It’s Joyce Carol Oates’ birthday today! If you read my blog or watch my booktube channel regularly you’ll know what a fan I am of Oates’ writing. Something I get frequently asked by people who haven’t read her before is where to start. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with choice as she’s currently published sixty six novels and novellas as well as thirty nine books of short stories. To fully answer this question, I’ve made a video with some information about Oates’ writing and life as well as suggestions for which of her books would make good starting points.

If you want short answers here are my suggestions. A great novel to start with is “The Gravedigger’s Daughter” as it really encapsulates some of her most persistent themes and it is written in a form of psychological realism which is her most frequent narrative form. If you want to begin with some short stories I’d suggest reading the 2006 anthology “High Lonesome: New & Selected Stories” which contains wonderful selections of her writing from across her entire career including her famous short story ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ For a good genre novel try reading the majestic family saga “Bellefleur” which is the first in her series of five post modern novels which employ certain writing styles to give a unique perspective on American life.

If you are a writer or interested in writing yourself her book of essays “The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art” is an extremely useful guide. Later this year, she’s due to publish another book about writing called “Soul at the White Heat.” For more information about Oates herself read her biography “Invisible Writer” by Greg Johnson which is carefully researched, comprehensive and absolutely compelling. Also “The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982” is a fascinating insight into Oates’ daily life, her thoughts on writing, encounters with other famous authors and contains meditative thoughts about the meaning of life – this is absolutely one of my favourite and most treasured books!

Painting by Renee Heinecke

Painting by Renee Heinecke

I didn’t mention them in my video, but for a period Oates really embraced writing young adult novels. She’s frequently interested in writing about adolescence so this really melds well with this format and gave her a chance to explore certain social issues in a compelling way. For instance, her novel “Sexy” gives interesting insights into the psychology of a teenage boy disconcerted by his developing body and the growing sexual interest directed at him. She writes a gripping tale about his moral dilemmas. Oates is also a great lover of cats and has given tribute to some cats she’s owned by writing children’s books about them one of which is “Come Meet Muffin!” – a beautifully illustrated and gentle story.

I hope this gives a good answer for people wondering where to start with reading Joyce Carol Oates. If you want more detailed information the website Celestial Timepiece is an incredibly comprehensive site dedicated to Oates’ life and writing. But feel free to contact me or respond with any questions as I’m always happy to talk about Oates’ work. If you have read her books which is your favourite? Are there any other books by her you’re interested in reading?

In total I’ve read 86 books this year. Most of them were newly published novels. If you read my reviews, you’ll know how much I engaged with and got out of many of these books. Just because I’m picking ten to highlight here doesn’t mean I think many of the others aren’t great works in each of their own unique ways. There’s no way to really compare the inventive distinct voice of “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” with the refreshing perspective on WWII that “The Spring of Kasper Meier” gives or the majestic view of an extensive family in Calcutta that “The Lives of Others” provides. Still more difficult is to judge books of short stories against each other. While some stories in books like “All the Rage” or “The American Lover” or “The Best American Stories of 2014” could be counted amongst the most powerful things I’ve read this year, other stories in these books haven’t stuck with me as much. And, of course, browsing other best books of the year lists, I’m aware just how many other new much-lauded books I simply haven’t had time to read yet. I haven’t even read this year’s Booker prize winner. But I think winter is designed for cosy afternoons inside catching up with reading while drinking cups of tea.

The ten books I’m singling out here simply had a tremendous personal impact upon me. I’d gladly thrust copies into the hands of any reader and call them essential. Click on the titles to read my full thoughts on each.


Arctic Summer
A section of writer EM Forster’s life is fictionally mined by Galgut to reveal the power of a quiet life. It hit me like a punch in the face.

The Blazing World
What could be the most inventive and daring artistic hoax of the century forces us to question our assumptions about gender and the meaning of art.

The Walk Home
This short novel about a Glaswegian boy caught in the crossfire of ideological and family struggles deserves to be more widely read and remembered.

The Incarnations
Fantastically inventive and the most relentlessly entertaining book I’ve read all year, Barker’s novel of stories within stories subversively questions the meaning of identity.

H is for Hawk
This memoir about grief breaks the mould showing Macdonald’s very personal experience of managing her feelings through training a goshawk and exploring the life of writer TH White.

How to be Both
Smith is a revolutionary writer. Language is never a passive, dead thing in this author’s books. In this new novel her words perform gymnastics and make me want to do backward hand-springs.

The Paying Guests
No two love stories are the same. This novel gives us the tale of a most extraordinary affair that shows how we can be both generous and selfish in passion.

