Posts Tagged Joyce Carol Oates

book review: The Sacrifice


The Sacrifice By Joyce Carol Oates.
Ecco| January 2015.|320 pages |$26.99 ISBN: 978-006-233-2974

rating: 2.5/5*

This is a follow-up to her National Book Award-winning 1969 novel them. Written the year I was born, I have yet to read it. Not sure the delay in writing or publishing The Sacrifice if it is a follow-up to a novel from 40 years ago. Did she write this novel some time ago but not publish it. Was the timing off. Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific author of 40 novels and numerous short-story collections. The Sacrifice is a timely novel about race, abuse of power, corruption, public perception and manipulation. However, it just came across as dated to me and it also took me an outrageous three weeks to read. And not due to its length—one of Joyce Carol Oates shorter novels at 300 pages– or due to its dense material. She writes from various perspectives, shuffles layers and mystery,provides details into the young woman’s background and then illustrates the hype surrounding this did-it-or-didn’t-it-happen case.

I felt it was a tale already told. I finally realized it was based on the 1987 case of Tawney Brawley. I was in high school or just beginning college when that case happened so I didn’t immediately recall it. This was pre-Twitter, pre-internet, pre-mobile blitz. Some fictionalizations of real-life events work and some do not. This isn’t the first time for Joyce Carol Oates to turn a real-life event into a novel. The most powerful and creepy is Black Water which imagines Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick.

In The Sacrifice a poor black teen claims rape, under dubious circumstances, and when a high-profile reverend and his attorney brother get involved the lines blur. In swoops an Al Sharpton doppelgänger Rev. Marus Mudrick –“in his signature three-piece suit with a flowing necktie, sternly smiling, vibrant and alert, exuding strength, masculinity, Christian resolution”–and his twin lawyer brother Byron, a hard-working, civil rights attorney who eschews the spotlight. The duo complicates matters by adding to the confusion, suggesting possible suspects and promising a better and more interesting life to the teen and her mother.

Of course anyone who claims rape has a reason to do so and Oates delves into that a bit. She wonders why a young woman would fabricate a story as many start to indicate. Sybilla Frye is found hogtied, scrawled with racial slurs and smeared with dog feces in an abandoned basement. She says that a group of men led by a “yellow-haired” man, raped and beat her but she won’t submit to a rape test and is a difficult interview for the police. Is Sybilla lying or so deeply traumatized from sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather—ex-con Anis Schutt–that she believes this truly occurred: “They had white faces and one of them a badge like a cop would wear or a state trooper and they had guns an one of them, he put that gun barrel up inside me and it hurt so bad I was crying so bad they said Nigra cunt you stop that bawlin, we gon pull this trigger an all yo’ insides gon come splashin out your ugly nappy head.” Understandably this teenager and her mother, Ednetta, do not trust the police. Not many young black women would.

They don’t even trust or dare confide in a Hispanic female police officer– a young woman who has her own issues regarding fair treatment by the police department. Oates writes: “Iglesias did not check black when filling out appropriate official forms, Iglesias did not think of herself as a person of color though she acknowledged, seeing herself in reflective surfaces beside those colleagues of hers who were white, that she might’ve been, to the superficial eye, a light-skinned Hispanic.”

The introduction of this female police officer captivated me but unfortunately she’s jettisoned out of the novel far too soon. Here’s a strong WOC. A strong woman in a position of power. Inis Iglesias: “Her life had been, since adolescence, an effort to overcome the crude perimeters of identity. Her skin-color, ethnic background, gender. I am so much more than the person you see. Give me a chance.” That this character wasn’t allowed a chance fits in with the cruelties Oates outlines throughout the novel. I’d like to read a novel on the Inis Iglesias experience.

