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The Lost Landscape
368 pages; Ecco
"The student of literature is a soul-searcher...a pilgrim," observes Joyce Carol Oates in The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming of Age (Ecco), a tender-hearted excavation of her hardscrabble early life.            

At 77, Oates is a paragon of American letters known for her prodigious output and extraordinary technique and range. But as these pages underscore, she did not descend from an ivory tower. Oates grew up on her grandparents' chicken farm, and her father worked in a machine shop. From first through fifth grade she studied in the one-room schoolhouse her mother had attended. Much of her early reading was done while manning the family's fruit stand.            

Anyone who's ever mistaken Oates for a writer who's all intellect will be moved by her loving memories of rides in a Piper Cub piloted by her father, the delicacy of the clothes her mother stitched for her, the shock of her grandfather's death from emphysema. And anyone who's ever thrilled to her American Gothic sensibility will recognize its origins in Erie County, New York, where on Sunday drives her mother might point out the sites of local murders.            

The Lost Landscape isn't entirely straightforward. In it, Oates experiments with and reflects on memoir as medium, and admits to conflating characters and events, just as memory does. "Our lives are not stories, and to tell them as narratives is to distort them," she notes, shedding light on why she, say, allows a pet chicken to describe a 4-year-old Joyce from its point of view. "I am filled with a sense of wonder, and...sadness for all that has already passed from us and for what must be surrendered, in time," Oates reflects. But in sharing with us the lost landscape of her childhood, she has ensured it will never be forgotten.
— Leigh Haber