Lovely, Dark, Deep
Many books of short stories come across as uneven, but every tale in this collection stands out. Using an impressive arsenal of literary styles, Oates writes about people as far ranging as an unlikeable victim of cancer who won’t tell anyone about her illness and a viciously aggressive teenage boy writing about his death.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy
Rachel Joyce’s literary sequel to her popular first novel, shows an elderly woman physically inhibited by her illness shining light on her lifetime of experiences like a prism reveals the entire spectrum of colours.

The Repercussions
Two disparate stories that are divided by a century come together in this tremendous and emotionally-enthralling novel about war, photography, sexuality and race.

Short stories are like unwanted orphans. Some lucky ones are published in major periodicals or an author’s collection or win a prize. But even great short stories can appear in a literary review and remain largely unread except by a devout following of readers. They languish in the background waiting to be noticed. Thankfully the Best American Short Stories anthology helps to highlight some stellar examples of story telling every year. This year’s anthology holds particularly impressive examples with stories that differ wildly in form and subject matter as well as spanning many different time periods and locations. The narrator of one story is former female soldier suffering from post traumatic stress while another narrator has kidnapped her stepson and yet another narrator is a closeted macho fraternity brother. There is a story set in 1370 and a story set on Antarctica and a story with sprawling multiple endings. It’s particularly touching that this anthology includes a beautiful, unusual story about a marriage disrupted (or perhaps not) from an affair by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala who died in April of 2013. Every other author has written what might be called “added bonus material” for the end of this anthology where each of them discusses their inspiration for writing her/his story.

Virtually all the writers included are well established and have published multiple books. So these stories are like fantastic tasters from authors such as Stephen O’Connor, Lauren Groff and Karen Russell whom I haven’t read before and I’m now eager to read much more of their work. O’Connor’s ‘Next to Nothing’ is an episodic story about the lives of two unusual sisters who maintain perspectives so alarming that it’s an utterly enthralling read: “Isabel and Ivy’s natural tendency is to see human society as a pointlessly complex mechanical device of no use to anybody, and most likely broken.” The story’s ending is so shocking I was completely gripped. Groff’s ‘At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners’ manages to compress a man’s entire life into seventeen pages. It emblematizes a particular kind of solitude: “He thought of himself as an island in the middle of the ocean, with no hope of seeing another island in the distance, or even a ship passing by.” The summation of his life is handled so delicately and is told with such exquisitely precise language I found it incredibly moving. Karen Russell’s ‘Madame Bovary’s Greyhound’ focuses on the life and trial’s of Emma’s pet dog. It gives a different slant to the meaning of passion for one of literature’s most famous characters: “Love had returned, and it went spoiling through them with no outlet.” For a canine character that could be taken so whimsically, this story makes powerful statements about love, loyalty and independence. 

Then there are authors whose books I have read like Joshua Ferris, Peter Cameron and Joyce Carol Oates that show in these stories skills and an engagement with subjects which feel surprisingly fresh and demonstrate what dynamic writers they are. Ferris’ story ‘The Breeze’ considers the possibilities of how a couple might spend their NYC evening and the way thwarted intentions impacts their feelings for each other. This is an ingeniously constructed story and all the more impressive when you read at the book’s end that Ferris wrote the story entirely on his phone! The narrator of Peter Cameron’s story ‘After the Flood’ sees an older Christian couple cajoled into taking an impoverished family into their home. The story eloquently explores issues of self-denial, the deleterious effects of grief on a relationship, economic disparity and ethical complications. The narrator is one of those tough-to-like characters who has learned through adversity to keep an arm’s length from being emotionally present in life. She notes how “my presence – or if not presence, for I rarely feel present anywhere these days, my existence” as if the experience of being fully present is too painful. This story artfully demonstrates how memories can haunt an individual through finding parallels in the present. Where the couple in this story attempts to shore themselves up against death through a life of habit and stasis, the couple in Joyce Carol Oates’ story ‘Mastiff’ are more cavalier in embracing adventure when they are unexpectedly confronted by an agent of death in the form of a rabid dog during a hike. This chilling story is a reminder of the inevitability of death no matter the hard-won love and tender companionship two people may find together. The dog is like an anamorphic symbol hanging in the foreground of this skilfully written narrative like the skull in Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors. 

There are plenty of other striking stories in this anthology including Charles Baxter’s story ‘Charity’ which is a sensitive, heart-breaking tale that makes the reader reconsider individuals many could easily vilify or dismiss. T.C. Boyle’s ‘The Night of the Satellite’ shows the way others’ emotions and lives affect us and our own relationships. The protagonist of Nicole Cullen’s ‘Long tom Lookout’ tries to retreat from the world by stealing her estranged husband’s step child and living in a national forest’s fire look-out station with devastating consequences. Craig Davidson’s writing frequently portrays the cunning way damaged individuals can survive despite adversity and his story ‘Medium Tough’ sees him ingeniously reconfigure this theme in his tale of a surgeon born with a defect which causes his body to be disproportionate. This is an example of this story’s mesmerising, determined voice: “I wanted to tell him: Life is all technique. The world is full of us, Aaron. The mildly broken, the factory recalls and misfit toys. And we must work a lot harder. Out-hustle, out-think… out-technique.” In Brendan Mathews’ ‘This Is Not a Love Song’ he touchingly describes a how people idealistically strive for artistic expression before they so frequently become bogged down by life’s responsibilities. Laura Van Den Berg story ‘Antarctica’ is a sustained meditation on grief and what we choose not to know.

