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A Book of American Martyrs

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A powerfully resonant and provocative novel from American master and New York Times bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates. In this striking, enormously affecting novel, Joyce Carol Oates tells the story of two very different and yet intimately linked American families. Luther Dunphy is an ardent Evangelical who envisions himself as acting out God's will when he assassinates A powerfully resonant and provocative novel from American master and New York Times bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates. In this striking, enormously affecting novel, Joyce Carol Oates tells the story of two very different and yet intimately linked American families. Luther Dunphy is an ardent Evangelical who envisions himself as acting out God's will when he assassinates an abortion provider in his small Ohio town while Augustus Voorhees, the idealistic doctor who is killed, leaves behind a wife and children scarred and embittered by grief. In her moving, insightful portrait, Joyce Carol Oates fully inhabits the perspectives of two interwoven families whose destinies are defined by their warring convictions and squarely-but with great empathy-confronts an intractable, abiding rift in American society. A Book of American Martyrs is a stunning, timely depiction of an issue hotly debated on a national stage but which makes itself felt most lastingly in communities torn apart by violence and hatred.


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A powerfully resonant and provocative novel from American master and New York Times bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates. In this striking, enormously affecting novel, Joyce Carol Oates tells the story of two very different and yet intimately linked American families. Luther Dunphy is an ardent Evangelical who envisions himself as acting out God's will when he assassinates A powerfully resonant and provocative novel from American master and New York Times bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates. In this striking, enormously affecting novel, Joyce Carol Oates tells the story of two very different and yet intimately linked American families. Luther Dunphy is an ardent Evangelical who envisions himself as acting out God's will when he assassinates an abortion provider in his small Ohio town while Augustus Voorhees, the idealistic doctor who is killed, leaves behind a wife and children scarred and embittered by grief. In her moving, insightful portrait, Joyce Carol Oates fully inhabits the perspectives of two interwoven families whose destinies are defined by their warring convictions and squarely-but with great empathy-confronts an intractable, abiding rift in American society. A Book of American Martyrs is a stunning, timely depiction of an issue hotly debated on a national stage but which makes itself felt most lastingly in communities torn apart by violence and hatred.

30 review for A Book of American Martyrs

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ron Charles

    Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel, “A Book of American Martyrs,” arrives splattered with our country’s hot blood. As the Republican Congress plots to cripple Planned Parenthood and the right to choose hinges on one vacant Supreme Court seat, “American Martyrs” probes all the wounds of our abortion debate. Indeed, it’s the most relevant book of Oates’s half-century-long career, a powerful reminder that fiction can be as timely as this morning’s tweets but infinitely more illuminating. For as often as Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel, “A Book of American Martyrs,” arrives splattered with our country’s hot blood. As the Republican Congress plots to cripple Planned Parenthood and the right to choose hinges on one vacant Supreme Court seat, “American Martyrs” probes all the wounds of our abortion debate. Indeed, it’s the most relevant book of Oates’s half-century-long career, a powerful reminder that fiction can be as timely as this morning’s tweets but infinitely more illuminating. For as often as we hear that some novel about a wealthy New Yorker suffering ennui is a story about “how we live now,” here is a novel that actually fulfills that promise, a story whose grasp is so wide and whose empathy is so boundless that it provides an ultrasound of the contemporary American soul. The opening pages explode. Immediately we’re there, inside the head of. . . . To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/entert...

  2. 5 out of 5

    Paul Bryant

    736 pages in 4 days, wow. 500 of them were great, too. But then, well, not so great. Joyce Carol Oates falls into a trap which she carefully dug herself. The story is about the shotgun murder of an abortionist doctor by an evangelical Christian guy. There have been eleven such murders in the USA between 1993 and 2015. JCO brilliantly narrates this crime from the killer’s point of view and then from everyone else’s. The rest of the book is about how the two families thus gruesomely conjoined cope, 736 pages in 4 days, wow. 500 of them were great, too. But then, well, not so great. Joyce Carol Oates falls into a trap which she carefully dug herself. The story is about the shotgun murder of an abortionist doctor by an evangelical Christian guy. There have been eleven such murders in the USA between 1993 and 2015. JCO brilliantly narrates this crime from the killer’s point of view and then from everyone else’s. The rest of the book is about how the two families thus gruesomely conjoined cope, and the answer in each case is very badly. Mothers abandon their children, the two fathers are either dead or in jail, brothers and sisters seem to hate each other, the repercussions just keep on repercussing. The two eldest daughters in each family become the main focus of the whole thing, but everybody gets a look in, lots of cross-cutting between the major and minor characters, a real mosaic. Great stuff. So this is my kind of thing, the big bold social activist novel, going beyond the tabloid headlines to unearth the moral complexities and blah blah blah you know. Now the big problem. JCO’s novel presents the killer Luther Dunphy as a semi-literate working class Midwesterner, a nasty bully and rapist until he got religion, when he gradually transposed into a murderer. This novel is not a great advert for the Christian religion. The only Christians in this book are nutters. Meanwhile, the victim, Dr Augustus Voorhees, is vastly cultured, wonderfully warm and articulate, an adored if absent father, and after his decease, universities are falling over themselves to commemorate his life in some hifalutin way, foundations are established and blah blah blah, the works. Well, that’s kind of the way it would be. The shooters in these cases usually could not tell a Mondrian from a first edition Proust and the doctors are, you know, educated. True. But then Naomi the doctor’s unhappy lost daughter is contacted by her long lost paternal grandmama who turns out to be a philosophy professor living at 110 Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, which is very specifically mentioned and described, and is a real place too. Then we get the real high-culture porn – Naomi goes to live with Grandma and is immediately is smothered in Philip Glass concerts, Moma exhibitions, introductions to Janet Malcolm (!) and Edmund White (!) and elegant dinner parties in the manner of Mena Suvari being smothered by those gorgeous red rose petals in American Beauty. This goes on for pages. Then Naomi finds out by chance that the daughter of the killer is now a professional female boxer. So we then get a hundred or so pages about female boxing, which is a sport in which two women from the lower depths of American society beat each other senseless for very little money to the indifference of the crowd who still don’t give a stuff for female boxing. What is JCO demonstrating so clearly here? Well, the middle class, you see, is so much – how can I put this delicately – better than the working class. And New York is so much better than wherever it was, er, oh yes, Ohio, and all those dreadful Midwest places. The only people who live there are fundamentalist Neanderthals. No, I don’t think JCO meant to leave the reader with anything like those sentiments, but in this novel, that is what you kind of come away thinking. Don’t go to Ohio! But the first 500 pages are a blast, so 4 stars.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Shannon A