Describing the poor New Jersey neighborhood in which the Fryes inhabit and piecing together how Sybilla got from there to her present situation works. Oates does an impressive job in etching out that picture. The Princeton professor knows New Jersey. “The Fryes lived on Third Street, in that run-down neighborhood by the river. Abandoned factories, shuttered and part-burned houses, streets clogged with abandoned and rusting vehicles. Pascayne South High, lowest-ranked in the city. The fifth precinct, with the highest crime rate. You had to grow up swiftly there.”

Solid attempt but not quite powerful enough to succeed. Given the racial tensions throughout the nation seems perfect timing for this novel. I wonder if Oates wrote this years ago and didn’t publish until now as it’s simultaneously dated and relevant. I cannot recommend The Sacrifice.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco/Harper Collins.

purchase The Sacrifice

purchase at Amazon: The Sacrifice: A Novel


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IN THE REALM: 13 Book Suggestions for Halloween


Each scary in their own way. some thrillers, some nonfiction, some memoirs and a few classics that totally creep me out. I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary one summer and was afraid of things jumping out of bushes for a long while after finishing it.

fearful symmetry

1. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

pet sematary

2. Pet Sematary by Stephen King


3. Montana by Gwen Florio


4. Biohazard by Ken Alibek

lost in the forest

5. Lost in the Forest by Sue Miller

old woman

6. There Was an Old Woman by Hallie Ephron

street lawyer

7. The Street Lawyer by John Grisham

lord of the flies

8. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

drivers seat

9. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

black water

10. Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates


11. Stiff: the curious lives of cadavers by Mary Roach


12. Threats by Amelia Gray

working stiff

13. Working Stiff by Judy Melinek

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September Boston-Area Book Readings of Note


lovely dark deep

Joyce Carol Oates

Lovely, Dark, Deep: stories

Brookline Booksmith

At Coolidge Corner Theatre

Thursday, September 11 at 6pm


Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist

Harvard Book Store

Thursday, September 11 at 7pm

bone clocks

David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks

Porter Square Books

Thursday, September 18 at 6:30pm

paying guests

Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests

Harvard Book Store at Brattle Theatre

Thursday, September 18 at 6pm



Rainbow Rowell


Harvard Book Store at Brattle Theatre

Friday, September 19 at 6pm

liars wife

Mary Gordon

The Liar’s Wife

Porter Square Books

Monday, Sept 22 at 7pm

unspeakable things

Laurie Penny

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution

Harvard Book Store

Friday, September 26 at 7pm

thirteen days

Lawrence Wright

Thirteen Days in September

Harvard Book Store at Brattle Theatre

Monday, September 29 at 6pm

life drawing

Robin Black

Life Drawing

Harvard Book Store

Tuesday, September 30 at 7pm

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Women’s History Month: choice quotes by women writers

The beauty of the world has two edges, one of laughter,
one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.
–Virginia Woolf

Art is so much more real than life. Some art is much more real than some life, I mean.
–Rebecca West

All art deals with the absurd and aims at the simple.
–Iris Murdoch

Art does the same things dreams do. We have a hunger for dreams and art fulfills that hunger. So much of real life is a disappointment. That’s’ why we have art.
–Joyce Carol Oates

Real art has the capacity to make us nervous.
–Susan Sontag

I try to teach my heart not to want things it can’t have.
–Alice Walker

I didn’t fear failure. I expected failure.
–Amy Tan

Women are at last becoming persons first and wives second, and that is as it should be.
–May Sarton

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What My Mother Gave Me: book review

what my mother gave me

What My Mother Gave Me edited by Elizabeth Benedict. Publisher: Algonquin (2013). Essays. Trade paperback. 289 pages. ISBN 978-1-61620-135-7.

