Archive for ‘Memoir’

February 14, 2011

Book Review: A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

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A WIDOW’S STORY: A MEMOIR
by Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco
(February 2011, $27.99, 432 pages)

It is a rare opportunity to gain an honest glimpse into the private life of a public persona. When it happens, the reveal is often surprising because the discovery of the “real” life is quite different from the character known to the public. Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir of her husband’s unexpected death and the aftermath of grief over her loss is a deeply personal and honest look at her submersion into the ill-defined world of present-day widowhood.

In 1961, after a brief courtship and at the tender age of 23, Oates married the love of her life, Raymond J. Smith, in Madison, Wisconsin. Their marriage was her foundation for nearly 50 years. In her private life, she was Joyce Smith. She and Ray shared a deeply loving marriage marred by few upheavals, trials or separations. Their academic careers mirrored, they often taught in the same universities or at colleges located close together. In 1974 they founded a literary magazine, The Ontario Review and its publishing house The Ontario Review Books. Ray left academia to become editor of The Ontario Review and while Joyce continued to teach and write, she also took on the role of an associate editor. Their union, by her own definition was, “a marriage of like minds.”

A Widow’s Story begins with Ray’s hospitalization for pneumonia at Princeton Medical Center. Ray, an editor, runner, writer and husband, had been in good, if not excellent health, for all of his 68 years. His bout with pneumonia, requiring hospitalization, was unexpected but not catastrophic. Both patient and wife expected a speedy discharge with life quickly returning to its happy and peaceful domesticity. Oates was blindsided by the rapid decline of her husband’s illness: heart arrhythmia, admission to the Cardiac Care Unit and the close monitoring of low oxygen levels. Throughout, she expected that he was going to rally and return to his usual healthy state. However, within the week Ray was dead of a rare but deadly hospital acquired infection, E coli bacterial pneumonia. Ray’s sudden, brutal and unexpected death unceremoniously threw Oates into a panicked state of widowhood. She tried desperately to comprehend the wrenching loss of her husband.

Oates’ widowhood is dark, full of grief and provides a frank look at the abyss of absence. Her observations mirror some of the bleak themes she has explored in her own writing as her author-self, Joyce Carol Oats, to whom she refers to as JCO. A Widow’s Story is deeply personal and painful to read because it describes a wrenching end of a loving marriage. We as readers experience a Pandora’s Box of the unexpected and unwanted as she writes about the aftermath of death and of a life she never expected, wanted, or planned.

Ray was her life. They had only each other; there were no children, just two cats and a garden, (mostly Ray’s cats and Ray’s garden). She compartmentalizes the year following his death into 5 distinct periods of time: I. The Vigil, II. Free Fall, III. The Basilisk, IV. Purgatory, Hell, V. “You Looked So Happy”.

Oates is brutally honest with her reflections and recollections and she writes with a rawness that thankfully lacks self-deprecation or the canonization of the departed. She is truthful in her fear that she may not be able to carry on and writes poignantly about the difficulty of daily tasks and of wearing a brave face. Equally, she’s brutally honest about her perception of living up to others’ expectations of her as The Widow. Her grief does not follow any predictable stages. She is able travel and give speeches within a week of Ray’s death but she is unable to write. She cannot sleep, although she is perpetually exhausted. She keeps an exact inventory of pain pills, anti-anxiety pills and sleeping pills and, in the beginning of her life without Ray, she thinks often of making a quick and peaceful exit from her own painful existence. She has flashbacks of his death, she dreams that he is alive and she feels she is being watched by a reptilian creature who wants her to die. This honest recount of raw grief is painful, wrenching and lonely.

A Widow’s Story is not only a memoir; it is also a social commentary on widowhood in the 21st century where there are no set rules. The formalities that mark the phases of widowhood are nebulous and isolating. Oates finds herself buried in food baskets she can’t consume and plants she can’t care for. She is never able to write acknowledgements of Ray’s death nor can she even pick up the phone. Her most uplifting and meaningful correspondences are via e-mail. Oates takes a very difficult look into the modern age of widowhood, speaking to the greater societal issue of avoidance and of the compartmentalization of people who are no longer part of what was once a comfortable whole.