    I'll be honest: in all my years of selling books, I had never read anything by Joyce Carol Oates. As I sit here in my sublime book-hangover, I can't believe I waited this long to find my way to reading what Oates has given to the literary world. I'm not sure I can write a review worthy enough to express how this raw and striking tale of two families is told. An exquisite portrait of one most provocative topics of our time told with unexpected and deep intimacy.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    JCO has written a lot of really great books and some not so great ones but I feel like this is her masterpiece. She is unafraid to take on some of the most controversial topics. The book is primarily about an abortion doctor who is shot down in cold blood in his clinic but it it told though the eyes of his daughter as she tries to make sense of it. There is also the the religious nut job who shot him and his experience on death row and quite a bit about one of his daughters who is a female JCO has written a lot of really great books and some not so great ones but I feel like this is her masterpiece. She is unafraid to take on some of the most controversial topics. The book is primarily about an abortion doctor who is shot down in cold blood in his clinic but it it told though the eyes of his daughter as she tries to make sense of it. There is also the the religious nut job who shot him and his experience on death row and quite a bit about one of his daughters who is a female wrestler. It's about a lot of stuff. Some of Oates' critics say that she is too wordy and I there have been times when I agreed with this but this wasn't one of them.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Perry

    Fathers, Be Good to Your Daughters In Brief:* Oates steps up to brew a tempest around the debates over legalized abortion in the U.S.--mostly moral now, rather than legal. She gives a chilling voice and multilayering to an assassin "of the Lord," then much less of a character in the killed abortion doctor, as the novel leads up to the murders, followed by excellent alternating chapters showing the tragic and long-lingering aftershocks suffered by the families--focusing on the daughter--of each of Fathers, Be Good to Your Daughters In Brief:* Oates steps up to brew a tempest around the debates over legalized abortion in the U.S.--mostly moral now, rather than legal. She gives a chilling voice and multilayering to an assassin "of the Lord," then much less of a character in the killed abortion doctor, as the novel leads up to the murders, followed by excellent alternating chapters showing the tragic and long-lingering aftershocks suffered by the families--focusing on the daughter--of each of the two men. I found it intriguing, realistic, somewhat profound, imaginative with respect to the daughter of the killer who grows up to be a female boxer, and the pace relentless. Themes include the significance of life, death, birth, adoption, religion and its role in society, feminism and the class divide. I recommend it if you want an intro to Joyce Carol Oates, the uber-strange bird who emits flashes brilliance, and if you don't mind lengthy books. This is closer to brilliant, much better than We Were the Mulvaneys. I particularly applaud Oates for toeing the line between both sides of the moral debate over abortion and for capturing the essence and complexities of the murdering father, a man lesser authors would have likely given stock treatment as a backwards villain. As we know though, things are never nearly so black and white. *I'm afflicted by perfectionism, having fought it since I first put pencil to paper. I say this to explain that I have at least 100 books I've read over the past couple of years for which I still need to write a review. With my defect, I start writing a review and put it aside for improvements, and again, and again. I simply do not have the time to write full reviews on everything of the quality I would like. So, I've made the executive decision to write short "reviews" on some of the backlog. I call it "In Brief," not only because of the brevity but also because the term is near and dear to my lawyer heart.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    At the beginning of this book we have the murder of one man by another. The murdered man is an abortion doctor and the second commits the murder believing that it was God's will. We spend quite awhile in the murderer's head and it became quite claustrophobic at times. We hear about his life as a child and then an adult, along with his conversion to Christianity. I admit that I disliked Luther, the murderer, and I struggled with his part the most. I don't know what Oates's personal beliefs are. At the beginning of this book we have the murder of one man by another. The murdered man is an abortion doctor and the second commits the murder believing that it was God's will. We spend quite awhile in the murderer's head and it became quite claustrophobic at times. We hear about his life as a child and then an adult, along with his conversion to Christianity. I admit that I disliked Luther, the murderer, and I struggled with his part the most. I don't know what Oates's personal beliefs are. This book addresses abortion, murder, and the death penalty in tough ways but her opinion was never clear to me. Instead we get a story about the disastrous fallout that this incident has on the families of the two men. Each has a wife, a son, and at least one daughter. The perspectives of each daughter are the dominant pieces of the book, although others are featured. The fallout includes everything from mental breakdowns to sexual assault and it was devastating all along, even when I didn't particularly like the character that was the POV at the time. These were very human characters so my opinion of them often varied. This book choked me up several times and made me cry at the very end. I completely loved it and it ended up on my all time favorites shelf, as well as being the best book I've read this year. There is no true way to express the power that this book had. It was brilliant and intense and deeply personal while being entirely about experiences that I've never had. I will be reading much more of Oates's work. The audiobook was narrated by multiple characters and was well done.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Nathan

