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“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates

5 Mar

So I may be late to Women’s History Month (it’s March, in case you’re behind too), but it is indeed a month for celebrating women everywhere. In an effort to celebrate a woman I think is pretty damn rad, I’m focusing on a short story by Joyce Carol Oates entitled “Where Are You Going, Where Have you Been?” As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m up to my ears in schoolwork, so a short story/short profile will have to do for now. If you haven’t entered the bizarre, creepy world of Oates before, here’s a good place to start. I may not have a ton of time to blog, but hey, who couldn’t use a good read by a rad writer?

Published: 1966Image

Quick Read: Yes

Difficulty: Not very. Definitely an easy read.

Synopsis: Connie is just your average mid-twentieth century teenage girl–she’s pretty, fixated on her own hair, and thinks her mother and sister are just jealous of her good looks. But Connie is bored, and feels stagnant. So when a well-coiffed stranger named Arnold Friend pulls up to her house while she’s home alone telling her he’ll take her away, he’s in love with her, and he’ll take her away so that they may start their life together. While Connie thinks it sounds like a wonderful, spontaneous plan, until she begins to see Arnold’s real side, and when she does, it may very well be too late.

What makes this (short) story awesome?: Joyce Carol Oates knows how to write a brutal horror story where no blood is shed, but the violence is clearly just beyond the last sentence. Her carefully constructed story starts innocently enough, but the reader knows almost immediately that Connie is doomed. Somehow, someway, Connie is destined for tragedy, and the way Oates goes about conveying that is nothing short of breathtaking.

Oates is a prolific writer, but this short story is certainly one of her best, even if it is one of her earliest published works. It’s short, sweet, and powerful–all the things a short story ought to be. Just one reason why it’s read in many college courses–it’s a nearly perfect piece of short fiction, and a great example of Oates’ dark prose.

Some fun facts about Oates:

  • Oates has written over 50 novels and dozens of short stories, short story collections, and essays. She is quite possibly one of the most prolific writers of the late twentieth century, and honestly, it makes me just want to write write write and never ever stop just to hope I can maybe publish a fraction of what she did. Maybe (probably not).
  • Her books are extremely violent and so graphic that Oates addressed reader’s and critics concerns in a New York Times article entitled “Why Do You Write So Violent?” saying that those who asked this question did not realize its sexist implications. She claimed to be tired of being labelled merely as “women’s literature” and that no male author would be asked that question. What do you guys think? Does she have a point?
  • Oates still teaches at Princeton, but used to live in Detroit, and many of her stories take place in both Michigan and New Jersey. Talk about your depressing American landscape settings.

I went with an older picture because come on. This is pretty gorgeous.

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In the Heart of the Heart of the Country & Other Stories by William Gass

24 Jan

I know a number of you have enjoyed reading posts about classic books by authors you may not have heard of before. And that’s to be expected. After all, if you didn’t love James Joyce when you read him in your college freshmen English course, then why would you want to read him now? And today I have a real gem for you. This past fall I fell in love with William Gass and his short story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. He may not be your standard book club pick, but he’s certainly a hidden gem of an author. If you love mid-1900’s literature, have a look at Mr. Gass and his works.

Published:1969

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country & Other Stories by William Gass

Quick Read?: Mostly. What slows it down somewhat is his use of a lot of colloquial language and experimental stylistic elements, but that can easily be adjusted to.

Difficulty: Not too difficult, though the narration can sometimes be hard to pin down.

Synopsis: The five stories included in the collection feature narrators isolated deep within themselves and their surroundings, yearning for ways to reach out to those around him. In “The Pederson Kid,” a young boy tries to assert himself as a man when the men in his life only show themselves to be disappointments. As they try to save a young boy found frostbitten on their farm in the middle of a blizzard, the young narrator joins the men in his family on a trip to the neighbor’s farm that only brings out the darkness amongst them all. In “Order of Insects,” an odd infestation of bugs in a new house allows for a 1950’s housewife to make a mental world of her own for the bugs. She catalogues and researches the bugs, ultimately to allow her to feel like she has some control over her life. And in the title story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” a writer who vows to immortalize his town through his work finds himself unable to shake the memories and influence of a long lost love that has left him unable to actually go out into the world. Each story is unique, but all highlight the loneliness of the twentieth century experience, and the need for love to push a person outside of themselves.

