Book review of an author you probably don’t know, but should. The late, great Shirley Jackson

Book review of an author you probably don’t know, but should. The late, great Shirley Jackson

Sometimes when I blog on here, I feel like I’m farting into an empty room. But on the off chance that someone is hiding behind a curtain just waiting for a whiff of my verbal diarrhea, I would like to let you know recently I began reading a few books by a really great author. Her name is Shirley Jackson. You might remember her from high school when you were assigned to read her classic short story, The Lottery, in your English Lit class.

Although, I bet your high school teacher didn’t assign the version with this cover.

This summer my Shirley Jackson obsession commenced when I read her book called They Have Always Lived in the Castle. My wife was assigned it for a college class she took on the occult in literature. She became obsessed with it and implored me to read it. Although, I really didn’t need a lot of convincing, because there’s a black cat on the cover. Sold.

How could you not be intrigued by this artwork?

This book is dark, strange, and mysterious. It is hard to explain. Maybe it is sort of like Grey Gardens mixed with The Addams Family? It deals heavily with living in a small town and feeling persecuted for being “other” by the people who live there. From what I’ve read about Shirley Jackson, this theme runs heavily throughout a lot of her books, because it is what she and her family experienced living in a small town in Vermont. According to Wikipedia,

“In his 2006 introduction of the Penguin Classics edition, Jonathan Lethem stated that the recurring town is “pretty well recognizable as North Bennington, Vermont,” where Jackson and her husband, Bennington professor Stanley Edgar Hyman, encountered strong “reflexive anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism.”

I’m creeped out just looking at this book.

Over the weekend, I finished reading The Haunting of Hill House. It was soooo good and also soooo scary! It’s not gory and it does not have gratuitous violence. So if you are a horror fanatic who feels like the Saw movies are so basic, then you probably will not get a kick out of this book. However, if you are like me and love ghost stories and suspense and psychological mysteries, then you will love spending time in Hill House.

Because this book creeped me out so much, I haven’t gone down to the basement to do laundry for a week. I went out and bought new pairs of socks instead. I also got scared reading it while on my treadmill in my apartment. I had propped my Kindle up and was in the middle of a really creepy part when I heard a strange noise that went, “tink, tink, tink…” At first I dismissed my fears figuring I’m just riled up from the book. But then I started descending into paranoia as the “tink, tink, tink” sound continued. It sounded to me like a ghost was sitting right behind me on the floor clipping their toenails. In my mind, I was super scared. Then I realized that a ghost clipping its toenails was probably not the rational conclusion I had decided it was, but more likely the hypothesis of someone (i.e. me) who was ridiculous.

So yeah, the book is creepy. The best part of it is both the inward and outward dialogue of the characters. Everything that is said feels like a clue or a foreshadowing. And the way she writes can sometimes feel like you’re in a world where maybe nothing is real or what it seems to be. It can feel disconcerting, but ultimately intriguing. Like an episode of Arrested Development, I feel like I could go back and re-read this book several times only to find new meanings and insight into what is happening each go round.

Now I’m reading Life Among the Savages. It is a complete 180 from The Hauting of Hill HouseSavages is a comedic memoir about Jackson’s life as a wife and mother.


I’m only up to page 75, but I absolutely LOVE this book already. It has my exact favorite brand of humor. It is dry and droll with an eye for the absurd. The first time I picked it up, I read the first few pages out loud to Coleen and we cracked up laughing. She just captures the personality quirks of people and their weird verbiage and logic perfectly.

Let me put it this way, I LOVE David Sedaris and, so far, this book ranks up there for me in wit and weirdness.