    I loved this. Joyce Carol Oates is a master. Every aspect of her writing in this book worked for me. It was thought-provoking. The plot pulled me right through its 700+ pages. The characters were distinct and interesting - I especially liked Dawn. The action scenes were vivid. Language, setting, dialog, structure, voice, style...all the things that I ever think about when I experience "the novel" as an art form...here they are and WOW! I hope that sometime in the next few years, I read the I loved this. Joyce Carol Oates is a master. Every aspect of her writing in this book worked for me. It was thought-provoking. The plot pulled me right through its 700+ pages. The characters were distinct and interesting - I especially liked Dawn. The action scenes were vivid. Language, setting, dialog, structure, voice, style...all the things that I ever think about when I experience "the novel" as an art form...here they are and WOW! I hope that sometime in the next few years, I read the Pulitzer-winner before the prize is awarded. Who knows what else will come out in 2017, but this feels like it could be the book to nab the 2018 prize. It definitely speaks to the American experience.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Meg

    From the first page until the last, Oates passionately displays her unique ability to break her readers' hearts. The expression of pain, grief, loss, & the desire for (& still the absence of) redemption keeps one turning the page as if this were a task of utmost importance- the completion of this novel. Her characters, even minor ones, are fully realised, their suffering a vibrant, complex tapestry that is jarring, touching, destructive. This work, this piece of fiction is absolutely From the first page until the last, Oates passionately displays her unique ability to break her readers' hearts. The expression of pain, grief, loss, & the desire for (& still the absence of) redemption keeps one turning the page as if this were a task of utmost importance- the completion of this novel. Her characters, even minor ones, are fully realised, their suffering a vibrant, complex tapestry that is jarring, touching, destructive. This work, this piece of fiction is absolutely vital to any person with a heart.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    I could not put this book down. For Joyce Carol Oates I will gladly set aside a week but I read it in three days! Coming practically on the heels of Brit Bennett's The Mothers, I was not sure I was ready for another novel on the abortion dispute. But since I have chosen to read and write about books as my form of activism in these divided times, I dove in. Joyce Carol Oates goes at the issue from a different direction than Brit Bennett did. Here we have two men who are willing, you could even I could not put this book down. For Joyce Carol Oates I will gladly set aside a week but I read it in three days! Coming practically on the heels of Brit Bennett's The Mothers, I was not sure I was ready for another novel on the abortion dispute. But since I have chosen to read and write about books as my form of activism in these divided times, I dove in. Joyce Carol Oates goes at the issue from a different direction than Brit Bennett did. Here we have two men who are willing, you could even say eager, to die for their beliefs regarding a woman's right to decide about her own body and her own reproductive role. In fact, in this novel, we never directly see the issue from a pregnant woman's viewpoint. Luther Dunphy, the evangelical killer of an abortion doctor, is unmistakably a JCO creation. He is quite nearly insane or at least an example of how a religious belief system can intermingle with a human being's weaknesses and drive him to insane behavior. However, Dr Augustus Vorhees has his own demons driving him to take the liberal view of a woman's rights to equal extremes. Both men endanger their wives and leave their children bewildered and lost. I did not expect a pleasant read but I was impressed by the sure-handedness with which the author covered a large and complex issue that has its roots deep in the American psyche. She also shows through the children and wives of these two men, that as divided as we appear to be, our deepest hopes and fears come from similar places. In the final denouement, which I confess I did see coming, she even offers some hope. Joyce Carol Oates is a strong cup of tea, not to all readers' liking. If you do like her, or want to read her for the first time, I can guarantee you will not have wasted your time. Also, whatever side of the fence you are on, you will find a clearer understanding of the other side.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Joleigh

    This book was extremely difficult for me to read. As a feminist and supporter of NOW, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood, I had great trouble reading this and had to stop and leave it because it was so painful. I had to return because as an author Oates makes you want to know where she is going. Oates has touched a place in American history and culture that is like pouring alcohol on an open wound; it hurts like hell but needs to happen for the wound to heal. This book is so appropriate to the times This book was extremely difficult for me to read. As a feminist and supporter of NOW, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood, I had great trouble reading this and had to stop and leave it because it was so painful. I had to return because as an author Oates makes you want to know where she is going. Oates has touched a place in American history and culture that is like pouring alcohol on an open wound; it hurts like hell but needs to happen for the wound to heal. This book is so appropriate to the times in which we live. I do not know who should read this. Can I recommend it? I am not sure. It has left me very uneasy, with many conflicting thoughts. But, shouldn't good literature do this!

  11. 4 out of 5

    LaMesha

    Thought provoking, Intense, Real, Gut wrenching, Satisfying, & Heartbreaking literary fiction! My God! Joyce Carol Oates is a genius. She managed to write a novel about a topic that would cause a normal person to lean more to one side. She did not! She didn't cut corners, or sugar coat this issue. And that ending was simply perfect. "Tears"

  12. 5 out of 5

    Roman Clodia

    Is there anyone other than JCO, I wonder, who could have written this book? Opening with the shooting of a doctor who performs abortions by a Christian fundamentalist who figures his act as 'justified homicide' rather than murder (and what of the ex-Army bodyguard who he also shoots?), this goes on to explore not just the emotive issue of a woman's right to control her own body vs. the anti-abortion lobby, but a whole range of other issues: class, education, patriarchy, the death penalty, grief Is there anyone other than JCO, I wonder, who could have written this book? Opening with the shooting of a doctor who performs abortions by a Christian fundamentalist who figures his act as 'justified homicide' rather than murder (and what of the ex-Army bodyguard who he also shoots?), this goes on to explore not just the emotive issue of a woman's right to control her own body vs. the anti-abortion lobby, but a whole range of other issues: class, education, patriarchy, the death penalty, grief and healing. The story spans the years from 1999 when Luther Dunphy shoots Gus Voorhees, past 9/11 and onto 2012 when the two daughters of shooter and victim come back together. For this is not just an exploration of an act of sickening religious and ideological violence, but also a look at how an public, political act has private and personal consequences that stretch forward in time. It's perhaps difficult for those of us brought up in the UK to comprehend what a divisive and emotionally-loaded issue the whole question of abortion rights is in the US. And the record of how much abuse and pressure doctors and other staff are subject to is truly shocking, as is the way the family of an 'abortion doctor', as his detractors term him (conveniently forgetting the number of babies and mothers lives saved through his medical interventions such as caesarians) are under constant threat of bullying, abuse and violence. JCO is nuanced in her approach: while on one hand we witness Dunphy's biblical rhetoric which pronounces all abortion wrong (even in cases of rape, incest, cancer of the uterus, for example), while we see his put-upon wife refusing to have her children vaccinated since it reveals a lack of trust in god: despite all this, Luther is not devoid of the reader's sympathy with some agonising scenes in the centre of the book that are harrowing to read. Voorhees, too, is no angel and his dedication to his upholding of feminist rights lead to him neglecting, to some extent, his wife and family. I don't think we're in any doubt where JCO's own allegiances lie but she is balanced and subtle in writing the debate via her 'martyrs'. So a book with intellectual substance as well as a compelling story of moral dilemmas and the family fallout from an act of unconscionable brutality. This is as much a book about daughters and fathers, about religious and ideological fundamentalism, about class and education as it is about abortion and reproductive rights.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Sullivan