Why read this book? This collection was seen as groundbreaking in the 1960s, and Gass was considered a very influential writer for many who wrote experimental fiction in the 1970s and beyond. His sparse use of language, and his focus on specific things–the strange appearance of a child, weird bugs, a small town in Indiana–beginning to show other essential parts of his characters. It is a book full of subtlety, but also beauty.

Gass was also a philosopher, and his books reflect a lot of his views on humanity and love. He felt that philosophy and language were very much intertwined, and when reading In the Heart, it is clear that he felt philosophy and literature could oftentimes go hand in hand almost seamlessly.

William Gass: making experimental fiction aesthetics look jaunty since 1966.

Some interesting facts:

  • Gass was a philosopher and considered writing to be a side project for himself. He then, however, went on to become one of the most influential writers of the later half of the twentieth century. One of the few times one might say he could have quit his day job! (Though I’m glad he did not).
  • When getting his Ph.D. at Cornell, he studied philosophy of language and metaphor, but then wrote wildly long papers on aesthetics just for fun, since no one there specialized in the philosophy of aesthetics. You can bring the student to school, but I suppose you can’t control how many papers they will write?
  • He called each of his books “experimental constructions” because each played with different elements of style in language, punctuation and syntax. This in turn became inspirational for many experimental writers after him.

If you like this, try: Omensetter’s Luck by Gass; Lolita or Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs; The Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

17 Jan

Full disclosure, folks. You know how I’ve been upfront with you all about my love of Woolf? Well, my love of her is only really rivaled by my love of Angela Carter. British feminist writers know the keys to my heart, and truthfully Carter is one of the writers I discuss heavily in my thesis project. I just love her, and have found that she has been largely forgotten as time has worn on (she died in 1992). This is only a smidgen short of a tragedy, in my mind. Forget Twilight or any of those other fantastical, paranormal books being written nowadays–read some Carter and I promise you won’t regret it.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Published: 1979

Quick Read?: Carter’s language is very rich and detailed, but the stories themselves are engrossing. It’s a fairly quick read.

Difficulty: Again, Carter loves to use elaborate language. Some may find it intimidating, but her writing flows so well that it hardly feels difficult to read most of the time.

Synopsis: The Bloody Chamber is a collection of short stories, or rather, “revisions” of classic fairy tales. Carter revisits, revises, or perhaps rewrites well known Western fairy tales and myths, making them more violent, more risqué, and if nothing else, more three-dimensional. Carter’s feminist twists feel refreshing and modern, even if her audience has heard these tales ad nauseum throughout their lives. The infamous title story “The Bloody Chamber” tells the familiar story of “Bluebeard” from the young wife’s perspective, giving voice to her thoughts and agency to her (and her mother, interestingly) as she faces certain death. “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “Tiger’s Bride” both tell the tale of “Beauty and the Beast” but from vastly different points of view: one that the romance is one of mutual respect and reconciliation with the beast within all humans, the other implying that all men are beasts, and all women are prone to be ravaged. All of her stories take on the troublesome power dynamics of women in classic fairy tales and myths, but go deeper than just giving them agency–they examine these women’s thoughts, their possible actions, and the possibility that perhaps all humans are far more animalistic then we might like to think.

What makes this book great?: This is hard for me to answer since I’m planning to write some 80-odd pages on the subject, but the easiest way to put it is that Carter does a wonderful job of creating a feminist work that is more than just political rhetoric. It examines women in society and how their position, if these old fairy tales are to be believed, is so fixed, yet these characters are also human and humans descends from animals. Society dictates these rules to make it seem as though we are above animals, when really, all of her characters are trying to tame their animalistic instincts constantly, usually to no avail. So it’s a book concerning gender, but not exclusively, and that is something I feel should be greatly admired.

On a more fun note, there is something very satisfying in reading fairy tales from childhood in a more adult way. The violent and sexual aspects are more prominent in Carter’s retelling, and more disturbing. It’s a great deal more fun, but also unsettling. It makes you re-examine how these tales shaped your youth and the way you once viewed the world. Yet, the touch of magic and surreal throughout still makes The Bloody Chamber a great place to escape to, albeit temporarily.

