2022, Chapter One: In which our heroine accepts a challenge!

End of the story first: I just finished reading my second book of 2022, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. I’m not sure when a book last gave me actual chills – not hyperbolic chills but goosebumps, hair standing on end.

Holy hell.

This comes immediately on the heels of the book I finished the first week of January, a collection of short stories and nonfiction pieces by Shirley Jackson titled Let Me Tell You. In contrast to Didion, Jackson’s book was uneven. In contrast to Didion, I don’t see anything else measuring up until I’ve calmed down from the high of THAT NOVEL. But it’s unfair comparing a posthumous compilation of early and uncollected pieces the author may never have consented to publishing with a critically-acclaimed stunner of a novel that slaps you across the face, drags you up the road a piece, then leaves you for dead.

I should not have connected with Play It As It Lays. Set in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert, if I were trying to come up with three places I’m less interested in it would take a minute. Fortunately, the book’s not about places. It’s a study of a woman living with the consequences of her choices in 1960s America. Maria Wyeth is an actress who plays the Hollywood game. She sleeps around, throws herself haphazardly into life, literally drives long distances for days with no direction. Already unstable, the inevitable choice to have an abortion upends her world, sending her spiralling. Without sympathy, unmoored, she cracks.

Didion (1934 – 2021) was an admirer of Hemingway, to put her style in context. She was a journalist-novelist: sparing and precise. While learning her craft, she copied out long passages of Hemingway’s writings. I’m not positive the student didn’t surpass the master.

Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965), of course, is known primarily as the author of the macabre short story “The Lottery,” as well as her two most popular novels: We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, the latter adapted into a Netflix series. Her themes are supernatural, modern American gothics. Her nonfiction can be charming and witty, as I learned from Let Me Tell You. Though some of the stories did let me down, the pieces compelled enough I pulled out the bio of Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin.

Both modern American writers, I haven’t put enough thought into their similarities to pull out the ways they mesh. I’m sure those exist but I didn’t juxtapose these two with an intention to dive in deeply. What brings them together is my list of 12 books I plan to read in 2022, books I’ve had on my shelves over a year and not yet read. Organized by Adam Burgess of the blog Roof Beam Reader, the specifics of the project are explained on his site.

There’s no conscious intent behind the books I chose, though interconnections are everywhere, no matter what you initially believe. As I read more by and about Jackson and Didion – which I’d like to do, having whetted my appetite with my first two reads of the year – I will find elements that resonate with the both of them. I’ve given up not assuming a universal law of attraction. Nothing supernatural, just an acknowledgment of interconnectivity in all things.

Superficially glancing through their respective Wikipedia articles, both these American women writers were born in California, their lives overlapping by some 30-some years (I hate math). Did they meet, I don’t know. Were they aware of each other, certainly Didion would have known of Jackson, though she hadn’t published much before Jackson’s death so it’s not too likely the other way around. Any similarities between a modern gothic writer and a journalist? I’m sure Jackson’s work extends beyond her most popular pieces. Maybe?

Speaking of resonating with gothic horror, welcome to 2022. It’s only the 10th and I’ve finished two books. Not leaving without a fight, 2021 ended with my first Covid test of the pandemic – negative, thank the gods.

My year went mostly well, everyone I love made it through, and I’m trying not to get over-confident 2022 will hold anything grand or I’ll just let myself down, won’t I.

Let’s focus on these beauties:

2022 TBR Challenge Reads – The List

The challenge is to choose 12 books – one for each month – plus two alternates, should any of the 12 prove impossible or just plain too long to finish.

1. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai
2. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers – Jenn Shapland
3. Willa Cather: Double Lives by Hermione Lee
4. Soul of the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life – JC Oates
5. The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography – Philip Roth
6. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
7. Play It As It Lays – Joan Didion – finished
8. Hill – Jean Giono
9. Blindness – Henry Green
10. Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings – Shirley Jackson – finished
11. Lucy Gayheart – Willa Cather
12. On Being Ill – Virginia Woolf


Aiding and Abetting – Muriel Spark
The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin

I’ve cut down social media – save Instagram – to free up more time for reading and apparently that helped. I’ll be reading other books but these twelve I’ve hand-selected for this specific project.

Welcome to 2022.

Allons-y, y’all.

Man Booker 2013. The winner is: Eleanor Catton



Congratulations, Eleanor!


Seems my guess was the kiss of death for Jim Crace and NiViolet Bulwayo. Sorry about that, you two. Especially to Jim Crace. That man should not stop writing, almost as much as I should, in order to protect the innocent. I’m upset with him for his insistence he’s done. He wants to fish, he says. To relax and fish. Well, maybe he’ll change his mind one day.

