Saturday, June 11, 2011

Book Reviews: A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates and Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

I've recently read two wonderful books, either of which would make great summer reads.

A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates - A Widow's Tale is a memoir written by Oates after the unexpected death of her husband, Ray. At first I wasn't going to read this book because I'm a little tired of memoirs and I had read Joan Didion's memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, which deals with the exact same subject. However, I kept hearing such glowing things about this book that I just had to see for myself. I'm so glad I did. I enjoyed this book on so many different levels. First and foremost was the writing. Oh my goodness. Oates is a master of evocative language. She can express the most emotionally authentic thoughts eloquently and succinctly. I was constantly amazed at the beautiful way in which she set her thoughts and emotions on paper. I also found her descriptions of her life with Ray to be fascinating. They had a very unique relationship. It was an intellectual and academic life between two people who had the utmost respect for each other. But there is also something fragile and childlike about Oates and in many ways her relationship with Ray seemed to have a father-figure quality to it. I was also fascinated to read how Oates views her fame. In her mind, she is Joyce Smith and Joyce Carol Oates (or JCO, as she refers to her public persona) is just that - a public persona, a draining role she is reluctantly required to fulfill. Fascinating! I've never heard anyone else talk about this before. I also learned that she is a notoriously private person and rarely gives interviews or shares anything of her personal life with the public. So writing this intensely personal book was quite a giant leap of faith for her. And very brave for one so seemingly unsure of herself. And lastly, from my own experiences with grief - both personal and as a witness to a situation very similar to Oates - I feel that Oates presents a view of grief that is authentic, real and heartrendingly accurate. 4/5 stars - I really liked it!

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks - I absolutely LOVE Geraldine Brooks' books. If you haven't already read A Year of Wonders or People of the Book, you simply must add them to the top of your tbr list! And while you're at it add Caleb's Crossing as well. Brooks is a master of evoking time and place. Her use of language, dialogue and even her writing style perfectly fit the time period and the characters of her novels. Caleb's Crossing is an historical fiction novel set in the late 1600's on Martha's Vineyard and Cambridge, MA. It tells the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from what would become Harvard University and his friendship with a young white girl, Bethia Mayfield. Bethia yearns for an education, which is closed off to her because of her sex. Meanwhile, Bethia's father is struggling to convert the natives to Christianity and one of his projects is to educate Caleb. Brooks does a wonderful job of presenting the societal issues of the day without becoming preachy or presenting one side or the other as being all good or all bad. The reader is presented with a clear view of the life and times of the Puritan settlers and the Native Wampanoag tribe living both on the wild island of Great Harbor and in the gritty community of Cambridge. What makes the book even more compelling is that Brooks lives on Martha's Vineyard and came to write this story when she came across a document that mentioned the real life Caleb Cheeshahteamuck. There is very little information about Caleb, but Brooks felt that his amazing story was one that should not be forgotten to time. If that isn't enough to grab your attention, it's interesting to note that until this past May when Tiffany Smalley graduated from Harvard, Caleb was not just the first Wampanoag to graduate from Harvard, he was the only one! Imagine that! 4/5 stars - I really liked it.

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