A few points of interest:

Read The Bloody Chamber then try and tell me you DON'T want to frolic through the woods with Angela Carter. Just try and tell me you don't. You'll want to frolic with her. Trust me on this.

  • Carter was also a translator. She translated Charles Perrault’s fairy tales (he was the original Mother Goose–yes, Mother Goose was originally a guy), and this in turn inspired her to write The Bloody Chamber.
  • She also wrote stories based on historical events that included women–a great one is “The Fall River Axe Murders” where Carter steps inside the mind of the famous murderer Lizzie Borden, creating a sympathetic portrait of a squandered woman.
  • Carter also wrote her own screenplay for the short story “Company of Wolves” from The Bloody Chamber. Not something a lot of authors get to do. Check out the trailer, pretty creepy, right? However, it received mixed reviews upon release: 

If you enjoy this, try: Burning Your Boats: The Collected Stories by Angela Carter; A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor; Transformations by Anne Sexton; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell; Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Dubliners by James Joyce

7 Jul

James Joyce. If you love literature, you either love or loathe him, there’s little in between. He’s famous for a) ridiculously long sentences and ridiculously long books (I’m looking at you, Ulysses), b) hating his mother country Ireland but also writing about it almost obsessively, and c) the dirty letters he wrote his wife (who’s name, no kidding, was Nora Barnacle. BARNACLE, FOLKS) that the internet has now gotten ahold of so all of his adoring fans today can giggle at his secrets. It’s a cruel world we live in.

Yet don’t let this deter you from Joyce. In fact, if you have any interest in Ireland and its history, in the city of Dublin, and the modernist movement, there’s a good chance you’ll love Dubliners. Arguably the most approachable of his works, it’s a great summer book because as I’ve said, short story collections really can be the perfect beach read (whether you’re in Ireland or upstate New York, like me).

Dubliners by James Joyce

Published: 1914

Genre: Short fiction (14 short stories, 1 novella)

Difficulty: Not particularly, but there is a lot to each story. Definitely pay attention.

Quick Read?: The stories are short but dense–it may take you a little longer than you initially expected.

Synopsis: I like to think of the stories in this collection as vignettes of sorts, that paint a picture of life in Dublin right before World War I. Each story follows characters living in Dublin as they have their “epiphany,” Joyce’s main theme throughout, where they realize something important about themselves or what is going on around them. The story “Eveline” shows a young woman about to leave Ireland to run off with a sailor for a life of adventure, only to realize that she does not and cannot actually leave her mother country. “Araby” shows a young boy looking to impress a girl by buying her something from the Arab bazaar, only to miss the bazaar completely, and ruin his chances of ever having her. And “The Dead,” Joyce’s infamous novella, follows a couple at a dinner party, where the husband learns of his wife’s first love, a young man who died long ago, and ruminates on meaning of life and death.

What makes this book awesome: First of all, if you’ve read ANY Joyce, he can at times be far from straightforward. But the beauty of Dubliners is the simplicity of the language when discussing large, important moments in the characters’ lives. This somehow makes the gravity of their situations even more real and apparent.

I think anyone can relate to a moment of epiphany, when something in your life becomes highlighted, or better understood, for the first time, and it is impossible to go back to how you were before.

And for anyone interested in Ireland, Irish history, Irish mythology, Irish anything really, this book was published during the Irish nationalist period, when Ireland was fighting for it’s independence and looking for it’s own voice. Joyce definitely dabbles in that here, dropping the names of important historical and political figures who helped the country come to it’s own “epiphany” surrounding their oncoming independence from bloody England (I’d imagine they’d say it that way, or something).

Some fantastic facts:

James Joyce was pretty good looking as a young man (google search it). Then he got older, and crazier, and got an eyepatch...and more badass. Still attractive? It's your call.