    This powerful, sprawling novel begins with the murder of an abortion doctor by a right-wing evangelical Christian, then goes on to provide an in-depth character study of the families on both sides, examining the legacy of "martyrdom" and the effect it has on those left behind. Oates, smartly, refrains from injecting her own moral judgments. Instead, she moves from one character to another, writing them as they perceive themselves and each other, so that we the readers can make our own. This This powerful, sprawling novel begins with the murder of an abortion doctor by a right-wing evangelical Christian, then goes on to provide an in-depth character study of the families on both sides, examining the legacy of "martyrdom" and the effect it has on those left behind. Oates, smartly, refrains from injecting her own moral judgments. Instead, she moves from one character to another, writing them as they perceive themselves and each other, so that we the readers can make our own. This approach yields a complex understanding of each character. There's a specific focus throughout on the eldest daughters of each family as they attempt to find meaning and purpose in the absence of their fathers and the aftermath of their broken families. With a relentless pace that moves quickly in spite of the carefully detailed prose and 700+ pages, Oates delivers a profound, raw and achingly intimidate novel—a visceral and stunning portrait of grief and consequences amid the backdrop of a contentious social issue.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Tonstant Weader

    Joyce Carol Oates does not shy from controversy. A Book of American Martyrs is sure to become one of her most controversial since it centers on that most polarizing of American rifts–abortion. The martyrs in her book are Augustus Vorhees, a dedicated and idealist doctor who dares to offer women the totally legal medical services they need, and Luther Dunphy, the man who killed him for it. Of course, as is often the case, the martyrs merely die, it is their families who are crucified. While we Joyce Carol Oates does not shy from controversy. A Book of American Martyrs is sure to become one of her most controversial since it centers on that most polarizing of American rifts–abortion. The martyrs in her book are Augustus Vorhees, a dedicated and idealist doctor who dares to offer women the totally legal medical services they need, and Luther Dunphy, the man who killed him for it. Of course, as is often the case, the martyrs merely die, it is their families who are crucified. While we come to understand what motivates the husbands and fathers, Vorhees and Dunphy, the real story is what happens to their families, fractured and broken on the altars of their belief. Vorhees and Dunphy’s wives both collapse and retreat from their children, leaving them doubly bereft. The parallels continue, both have an older son and daughter who are closer to each other than the younger sibling(s) and whose bond is embittered by their father’s death. The story focuses most on the daughters, Naomi Vorhees and Dawn Dunphy. Naomi begins to chronicle her father’s life, thinking of a possible documentary film, but really, trying to make sense of her life and her loss. Dawn seeks a career in professional boxing, a reaction to a vicious assault in high school, but also a way to find control and redemption and bind herself to her father. Naomi seeks Dawn out under the pretext of doing a documentary on female boxers, her actions profoundly predatory and compassionate at the same time, shameful and redemptive. I was angry with Oates several times reading this book, but the truly great books do not leave us comfortable. I did not like all her choices, but that is not the reason I give a book five stars. It’s reserved for books that are fresh and different, that challenge, and yes, even anger me. I think most readers will be angered a few times reading the book. They will feel provoked, angered, enraged. They will grieve, even sob with compassion for the survivors. It is a rare person who will not be emotional wracked by this book. I must confess that I cannot be dispassionate about this issue. I witness the suicide of a fourteen year old girl who threw herself from a parking garage after being terrorized by one of those fake crisis centers. I felt the rush of air displaced by her body, her blood and matter stained my clothes. Those anti-choice zealots drove her to despair, to suicide. I am sure they felt no remorse, only self-righteous satisfaction. Oates was very successful at portraying Dunphy as more than a caricature of a murderous religious fanatic, adding reasons to sympathize with him, to perhaps understand how he came to be, but I don’t think he needed to lose a child or get his hours reduced to kill someone. He was a thug when he was young, a rapist, a violent man who masqueraded as decent for a time, but was given permission by the perversion of his religion to become a thug again, a murderer for Christ. He seemed to possess that toxic masculine bullying violence all his life and lost his temporary and always unsteady facade of decency. Oates tries to throw a wrench in the works by having Vorhees’ mother confess to her granddaughter that she had tried to have an abortion when she was pregnant with Augustus. When she finally found someone willing to do the illegal surgery, the circumstances were such she was afraid she might die and she fled, having this child who grew up to be an abortion provider. She challenged her son, pointing out if abortions were legal when he was born, he never would have existed. It’s a fairly common anti-choice argument. I remember my former sister-in-law telling me a story when I was about ten or so about a woman who would have been saved from cancer by the cure discovered by her son, except she aborted him. It’s such a phony argument. After all, just as abortion ends the potential of one fetus, pregnancy ends the potential implantation of other eggs at a different moment. Yes, if aborted, Augustus Vorhees would not have existed, but his birth may have prevented the possible birth of some other child, someone who might have been as great or greater. It’s unknowable and a cheap argument, unworthy of Magdalena, the brilliant theorist. I was puzzled by Vorhees’ widow Jenna. Her reaction to the murder of her husband seemed incongruous to her character before his death. Abandoning her children might have made sense if she were an indifferent mother before, but she was not. It felt wrong, but it certainly contributed to the trauma suffered by the Vorhees children and made their trauma parallel more closely the trauma suffered by Dunphy’s children, being talked about, feeling as though they lost both parents, not just one, in-school persecution and estrangement. It was heartbreaking for both families. The two daughters, Naomi and Dawn, suffer the loss of their fathers, estrangement from their mothers, conflict with their siblings, and finding surprising help and support from unexpected quarters, Naomi from her grandmother and Dawn from her boxing coach and an elementary school teacher. As you can tell from my review, A Book of American Martyrs is thought-provoking, sometimes so very perceptive, sometimes infuriating, but always alight with humanity. A Book of American Martyrs will be released February 7th, 2017 by Harper Collins. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher through Edelweiss. https://tonstantweaderreviews.wordpre...