Speaking of, have you read a book by him yet, have you? We had this discussion (I did, at least) a few weeks back. Everything he’s written is touched by God Himself. Read all his books, write reviews of him in all the places and maybe he’ll see them and feel all nostalgic and weepy about the terrible feeling of facing the blank screen (or notebook, I can’t recall offhand what he said). I would email him again and instruct him to get back to work but I’m afraid he’ll develop Sebastian Barry complex and begin to look at me askance. Truth is I am the most innocent thing. A bit excitable (only about books, otherwise I pretty much just stare into space) and passionate (ditto) but not at all scary.

Convincing? Should I revise?


luminariescatton2Lots and lots of copies of the book I couldn’t get through.


But the point – lost long ago, in a fit of wildly careening writing – is the Big Prize went to the one novel I tried to get through and couldn’t! Huzzah…?

What’s wrong with me? It’s not a bad book. Not bad bad, I mean. The fault was in not giving it enough undivided attention, I’m almost certain. I’m sort of bad, that way. It’s well-written and about the intriguing and new-to-me subject of the gold rush in New Zealand:

It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.

The Luminaries

Sounds lovely when you put it that way, doesn’t it? Well, as far as I know it’s still on my Kindle (I have a free eBook from the publisher, which will disappear when they decide to “archive” it), so I’ll get back on it or die trying. With Moby Dick still ongoing. And that doorstop Tudors.

At least Henry’s dead now, (the VIII, not some random Henry) finally, and Elizabeth’s primed for crown and sceptre, once that pesky Edward gets out of her way. I’d grown tired reading about Henry and his sadism. What an @$$hole, really! Boiling people alive? Dismembering, chopping off heads, hanging and burning? Not to mention the destruction of all those beautiful churches and the illuminated manuscripts. Did you know they used those gorgeous works for toilet paper? Turns my stomach. Ten centuries destroyed in one fell swoop, Ackroyd wrote, and I wanted to weep.

Why the fascination with the Tudors? Shame on us all. While the kind, caring rulers are gathering dust in their marble sarcophagi we’re lusting after the Tudors, because a hot little minx or three and a few messy beheadings make a good story, I suppose. Better we should forget the ulcerous old bastard and look to Elizabeth I. She had her own moments but she is a female role model, of sorts.

Because who needs a king? Not that one, that’s who.


elizabethiThis one, that’s who.


Back to the Bookers, sorry. I get prattling and things go awry, then I don’t feel like working on segues and here we are.

I knew I was off my game this year, as I told you in my last post. My prediction for either Jim Crace or NoViolet Bulawayo didn’t materialize but I had an unsettled feeling I wasn’t quite getting it. My intuition didn’t sense it as strongly this year. Something was off-kilter: my Karma or what-not. For so many years I’ve been nailing it. Not so 2013. Sigh.

I’ll get back to the Catton, with a dose of Melville and Ackroyd on the side. And, well, okay a dash of Joyce Carol Oates’s My Sister, My Love, my creepy pleasure of the moment. It’s based on the JonBenet Ramsey case, if you remember that child murder from years and years ago, about the beautiful six year old whose mother whored her up like a slutty Barbie doll, entering her in beauty pageants (do not start me on that rant). Still unsolved, unbelievably. And just now I read this article, from two days ago saying the slaying indictment, which was never prosecuted (?!), may be unsealed.

You can’t hear it but I’m making a disgusted sound at the thought of how wrong the world is right now, for JonBenet and so much else. Now my forehead’s hitting the desk. You can’t see my desk – THANK GOD – but it’s very 1990s and I want to burn it. The drawers tend to fall out when you open them. It’s an optional feature I chose. In another 100 years it will come back into style, complete with a charming patina of coffee cup rings and stray ink marks.

This would be it for this time but I didn’t direct you to my review of Nicholson Baker’s Traveling Sprinkler, published on the New York Journal of Books website. It’s a  little rambling but they took it, so phew! Relief making the deadline is all I can say. Strike that. I could say much more but I have to go start dinner. Plus, if you’ve read this far I feel badly on your behalf.

Now my work here is done, for this time. I’d meant just to talk about my Man Booker fiasco but then things got away from me. Woe is you!

Ta, loves. And keep reading.



First Love by Joyce Carol Oates



First Love: A Gothic Tale by Joyce Carol Oates, Illus. by Barry Moses. The Echo Press/W.W. Norton 1996. 86 pp    [Library copy.]

I'm a fervent fan of Joyce Carol Oates, though I'll admit I don't appreciate all her works equally. I hate to use the judgment "like," as it isn't professional in a critical approach to a book, so I'll say I partially appreciated 'First Love,' with a few reservations. (And I do wish more reviews focused more on criticism and not direct "like" or "dislike." Things are seldom so cut and dried, though I've been lazy in that exact same way myself, so I'm not without sin.)

