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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2016 IN REVIEW | The Best Books I Read This year

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2016 was an amazing reading year for me! I set a goal of reading 50 books, and rounded out the year at 104. I’m a mom of 2 young boys and also work full time outside of the house, so I am very proud of this accomplishment! I read so many incredible books, so it was hard to narrow it down to my top 15. These are books that I am still thinking about months after reading them; they have stuck with me and I will likely read them again in the future. Also, I’m a complete sucker for John Irving and couldn’t pick just 1 🙂 What were your favorite reads of 2016? Here’s to a new year of reading!

 

BOOK REVIEW | The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
This stunning, exquisitely written collection introduces a cast of remarkable characters whose lives intersect in ways both life-affirming and heartbreaking. A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts. In stunning prose, with rich character portraits and a sense of history reverberating into the present, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a captivating work from one of our greatest new talents.

My thoughts:
We’ve given them all we can, but our greatest gift has been to imprint upon them our ordinariness. They may begrudge us, may think us unambitious and narrow-minded, but someday they will realize that what makes them unremarkable is what keeps them alive.

I don’t read too many short story collections, but am so glad that I picked this one up. The Tsar of Love and Techno is a gorgeous, heartbreaking, and hopeful work of art that pulled me deep into it’s world. Marra’s prose is breathtaking and poignant at times (some of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read are in the final pages of this book), and biting and humorous at others.

9 interconnected short stories take the reader on a journey from the 1930’s USSR to present day Russia. Marra brilliantly ties the stories together through both a painting and the atrocities of war. The second to last story,  A Temporary Exhibition, binds the previous stories together, leading to a extraordinarily powerful finale.

This collection is so perfectly crafted that it read more like a novel to me, and I almost want to read this again right away. I’ll leave you with this passage that took gave me pause; I lingered on it, read it three times, and lamented the ending of this book.

The calcium in collarbones I have kissed. The iron in the blood flushing those cheeks. We imprint our intimacies upon atoms born from an explosion so great it still marks the emptiness of space. A shimmer of photons bears the memory across the long dark amnesia. We will be carried too, mysterious particles that we are.