  15. 5 out of 5

    Michele

    The title of this book is a riff on Foxe's Book of Martyrs, popularly known as the Book of English Martyrs, which detailed the suffering of Protestant sects and/or individuals under Catholic rulers of England and Scotland. First published in 1563, the book went through numerous editions (and was plundered for lurid detail by later authors). Similarly, this book delves in excruciating detail into the suffering -- both immediate/direct and subsequent/collateral -- arising from the deaths of two The title of this book is a riff on Foxe's Book of Martyrs, popularly known as the Book of English Martyrs, which detailed the suffering of Protestant sects and/or individuals under Catholic rulers of England and Scotland. First published in 1563, the book went through numerous editions (and was plundered for lurid detail by later authors). Similarly, this book delves in excruciating detail into the suffering -- both immediate/direct and subsequent/collateral -- arising from the deaths of two uniquely American forms of martyr: Augustus Voorhees, outspoken pro-choice doctor who performs abortions (among other things) and who is murdered as he arrives at a clinic one morning, and Luther Dunphy, evangelical Christian who kills Voorhees to protect the unborn and is later executed for the murder. Both men give their lives for something they believe in passionately, both families are devastated as a result, and the reader is left with the distinct feeling that neither death accomplished anything at all. Some have argued that the book is a bit heavy-handed in the stereotypical attributes piled on the Dunphy clan as uneducated, anti-science, religious fundamentalists (about the only trope omitted is that Luther's wife Edna Mae isn't also his cousin). However, the Voorhees side of the story also exemplifies negative conceptions of liberals as over-educated, impractical, entitled, and paternalistic. And both ends of the spectrum obviously fail their children to an equal degree. This isn't a happy book or a pleasant/easy read. You won't come away from it feeling good. But it is well-crafted: all the characters are sympathetic in one way or another. The more one thinks about the story the more parallels emerge, creating a kind of hall of mirrors, and the more nuances and complexities are revealed. It is also thought-provoking, not least because the ultimate moral of the story is both topical and timeless: When we fall into rigid ideologies that demand we view the other side as an implacable enemy, something less than human with whom there can be no compromise and no quarter, everyone suffers. One minor nit: The cover of my edition had some squibs from reviewers on it, and the one right above the title was something about "this is Trump's America." This annoyed me, and I wish the publisher hadn't chosen it. It's giving Trump far too much credit (the evidence is pretty clear that he doesn't give a damn about abortion one way or the other, all he cares about is getting pro-life votes) and at the same time it lets many others off too easily (the Republican platform, the party's guiding document, supports a constitutional amendment to make abortion illegal in all circumstances -- and has done so for almost forty years). Demoting Trump to the status of former rather than current POTUS won't change that.

  16. 4 out of 5

    George

    I CAN’T BELIEVE I READ THE WHOLE THING. “So it is, the Little Hand clutches at the hearts of all.” (p. 20) I didn’t much like Joyce Carol Oates’s, A Book of American Martyrs: A Novel. At 740 pages it was far too long; and, to me at least, her characters were, by-and-large, spectacularly uninteresting. Hardly a one among them with whom I’d care to have lunch. So why did I keep coming back and reading/finishing such a less than engaging tale? I can only guess it must have been unrequited optimism on I CAN’T BELIEVE I READ THE WHOLE THING. “So it is, the Little Hand clutches at the hearts of all.” (p. 20) I didn’t much like Joyce Carol Oates’s, A Book of American Martyrs: A Novel. At 740 pages it was far too long; and, to me at least, her characters were, by-and-large, spectacularly uninteresting. Hardly a one among them with whom I’d care to have lunch. So why did I keep coming back and reading/finishing such a less than engaging tale? I can only guess it must have been unrequited optimism on my part. I get it. The families/children of self-righteous martyrs suffer collateral damage. So what? (I must be getting jaded.) Recommendation: I’ll not be tempted to read another novel by JCO. Plenty will. You choose. “The death of an idealist, a selfless individual. That is the price the individual must pay, pitting himself against the black tide of ignorance and superstition.” (p. 540). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition, 740 pages.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Lisasue