Even considering my familiarity with her work, I find it difficult to write a review of 'First Love.' On the one hand it's delightfully Gothic, a twisty-turny little book with a bite. On the other the characterizations left me a bit hollow. Or, I should say, the characters themselves felt hollow, under-developed. Did she intend to keep her distance? Could be. If so, I don't feel it particularly worked. Perhaps she misjudged.

I know the theme of a near-incestuous relationship between cousins Jared, Jr. (the seminary student home from school due to his mental issues) and his 11-year old cousin Josie, is upsetting and some will dismiss the entire book due to their distaste of this part of the plot. But, in this case, I believe it was more an issue of ultimate control between the older and younger cousins, with sexual undertones, almost vampyric control actually. Yes, he stripped her naked and washed her and yes he called her "good girl, good girl" before drawing blood first from himself and then her, blood which he blended in ways I won't say. And yes, that's creepy. But that's the point; it was meant to be creepy, to illustrate what was either a mental illness or more a possession of the "Someone call an exorcist" kind. It could go either way. Or both, I guess:

"Mother said tartly, "Sick?' — what's 'sick'? Who is 'well'? Do you imagine, if you or I were minutely examined, we would be one hundred percent 'well'?"

Good point.

Still and all, the most hollow character, who is very active behind the scene, is Josie's mother. She was beautiful, had left her husband, got a job and almost certainly had an affair. But we have only the barest knowledge of her.

And the religion: the different portraits of Christ, plus the symbolic snake, in this case both sexual and the traditional evil introduced into Eden – the black snake Jared, Jr. claimed to have transformed himself into, take that as you will. Not to mention the family legacy of the men becoming Reverends, and the italicizing of the "Reverend's house." Religion was all over the place, never seen as a positive thing but rather a force to be dealt with and accepted.

Overall, I would recommend the book to Oates fans as well as those into the Gothic. Others less attuned to books delving into evil you may want to give this one a pass. I'm still digesting it, myself, all 86 tiny pages of it. I debated between 3 and 4 stars for far too long, deciding on three for its incomplete coherence and somewhat undeveloped characters.


Blog Reviews:

Of Books and reading

Capricious Reader



3 Irish Authors short listed for the
2011 International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award.

The short list will be confirmed by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Gerry Breen at 11.00am on 12th April 2011 in the Mansion House, Dublin

10 novels have been shortlisted for the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award, from a total of 162 novels nominated by 166 public library systems in 126 cities worldwide. For the first time, the shortlist includes novels by three Irish authors; Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Brooklyn by Colm Toibín and Love and Summer by William Trevor. The International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award is worth €100,000 and is the world’s most prestigious literary prize nominated by public libraries world-wide. 
The Lord Mayor of Dublin Gerry Breen, Patron of the Award, officially confirmed the titles on this year’s shortlist, nominated by public libraries in Australia, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Scotland, South Africa, Switzerland, and the USA.

The short listed titles are:

  1. Galore by Michael Crummey (Canadian). Doubleday Canada
  2. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (American). Faber & Faber, HarperCollins, USA
  3. The Vagrants by Yiyn Li  (Chinese / American) Random House, USA
  4. Ransom by David Malouf  (Australian) Random House Australia
  5. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (Irish) Bloomsbury, UK, Random House, USA
  6. Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates  (American) Ecco Press, USA
  7. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey  (Australian) Allen & Unwin
  8. Brooklyn by Colm Toibín (Irish) Viking UK, Scribner, USA
  9. Love and Summer by William Trevor (Irish) Viking, UK
  10. After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice by Evie Wyld (Australian) Pantheon Books, USA

More about the shortlist

From this list, all I’ve read is Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice. I’d be ecstatic if it won, but then again I have no others to compare it with, which makes that a trifle biased. Not that that’s ever stopped me.

I have a copy of Galore for review, haven’t heard of  The Vagrants, Jasper Jones or Love and Summer, though of course I know of William Trevor. The others I know of but have never read.

So, once again, I’m faced with having no idea  on earth who will win, only that I’ll hope it’s Evie Wyld since her book was positively brilliant.

What’s that you say? Did I hear, “Lisa, why don’t you read the shortlist, then make an informed guess?!”

Are  you trying to kill me, people?!  Yes, it’s a prize generated via the opinions of public librarians, and yes, I’m a public librarian. And, if you offer to fly me to Ireland for the awards ceremony I wouldn’t hesitate to read these novels while standing on my head. (Okay, maybe not standing on my head.)

The award date isn’t until June 15, but I’m already reviewing for two sites, plus for NetGalley at my own pace, and I have half a mind to apply to Kirkus, too. Oh, and the Orange Prize Longlist. I’ve been too eager to wait for the short, plus for whatever completely insane reason thought I should also guess the short…

Oh, hell. Maybe. But keep in mind a ticket to Ireland would positively seal the deal. Ireland in June? Yes, please!

