Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 30, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Author, Author!

About the only group in Princeton more prevalent than

its notable writers are its avid readers. And while these readers

may get a charge out of finding themselves in the grocery checkout

line next to a prize-winning (be it Nobel, Pulitzer, National Book

Award, Newbery Medal — we’ve got them all) author or poet, the

real privilege of sharing the neighborhood is the face-to-face

dialogue it affords.

In the category of public chats, few have been more generous than

Joyce Carol Oates, America’s most prolific author, poet, playwright,

and Princeton University professor of humanities. This week, area

readers can enjoy what has become her annual appearance at Barnes

& Noble in MarketFair when she talks about her two most recent books,

"Middle Age: A Romance" and "Beasts," Wednesday,

January 30, at 7 p.m.

Last year, another banner year for Oates, she was at the store

speaking to a standing-room-only crowd. At the same time that

"Blonde," her imaginative account of the life of Marilyn

Monroe, was in the bookstores, her much earlier novel, "We Were

the Mulvaneys," was selected as an Oprah Winfrey book club

selection, sending the book to the top of the bestseller list and

Oates on to daytime TV. She shared her recent Oprah show experience

with the bookstore audience, marveling how women from across the

country whose family histories paralleled the Mulvaney story had

shared the broadcast discussion.

Oates also made a joint bookstore appearance, just over a year ago,

with controversial Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer, now

her ally in opposing Princeton Borough’s deer culling project. Oates

has given book talks and signings at Micawber Books, Borders,

as well as talks at Princeton Adult School and Princeton Day School.

Oates is known for her work in all genres — most recently having

added science fiction to her love of the literary novel, the novella,

the romance, the short story, the horror story, poetry, plays, and

essays. She also wrote the libretto for the opera based on her novella

"Black Water."

Oates’s latest novel, "Middle Age: A Romance" (Ecco; $28),

falls squarely into the first category. It’s a big, 450-page story

set in the prosperous community of Salthill-on-Hudson, a half-hour

train ride from Manhattan, where everyone is rich, attractive, and

middle aged. It is dedicated, with irony, "To my Princeton

friends, who are nowhere in these pages."

"Middle Age" is the story, told posthumously, of Adam Berendt,

a charismatic, mysterious sculptor, who dies suddenly in a July Fourth

accident while trying to rescue — he thinks — a drowning

child. At the same time the community mourns the artist’s death,

rumors arise about his possible lovers plunge his friends into grief,

confusion, and self reflection.

Various women who loved Adam find themselves engaging in life-altering

romantic adventures, and the men who were Adam’s closest friends

become utterly transformed. Augusta Cutler, a previously unreflective

woman, defiantly tries to solve the mystery of Adam’s origins, even if

it means losing both marriage and family.

Also new from Oates is the dark novella "Beasts," published

in October (Carroll & Graf; $15.95), and described as a cunning fusion

of Gothic romance and psychological horror story, centered on the

power of obsession.

Set at Catamount College for Women in the sex and

drug-drenched 1970s, it tells the story of Gillian Brauer, a student

who falls under the spell of her charismatic literature professor and

his sultry French wife, only to find her trust abused. The publisher

promises that readers will find "the sunny idyll of New England

college campus life [turned] into a lurid nightmare."

Nancy Nicholson, community relations coordinator at Barnes & Noble,

has lots of enthusiasm for author readings in general, and for Joyce

Carol Oates’s appearances in particular.

"This is a unique opportunity to interface with one of the most

prolific and renowned authors in the world," she says. "You

get her own personal insights into her inspiration and her writing

process. And in addition to being extremely articulate, she is very

personable — and funny, too."

Nicholson had just finished reading "Middle Age" which she

enjoyed so much she says she devoured it in just three days. "This

book is uplifting and funny," she says. "It probes the libido

of the middle-aged American — men and women — in a wonderful

way, and really shows how sensual and sexual a 50-year-old being can

be."

"When you read as much as I do, I don’t often stop just because

I love an image. But toward the latter half of the book, she unleashes

similes and metaphors that no one else could come up with, they’re

just so funny."

Nicholson’s favorites include Oates’s memorable description of Mr.

Shad, owner of the crematorium, whose "black-dyed hair fitted

his head like a shiny shoe." And we meet Donegal Croom, an Irish

poet with a drinking problem: "Like a large, ungainly fish on its

tail, Donegal Croom is lead by Abigail into the noisy ballroom."

Nicholson always expects a big crowd for an Oates reading, but she

notes that the author, too, values the opportunity to find out what

her readers are thinking and what they want to know.

"Readers and authors come away from an hour with Joyce Carol Oates

having learned something, having been enlightened and motivated,"

she says.

The first biography of Oates, "Invisible Writer," was

published

by Greg Johnson in 1998. And for the interested Oates reader, there’s

an exemplary website. "Celestial Timepiece, A Joyce Carol Oates

Home Page." Begun in 1995, librarian Randy Souther continues

to enlarge and meticulously maintain it at

www.usfca.edu/fac-staff/southerr/jco.html.

It has news, biography, photographs, works of criticism, an online

discussion group, and a 2,300-entry bibliography that includes titles

for 150 books of fiction, poetry, essays, and criticism authored by

Oates.

— Nicole Plett

Joyce Carol Oates, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, Route

1 South, 609-897-9250. Free. Wednesday, January 30, 7 p.m.


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