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The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming…
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The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming of Age

by Joyce Carol Oates

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"What is vivid in memory is the singular, striking, one-of-a-kind event or episode, encapsulated as if in amber.... not routine but what violates routine.
Which is why the effort of writing a memoir is so fraught with peril, and even its small successes ringed by melancholy. The fact is - We have forgotten most of our lives. All of our landscapes are soon lost in time."

The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates is a very highly recommended collection of 28 pieces about her childhood, to adulthood and shares some of the incidents that have shaped her as a writer. Many of these stories have appeared in other publications and have been revised for this collection of the landscapes that have shaped her career as a writer. They are little vignettes of time caught in amber rather than a complete story of her life.

Oates grew up in an impoverished area of rural western New York State on her family's farm. Young Joyce had a special red hen, Happy Chicken, who was her beloved pet. She went to the same one room school house her mother did as a child and went on to attend high school in Buffalo. She was then a scholarship girl at Syracuse University and went on to get her masters at the University of Wisconsin. She shares her bouts with insomnia, first experiences with death, a friend's suicide, another's sexual abuse, as well as some of the stories that inspired her to write several of her novels. She has a moving piece about her autistic sister.

There were several things she described in these stories that brought vivid memories of my life to the forefront. I remember my grandparent's breakable, fragile Christmas ornaments that also included strings of bubble lights that fascinated all of us grandchildren. On her step-grandparents farm there is a pear orchard that she describes: "On the trees, the pears were greeny-hard as rocks for weeks as if reluctant to ripen; then, overnight, the pears were “ripe” - very soon “over-ripe” - fallen to the ground, buzzing with flies and bees." I remember a house we lived in when I was young, before attending school, that had a backyard filled with pear trees. Her descriptions vividly brought to mind the danger those pears represented, when they were over ripe, on the ground, and all sorts of wasps and bees and insects were swarming the area.

Obviously these pieces are extraordinarily well written, with details lovingly, gently, carefully describing specific events and memories. She shares some hurtful events too, although carefully modulated by time. Her parents are lovingly and warmly described creating a tribute to their memory. This is an excellent collection of pieces for a memoir.


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins for review purposes.

( )
  SheTreadsSoftly | Mar 21, 2016 |
My friends know that I have long been fascinated by the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. I seldom agree with the author’s political views (especially as displayed daily on her personal Twitter account), but her novels and short stories are so dark and revealing of the depths of the human soul that I have often wondered what could have shaped Oates into the writer she is. Over the years, Oates has revealed bits and pieces of her childhood in magazine articles and books, but it is her new memoir, The Lost Landscape, that offers both the clearest and the most complete look at the “hardscrabble rural upbringing” that helped create one of the finest (and most prolific) writers working today.

Many of the pieces included in The Lost Landscape have been previously published in publications ranging from AARP Magazine to the New Yorker. Some have appeared in previous of her books such as The Faith of a Writer and [Woman] Writer. Some, Ms. Oates tells us, appeared in “substantially different form” when first published. But the important thing is that they are now available in one, easy to find volume that longtime fans of her work are sure to appreciate.

The Lost Landscape is largely a reflection on the author’s earliest years through the eyes of the person she is today. It does not pretend to be a biography or even a “complete” memoir because Oates admits that like most of us she can only remember tiny bits and pieces of her past in any detail at all. She realizes that her memories may be incorrectly tainted by the perceptions of the naïve child she was when she experienced the events being recalled. She uses personal photographs from her childhood to recreate as best she can the events memorialized by the pictures, often spending as much time deciphering what is in the photographic background as on the event itself. She says:

“Taking pictures has been our salvation. Without taking pictures our memories would melt, evaporate. The invention of photography in the nineteenth century…revolutionized human consciousness; for when we claim to remember our pasts we are almost certainly remembering our favorite snapshots, in which the long-faded past is given a visual immortality.”

The book is divided into three sections, each representing a distinct phase of the author’s life. The first, and longest, section begins with her earliest memories and ends with the conclusion of her formal education. Along the way, readers learn of Oates’s childhood on the upstate New York farm of her maternal grandparents, her early education in the same little one-room schoolhouse her mother attended, and her earliest attempts at telling her stories through “books.” There is even a long chapter on one of her favorite pets, a chicken she and her family dubbed “Happy Chicken.”

The Lost Landscape’s other two sections are considerably shorter than the first and focus on what is essentially the rest of the author’s lifetime – from her days in Detroit and Windsor to details she learned later in life about the childhoods of both her parents. Particularly moving are her final reflections on her parents that make up the book’s third, and shortest, section.

Bottom Line: The Lost Landscape is an illuminating look at the creation of a writer, a memoir rather surprisingly created by a writer who seems to mistrust the very genre in which she frames it. ( )
  SamSattler | Dec 14, 2015 |
From her beginning memories living on the farm with her grandparents, parents and "Happy Chicken" through her school years, her love for libraries and books, meeting her husband, their time in Detroit and other places, Oates takes us on a journey through her memories. As she explains memories are not linear, they come as tidbits, snapshots, and I so agree. Her writing is so clear, straightforward, and so very interesting.

She does mention many of her books, why they were written, what she was trying to convey and things that sparked the creation of others. She has had a rich and varied life, not without heartache but goals attained after much hard work. Many of her musings sparked memories within myself, things I had forgotten, such as Butterick patterns, aimless Sunday drives, having a younger sister when she was eighteen, as did I. Amusingly like Oates I too was asked to name my sister.

The best memoirs are those that are personal enough to let the reader feel that they know a little more about a person, that they were let into their lives in. Mall ay and this book certainly does that. It also made me felt that I need to read more of her novels, that I could now read them with a better understanding. Well, we shall see.

ARC from publisher. ( )
  Beamis12 | Oct 17, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0062408674, Hardcover)

Written with the raw honesty and poignant insight that were the hallmarks of her acclaimed bestseller A Widow’s Story, an affecting and observant memoir of growing up from one of our finest and most beloved literary masters.

The Lost Landscape is Joyce Carol Oates’ vivid chronicle of her hardscrabble childhood in rural western New York State. From memories of her relatives, to those of a charming bond with a special red hen on her family farm; from her first friendships to her earliest experiences with death, The Lost Landscape is a powerful evocation of the romance of childhood, and its indelible influence on the woman and the writer she would become.

In this exceptionally candid, moving, and richly reflective account, Oates explores the world through the eyes of her younger self, an imaginative girl eager to tell stories about the world and the people she meets. While reading Alice in Wonderland changed a young Joyce forever and inspired her to view life as a series of endless adventures, growing up on a farm taught her harsh lessons about sacrifice, hard work, and loss. With searing detail and an acutely perceptive eye, Oates renders her memories and emotions with exquisite precision, transporting us to a forgotten place and time—the lost landscape of her youth, reminding us of the forgotten landscapes of our own earliest lives. 

(retrieved from Amazon Fri, 07 Aug 2015 12:53:19 -0400)

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