Mother-daughter relationships wrought with anguish, endearment, benevolence, resentment. In this essay collection, women write about their mothers with honesty, humor, empathy and depth. What did these gifts mean? What lessons did these women learn from their mothers? How have these gifts influenced them? Contributors include best-selling novelists, a U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winners, NPR commentators and winners of the National Book Award. Maud Newton got books. Jean Hanff Korelitz’s mom gave her Sylvia Plath. Mary Gordon received a Circle Line boat trip. Mameve Medwed’s mother gave her a door. Joyce Carol Oates’s mother gave her a quilt. Lisa See’s mother gave her writing. Elizabeth Benedict’s mother gave her a scarf. It works either to dip into here and there or read from cover to cover.

Maud Newton: “I was expected to be a prodigy of some kind. My parents had married, my mother told me, not for love but because they believed they would have smart children together.”

Jean Hanff Korelitz: “I was adolescent (still), poetic, moody, feminist, and – it went without saying—misunderstood. It was only a matter of time before I fell beneath the sway of a certain strain of lyrical intensity, a white-hot declaration of brilliance and femaleness and power. The verse, in other words, was already on the wall.”

Mary Gordon: “And so, I have come to understand why she never got me presents, and this failure was the objective correlative of her inability to give me any useful guidance on a good way of being a woman. This, too, has been a cause for generous lashings of self-pity when I drink the hemlock of deprivation and regret for what I have not had, or what I had to earn or win myself, through luck or labor.”

Joyce Carol Oates: “After my mother died in 2003, for a long time I would imagine her with me, in my study in particular, though imagine is perhaps a weak word to describe how keenly I felt Mom’s presence. In writing the novel Missing Mom, I tried to evoke Carolina Oates—well, I’m sure that I did evoke her, not fully or completely but in part. Mom is so much a part of myself, writing the novel was the antithesis of an exorcism, a portrait in words of a remarkable person whom everyone loved.”

Lisa See: “She’d shown me that to be a woman, a mother, or a writer I must sacrifice, show courage, and be loyal. I must look for those authentic emotions. I can never give up or bow to people who tell me that I can’t write because I’m a woman, that no one cares what I have to say, or that I’m worthless.”

Elizabeth Benedict: “I kept my distance from both of them. I moved to California and changed my name, had a ton of therapy, moved back East, wrote several novels that were—beneath a kind of surface of glitter and glibness—fundamentally about women who had a hard time expressing their deepest feelings.”

RATING: ***1/2

I received this book for review from Algonquin Books.

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BOOKS: The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates

The author of Black Water, Rape: a Love Story and The Tattooed Girl ruminates on writing, including her thoughts on other writers. She discusses inspiration, failure, criticism, influences and reading. It’s an intriguing foray into the writing process from initial concept to final product.

I believe that art is the highest expression of the human spirit.

Your struggle with your buried self, or selves, yields your art’ these emotions are the fuel that drives your writing and makes possible hours, days, weeks, months and years of what will appear to others, at a distance, as “work.”

Don’t expect to be treated justly by the world. Don’t even expect to be treated mercifully.

It is a man’s world; a woman whose sensibility has been stoke by feminism will find much to annoy and offend, but perhaps there’s much to learn, and to be inspired by, if only in knowing what it’s like to be an outsider gazing in.

I’ve never thought of writing as the mere arrangement of words on the page but the attempted embodiment of a vision; a complex of emotions; raw experience.

Though most of us inhabit degrees of failure or the anticipation of it, very few persons are willing to acknowledge the fact, out of a vague but surely correct sense that it is not altogether American to do so.

Of course, writing is an art. And art springs from the depths of the human imagination and is likely to be, in the final analysis as at first glance, idiosyncratic, mysterious, and beyond easy interpretation.

The inspiration a writer takes from a predecessor is usually accidental, like the inspirations of our lives; those individuals met by chance who become integral to our destinies.

Self-criticism, like self-administered brain surgery, is perhaps not a good idea. Can the “self” see the “self” with any objectivity?

To have a reliable opinion of oneself, one must know the subject, and perhaps that isn’t possible. We know how we feel about ourselves, but only from hour to hour; our moods change, like the intensity of light outside our windows.

The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art


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