BOOK REVIEW: Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia OzickForeign Bodies
By Cynthia Ozick
Completed May 25, 2012

Foreign Bodies is on the 2012 Orange Prize short list, and thank goodness it was nominated or else I would have missed this book. Prior to her nomination, I had not heard of Cynthia Ozick (I know, shame on me!), but now that I am acquainted with her writing, I can’t wait to explore her other novels. Foreign Bodies was a great way to become familiar with this talented American writer.

Cynthia Ozick based her book on Henry James’ novel, The Ambassadors. If you’re not familiar with James’ work, don’t let that dissuade you from reading Foreign Bodies. Like me, you can read a quick synopsis of The Ambassadors online, and you’ll be on your way. (Side note: Being more familiar with Shakespeare, especially Macbeth, may be more instrumental in appreciating Foreign Bodies.)

Bea Nightingale, a middle-aged English teacher, was contacted out of the blue by her estranged brother, Marvin. Marvin’s son, Julian, had escaped to Paris and would not return home, and Marvin wanted Bea to contact him while she was on her European vacation. Bea attempted to find Julian but could not, leaving Marvin furious and demanding that Bea try again – this time, though, being tutored in “all things Julian” by his sister, Iris. This begins a family struggle of epic proportions – father vs. child, aunt vs. nephew and husband vs. wife.

Bea was her own woman with her own ideas. She may succumb to some of her brother’s wishes, but she twists each wish into her own objective. She is constantly the messenger between Marvin, and his children or wife. And with that comes a certain power – the ability to withhold information, change it or divulge the whole thing. And Bea did all those things. I am not sure Bea realized the power she had until she was in the thick of things.

The men of Foreign Bodies were despicable. Marvin was downright cruel and patronizing. Julian was a spoiled child, and when we meet Bea’s ex-husband, Leo, he was nothing less than condescending. More subtle though were the despicable traits of the female characters. Iris appeared demure but could be as manipulative as her father. Marvin’s wife, Margaret, knew had to throw verbal punches as well. And Bea? She had her faults too, and there were times in this story I questioned her reliability.

Foreign Bodies is pure literary fiction. It is a complex and sophisticated novel, not meant to be enjoyed by the masses. At times, the story moves slowly, but by the last 75 pages, it was quite gripping. I would not be surprised if this book received the Orange Prize for 2012. It certainly would deserve it. ( )

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BOOK REVIEW: Great Short Stories by American Women, edited by Candace Ward

Great Short Stories by American WomenGreat Short Stories by American Women
Edited by Candace Ward
Completed April 20, 2012

I received Great Short Stories by American Women as a Christmas gift several years ago, and it’s been languishing on my shelves for a long time. After completing this slim anthology, I wonder why I waited so long.

This anthology contains stories by many renowned female American writers:

Each story was steeped in realism and exposed many civil themes of the late 18th or early 19th century. Themes of racism, sexism, marriage and class differences permeated most of these stories. Each writer was gifted in how she could draw her readers in from the first sentence – and not let go until the last. I believe writing short stories can be harder than writing novels because you only have so many pages to tell your story. These women make it look effortless.

I could never pick a favorite from any of these stories, but one story, “A Jury of her Peers,” still lingers in my mind. Two women –  a sheriff’s wife and a farmer’s wife – are summoned to a neighbor’s home. Their neighbor, Minnie Wright, was accused of killing her husband. As the women collect thing Minnie will need while incarcerated, they piece together what happened to Minnie and her marriage – just by finding small details in the house: a broken bird cage, a badly sewn quilt block, a well worn black shirt. Minnie never appeared in the story, but by the last paragraph, you know so much about her life. It was a gripping story and a realistic look at marriage, domesticity and women’s lives.

The best part about reading this anthology is how it whetted my appetite for more works by these gifted writers. It was my first foray into many of these writers’ works, and I look forward to reading more by these talented, influential female American writers. (  )

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