    One of the most thought-provoking novels that I've ever read...like...wake up in the middle of the night kind of thoughts. I have a few things to say on this one that are not completely redundant to other reviews, so....review to follow when I have more time. OK....so...later.... After thinking for awhile, I have to say that I think that the point of this novel is not about the repulsiveness of Luther Dunphy's family vs. the elevated elegance of the Voorhees family. Some reviewers have said this, One of the most thought-provoking novels that I've ever read...like...wake up in the middle of the night kind of thoughts. I have a few things to say on this one that are not completely redundant to other reviews, so....review to follow when I have more time. OK....so...later.... After thinking for awhile, I have to say that I think that the point of this novel is not about the repulsiveness of Luther Dunphy's family vs. the elevated elegance of the Voorhees family. Some reviewers have said this, and I think that they're all wrong. The point of the novel, at least for me, is that both of these families have adult members who are just bad at being human , leaving their children in a lurch when tragedy strikes. It is easy to look at the surface of things in this novel, to be repulsed by the blind, narrow faith that warps the lives of the Dunphys into destructive knots, but in many ways, the Voorhees family is equally repulsive. While the Dunphy family is hampered by poverty, and a horrific destructive faith, the Voorhees family is educated, but manages to be completely out of touch with their emotions and the emotions of others much of the time. Luther Dunphy lacks a meaningful inner life, and fills it with scripture, and the domination of others. He memorizes scripture, but can't manage to write a decent sermon that involves his own interpretations. When jailed, he seems content; there are no decisions or the daily grind of personal sacrifice that is needed in family life. In comparison, the Voorhees adults do equally poorly. Grandmother Voorhees doesn't want to be a mother, so walks away from her toddler son, and initially can't bear the intimacy of her needy grand-daughter. Mother Voorhees? No better. (view spoiler)[ She disappears on an extended lecture tour, and then to Vermont, bypassing entirely the raising of her own children when they are in their greatest need. For her, the emotions are too painful and/or messy. (hide spoiler)] In the end, I think what makes us human, and not animal alone, is when we continue to reach out to other humans, to teach, to help, to nurture, to learn, to connect. Many of the characters in this novel fail to do this, for a variety of reasons, leaving their children to teach themselves how to be human, with varying levels of success. IMHO, the point that Joyce Carol Oates is trying to make is that we must have meaningful connections with other humans: mother/child, siblings, husband/wife to be functional humans. To be better humans, we must be part of a clan, of some kind. For me, that was the ultimate message of the novel. Life is messy. Life is complicated. There is rarely true black or white, good or evil. There is only just us, humans, making our way through it, hopefully with the help of other humans.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

    This was a book that made you think. And more than about the abortion controversy. It made you think about how tragedies effect families and individuals. JCO's portrayal of the "doctor"s" family was much more sympathetic than the grinding sadness of the "murderer's" family. And the discussion of suicide, late in the book, was very apt.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Bruno

    (4.5) "This white girl can hit, man!"

  20. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    4.5 stars. If recent history has taught us anything it's that the United States is a country more divided by its freedoms than aligned to them. For every bit of progress made to close the gap between the left and right, to embrace the independence many take for granted, there will always be hot button topics to which a middle ground may never be established. 40 years after the landmark Roe v Wade case made abortion legal we are still either for or against it. And passionately so. A Book of 4.5 stars. If recent history has taught us anything it's that the United States is a country more divided by its freedoms than aligned to them. For every bit of progress made to close the gap between the left and right, to embrace the independence many take for granted, there will always be hot button topics to which a middle ground may never be established. 40 years after the landmark Roe v Wade case made abortion legal we are still either for or against it. And passionately so. A Book of American Martyrs, in all of its 700+ page glory, provides a provocative take on both sides of the spectrum, and how deeply affecting one's beliefs can be on those who surround them. It also offers a unique, seemingly improbable empathy - regardless of political, ethical or religious affiliation - few authors could possibly ignite. We should be so lucky Joyce Carol Oates could provide such a spark. But we shouldn't be surprised. Oates is a literary icon for many a reason, whether it be her remarkable range as a novelist, essayist and critic, or her ability to bring beauty to all that which is anything but. It's on full display within A Book of American Martyrs' imposing heft, and much of why the novel rarely succumbs to its size. You're invested by way of devotion: to the story, its characters, their beliefs and yours. Be that as it may this is not simply an "abortion book". It's a commentary on the power of belief, a book meant for all - pro and anti, left and right, black and white, godless and devout. Most of all it's a novel that wouldn't have nearly the impact were it to take place elsewhere, nor written by anyone other than a living legend.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Hunter

    Although I will never be able to love another Joyce Carol Oates book the way I loved Blonde, this is definitely her next masterpiece. It challenged my way of thinking, and made me reevaluate my personal beliefs and opinions about things that up until this point I had never doubted or considered a new view of. Everyone should read this book. You may not love it, like it, or even enjoy it, but I definitely think you'll grow from it. (Maybe i'm hyping this up too much, but I hype up every book I Although I will never be able to love another Joyce Carol Oates book the way I loved Blonde, this is definitely her next masterpiece. It challenged my way of thinking, and made me reevaluate my personal beliefs and opinions about things that up until this point I had never doubted or considered a new view of. Everyone should read this book. You may not love it, like it, or even enjoy it, but I definitely think you'll grow from it. (Maybe i'm hyping this up too much, but I hype up every book I like so sorry not sorry)

  22. 5 out of 5

    Thing Two

    This is an ARC review. The book is ambitious, and long, but I don't think she entirely pulls off the dual empathic look at both sides of an issue that was promised. What she does well is show the devastation each family suffered after the actions of one man who, hyped up by his community, shoots two others outside an abortion clinic. But after that it's a long rambling storyline of minor events in various members of each family.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Leo Robertson