  • It took nearly 10 years to publish Dubliners. It was originally written in the 1900’s.
  • “The Dead” was made into a movie in 1999 and then a musical, weirdly enough. But don’t worry, it gets weirder: Christopher Walken was in the original musical production. Wrap your head around that.
  • Joyce was brought up a Catholic and, though he was pious for awhile, eventually despised the Church and its teachings. The same sort of goes for Ireland itself. Yet issues of faith, homeland, and nationalism play a huge role in Dubliners and his other works.
If you like this, try: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, any poetry by Yeats, poetry by T.S. Eliot,  Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

4 Jul

Happy 4th of July everyone! Though the day is nearing its end, I thought I’d highlight an author who I think is a sure-fire All-American: Flannery O’Connor. I’ve read about 2/3 of her short stories featured in The Complete Stories (there are so many! 32 of them, I believe), and while they have a true Southern twang to them, they also encapsulate the American voice, in all its hope and anxiety and desperation. Though O’Connor only lived to be 39, her influence on American writing today is a large and looming presence, even if she is sometimes forgotten about outside of high school or college English classes.

And hey…if you’re looking for a good beach read, what better than short stories that you can read as many or as little of as you want? You don’t have to find a convenient chapter or paragraph break to stop, and you’ll never forget a plot point. It’s always a great choice.

The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor

Published: 1971 as a complete collection–the stories themselves were published in smaller volumes from 1955 till her death in 1964.

Genre: short fiction, in American/South Gothic style, dark humor, sometimes satire.

Difficulty: Not at all difficult.

Quick Read: The book as a whole, not really. The stories individually? Yes!

Synopsis: Now clearly no one wants to read my summarization of a bajillion short stories, so I can maybe highlight a few interesting ones for now. Arguably her most famous one, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is a real classic–the story of a family whose supposedly feebleminded grandmother fears a faraway serial killer she hears about, and when no one takes her seriously, they realize she may have had reason to be afraid. The other most famous one is “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” the story of a disgruntled son whose naive but well-meaning mother forces him to ride the bus with her. When his mother accidentally gets in trouble, his struggle against her worsens until it is just too late. Some other great ones that don’t often get mentioned include “The Displaced Person” (for fans of political incorrectness and post-WWII stories), “The Heart of the Park” (if you ever wonder about homeless folks), “The River” (not for anyone who is easily saddened), and “Good Country People” (for all you fellow literary feminists out there, chew on this one).

If a large book of stories intimidates you, try her smaller collections of short stories, named after the first two stories I profiled and go from there. No way you’ll be disappointed. No way.

What makes this book awesome: No, O’Connor isn’t Twain or Faulkner or Morrison or any of those super legendary Southern American writers, but she is important. A lot of contemporary fiction writers have been inspired by her sense of realism, her use of Southern dialect, and her character’s vivid voices.

You will feel as though these are characters you’ve met before–the homeless man in your park, the elusive neighbor down the street, the woman living in a house out on a dusty nameless road in East Bumblefudge, Georgia that you ran into once on a road trip (not a place you’ll find on a map, don’t try it, or maybe do?). Her characters are incredibly Southern, but never flat or boring.

And while pretty much every story of hers has a similar plot structure–a slow build-up of tension that finishes with a twist and a shocking yet satisfying ending–it always feels new, feels right, and leaves the reader with a sense of closure. Now, depending on the story, sometimes it’s tragic closure, sometimes it’s redemptive…but it is certainly never what you thought you saw coming.

Flannery may have been ill, but the birds she bred were sick. And not in the going-to-die-sort-of-way.

Some neat-o things to know (brace yourself, I do love Flannery):

  • According to the introduction of this book, Flannery’s southern accent was so strong when she came to the infamous University of Iowa writing workshop to ask to be allowed to enroll that she had to write down anything she wanted to say to them. Read one story, you can totally see her having an accent like that.
  • She bred peacocks. Hell yeah she did. Why? Because she could. See photo.
  • Rumor has it she wrote her stories straight as they were and, in her words, “never edited.” That’s either the cockiest lie ever told or the most badass truth I personally have ever been told.
  • Flannery was quite the Christian, and claims all of her stories are about Christianity, though many have trouble seeing religion in a flattering light throughout her works. What say you, intelligent commenters?

If you like this, try: any short stories by George Saunders, The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara, The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, anything by Mark Twain