Yet, A Widow’s Story is not without humor and light: lives well-lived and full of love must have their glory. Thankfully, Oates reveals many of her beloved husband’s traits, characteristics and talents. She is able to describe the Ray she knew, lived with and loved for almost 50 years. She recognizes that while it is painful to imagine the loss, it is also an honor to share in the life. Her year ends with hope and with a small kernel of insight which reveals that grief, even fathomless and unimaginable grief of love lost, is worth wading through. Life will go on.

Sweetman

January 4, 2011

Book Review: The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe

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THE ELFISH GENE:
DUNGEONS, DRAGONS AND GROWING UP STRANGE
by Mark Barrowcliffe

Soho Press, Inc.
(November 2009, $14, 288 pages)

I have a confession. While in high school during the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was fascinated by odd, awkward and distant boys who played Dungeons & Dragons, fascinated almost to the point of a forbidden crush. They were so different, marching around in heavy black trench coats and big black boots. They avoided attention because it was usually derogatory and spoke to each other in a sophisticated nearly foreign language about things of which I could relate only vaguely back to J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. They seemed to possess a knowledge of a secret world which buoyed them during the boring and sometimes cruel existence of life as a teen on the outside of normalcy.

The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe brought me back into the secret world that I had wondered about. This memoir is a lively, honest, hilarious and at times heartbreaking recount of Barrowcliffe’s adolescence as a committed Dungeons & Dragons Gamer.

At age 12, Mark Barrowcliffe chose an obscure path of wizard, warrior, evil priest or dwarf over the the more conventional path of typical rebellion. He didn’t tread lightly. He dove right in and immersed himself entirely in a world where the socially awkward boy from Coventry, England became Alf the Elf, Foghat the Gnome or Effilc Worrab, an elf warrior with the head of a mule.

Barrowcliffe describes his total preoccupation with Dungeons & Dragons as, “an obsession, a way for damaged people to damage themselves further.” The Dungeons & Dragons game became a connecting lifeline for ostracized, similarly obsessed dweebs in the mid-1970s. It was an unprecedented narrative story game that armed the players with paper, pencils, oddly shaped dice and exquisite imagination. The game typically went on for days, which for the school-aged Barrowcliffe, was from Friday afternoon to mid-Sunday afternoon. He played non-stop with a cast of memorable characters, including the most remarkable, Billy, who welcomed Barrowcliffe to the gaming table with, “Sit down between the wind and his nobility!” He then let out an enormous fart.

The Eflish Gene exposes the world of geeks and role-playing gamers. Barrowcliffe spares no humility; he was the lowest echelon in his world. His frank, self-deprecating observations of his own annoying mannerisms and over-the-top enthusiasm while playing are amusing. The responses and reactions of the other players to Barrowcliffe’s Alf the Elf are cruelly entertaining. The unforgettable characters live for the secret world of superior knowledge. They are smug in their sequestered realm which is in reality just an escape from the cruel world of normalcy. It was boys’ world because there were no girl players. Girls would destroy the game. It was a world of “bullied, power hungry twerps with no discernible skills and absolutely no hope of a girlfriend.”

Girls ultimately provide the escape ladder for Barrowcliffe’s painful extraction from the fantasy obsession of his awkward youth. The recount of his extraction from the world of Dungeons & Dragons and its circle of cloistered misfits is a bit sad yet necessary in order to for him to successfully navigate the real world. Typical of most superior-minded nerds, he takes on a tone of snide disdain when revisiting the Dungeons & Dragons gaming tables. Perhaps this is a reflection of wasted youth? Regardless, reading about this fantasy world of war gaming geeks is well worth the time spent.

Sweetman

November 10, 2010

The Very Writerly President

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Just in time for the Republican and Tea Party sweep of congressional and gubernatorial seats, former United States President George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points was released to enormous media hoopla today. Back in May, The Huffington Post invited folks to photoshop their own titles and covers for the book. (Personal favorite: #10) In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani says that Decision Points “lacks the emotional precision and evocative power” of former First Lady Laura Bush’s memoir Speaking from the Heart. Between the two, Kakutani says save your money and your time for Laura’s memoir over George’s.

