Book Review: Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

If you’re looking for a book to match the dreary mood of autumn, and you aren’t afraid to look at life in fierce, intense ways, you might consider Sourland. This latest collection by the great Joyce Carol Oates gives us 16 stories that unflinchingly speak of violence – both physical and psychological. 

The tales are full of rich details and observations told in such a calm, matter-of-fact manner that it is hard to look away from their horror. Be warned, this is not a book for the faint of heart.

As the stories build, the reader develops an imminent sense of dread for the characters, who don’t seem to see the horrors creeping up on them – widowhood, rape, abduction, and the twisted acts of internal cruelty we do to ourselves when we’re left alone.

However, throughout Sourland, there is a growing sense that perhaps the characters not only anticipate but are even almost masochistically expecting their fates.

Though the lives of the characters are unapologetically dark, the details and surroundings are described in beautiful ways. Despite its stern subject, Sourland is literary and eloquent.

The writing moves quickly and gracefully. The pairing of the words with the subject matter serves to give the characters and the landscapes a very physical presence, one which makes the violence and loss in these stories all the more real to the reader.

I could tell you about the childhood incident that left a woman so angry for the rest of her life that she wanted to smash the most precious things to her: her children.

About the amputee librarian whom “God meant to mock: a pretty-girl face on a broken body.”

Or about how after only three weeks after losing her husband, a widow began to receive the mysterious letters beckoning her to Sourland – and to undertake a savage, internal journey she chooses not to resist.

But these are not my stories. They belong in Sourland.

On Monday, November 8, the Kansas City Public Library welcomes Joyce Carol Oates in the flesh. Join local author Whitney Terrell at the Central Library for a conversation with Oates as part of the Writers at Work series, now in its 10th year.

This free public program is co-sponsored by the UMKC English Department and the Writers at Work Roundtable. It begins at 6:30 p.m. Find out more and RSVP.

About the Author

Abby Sidener

Abby Sidener is a full-time Library Sub at the Kansas City Public Library and a public transportation advocate. When she's not helping out patrons at the Library or devouring poetry and short stories, she can often be found handing out books on the Kansas City Metro bus system as a participant in the Mid-America Regional Council's Green Commute Challenge.