    WOW. Almost no one can make me read beyond 400 pages anymore. But these flew by. The book begins with a thriller-like opening, with the murder of an abortion doctor. From there, the author conjures a murderous religious fanatic's mindset, covers the affected families and their backgrounds, and how the crime resonates over time and distance, over generations. JCO's prose is lean and self-assured and filled with interesting analogies and sensations that bring the text to life. I was amazed in fact WOW. Almost no one can make me read beyond 400 pages anymore. But these flew by. The book begins with a thriller-like opening, with the murder of an abortion doctor. From there, the author conjures a murderous religious fanatic's mindset, covers the affected families and their backgrounds, and how the crime resonates over time and distance, over generations. JCO's prose is lean and self-assured and filled with interesting analogies and sensations that bring the text to life. I was amazed in fact that she wouldn't have used any like them in her preceding 5000 books. And the core of this book is as alive and gripping as a Netflix true-crime courtroom documentary. I think some reviewers were saying this was a balanced exploration of views on abortion. I can't tell if it's my own bias or not but I think it was about as balanced as the topic deserved (ie, didn't read too fairly on the "killing babies" side of it. By the way, if I ever hear a man use the phrase "killing babies", I stop believing he honestly holds a pro-life stance and is instead goading for his own entertainment or money or some other seedier reason.) Give her her due, JCO sets up some interesting moral conundrums and paradoxes about the debate that I won't spoil. But it's never preachy. It's about the lives of these characters. JCO will on occasion point out, "It's of interest here that she's taking birth control" or "Watch how he reacts to the killing of an ordinary man instead of an abortion doctor." But it's framed in a way that allows the reader to ponder unattended. I have two complaints: - Mentioning 9/11. Writers have such a strange reaction to it. I can't tell if they bring 9/11 into their stories out of a sense of obligation or some weird sensational desire to profit from it. I don't think they can tell either but I've yet to read a single writer saying anything coherent or insightful about it. - One quote reads "The story of Trump's America" on the cover. I hated carting that fucker's name about.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Tittle

    This is not one of my favorite of Oates' books. However, there is a lot here to make it worth the (rather long) read. Oates teases apart our country's abortion debate with empathy and compassion and raises some really important issues that are too-often dismissed by both sides. I loved having my views challenged so adroitly. And as always Oates manages to make us fall in love with characters that we might find hard to like in the hands of lesser authors. Her portrait of Dawn (D.D.) Dunphy, the This is not one of my favorite of Oates' books. However, there is a lot here to make it worth the (rather long) read. Oates teases apart our country's abortion debate with empathy and compassion and raises some really important issues that are too-often dismissed by both sides. I loved having my views challenged so adroitly. And as always Oates manages to make us fall in love with characters that we might find hard to like in the hands of lesser authors. Her portrait of Dawn (D.D.) Dunphy, the daughter of the man who kills an abortion doctor, is nothing short of brilliant. Less compelling are long sections having to do with a glamorous philosopher and her ivory-tower life in Manhattan. These parts seemed to belong to another story, or another book, or could have been included with much less, often tedious (I thought) descriptions of her life and surroundings. What Oates does so successfully is invite us into the lives of people whose lives are "collateral damage" in the ideological wars that continue to plague our country. She honors their strengths and flaws and draws resonating parallels that make us realize that opposing parties have more in common than we think. 4.5 for thought-provoking themes; 3.5 for too many pages of flabby prose.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Paula DeBoard

    Me: I'm too busy to dig into anything new right now. *starts 752-page book* *** Review: There were a few times I almost turned away from this one. It was long, and the subject matter was extremely heavy, and I felt myself being dragged down into the world of the Voorheeses/Dunphys every time I picked it back up. Of course--that's part of Oates's skill as a writer, and it's what kept me reading: a story was being told, and I suspected it was going to build to something amazing. And it did. That Me: I'm too busy to dig into anything new right now. *starts 752-page book* *** Review: There were a few times I almost turned away from this one. It was long, and the subject matter was extremely heavy, and I felt myself being dragged down into the world of the Voorheeses/Dunphys every time I picked it back up. Of course--that's part of Oates's skill as a writer, and it's what kept me reading: a story was being told, and I suspected it was going to build to something amazing. And it did. That ending. *wipes tear* *wonders why I haven't read absolutely everything Oates has written*

  26. 4 out of 5

    Suzanne

    We live in interesting times. Where the idea of a newborn child has more vibrancy than the actuality of a newborn. And where a woman's body belongs to everyone in the community except herself. Perhaps that's not quite right. Her body is exalted by everyone in the abstract while left to her own poor devices, she is often her own most severe abuser, due to lack of information, neglect and intense loneliness. Being revered in the abstract isn't fit for flesh and blood humans. This is not a book for We live in interesting times. Where the idea of a newborn child has more vibrancy than the actuality of a newborn. And where a woman's body belongs to everyone in the community except herself. Perhaps that's not quite right. Her body is exalted by everyone in the abstract while left to her own poor devices, she is often her own most severe abuser, due to lack of information, neglect and intense loneliness. Being revered in the abstract isn't fit for flesh and blood humans. This is not a book for the weak at heart but it does explore intergenerational obsessions and pain. Whether that obsession is religion or art, freedom through escape or drugs, the outcome to children looks very similar. And there is no sense that it will stop any time soon. Welcome to our world, 2015. Oates is, as always, a magnificent observer of our world, if you are ready to know what she sees. I received my copy from the publisher through edelweiss.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Dna

    I have too many good books waiting to waste time on this fragmented pile of slop. Intriguing premise, but contains some of Oates' most awful, lifeless and flat writing.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Graham Wilhauk

