Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates (2010)

One of my book clubs (go DAFFODILS!) recently read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson -- I'd read it before, but I had borrowed the copy, and this time I decided to get serious about my Shirley Jackson love and spring for the lovely, hardcover Library of America edition of her works, Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates (2010). This was not a poor investment.

This jam-packed volume includes Jackson's short story collection, The Lottery, the aforementioned The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (which I'd also borrowed and read before), and a set of other stories and sketches, some published during Jackson's lifetime and others published posthumously by her husband. Topping it all off is a chronology of Jackson's life and notes for all the collected works. I really really liked Jackson when I had previously read these two novels, I'm now a Jackson worshiper after reading her short stories. So amazingly good. Here's the book-by-book run down:

The Lottery (1949)

I'd read the title story from this collection before, like many people, in high school (and possibly again in college). It was just as unsettling as the first time I read it, but its perspective and tone is different from the bulk of Jackson's short stories which tend to be more realistic (although just as biting) and focused on an individual instead of a whole group. Some of my favorites in the collection are the irrepressible "My Life with R.H. Macy," "Elizabeth," "Pillar of Salt," and the extremely creepy horror show that is "The Tooth."

Jackson deals expertly and pointedly with issues of race, domesticity, gender, isolation, and depression. And no one does the creepiness of being an outsider in a small town or a rube in the big city quite like she does.

The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

I reviewed this one earlier here, so I won't rehash what I said before except to add that for some reason the character of the doctor's wife really irked me this time -- I felt like her brash comic relief really derailed the psychological claustrophobia of being in Eleanor's head and could have used a lighter touch. Still, this story is pretty darn excellent.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

And I reviewed this one here. I liked it even more the second time -- this could quite possibly be a perfectly constructed novel.

Other Stories and Sketches (1938-1965)

Some of these are a little lighter than Jackson's other work and are representative of her successful career publishing essays and stories in various magazines. Others, however, are creepier than anything else. I particularly liked "The Summer People," "A Visit," "Louisa, Please Come Home," and the story that gives "The Tooth" a run for its money, "The Bus."

It really doesn't matter where you start with Shirley Jackson, just go ahead and get started. The other day I bought a couple more of her novels, so don't be surprised when you see her around here again. She is quickly moving up to my favorite authors of all time list.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (1853)

The most recent selection for my Debbie Downer book club (where we only read sad and depressing books) was Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (1853). It most definitely fits the parameters of the book club.

Northup had been born a free man and lived with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York. He made a living playing his fiddle and got a lead on a job from two white men with whom he traveled to Washington D.C. While there, he was drugged, put in chains, and sold as a slave. Without any way to get word to his family or friends in New York, he was taken down to New Orleans and then solid to a series of men on a group of plantations in Western Louisiana where he was held in slavery for a dozen years.

The reason we have Northup's memoir and no writings from the many other free men and women who were captured into slavery is because he miraculously got word to New York and, with the help of the Governor and a white man who knew Northup and his family, was recused from the Epps plantation. The promise of a somewhat happy ending made the horrors of the narrative a little more bearable, but Northup doesn't hold back from describing the institution of slavery to his white, Northern audience, and the book made quite an impression when it was first released, particularly for its parallels (and arguments with) the extremely popular Uncle Tom's Cabin, which had been published the year before.

I've read a few slave narratives, and this one is different from what I expect from the genre. Less overtly religious and rhetorical, the fast-reading book sometimes sounds like a novel (characterization, action sequences, foreshadowing) and sometimes as a sociological description of Southern life for the interested northerner.

I haven't seen the movie yet (since I was waiting to finish the book), but if any slave narrative could be made into a compelling modern film, this is the one. I'm very interested to check it out. And you should check this out --since this book is in the public domain, everyone can read it for free! I downloaded a free copy from Google Play and read it on my phone. You can also get it in all kinds of formats here.