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Joyce Carol Oates Packs the House at Belmont Library

Award-winning author turns her grief into a poignant memoir.

Though her body of work includes 56 novels; more than 30 collections of short stories; eight volumes of poetry, plays, innumerable essays and book reviews; and extensive non-fiction works, the admirers of Joyce Carol Oates who filled the on Friday evening experienced a reading from a much more personal perspective.

Her latest work, “A Widow’s Story,” is based on Oates’ intimate experiences and emotions in the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death at age 77.

“A Widow’s Story,” Ms. Oates explained, began as a sort of widow’s handbook, or a practical guide to dealing with the death of a spouse.

The breathless quality of the late-night journal entries she would write while her husband, writer Raymond Smith, was hospitalized in the winter of 2008, as well as those written after his death, shaped the book into more of a memoir than a handbook.

“This is a most unusual book for me to have written,” she said. “It’s an assemblage of journal writings. I could no longer concentrate on my original idea to write a handbook, but later on I thought I would take it from my journal -- that that would be more helpful.”

“After Ray died,” Ms. Oates said, “I felt as though I had stepped through a doorway and the door shut and locked -- I’m in another dimension now.”

The terrible loss of a spouse, she explained, is “like a part of your brain is gone. And that’s the fact that your spouse is gone. But you still have to go through all the motions of your life.”

On turning grief into a poignant memoir, she said, “There were so many things I wasn’t prepared for in widowhood, lots of surprises. And lots of absurd moments that made me feel as if I had stepped into a Marx Brothers movie.”

She continued, “A memoir is a way of speaking to other people, it’s a communal thing.”

Oates’ fans turned out in grand numbers at the Belmont Library event. Chairs filled early in the library’s reading room following a reception, and the crowd overflowed into the aisles and common areas, many people carrying copies of “A Widow’s Story” to have signed after the reading.

Library manager Kathleen Beasley was pleased but not surprised at the turnout on a Friday evening.

“It’s a fabulous thing to have authors like this speak at the Belmont Library,” she said. “This library was built as a center for community . . . as a center for lifelong education.”

Beasley continued, “ 'A Widow’s Story' ” is one of the most powerful books I’ve read on loss and grief.”

She was quick to give credit to Ed Kaufman, owner of M is for Mystery bookstore in San Mateo for arranging to have Ms. Oates add the Belmont Library to her book tour. 

“I’ve always loved libraries,” said the affable Kaufman. “I have seven grandkids that use them a lot, and we love to host big events, but my bookstore can only accommodate about 100 people. The Belmont Library is big enough to hold the large numbers of people, plus it’s a nice thing to do for the community.”

Kaufman offers copies of “A Widow’s Story” available at his store on Third Avenue in downtown San Mateo.

Many who turned out for the event were members of book groups or clubs who had been assigned various Joyce Carol Oates books to read and discuss.

Although fellow book club members Margie Rubin and Helen Dolan hadn’t yet read “A Widow’s Story,” they were familiar with some of Ms. Oates’ other writings.

“Because Joyce Carol Oates is so prolific, we decided everybody would read a book and when we get together we’ll each speak about our book, sort of like a book report. Then, if there’s one that someone highly recommends, the whole group will read it,” Rubin said.

Colleen Devlin admits to reading Ms. Oates “100 years ago in college, so when I heard she was coming to the library, I had to come.”

Devlin’s daughter, Katy, a senior at Carlmont High School, is new to Oates’ work. “Just last night I read a short story, 'Life after High School,' since I knew we’d be coming to see her.”

“I’m a big fan of Joyce Carol Oates,” said Susan Weisberg, a social worker who drove up from Stanford for the event. “She captures the voice of the widow in exquisite prose. I’m so drawn to her writing—her voice is so refreshing and the book just resonates.”

In an eerie, yet lighthearted moment, as Ms. Oates was reading a chapter about the discourteous behavior of one of her now deceased cats following the death of her husband, the library’s power went out, darkening the room for a brief second. The author rolled with the slight distraction and quipped, “That must be Raynard (the cat) speaking to us.”

After reading several chapters from “A Widow’s Story,” Ms. Oates took questions from the audience.

When asked her advice on how to become a writer, she shared what she tells her creative writing students at Princeton, “Read voraciously . . . read where your heart leads you.”

A book signing followed the presentation. At the back of the line waited loyal fan Judy Greengard, who hoisted a heavy canvas bag containing around 15 Joyce Carol Oates books, which the author graciously signed.

The body of work created by Ms. Oates, who is 73, covers a vast range of genres -- from historical novels and gothic horror stories to nonfiction works on literary subjects including Emily Dickinson and James Joyce, and non-literary subjects such as boxer Mike Tyson. She has won numerous accolades for her work, including the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for “a lifetime of literary achievement.”

Ms. Oates continues to live and write in Princeton, NJ, where she is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Princeton University.

joan peceimer April 11, 2011 at 03:41 PM
Excellent reporting on an event all belmont should be proud to have hosted. Approval of the bond for our library has had great returns. Joan Peceimer PS It's National Library Week. Hopefully projected budget cuts won't even dream of library cuts. jpeceimer@yahoo.com

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