    OLD REVIEW: Ok, I am finally sitting down and spewing my thoughts on this masterpiece. Before I get into the core of my thoughts, I just want to give at least SOME form of summary to this novel. "A Book of American Martyrs" starts out with a bang. Literally. A doctor who performs abortions at a local Women's Center in rural Ohio is shot dead by a member of an evangelical church. This event will forever change the lives and minds of both the families of the victim and murderer. In order to avoid OLD REVIEW: Ok, I am finally sitting down and spewing my thoughts on this masterpiece. Before I get into the core of my thoughts, I just want to give at least SOME form of summary to this novel. "A Book of American Martyrs" starts out with a bang. Literally. A doctor who performs abortions at a local Women's Center in rural Ohio is shot dead by a member of an evangelical church. This event will forever change the lives and minds of both the families of the victim and murderer. In order to avoid blatant spoilers, I will stop here. This should be all you need to know before going into this novel. Well, here are my thoughts on this novel. It can be summarized in a single sentence: I am terrified yet blown away. This is, without a shred of doubt, one of the best books that I have ever read. To emphasize on how much this book has impacted me over the last twenty-four hours, I recently made a list of my all-time favorite books from the highest of my five-stars to the lower tier of my five-star books. This book currently sits at number seven on the list. I ONLY PREFER SIX BOOKS OVER THIS ONE. Anyway, let's get back on track. "A Book of American Martyrs" is a story about numerous topics. Religion, hatred, family, mortality, politics, America, abortion, and many more. This book has such a wide range of topics that when it focuses on a certain topic for a while, it leaves a HUGE impact on you. Even though this book is long as it is, JCO could have easily made it longer. This could have easily been a thousand pages. Yet it was not. It has a focus when it comes to its narrative and it perfectly delivers on that. The narrative being the lives of the Voorhees family and the Dunphy family both before and after the murder of Gus Voorhees, the doctor. This leads me into the two things I want to talk about the most: the writing and how much this book TERRIFIED me. The writing of this book is up there with "A Single Man" and "The Secret History" as one of the most well-written books I have ever read. The writing in this book is POWERFUL and heavy. You feel every bit of emotion in these characters with every word that JCO puts on the page. You feel the intensity of each situation as it all becomes more clear the more you read it. I can't describe the writing myself. She's the writer. I'm just the reader. Let her do the talking. Although, if she does do the talking, she may leave you scarred for life. Let me say that this book is split into five parts and the first three parts are, EASILY, the most disturbing and terrifying thing I have ever read. When someone wants to TRULY scare me through literature, gore/violence and supernatural aspects do not complete the job. In order to truly terrify me, I must be scared by disturbing thoughts and perspectives. I know this is confusing, but hear me out. "A Book of American Martyrs" hits me in my soft spot when it focuses on religion. We see the extreme side of religion that uses it for violence and separation. The IDEA of violence through religion TERRIFIES me because the thought of using a LIFE for a corrupt agenda such as killing doctors is barbaric. These are the kind of ideas that terrify me, specifically ones that have to do with human suffering through what we find to be the norm. Other examples are suffering through politics, overworking, and abusive relationships (both romantic and family). Add on the sheer power of JCO's writing and you have the most terrifying piece of fiction that I have read to this day. While the book dials back in the disturbing content for the final two parts, the first three parts are still haunting enough for me to call this the scariest book that I've ever read. However, "A Book of American Martyrs" is much more than a "heavy, scary book." It handles some of the most sensitive topics in a very mature way. The final thing that I want to address about this book is JCO's influence on this book. Even though there is a LOT of room for JCO to put her own views in this book. However, she leaves it completely up to the reader to decide their stance on this topic. She does not focus on one family more than the other as both get roughly equal amounts of time in the spotlight. This is one of the things that impressed me the most. Any other author would just through in their views along with the story and it would hurt the book a LOT. However, JCO knew what her goal was and I admire just the thought of doing it. To actually do something like that takes some guts that the majority of us do not have (including myself). This little aspect, however, was something that made me realize a very important thing. Guys, I think I can safely say this. Joyce Carol Oates is my all-time favorite author. While I still consider "The Secret History" my all-time favorite book, I don't think that Donna Tartt will ever have as decorated of a career as Joyce Carol Oates. I love both of them to death. Though with how prolific JCO is and how NOT prolific Donna Tartt is, I can't say they are completely on the same level. JCO, in my opinion, is THE modern master. Let me (finally) wrap this up. "A Book of American Martyrs" is the one of the best books that I have ever read and, if you haven't already inferred this, is my favorite book that I've read so far in 2018. If anything, this will remain as my favorite book of 2018. Though I'm probably speaking too quickly. Even though I love this book to death, I will probably not read this book ever again. This book hits me right in the gut at even the thought of it. Even though it would be worth it, I don't want to be scarred like this again. I know that a reread later in my life would not make this book less terrifying. Though that may just be proof of its greatness. If you are up for one HEAVY book, I cannot recommend this enough. I am giving this one a 5 out of 5 stars. NEW REVIEW: This edited review is not based on the rating. I still ADORE this novel and it is the second best book I've read so far this year. Though, like you just read, this is now my SECOND favorite book of the year. I personally loved "The Little Stranger" by Sarah Waters a little more than this one. I don't want that to take anything away from this book since it is still a MASTERPIECE. I just found another book I like over it. That's all. :) This is still an EASY 5 out of 5 stars.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Alexandra

    A narrative tour de force. Compelling, memorable, impressive. The story does an impressive job of addressing both sides of an increasingly fractured American debate and finds its focus in a small but effective array of characters lost in their different ways in the aftermath of a tragedy which is both domestic and national. There are no easy answers, just human beings lost in the politics of religious and pro-choice ideology with little consideration for the human spirit at the heart of it all.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    At first I blamed the author when I found it difficult to engage with some characters and yet connected so quickly with others. I felt compelled to skip over some stories to get on with the characters I liked. Then I thought…well… that’s the point. JCO took me - in sometimes predictable but often completely unpredictable ways - from repulsion to grief to …aahh… okay, I can better understand perspectives that I tend to dismiss or avoid. Our need to feel empathy for and connect to each other At first I blamed the author when I found it difficult to engage with some characters and yet connected so quickly with others. I felt compelled to skip over some stories to get on with the characters I liked. Then I thought…well… that’s the point. JCO took me - in sometimes predictable but often completely unpredictable ways - from repulsion to grief to …aahh… okay, I can better understand perspectives that I tend to dismiss or avoid. Our need to feel empathy for and connect to each other through our differences is crucial. A very timely, amazing book.

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