A Joyce Carol Oates Review!

For those of you who don’t know me, Joyce Carol Oates is one of my favorite authors. I say “one of” because she was the sole favorite, until I started reading more Margaret Atwood, and now I must call it a tie.  However, JCO, as I like to (affectionately lazily) call her, has a much larger back list than Atwood does.

I tend to read about 2-3 JCO a year, which is terrible, as she releases more books than that! This is my second JCO this year (this month, actually). I thought I’d share this one with you.

A Sentimental Education JCO

A Sentimental Education is a typical, yet softer JCO. As she’s written through the years (1963 to the present), her stories have become a little bit darker. They always have a sinister, dark, gothic, melancholic undertone, but I find that her books have become even more so the more current the work. Since A Sentimental Education was written in 1982, it is less brooding (though still broody!) than some of her more current works.

Her typical themes exist in all six of these short stories- broken love, improper lust, clashing relationships and dark, inner thoughts. JCO sits right in the brain of each of her central characters, writing down the uncomfortable, dark, questioning things that humans of all types sometimes think.

These stories include a woman’s response to finding her husband has been cheating, a forbidden relationship between cousins, a man who witnesses a murder, a man who seeks his own destruction, an illicit affair, a celebrated writer meeting her lover’s son years after the affair.

The title story is the longest one of the set. The title of the book quite descriptively illustrates the underlying theme of each short story. Sentimentality occurs when either good or bad things happen (in the case of these stories, more bad than good). This sentimentality also leads us to approach new situations differently than we might have prior to the incident. How does a woman move on from her husband and a marriage for which there was years of sentiment? How does a man overcome his fear of an alley? How does a young man remember his young cousin? This is the education these characters receive, as will the reader.

As a side note, I also found the title story quite similar to the JCO novelette First Love: A Gothic Tale which I read earlier this month. Perhaps the short story A Sentimental Education felt unfinished  or unresolved; the scabs weren’t quite peeled back enough or poked for JCO. Both involve cousins sharing a home with meddlesome aunts hovering around. Both involve a house on the beach with areas and rooms not to be visited. Both involve an older, bookish, introverted, older male cousin working hard on the career path laid out for him while navigating the misguided feelings he has towards a younger, female cousin. Both involve the hint of sexual assault (trigger warnings); one a louder hint than the other.

With that, don’t read JCO if you are depressed, sad, melancholy, or have had any sort of trauma in the past, especially from a family member. That being said, she delves into the depths of the human mind, the horrible thoughts we have sometimes, and how our mind can control our actions in ways we can’t prevent.


Mary Roach, You’re My Hero

My first taste (pun intended) of Mary Roach was her 2003 book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Massive envy ensued. As someone who would maybe love to someday maybe write a book maybe, this is what I’d want to write. Something to learn from. Something funny. Something maybe even a little bit useful.

Roach makes me giggle and Google. Search and snicker. I almost wish she included images that she mentions in the book, and yet, that would reduce my Google and search time. I like the little breaks I take to look stuff up further…they are my own reading footnotes to add to her collection of (hilarious) written ones. The only concern is the tangents these Google searches send me on…and on…and on…oh yeah, I was reading a book!

If you’ve never read any of her stuff, check it out here. I’m still a book or (now) two back, but (shhhh!), I have another one being shipped to me as we speak.

Gulp Mary Roach smaller

This particular book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, is on all things gastrointestinal. This is not about food (although food is mentioned in quips and murmurs). It is about the tube that starts at the top of our bodies and ends at the bottom- surrounded by “stuff”, as one of her interviewees states. I love how the book moves in this manner also…teeth, chewing, saliva in the beginning, with the big finish to end it all- poop. And who doesn’t want to know more about poop?!

And the footnotes…gah! They are a book in and of themselves and usually wholly funnier than the actual text-which is pretty damn funny.

Throw in some dog kibble, rumen windows and Elvis, and you got yourself a good time. (rest of my review here.)

This book, as you can see, was read largely on a quiet Friday afternoon, left early from work to enjoy, with Tula and John Snow.Reading Gulp Mary Roach on a friday afternoon

Now, to do something about this noisy borborygmus….

Josephine Bonaparte Trilogy

As someone who considers themselves an avid reader (albeit, I could always read more if I just found more time!), a few years ago, if someone had asked if I was a fan of historical fiction, I would have said no.  If I was to read about history, it had to be 100%, unequivocally true and factual. Say, in the vein of The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen, where it reads like fiction, but is 100% truth.

But then some bookish friends started recommending some historical fiction books, and I found I actually enjoyed them. To intermix real history with a fictional character and story line made the history learning more fun. And easy. No one likes to read tomes of historical non-fiction- full of dates and names and places no one can pronounce (okay, maybe a few people like that stuff).

Some standouts of historical fiction for me:

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

On May 13 this year, I underwent a bilateral salpingoophrectomy- both of my ovaries were removed laproscopically because their estrogen was what fed my breast cancer.  Because I had to spend a few days “taking it easy”, I started reading the Josephine B trilogy. These books are penned by Sandra Gulland who has a few other novels I may just have to check out now. The first one was published in 1995, the second in 1998, and the third in 2000. Her research methods are interesting and fascinating and you can read about them here.

Josephine B trilogy

The first book is The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. I LOVE how it was written as Rose’s diary- made it very fast to read.
It is the first of a trilogy so it was engaging enough for me to continue reading the other books. What I loved the most was that she is a real figure in history- married to a French revolutionary and then to Napoleon (before he was an Emperor). Sandra writes a fictional ideal of what Rose may have experienced as a 14 year old girl, married at 16, the mother of 2 children, wife of a spoiled revolutionary, imprisoned and moving up in the royalist class in France. Eventually she meets Napoleon Bonaparte, and her life changes again. It took a LOT of research to put this novel together. (for the rest of my review, go here.)

The second book is Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe. About as good, maybe even a faster read than the first.
This one was even less like a diary than the the first, where there are longer passages with great detail that one would not write in a diary. Though there are longer lapses in dates….when Josephine is injured, when they are packing up to move….obviously she could not write during these times, and these lapses make historical sense.
It is a slow roller (and yet a fast read, perfect combo!). Though she is married to Bonaparte, her own rise does not occur until the last 20 pages. It does not take away from the book, however. You can feel Josephine’s tenseness, when her son and husband are out of contact, when her friends won’t speak to her, over the betrayal that must occur for the country to move on. (for the rest of my review, go here.)

The third book is The Last Great Dance on Earth. The speed of this book (timeline-wise) is much faster than the first two books.

Still sort-of written in the style of a diary, though each book progressively moved away from that. In this book, large chunks of her “diary” did not read like a diary, but more like just paragraphs of historical fiction. I’m okay with this, but if your plan is to tell the story through her diary, then stick to the plan. Or have some chapters be her diary and some not. Anyway, her children are grown up, married off, have children of their own, while Josephine struggles to conceive the heir Napoleon so desperately needs to secure the empire. His own siblings continue to be horrible people. Watching that (reading it) is tortuous…you want to reach through the pages and slap them. I also find the “medicine” interesting, in the treatments that she went through to become fertile again.
More wars, more wins, then the coup de grace. This part of the book..the last 1/4 or so is sad. You can feel Josephine’s melancholy, her sorrow, her internal struggle.(for the rest of my review, go here.)

So that is it!

My review of this great trilogy. I’m shipping them off to a colleague of mine who said she thinks she will enjoy them. I hope you do as well, and would love to hear what your thoughts are if you dive in to them!