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: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues by Esi EdugyanHalf Blood Blues
By Esi Edugyan
Completed April 26, 2012

I always say in my book reviews: When a book can teach me something new about history, then I am a fan. In her highly acclaimed Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan taught me a different perspective of World War II – one that incorporates American and German jazz musicians who shared a common love of music.

The book is told from the viewpoint of Sid Griffiths, the bass player for an up-and-coming jazz band, The Hot-Time Swingers, who were playing in jazz clubs throughout Berlin. Jazz was hot in pre-World War II Germany, but when Hitler came to power, he considered the music to be “degenerate.” This left Sid and his band mates, namely his boyhood friend, Chip, and a black German horn player, Hiero, out of work. The 1939 sections of the story center around the band mates’ escape from Germany and their brief time together in Paris.

Fast forward more than 50 years, and the story focuses on elder Sid and Chip, who are returning to Germany for a jazz festival in Hiero’s honor.  Sid watched Hiero get arrested in Paris, and he assumed Hiero died, but Chip has information that will test Sid’s belief. Once they arrive in Berlin, they decide to travel to Poland to learn what happened to Hiero.

Many reviewers found Half Blood Blues to be slow-paced. However, I felt the complete opposite: I was completely riveted by the story, turning pages late into the night. This may be the result of my insatiable curiosity about World War II history, but I have to think that Edugyan’s superb writing style also played a part. Another common complaint was the jargon used throughout the dialogues: it was a blend of black vernacular mixed in with 1940’s slang. Germans were “boots,” women were “janes.” It did not bother me too much, but I understand where these critiques are coming from.

For me, Half Blood Blues was the complete package: gripping, humanistic, real. I am pleased that Edugyan has been short listed for the 2012 Orange Prize, and I hope lovers of literary and historical fiction will find their way to this book. ( )

BOOK REVIEW: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife by Paula McLainThe Paris Wife
By Paula McLain
Completed December 18, 2011

So many books and movies focus on the lives of authors that we often forget the muses in their lives. That’s why I was eager to read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – a story that features Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway, and their life together in 1920’s Paris.

We meet Hadley as a 29-year-old, unmarried woman who is visiting friends in Chicago after a long stint providing care to her now-deceased mother. While in Chicago, Hadley is swept off her feet by a young Ernest Hemingway (a man almost 10 years her junior). Ernest is a fledging writer, fresh out of World War I, and ready to move to Europe to begin his writing career. He eventually proposes to Hadley, and together, they move to Paris.

The Paris years are marked with highs and lows. Ernest’s career, while promising, takes a while to kick into high gear. The couple is poor but manage to stay afloat, thanks to Hadley’s inheritance. They are in love, though, and surrounded by friends who feed their appetites and souls. However, Ernest’s depression, wandering eye and eventual affair with another woman put an irreversible dent in their marriage, and Hadley decides to leave him and her life in Paris.

McLain does a commendable job capturing the artistic fever of 1920’s Paris. The Paris Wife is a veritable who’s who of the writing and art scene. What I can’t determine is McLain’s motive for her characters because, for me, not one of them was likeable. Hadley was spineless and too accommodating. Ernest was self-centered and chauvinistic. Even the minor characters were less than likeable. It made liking The Paris Wife a hard task.

If a lesson can be learned from the story it’s this: If you marry a man with a lot of baggage, you’ll end up packing yours in the end. I think Hadley would certainly agree. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Nude by Ellis Avery

The Last Nude by Ellis AveryThe Last Nude
By Ellis Avery
Completed December 3, 2011

Ellis Avery was inspired to write her latest book, The Last Nude, when she learned about Tamara de Lempicka and how Lempicka met the model for her famous nude paintings. Though little is know about Lempicka’s real model, Avery used her imagination, crafting a tale that showcases the whirlwind lifestyle of 1920’s Paris and the dreams of an American girl.

Rafaela, en route from the U.S. to Italy to meet her bethrothed, wanted a better life for herself, and escaped the ship on the arm of a French man. She became a prostitute in return for freedom and a Parisian life. One day, while on a walk, Rafaela met Tamara, who asked Rafaela to model for her. She agreed, and as the two began to work together, they started a torrid affair.

Most of the story is told from Rafaela’s perspective. We see the parties, drugs, sex and art that marked Paris during the Roaring 20’s. We also see Rafaela’s innocence as a 17-year-old girl who finally takes control of her body and choices. Rafaela was fallible and sympathetic, caught in a web between love and greed. Overall, I liked The Last Nude because I liked Rafaela’s character. When Avery moved the last section of the story to Tamara’s perspective, I was not as enthralled, and the speculation about what happened to Rafaela was unsatisfying.

Other reviewers have remarked (and often criticized) Avery’s historical licenses with the story, specifically about the art and literature scene in 1920’s Paris with Picasso, Hemingway and Stein at everyone’s elbow. Admittedly, I do not know much about this era of history, so I was not bothered by any mistruths or exaggerations. If you’re familiar with this time period, you may want to read other reviews to make sure this is the book for you. Otherwise, if you like art and literature, then give The Last Nude a try. (  )

FTC Disclosure: The publisher sent me a copy of this book for review on my blog.

BOOK REVIEW: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth KostovaThe Swan Thieves
By Elizabeth Kostova
Completed March 28, 2011

The Swan Thieves, the second novel by Elizabeth Kostova, has many themes: the artist, the lover, French Impressionism, insanity and obsession. A stout novel, it’s not a surprise that it encompasses so many themes, but under the writing mastery of Kostova, they manage to flow together, like watercolors on a canvas.

At the heart of this novel is troubled artist, Robert Oliver, who becomes obsessed with a minor French Impressionist painter, Beatrice de Clerval. Robert was taken by her beauty, but it was her art that intrigued him the most. When finally losing it at the National Gallery of Art, Robert is institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital and placed under the care of Dr. Andrew Marlow.

Marlow knows Robert is no ordinary patient, and despite Robert’s unwillingness to speak, Marlow begins piecing together Robert’s life through interviews with Robert’s ex-wife, Kate, and former lover, Mary. Marlow is adamant that if he could learn more about the woman in Robert’s paintings, it would aid his recovery. Marlow’s quest for knowledge takes him multiple places, from Mexico to France, with the reader in tow.

The book is told from multiple viewpoints but never from Robert’s, which is an interesting way of creating a character. We develop Robert’s character through the eyes of his wife, lover, psychiatrist and professional acquaintances. Even the mysterious Beatrice gets her own voice through letters and short narratives. I always wonder, when an author constructs a character this way, how accurate the portrayal could be. Wouldn’t it be nice to crawl inside Robert’s head – just once?

While I enjoyed this book, it does have a major drawback:  its length.  There were many long-building moments that could have been tightened for the reader. The book kept my interest, but it could have benefited from less pages and side stories.

Despite this flaw, I would recommend The Swan Thieves to people who love art history, especially French Impressionism. Kostova, despite her long-windedness, is an apt writer, and she fills her pages with landscapes, colors and backgrounds. It was a beautifully told story. (  )

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