A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates


A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates


Oh God – you are going to be so unhappy. – Gail Godwin



I guess the only way to do this is just plunge right in, though of all the books I've reviewed this one is probably among, if not the most difficult. I don't mean difficult as in the book itself being difficult to read, rather, picking things out of the story is intimidating. Because this is Joyce Carol Oates, and the grief of such an immense literary icon – contained in the tiniest body – is a fearsome thing. It's humbling. 

Worse, I can't quote text as my copy is an uncorrected proof, and I don't have the true first edition to compare it with. So all that lovely prose, stuck in amongst what is honestly a rambling tirade against death and Oates herself , may as well not ever have existed as little good as it does me.

Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Smith met in college, each pursuing advanced degrees. It was at  the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1960s when their whirlwind romance began. From the time they met until the time they married was only a matter of months. And their relationship of mutual love and respect would last 47 years, until Raymond's sudden death.

During their marriage, Oates (who did take Smith as her legal last name) and Raymond lived a deeply intellectual life, opting not to have children, instead pursing literary interests. Both were writers, and both professors. Raymond Smith was the editor of the Ontario Review, and though he had written a partial manuscript he never published his novel, titled Black Mass. He never read Joyce's fiction, though he had read her essays and selected nonfiction writings.  On her part, she aided Raymond by reading submissions for his literary journal, while writing and teaching.

Raymond Smith died on February 18, 2008, after an illness less than two weeks in duration. On February 11th Smith entered the hospital, sure this would be a quick in and out visit. Once the initial diagnosis of pneumonia came in, it became "just overnight." Then the doctor identified the bacterial strain, E. coli. Survival rates for patients with E. coli pneumonia were somewhere around 30 %.

At shortly after 12:30 a.m. the morning of February 18, 2008 came the dreaded call in the middle of the night. Her husband was still alive, but the person on the phone instructed Joyce to come right away. By the time she arrived he was gone.

She found herself alone, though the full impact of that can't be conveyed unless you understand how sheltered she had been. Raymond took care never to upset her, treating her the way Leonard Woolf treated the fragile Virginia. They didn't even share bad news, to save each other the unnecessary pain. It seems excessive. It was excessive; the result of over-protection only served to add a crushing feeling of helplessness to the already crippling grief she suffered following sudden loss of her beloved Raymond.

Again, being unable to quote the text I feel at a distinct disadvantage. If I had the time to read the published book, comparing it to the proof, I would. Failing that, the difficulty of conveying the extent of her suffering seems all but insurmountable.

Oates's frailty frankly astonished me. Knowing nothing about her, judging only from her prodigious output, I imagined she was some sort of literary Amazon – fearless, with a will of iron. The truth of the matter was completely opposite. Oates's was plunged into a surreal world of self-torture, nearly a year spent lining up all the prescription medication in the house knowing taking her life was always an option. Obviously, it was an option she never exercised, but the pull toward it was strong, though by fighting it on a daily basis the benefit was she forged new found strength out of helpless despair.

Over the course of those dark months she spent almost every waking moment blaming herself for not getting to the hospital on time, for not realizing her husband was so ill, and a million other bits of self-recrimination common when someone so close to you dies. Everything was a torture: seeing his home office empty; hearing his voice on their answering machine; going through the motions of every day life, living the nightmarish conviction that some dark force was swirling around her, pointing the finger of blame for something over which she no control. 

She could not forgive herself, and the guilt gnawed at her. The dark force became "the basilisk," and herself "the widow." She detached from Joyce Carol Oates, splitting into a shadow self that spoke in the third person. Detachment is a survival mechanism. It kicks in when the sub-conscious senses a mortal threat, when the option is to detach or shut down. So she detached. And she survived.

To be honest, it takes more than one read – in my case, a read and a half, because I'm impatient – to sift through the narrative, finding JCO in her own story. So much of the book is disjointed at best, and irritating at worst. The prose is punctuated by hundreds and hundreds of exclamation points, something that grates on the nerves of the proof reader in  me. I was so irritated I started circling recurrent punctuation marks, my intent to count them all so I could say THIS is what annoyed me, dammit! But I stopped, realizing I was driving myself crazy trying to be her editor, instead of letting annoyances pass by while I dug out what she was actually saying.

Reading A Widow's Story is an excavation. And it's exhausting. I can't do it justice, though I'm not sure who can. Analyzing a work of grief so intense it nearly burns the page seems wrong, somehow. I can't tell her how to grieve, nor how to write her account of grief. All I can do is read it, trying not to judge a JCO who's all but unrecognizable. The polish is gone; the writing is raw.

It is what it is. That's all I can say.

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco; First Edition edition (February 15, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062015532
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062015532


Professional reviews:

The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/14/books/14book.html

The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/mar/06/widows-story-carol-oates-review

The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/11/AR2011021102701.html