October 25, 2010

CanLit Award Predictions

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

CanLit awards season is heading into its last few weeks (our big three prizes will all be handed out by mid-November). Thus, it’s time for predictions, and, if you are a real lit-junkie, some serious bets. First, a few quiet observations.

What everyone is perhaps not so quietly talking about is Kathleen Winter’s triple nominations for the Giller Prize, Governor General’s Award and Writers’ Trust prize for her novel Annabel. It is Winter’s debut novel after her 2008 Winterset Award winning short story collection boYs.

Feeling two-thirds the heat as Kathleen Winter is Emma Donoghue, up for the Writers’ Trust and GG for her novel Room. The novel was also short-listed for the Man Booker earlier this fall.

There are lesser hopefuls that may surprise Canada with a big win after all. David Bergen’s new novel The Matter With Morris has had its share of recognition this season. It is up for the Giller and may just take the cake out of Winter’s mouth.

That said, it would be doggishly ironic if Sarah Selecky’s This Cake Is For The Party won the Giller. This is her debut work and has created considerable buzz in critic’s circles. Perhaps if the GG and Writer’s Trust accepted story collections, it would also approach taking those awards.

On to my predictions: be warned, the following is purely unfounded speculation.

On November 2, Michael Winter’s The Death Of Donna Whalen will win the Writers’ Trust award for fiction. In non-fiction, Sarah Leavitt will win for her graphic memoir Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me.

A week later on November 9, Emma Donoghue will win the Giller Prize for Room.

And in mid-November the Governor General’s Award for fiction will be presented to Kathleen Winter for Annabel. In non-fiction, Allan Casey will win for Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada.

August 7, 2010

Head’s Up: CBC Literary Award Submissions

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

Submissions for the 2010 CBC Literary Awards are now being accepted until November 1. Go here to enter and get all the information on how to format your submission. A twenty-five dollar (CAD) fee applies for each entry, and you can enter as many works as you want. The CBC Literary Awards competition is the only literary competition that celebrates original, unpublished works, in Canada’s two official languages.

There are three categories, one of which your submission must fall under: Short Story for short fiction narratives 2,000 to 2,500 words; Creative Nonfiction between 2,000 and 2,500 words, including humour, memoir, and research articles written for general audiences; and Poetry for long narrative poems or groups of poems totalling between 1,000 and 2,000 words. You must be a citizen or permanent resident of Canada to enter. All works must be unpublished and original.

Between November and January a shortlist of about twenty or thirty submissions will be decided on by a judging panel of top Canadian literary editors and writers. The winners will be announced in March 2011. There are twelve prizes awarded: For both English and French language works, first place in each category wins $6,000 and second place wins $4,000. Winning pieces will be published in Air Canada’s enRoute magazine, and will also be spotlighted on the CBC website.

There are many different ways to stay informed and get involved with the awards. Join over 1,300 followers by “liking” the Facebook Group and receive ongoing updates about the competition. Get writing tips from 2009 Short Story Juror Michael Helm, who propagates the importance of original writing. Read the 2009 winning entries and gain some indie author inspiration. Most of all, get writing! Only three months left!

July 25, 2010

July/August issue Is Here!

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It finally happened! The July/August issue (#4) of this is waiting for you on our website with fiction by James Thibeault and Scott Deckman; poetry by Geer Austin, Micah Muldowney, Birch Taylor, Mariele Ventrice, Ami Xherro, and Lorenzo Buford; essays by Peter Gajdics and Cailin Barrett-Bressack; art by Maddie Scott; photography by John Densky; and reviews by our contributing writers Ursula K. Raphael, Jordon Chiarelli, and John Coleman.

In this issue, we also announce our poet spotlight initiative.

Comments? Questions? Feedback? Let us know!

May 3, 2010

Upcoming Bush Memoir Redeux

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Former President George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points is due in November. The Huffington Post recently invited folks to photoshop their own titles and covers for the book. (Personal favorite: #10)

Former First Lady Laura Bush’s memoir, Spoken From the Heart is due in stores tomorrow. Hit us up with a review if you’d like!