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Sourland: Stories by Joyce Carol Oates
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Sourland: Stories

by Joyce Carol Oates

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Sourland: Stories is a collection of sixteen Joyce Carol Oates short stories, fifteen of which appear to have been written in 2009 or early 2010. The third story in the collection, “The Babysitter,” was first published in Ellery Queen and was reprinted in Horror: The Best of the Year 2006. Readers who know something of Oates’s personal history will notice how clearly the tone of this work reflects the impact the author felt from the loss of her husband of some forty-seven years, Raymond Smith. Mr. Smith, who seemed to be recovering from the illness that hospitalized him, died suddenly on February 18, 2008. Considering the subject matter and feel of the stories, I do find it interesting that the book’s dedication reads: “for my husband Charlie Gross.”

Most of the stories reflect themes that fans of Oates’s work have come to expect from her: the persistent possibility of violence when it is least expected, adult males taking advantage of the innocence of young females, the often violent clash of the privileged class with those who have nothing much to lose, and the chaotic shock of sudden loss. Several of these stories, however, in the persons of freshly minted widows, reflect more precisely the feelings expressed by Oates in her late 2010 memoir, A Widow’s Story. Not surprisingly, these are the strongest stories in the collection.

The collection opens with one of these stories, “Pumpkin Head,” in which a young, isolated widow innocently sends all the wrong signals to an immigrant from Central Europe who offers to do her a personal favor. When the man’s frustration with his new life in America suddenly explodes, she is a bit bewildered to find herself in the line of fire.

The book’s title story, “Sourland,” and the one called “Probate,” are particularly reminiscent of the experiences and feelings described by Oates in her recent memoir. The widows in each of these stories are still unprepared to function in the real world, but are unable to communicate their desperation and confusion to anyone who might help ease them back into a semblance of the life they knew before losing their husbands. In “Sourland,” Sophie allows nostalgia and sweet memories of the stranger who has mysteriously contacted her to lure her into a remote area from which she fears she may never escape. “Probate” is the dreamlike experience of newly widowed Adrienne whose courthouse experiences are horrifyingly detailed. Both stories, in fact, probably resemble the type of nightmare one would expect a new widow to experience.

Other stories in the collection are more akin to what one expects from Oates. A young married woman seeks marital revenge and almost dies in the process. A 14-year-old girl is molested by a formerly admired teacher she happens to meet in a hospital. The defender of one family’s honor pays for his audacity in the most heartbreaking way possible. A little boy becomes terrified of his own father and refuses to give away his hiding spot despite the danger he is in. And, there is more, much more.

Not all of the stories work equally well, of course. Two “stream of consciousness” pieces and one other story left me particularly bewildered, but I am inclined to blame myself for that as much as I would put the burden on Oates. Sourland is a collection of some of the darkest, most disturbing, tales being written today. That it is also one of the most personal collections of stories ever released by Joyce Carol Oates makes it even more memorable.

Rated at: 3.5 ( )
  SamSattler | Jan 16, 2012 |
A collection of short stories revolving around the power that violence, loss, and grief hold over the human experience. Including stories of oddities, pain and loneliness, Oates vividly represents the inclusion of sexual love, the tumult of family life, and unexpectedness of life everyday.
  SalemAthenaeum | Jul 9, 2011 |
This is another superb collection from Oates which explores (as the blurb on it says), "the power of violence, loss, and grief to shape not only the psyche but the soul."

More than a few of these stories stick still with me: One of a young woman who recounts her involvement, in high school as a member of a group, with the death of a special education student. The students' involvement in the death was never uncovered, but the event has stayed with the woman and shaped her life. Another interesting story was told by a lonely, young girl about the retelling of an incidence of violence her mother witnesses while stuck in traffic. Each time in the girl's life, when someone is retelling the story, it's a bit different. There's a story about a librarian, a double amputee, who has an affair with a married man; and another story about a young girl who is in love with her imprisoned cousin (who, in a tustle, killed her mother's allegedly abusive lover—but actually killed the wrong one), and yet another stream-of-consciousness-like tale of Jason, a young man morbidly obsessed about dying and organ donation (the way it is written makes you really feel his obsession).

There are several which explore the power of grief—widowhood, in particular—and although these might not have been my favorites, they communicate well this deep and desperate emotional place and how it can be confused with other things. ( )
1 vote avaland | Jan 2, 2011 |
Oates short stories feature people at their most vulnerable: widowed women, neglected children, unlovable men. And as is typical with Oates, if the reader assumes the worst possible outcome for the vulnerable characters as the plot unfolds, they will only be surprised that Oates dreams up something even worse--more violence, more humiliation, more disaster than you thought possible! Her poor, tortured characters. Oates puts real-life disaster into perspective somehow, so that you can put down her book and realize that what is happening around you isn't so bad, considering. ( )
  mojomomma | Dec 3, 2010 |
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A gripping and moving new collection of stories that reimagines the meaning of loss-- through often unexpected and violent means.

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