National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
The Shawl

The Shawl

by Cynthia Ozick

Just as you can’t grasp anything without an opposable thumb, you can’t write anything without the aid of metaphor. Metaphor is the mind’s opposable thumb.


Ozick and Her Other Works

Even as a young girl growing up in the Bronx, Cynthia Ozick knew she wanted to be a writer. An uncle's success as a Hebrew poet inspired her, as did stories told by her maternal grandmother, who lived with the family and often cared for Ozick while her parents spent long hours running their pharmacy. At five Ozick began writing simple poems, by eight she was experimenting with short stories, but not until she was an adult, and a mother herself, did publication and literary acclaim finally arrive.

Trust, published in 1966—the year after the birth of Ozick's daughter Rachel—is the story of a young woman's epic quest for the elusive father she has never known. Ozick's next three books were story collections and novellas: The Pagan Rabbi (1971), Bloodshed (1976)—which contains "Usurpation," the first of her four O. Henry Award-winning short stories—and Levitation (1982). These books firmly established the themes of Jewish identity that pervade Ozick's fiction.

Writing book reviews led to Ozick's first collection of essays, Art and Ardor (1983), the same year her second novel, The Cannibal Galaxy, hit the shelves. Four years later, she published another full-length work of fiction, The Messiah of Stockholm, a tale of intrigue surrounding the paternity of a Jewish book critic who claims he is the son of a Polish writer killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

The novel The Puttermesser Papers (1997) tells the story of Ruth Puttermesser, a smart Jewish working woman in New York City whose life is filled with disappointment. Quarrel and Quandary (2000), a collection of essays, brought Ozick a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Ozick's 2004 novel and a Today Show book club selection, Heir to the Glimmering World is the story of Rose Meadows, a young woman who finds employment with a family of German Jews living off the generosity of James A'Bair, the adult son of a famous children's author. In 2006, Ozick published her fifth collection of essays, The Din in the Head. A writer of wit and intelligence, Cynthia Ozick's crystalline prose and beautiful imagery bring to life characters and ideas that remain with the reader long after the book is closed.

"What a curiosity it was to hold a pen—nothing but a small pointed stick, after all, oozing its hieroglyphic puddle.... An immersion into the living language: all at once this cleanliness, this capacity, this power to make a history, to tell, to explain. To retrieve, to reprieve!"
—from The Shawl

If you want to read more about the Holocaust:

Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, 1947.
Elie Wiesel's Night, 1958.
Art Spiegelman's Maus and Maus II, 1986; 1991.
Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved, 1988.

If you want to read works that have enriched Cynthia Ozick, you might enjoy:

George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, 1876.
Henry James's The Beast in the Jungle, 1903.
Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer, 1910.
Saul Bellow's Ravelstein, 2000.

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