Of course, there are some stories which didn’t chime so well with me. David Gates’ ‘A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me’ seemed to me to contain a lot of superfluous detail when short stories ought to be more streamlined. The central metaphor of Nell Freudenberger’s ‘Hover’ about a mother who imagines she can levitate didn’t quite hit the mark for me although the story touchingly describes the psychological discomfort a child experiences in the face of his parents’ separation. Will Mackin gives an interesting take on the frontlines of battle in Afghanistan with some striking descriptions, but the narrative voice in ‘Kattekoppen’ felt to me to be too scattered. As always with the experience of reading, maybe it was just my mood at the time of reading them or maybe the style doesn’t jell with my sensibility. Whatever the reason, these few haven't left as lasting an impression as many of the others. 

It’s been an absolute pleasure taking my time reading through the stories in this anthology. I made a daily habit of reading a single story every morning and felt the effect of each distinctive voice hover in the back of my mind throughout the rest of the day. Series editor Heidi Pitlor gives an impassioned and inspiring statement about what a lively presence the short story maintains in the minds of readers and in the marketplace. While Jennifer Egan acknowledges in her well-reasoned introduction that no such anthology can be truly authoritative despite the 120 stories she considered in total. But nevertheless the “excellent” mission of such a book respectably stands as a celebration of the short story and she gives intelligent reasons for the inclusion of each one she selected. More crucially, she hopes the stories will initiate a conversation. Having read all of these diverse and entertaining stories I now eagerly want to discuss all of them.

It’s not often that I read books a second time for the plain fact that there are so many new ones I want to get to. Sometimes I will recall a particular scene that I found powerful in a book which I’ll flip back to or I might read a particular favourite short story from a collection I read ages ago. But, in general, I’m too greedy to turn back to something I’ve already experienced even though I know I’ll find new meanings when reading a good book again. However, there are some titles I’ve revisited multiple times. In their own ways I find them endlessly rewarding as I get something new from them each time.

 

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

This is by far the book I’ve read the most times in my life. The entire movement of life from childhood to old age perfectly encapsulated in six distinct “voices” speaking out of some subterranean region of consciousness. As I grow older I connect in different ways with the characters at different ages. There is stunning poetry in the prose so it can be enjoyed for its sheet beauty. Or you can reread passages for their depth of thought. It’s the most artful novel I’ve ever read.

 

The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982

More than any other book here, I can flip to any entry in these journals to become immediately immersed in reading about Oates’ thoughts on literature or her philosophical meditations on the state of being. Unlike her beautifully crafted fiction, the thoughts in this book come so directly that their honesty speaks directly to me. Whether luxuriating in her touching descriptions of the natural world or enjoying her thoughts on what she’s reading or other authors she encounters, these journals are a joy to read. Since this only covers a ten year period of her life, I can only hope that Oates and her biographer Greg Johnson will one day return to this project to publish more of her journals.

 

In America by Susan Sontag

When Sontag finished the prologue of this novel she felt she’d created the perfect post-modern story. So she has. It’s a brilliant way to enter into the story of her Polish actress Maryna who travels to America in order to found a utopian community. Something about this novel chimes with me so that I find her search for authenticity and her failure to find it so touching and personal. Sontag was such a precise and rigorous intellectual and I’m endlessly entranced by the portrait she created in this novel.

 

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

Much like my thoughts about Rachel Joyce’s novels recently, this book touches upon the dilemma of imagining parallel lives for yourself. In this instance, without even knowing why exactly, a woman named Delia walks out on her family to start from scratch and test out a new one. How many of us haven’t dreamed of doing this? Delia’s radical claim on a meditative space where she can discover what’s most important to her in life turns into a zone where I can meditate on my own life choices and what I really value (without the danger of abandoning everything and everyone around me completely.)

 

SantaLand Diaries by David Sedaris

This is pure pleasure and something of a Christmas tradition in my relationship. We make ourselves cups of hot chocolate, lie on blankets in front of the fire with the Christmas tree in the background and read these hilarious stories aloud to each other. Sedaris’ humour is so well paced and tinged with a slant of darkness that makes these stories endlessly surprising.