Tag Archives: A Widow’s Story

It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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Carry On

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Press; $27.99; 432 pages)

A reader often selects a book because they like the author, heard it was good, or finds the subject interesting, only to meander through the pages discovering that, for whatever reason, it was not what they had hoped for.   Many avid readers will likely read through most books at various levels of enjoyment with the hope that it is the “next” book that really lights them up, only to find that it is just another decent book which they’ve had the pleasure to read.   Then, without warning, comes that “next” book – the one they whip through so fact they are sad when it comes to an end.   For this reviewer, that “next” book is Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, the spectacular memoir chronicling her husband’s abrupt passing and the loving life they shared.

Oates’ husband, Ray Smith, dies unexpectedly from an infection after being hospitalized for pneumonia.   There were no indications that this outcome was likely, and in the process of outlining the events of her husband’s passing and her subsequent grief and guilt, Oates highlights many aspects of their life together.   They met in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, and together founded The Ontario Review, with Ray serving as editor until his death.   An interesting feature of this account is Oates’ struggle to publish the final issue, as Ray’s untimely passing left many loose ends in their lives.   More interesting, as they shared a life in letters, is her continual references to literature and their acquaintances and friends as she tries to make sense of this new life that she must elect to live.

Oates contemplates suicide continuously throughout the book, and for a time is addicted to sleeping pills/antidepressants.   She refers to herself in the third person as a “widow” ad nauseam, but just about the time the reader is inclined to say, “Get over it,” is when the intentionality of this term hits home even more.   The concept of being without her husband so dominates her life, that there is nothing else to her existence other than “widowhood.”

What is clear throughout is her undying love and affection for Ray Smith.   It is amazingly touching to be exposed, in such an utterly raw and unabashed manner, to the magnitude of Oates’ feelings for her husband.   Ironically, as close as they were, they rarely shared in their professional pursuits, and he did not read her fiction.   Upon his death, she deliberated excessively over reading the manuscript of his unpublished novel Black Mass, in which he consternates over his Catholicism, but, finally, she cannot resist the urge any longer.

If one were to debate who is the greatest living American author, it would likely come down to two, Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth.   It is interesting that Oates mentions Roth on numerous occasions in the book, especially since many women despise Roth, and that Oates comes across as a feminist in much of her fiction.   The two are similar in that, among their many works, they have written non-fiction tales of death; Roth, in Patrimony, discusses the loss of his father.   It is a lesson to all readers not to commingle the work with the writer.

There are about 50 pages two-thirds to three-quarters though the memoir, in which one begins to wonder how many times they have to encounter the fact that the author is a widow, is depressed, etc.   The book slows down a bit, before it recovers.

After someone passes, the living understandably focus on those that remain, and, inevitably, much of this memoir deals with Oates’ difficulty in dealing with Smith’s passing.   However, though people who have lost a spouse will undoubtedly identify with much of what Oates goes through, it is clear that her intent is to honor her husband, which she does here in impeccable fashion.

One of the running jokes of Oates’ career is that because she is so prolific, a reader can hardly keep track of her output.   Some posit that she would have received even greater acclaim for her work if only the critics could keep up with her.

Don’t make the mistake of losing track of this one.   It is simply too good to miss.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, and we interpret it as being the equivalent of a highly recommended rating.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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