Here are a few quotes:

I took my coffee into the dining room and settled down with the morning paper. A woman in New York had had twins in a taxi. A woman in Ohio had just had her seventeenth child. A twelve-year-old girl in Mexico had given birth to a thirteen-pound boy. The lead article on the woman’s page was about how to adjust the older child to the new baby. I finally found an account of an axe murder on page seventeen, and held my coffee cup up to my face to see if the steam might revive me.
― Shirley JacksonLife Among the Savages

Our house is old, and noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books; we also own assorted beds and tables and chairs and rocking horses and lamps and doll dresses and ship models and paint brushes and literally thousands of socks. This is the way of life my husband and I have fallen into, inadvertently, as though we had fallen into a well and decided that since there was no way out we might as well stay there and set up a chair and a desk and a light of some kind; even though this is our way of life, and the only one we know, it is occasionally bewildering, and perhaps even inexplicable to the sort of person who does not have that swift, accurate conviction that he is going to step on a broken celluloid doll in the dark. I cannot think of a preferable way of life, except one without children and without books, going on soundlessly in an apartment hotel where they do the cleaning for you and send up your meals and all you have to do is lie on a couch and—as I say, I cannot think of a preferable way of life, but then I have had to make a good many compromises, all told.
I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living—sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things—and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves; would we be pleased, I wonder, at a wholesale elimination of these things, so that we were reduced only to necessities (coffeepot, typewriters, the essential little wheels off things) and then—this happening usually in the springtime—I begin throwing things away, and it turns out that although we can live agreeably without the little wheels off things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make new little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.
― Shirley JacksonLife Among the Savages



Girl Power – a book by Marisa Meltzer

Recently I read the book, “Girl Power” by Marisa Meltzer. She basically analyzes all of the most relevant (to her) female artists of the past 2 decades in respect to feminism and how they may, or may not, have been directly or indirectly influenced by riot grrrl having existed.

It was really good. It basically echoed a lot of my thoughts on the state of feminism in music. She talks about riot grrrl a lot of course, but she critiques it too. She doesn’t just praise them. Even though their message was strong and amazing, they had big flaws and they need to be examined. Hopefully, there will be something like it again, but even better.

She wrote a chapter about the Michigan Womyns Festival that was really funny. It poked fun at it but she does also give it props. She also talks about Camp Trans that trans women hold next door. They started Camp Trans when the Michigan Womyn’s festival discovered a tranny in the midst (*gasp!*) and made it decreed that only women born women could attend. So Camp Trans was started as a reaction. Her experience at the camp made me totally wanna go! It may not have huge bands and 1,000 spotless Port-o-johns like Michigan, but it sounds so cute and welcoming of EVERYONE.

On a side note, I love when she talks about Sleater-Kinney, describing their breakup as making her feel like her childhood was officially over. Which is exactly how I felt. It felt like the end of an era to me. Like the 17 year old girl I was, going to see SK in small venues in NYC, wide eyed and in awe of the message and feeling of inclusion, was now officially grown up. It was a weird feeling. And interesting to me to read about someone feeling that very same thing.

She doesn’t just examine underground bands either. She takes a look at bands like Hole, L7, Babes in Toyland, Liz Phair, Alanis Morrissette, The Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Pussycat Dolls, and even Mandy Moore and Miley Cyrus to name a few. And she doesn’t just lambast them all for not being riot grrrl enough. She gives credit where credit is due as well as pointing out flaws and showing how each artist helped further women. Or how maybe Miley Cyrus is ridiculous to us older women, but is a decent role model for younger girls.

She also talks about trends like raunch culture. Like how women will wear stuff like Playboy tee shirts and take pole dancing classes. These things always irked me but I didn’t know how to verbalize it or couldn’t figure out exactly why it bothered me. However, I realized in reading this, that it looks more like women are being duped by that shit rather than women are *owning* something that normally stands for their objectification.

Anyway, I liked that it was a balanced look at many different female artists. Plus she wasn’t all serious either. Spice Girls may be bullshit, but they are a good time for what they are. So long as you don’t take them seriously and just draw the positive from them. All in all, a very good read. It made me feel nostalgic 🙂

As a bonus, here’s 2 clips I found on Youtube of Sleater-Kinney’s last show ever. :*)

This one is one of my favorite songs of all time: