Monday, June 15, 2009

Joyce Carol Oates - An Acquired Taste?

Thanks so much for all your kinds words, thoughts, and vibes last week. I had a totally blissed out time with the girl last week. Camp started this morning. My stomach was churning and she was fine until we arrived. That small hand clutched mine and whispered 'I want to stay with you mama.' But. Soon her best friend arrived and all was well, kiss and out the door. Can't wait to hear all about it.

My introduction to Joyce Carol Oates was her novel We Were the Mulvaneys which I read with my book club in 2002. I didn't keep records then so I cannot remember my specific response to the book but I remember that while it was readable we all felt awfully lukewarm about it. It's somewhat surprising then that we chose to read The Gravedigger's Daughter this year. I think we were all drawn in by the description of the book.

The Jewish Schwart family has immigrated to the US from Nazi Germany. Typically, these sorts of characters would be written in a sympathetic light, but not by JCO. Father Jacob is authoritarian and crazy. The only job he's been able to procure is that of the town gravedigger. Ma is passive, doesn't speak English or frankly much of anything. Youngest daughter Rachel is smart and inquisitive, but thwarted by poverty and her family situation.

Jacob commits a crime that leaves Rebecca on her own. Without any positive male role models in her life Rebecca naturally becomes involved with the Wrong sort of man and bears him a child. A series of circumstances lead Rebecca to relocate and change the names of her son and herself. Suddenly the girl who had been dumpy is beautiful and desirable to men. They want to get to know her better while she wishes to keep them at arm's length. Some more things happen to Rebecca, none of them good. There is a somewhat funny and strange series of letters at the end of the book. And then it just ends.

If you couldn't tell already I wasn't crazy about this book, and sadly it was quite long at nearly 600 pages of small print. JCO has a unique narrative style. As a reader I felt quite distant from all the characters. There seemed to be an excessive amount of exclamation points. Exclamation points! Like that! The story is just entirely depressing, crass at times, horrific in others, and towards the end I just didn't care to be introduced to new characters that frankly didn't seem to add much to the story. I'm glad I read it since it sounded good to me, but I don't think I'll be returning to this author.

So, I'm curious to know if there are any JCO fans out there. I'm wondering if she's sort of like Margaret Atwood - you have to sort of 'get' her to enjoy her books. It'll be interesting to see what my bookclub thinks. Or if they even finish it.

I wanted to mention our last meeting when we 'discussed' Emma. It was a disappointing meeting in terms of the bookishness. Only 3 out of 7 members finished the book. There were so many negative comments! It was hard to follow, too many characters, couldn't get into the language, on and on. I was actually pretty surprised at the reaction. I guess we won't be dipping into Austen again as a group.

I guess it sounds like I've been reading a lot of books which I did not enjoy - but I've actually read a few good ones too! I'll share those soon.


Memory said...

I've got to say, I'm not crazy about Joyce Carol Oates either. I've read one novella and a few pieces of her short fiction, and I just can't find the love. I also find that her narrative style keeps me distanced from the action and unable to commit to any of the characters. I'm rather hesitant to try any of her longer works, since I'm pretty sure I'd end up abandoning them.

bermudaonion said...

I haven't read any Joyce Carol Oates, so I don't have an opinion about her work. Glad things went well at camp this morning.

Jenny said...

I tried one of JCO's novels a few years back, and disliked it so much that I quit a third of the way in. I keep thinking I should try again -- she's been so prolific, there must be something I'd like? But so far, no dice. I do love most Margaret Atwood, though. :)

avisannschild said...

Like Jenny, I've mostly given up on JCO but really like Margaret Atwood (or at least have loved some of her books). I've also only read one JCO book (which I did finish), but I found parts of it hard to stomach (and gratuitous). Sorry, I don't think this comment is very coherent; all this to say, I'm not a fan of JCO and your review of her book doesn't surprise me. I don't really have much desire to acquire a taste for her writing either, although I guess I'd be willing to give her another chance if someone highly recommended a specific book to me.

Staci said...

I really enjoyed Mulvaneys but I can't say that I've read another book by her since then. I've got too many books to read and Grave Digger just doesn't sound that appealing to me, especially the 600 pages!!!

Chrisbookarama said...

Oh no, no one liked Emma?! That's a great Austen pick.

I never read JCO before.

Anonymous said...

First things first, I almost think I'd have to leave a book club where the majority didn't like (or read) Emma!

Re JCO, I do think she's a bit like Atwood in that she writes a lot, and tries different things. So you might loathe one book and love another. I'd try her short stories before giving up on her- The Female of the Species or Wild Nights for example.

JoAnn said...

We Were the Mulvaneys (for a book club) was my intro to JCO, too. I wasn't wild about it and group reaction was mixed. Later we read Middle Age: A Romance. I liked it quite a bit, as did most of the others. I also liked The Falls on audio. There was another novel I disliked, and can't even remember the name. A collection of short stories was so troubling that I was unable to finish it. So...I've had an uneven experience with JCO. I'd like to read Them (supposedly her most famous) but will wait for the book to find me.

Sorry to hear about your group experience with Emma. It's gotten so my group doesn't read anything too long, too hard, too depressing, etc.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read anything by Joyce Carol Oates, but I'm thrilled to hear that Margaret Atwood is an acquired taste. I hated The Handmaid's Tale and couldn't even finish it, and it was so disappointing for me, because I'd heard such great things about Margaret Atwood. Okay, I feel encouraged to try again now!

Les said...

I haven't read anything by Oates, but have an old ARC of The Falls somewhere on a shelf. Might have to give it a try someday.

Atwood is hit-or-miss with me. Even the books I liked weren't great, imho.

BTW, I doubt I would've stuck with a 600 page book that wasn't working for me, book club or not. You're dedicated!

Anonymous said...

I've read two of her novels and some short fiction, and I've decided that I don't like her work. I know a lot of people think she's brilliant - but I find her too dark and twisted and depressing. I don't mind realistic books, but I don't like books without hope.

Lenore Appelhans said...

I love Margaret Atwood, Emma, and all the JCO I've read.

I haven't read The Gravedigger's Daughter, and from the sounds of it, it would be one I wouldn't care for terribly either. She's so prolific, you just have to pick the ones that appeal to you I guess. I really liked:

Black Water
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang
Big Mouth and Ugly Girl

As well as a lot of her short stories including "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" and "Have you ever slipped on red blood?"

Ones I started but couldn't get into:


Tara said...

Memory, it sounds like you've had a similar reaction to JCO. Thanks for your comment!

bermudaonion, thanks, she was definitely pooped when the day was over. The stress of a new place, new people, I think.

Jenny, I think the same, JCO is so prolific, there must be something I'd like! But maybe not. I also love MA!

avisannschild, I am a big fan of Atwood myself. I'm just wondering, JCO has written all these books - who is reading them? I have to say I don't see many reviews of her work in the blog world.

Staci, it was awfully long - for what it was, that's for sure.

Chris, I know, I know. Who can account for taste.

adevotedreader, we definitely have divergent tastes, but I like all the people so much, I think I'll stay! We had a nice dinner out anyway! Thanks for the story suggestions.

JoAnn, thanks for sharing your history with JCO; The Falls sounds like an intriguing story. My club has realized we've chosen too many really long books this year and need to put a cap on pages next year.

Jennysbooks, I happen to love Atwood but my book club has had a very mixed reaction to the books we've read by her, and whenever I mention her here I get a mixed response - in a good way! A more accessible Atwood is Alias, Grace if you're interested.

Les, I don't know how dedicated I am...I guess the book was readable enough that I stuck with it. The truth is I started skimming bits toward the end since there seemed that no climactic moment would ever come, it was just more of the same.

Carrie, I also like depressing books, but this was a bit much for me.

Lenore, oh good, I'm happy to hear from a JCO fan! Thanks for your comment!

avisannschild said...

Lenore's comment reminded me that the JCO book I read was Foxfire. There is one scene in that book that was very disturbing and seemed completely unnecessary to me (it did nothing to advance the plot). I'm not sure I'll get around to reading anything else by her; there are so many other authors out there!

Carrie K said...

I've never actually made it through a JCO book so if they get better.......I have no idea. Just not my cup of tea.

As for your book club, bah. They didn't all read the book? That drives me crazy. As does expecting the books of a prior century to read like a Sophie Kinsella novel.

Samantha said...

JCO is an author that I have not tried yet - despite having two of her books on my shelves! The stories do sound to be interesting but it wouldn't be the first time I had liked the sound of the story then not the book :-( I don't know when or if I will read them.

As to Margaret Atwood, I tend to only read her historical books (which I like very much) and not her science fiction - the latter usually don't interest me whoever writes them!

And not to like Emma - but yes, dinner out with girlfriends is always usually nice regardless :-)

BooksPlease said...

I like some of JCO's books, but not all. I loved Middle Age and liked The Falls and The Gravedigger's Daughter, which is a melodramatic book, dark and disturbing in parts. I didn't like the violence and the short abrupt sentences, but parts of the book moved me to tears.

I tried The Female of the Species and hated it. So I think as someone else commented that you have to pick and choose - you won't like or loathe all of her books.

AS for Margaret Atwood and Jane Austen I've not found one that I didn't enjoy/love.

Tara said...

avisannschild, I'm not even sure I've heard of Foxfire! You are certainly right about there more authors out there that are more of a 'sure thing'.

Carrie K, we used to be really 'strict' about everyone always finishing the book, but have gotten more lax in the last couple years, with kids, newborn twins, work etc. At this point, it's just nice to get together, you know?

Samantha, I don't consider myself a sci-fi fan but for some reason I really like Atwoods sci-fi books, and her others as well. Yes, dinner with girlfriends is always a good thing!

Bookplease, I remember that you liked The Gravedigger's daughter! It seems that even with JCO fans, her books are hit or miss. I'm with you on Atwood and Austen.

Iliana said...

JCO is a bit of a mix read for me. I will probably try to read another of her books at one point but am not in a rush. I did start one that was sort of a gothic, mystery type collection of short stories and the two I read from the book were quite good. I just want to know how she can write so much! :)

Petunia said...

I listened to the We Were the Mulvaneys audiobook and I wasn't as impressed as the person who suggested I try JCO out was. I thought maybe it was because it was an audiobook and I had lost something of the greatness of it by merely listening to it. Glad to know it wasn't just me.

Tara said...

Iliana, I know it is amazing to see how prolific she is! Glad to know you've had some positive experiences with her.

Petunia, I definitely don't think it was just you!