terms of those oppressed cultures despite the ravages inflicted on them earlier in the 20th century. This is not a comfortable book, but it is an important one I strongly recommend.
Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (1979)
This short novel won the Booker Prize when it was first published. The narrative deals with an oddly assorted group of individuals all of whom live in a small community of houseboats on the Thames in London. The main focus is on Nenna, a wife who has been abandoned by her husband, and her two young daughters and how they are going to deal with their abandonment; they are assisted by their neighbors and in turn assist those same neighbors with their problems, as well. The unfolding of the intertwined lives of the members of this community is by turns comic, serious, satiric, and touching; it is an extraordinarily well-written and insightful novel I recommend. [NOTE: I've also read two other of Fitzgerald's novels, The Gate of Angels (1990) and The Bookshop (1978), both of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the years in which they were published, and both of which I recommend equally with Offshore. Fitzgerald is a remarkable novelist, and I'm delighted to have discovered her work.)