BOOK REVIEW | Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Still known to millions primarily as the author of the The Lottery, Shirley Jackson (1916–1965) has been curiously absent from the mainstream American literary canon. A genius of literary suspense and psychological horror, Jackson plumbed the cultural anxiety of postwar America more deeply than anyone. Now, biographer Ruth Franklin reveals the tumultuous life and inner darkness of the author of such classics as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Placing Jackson within an American Gothic tradition that stretches back to Hawthorne and Poe, Franklin demonstrates how her unique contribution to this genre came from her focus on “domestic horror.” Almost two decades before The Feminine Mystique ignited the women’s movement, Jackson’ stories and nonfiction chronicles were already exploring the exploitation and the desperate isolation of women, particularly married women, in American society. Franklin’s portrait of Jackson gives us “a way of reading Jackson and her work that threads her into the weave of the world of words, as a writer and as a woman, rather than excludes her as an anomaly” (Neil Gaiman).

The increasingly prescient Jackson emerges as a ferociously talented, determined, and prodigiously creative writer in a time when it was unusual for a woman to have both a family and a profession. A mother of four and the wife of the prominent New Yorker critic and academic Stanley Edgar Hyman, Jackson lived a seemingly bucolic life in the New England town of North Bennington, Vermont. Yet, much like her stories, which channeled the occult while exploring the claustrophobia of marriage and motherhood, Jackson’s creative ascent was haunted by a darker side. As her career progressed, her marriage became more tenuous, her anxiety mounted, and she became addicted to amphetamines and tranquilizers. In sobering detail, Franklin insightfully examines the effects of Jackson’s California upbringing, in the shadow of a hypercritical mother, on her relationship with her husband, juxtaposing Hyman’s infidelities, domineering behavior, and professional jealousy with his unerring admiration for Jackson’s fiction, which he was convinced was among the most brilliant he had ever encountered.

Based on a wealth of previously undiscovered correspondence and dozens of new interviews, Shirley Jackson—an exploration of astonishing talent shaped by a damaging childhood and turbulent marriage—becomes the definitive biography of a generational avatar and an American literary giant.

My thoughts:
She kept it up until the end, sending her literary bombs unerringly to their targets, then standing back to watch them explode.

Ruth Franklin hit a home run for me with her comprehensive biography of the amazing Shirley Jackson. If you’re a fan of Shirley’s work, this is a must read. After reading this, I am more enamored with Shirley than I already was. She went against the grain in so many ways, and it was a pleasure to step into her world.

Franklin was granted access to many fascinating letters written by Shirley and her husband Stanley, which provided a truly intimate reading experience. Through the correspondence, we gain insight into their rocky marriage, as well as Shirley’s tenuous relationship with her mother, Geraldine. Reading this biography allows for a deeper understanding of many of Shirley’s works – whether it be humour or horror, Shirley wrote what she knew.

One of my favourite parts of the book comes in a discussion about Shirley’s humerous book about raising her children, Life Among the Savages. Franklin goes on to illustrate how much Shirley’s kids loved this book, displaying the book jacket in their kitchen and endearingly dubbing it Life Among the Cabbages.

Shirley was a woman who struggled greatly in her short life. She struggled with her relationships to her husband and mother, with her weight, financially, with household tasks, with her role was a working mother, and with her eventual agoraphobia. As a mother who works outside of the house in an anxiety ridden and fast paced world, I can relate to many of these challenges.

This is a detailed biography that does sway from the narrative at times, but I found all of those moments to be worthwhile. This book has a well deserved place alongside of Shirley’s on my shelves.

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BOOK REVIEW | And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
First, there were ten – a curious assortment of strangers summoned as weekend guests to a private island off the coast of Devon. Their host, an eccentric millionaire unknown to all of them, is nowhere to be found. All that the guests have in common is a wicked past they’re unwilling to reveal – and a secret that will seal their fate. For each has been marked for murder. One by one they fall prey. Before the weekend is out, there will be none. And only the dead are above suspicion.

My thoughts:
This won’t be so much of a review, rather a reflection on how incredibly fun this book was to read! This was my first Agatha Christie, and I can’t wait to dig further into her collection.

And Then There Were None is a classic whodunit murder mystery with some interesting psychological twists thrown in. This is the story of 10 individuals who have been invited out to Soldier Island as private guests for the weekend. We quickly discover that whoever has summoned them to the island has a sinister plan in mind; following along with the eerie poem “Ten Little Soldiers”, the guests begin to die, one by one. The guests naturally begin to suspect each other, and tension builds as their numbers dwindle. Before long there are only two left, and the reader is left to make assumptions about who the killer is. The final revelations at the denouement had me flipping back to see what I had missed! This is a book I will definitely re-read over and over again in the future.

Christie’s narration is fast-paced and provides only the necessary amount of backstory to move the the plot along. She’s witty and straight to the point, and I can see how greatly she influenced the mystery genre. I’m currently reading Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin, so I’ve got Shirley on the brain these days! While Reading ATTWN, I immediately drew comparisons to Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: in each work, a group of individuals are sent letters and invited somewhere a bit mysterious, and – mild spoiler alert – they are both essentially works concerned with psychology. I’d love to go deeper into these topics, but that might be something for a future blog post.

In short – I absolutely loved this book. If you’re a fan mystery or crime fiction do yourself a favor and pick this up right away!

BOOK REVIEW | We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

My thoughts:
I can’t help it when people are frightened; I always want to frighten them more. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is my second Shirley Jackson read, the first being The Haunting of Hill House, and I am completely sold. Jackson is an absolute master of atmosphere – her books are creepy, and I mean that as a huge compliment. I felt incredibly uneasy while reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle; I love the slow burning tension and the look into Merricat’s thoughts. Reading this book has made me that much more interested in Jackson herself – she writes about women who are descending into madness, and I have to wonder where that inspiration came from. I may pick up Ruth Franklin’s new biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life to learn more about the woman behind the books.

If you’re looking for an atmospheric and unsettling read for October do not hesitate to pick this up!