Monday, June 21, 2010

Joyce Carol Oates

In one of the book classes I teach, I read a book called The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan. This is a class called “A Sneak Peek at Next Year’s Bestsellers” where we read books in galley form. Galleys are pre-publication editions of books (also called ARCs – advance reader's copies – or AREs – advance reader's editions), generally intended for book reviewers and booksellers. This particular book was a love story set in Niagara Falls in the World War I era. The book, while it wound up getting nice reviews, did not move me, nor any of my students, but I was interested to see that the author cited a book called The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates as a book she admired. I was interested in learning more about Niagara Falls, and I thought perhaps I’d seek this book out so I could read something well-written on the topic. I ordered the book from my local library and it soon arrived, weighing in at 481 pages. (To my surprise, a few days later I saw a copy of the book on my library’s book sale shelf so I bought my own copy for $2.)

The Falls begins in 1950, when a bride and groom arrive at the Falls for a honeymoon. This honeymoon goes awry, however, when the groom throws himself into the falls. The bride, now a widow, refuses to leave until her husband’s body is found, and for 7 days she haunts the area, following police and basically creeping everybody out. With her thin frame and her red hair, the bride, whose name is Ariah, earns the name “the widow bride of the falls.” She also meets Dick Burnaby, a local lawyer and bon vivant, who is strangely drawn to her.

The husband’s body is finally found, Ariah returns home to Troy NY to continue the spinsterish life she was living prior to her ill-fated marriage, but Burnaby tracks her down and proposes to her. She marries him and returns to Niagara, where they live a happy, passionate, well-to-do life, have hot sex, and bring three children into the world (the first one born suspiciously early – a remnant from her brief marriage? We are led to wonder but never told.).

And so it goes, and the time passes, until Dick, at nearly 200 pages into the book, becomes involved in a new legal case called Love Canal. And suddenly I know, or think I know, what the book is about.

It’s very interesting to me to learn about Love Canal this way, reading what I assume is pretty accurate information as Dick’s eyes are opened to the horror of what is happening. But at this point, I put the book aside. Suddenly I am deluged by books I must read for classes I must teach, and my pleasure reading must be put on hold.

I do not pick the book up again for almost eight months. When I do, I skim the first 200 pages again to refresh myself on the details. And then I continue. We see what happens as a result of Dick’s Love Canal case, both in the courtroom and in his marriage. And when that episode ends, we are suddenly plunged about sixteen years forward in time, where we are now seeing the story from the point of view of the Burnaby children. We learn some of what happens to them, and we are thrust about among varying points of view. This section comprises the final third of the book, and I’m still not sure it was needed, even though the author pulls it all together in the very end. To me it made the story sprawl so far afield that it began to feel diffuse. It also made me see Ariah differently. In my eyes, she went from being quirky and temperamental to abusive, so losing my affection for the central character had an impact on my overall feelings about the book. However, no question that the writing is very good so if you need a Niagara Falls book, I can recommend this one. Or if you know any other good ones, let me know!

Also, if you’re an Oates fan, tell me which of her many books you recommend most highly. Thanks!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ann Patchett

I finally read Bel Canto. It’s been on my “been meaning to read” list since, well, when was it published? 2001. For a while. In the meantime, I read a few other Ann Patchett books. My introduction to Patchett started when I was teaching a class about memoirs. I teach adult education book discussion classes, a program I call “Open Book.” We meet in my home and have lovely, passionate discussions. For this memoirs class, I was trying to introduce my students (mostly women, ranging in age from 20s to 60s) to the late 90s wave of wonderful memoirs that kind of got this whole current memoir craze going. I assigned Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and then I assigned a pair of books, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty. What a great opportunity to get two different perspectives on the same topic. And when, despite my misgivings about Ann going public with her version of Lucy’s story after Lucy’s death and whether her motivations were pure, when I found myself liking Ann’s version of Lucy’s story better than Lucy’s own version, I decided to read more of this writer’s work.

I next wound up reading her book What Now? which started as a graduation speech and evolved into one of those cute little small trim-size hardcovers publishers are always putting out as graduation gifts, and I really liked what she had to say (especially since “what now?” is what my mother said to me at my graduate school graduation, before the ink was even dry on the diploma, as it were, or the champagne was even downed). Then I read Patchett’s novel Run, or rather listened to it on audiotape, and enjoyed it, and figured, three down, I might as well try to read all her books. That would be a nice accomplishment, to have mastered one author’s complete oeuvre.

And so, Bel Canto. Good story, very compelling. I really enjoyed being in the midst of it, and was drawn into it right away. Interesting setting, great concept, great characters and well-developed. Patchett knows how to structure a story, and she has a beautiful way with a sentence. When she describes music, it almost has physicality, and you can feel the impact the opera diva’s singing has on her listeners. You become enmeshed in the setting: the house packed full with people and sound, the garden lushly overgrown and going wild, the heavy fog that blocks the view from the windows, the cacophony of languages being spoken by the occupants of the house who hail from all over the world. I think this is a very good book (if not profound), although I was totally thrown by the epilogue which felt tacked-on and very unexpected (which, perhaps, was the point).

More Ann Patchett to come!