Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Title: Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
Author: Ruth Franklin
Format: Kindle
Year Published: 2016
Source: I purchased this book. 

Today would have been Shirley Jackson’s 100th birthday, so in honor of that, I will review Ruth Franklin’s biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Jackson’s work has been getting critical re-appraisals in the past few years. Stephen King is a huge fan of her work.

Shirley Jackson was famous for writing about rather dark themes. She came to prominence after her short story “The Lottery” appeared in The New Yorker in 1948 and caused a literary sensation. You can read the story here. Jackson went on to publish such dark novels as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Despite her reputation as a writer with darker themes, Jackson did have a sense of humor and wrote light-hearted accounts of family books, including the very successful Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.

Franklin’s book also details her very complicated marriage to Stanley Hyman, an author, critic, and professor at Bennington College in Vermont. They first met as students at Syracuse University, and they went on to have four children together, but the marriage had troubles. They had a strong emotional attachment, but Hyman could be cruel by flaunting his infidelities. However, he also tremendously respected Jackson’s writing genius.

Later in life she struggled with agoraphobia and a dependency on prescription pills, in addition to being morbidly obese and a heavy smoker, all of which may have led to her premature death of heart failure at age 48.

The only issue I have a problem with is the lack of detail about the pill addiction, although the agoraphobia is given some detail. You do feel that you get to know her and why she wrote the books that she did.

It does help to be very familiar with her books when you read this biography, because each major work is discussed in detail.  For the most part it is an excellent biography.

For more about Shirley Jackson:

Shirley Jackson centenary: a quiet, hidden rage

The Great American Housewife Writer: A Shirley Jackson Primer
A User’s Guide to Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson and the Female Gothic
Shirley Jackson in Love & Death

Don Ameche: The Kenosha Comeback Kid by Ben Ohmart

Title: Don Ameche: The Kenosha Comeback Kid
Author: Ben Ohmart
Format: PDF transferred to my Kindle Fire
Year Published: 2007
Source: I was sent this book by the publisher for review. 

Don Ameche: The Kenosha Comeback Kid  by Ben Ohmart is a thoroughly researched biography of Ameche’s surprising career, which spanned over 60 years and including starring roles in film, radio, theater, and television.

Ameche was a star of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He became famous after his starring role as the inventor of the telephone in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell.” His role in this film made him so famous that people joked “you’re wanted on the Ameche!”

Ameche also was a very big radio star, as well as starring on Broadway and early television. By the late 1970s, however, he was reduced to small parts on big television series. He loved performing, however, and he continued to work in touring theatre companies, out of the spotlight.

Then he made one of the most surprising comebacks in Hollywood history with his delightful performance in Trading Places. He got the part because Ray Milland did not pass the physical that all film companies require, and director John Landis called Ameche to read for the role of Mortimer Duke.

Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd were wonderful in the lead roles, but Ameche and Ralph Bellamy (in my opinion) steal all of their scenes as the nasty Duke brothers. Ameche he went on to star in several more films, winning an Academy Award for his work in Cocoon. He thoroughly enjoyed his career renaissance, and was delighted to win the Oscar.

This biography is interesting because I learned so many things I didn’t know about Don. During the 1980s I saw him interviewed a few times, and it was interesting to read about Ameche’s private life.

There were no scandals, but that does not mean his relationships with his family were not complicated. Don and his wife Honore (“Honey”) had six children, and he was a strict father. Don was constantly busy with his movie and radio work, and rarely home. His sons were sent away to boarding school early, and this also helped to create a somewhat distant relationship with his children. 

Even though he stayed married to his wife from 1932 to her death in 1986 – they spent approximately the last two decades unofficially separated. There are no explanations in the book for why transpired between them, except perhaps basic incompatibility – his wife did not like life in the spotlight, while Don seemed to love it. Don’s devout Catholicism precluded him from getting a divorce. They just lived in different parts of the country and didn’t see each other.

I definitely get the impression from this fine biography that Ameche was a complex man, and that his children really didn’t get to know their strict father, and his real personality remains somewhat elusive.

This book does go into great detail about Ameche’s professional life, including every film and almost every television show he ever did. It is profusely illustrated with wonderful photographs. It is well worth reading if you are a fan.

If you’d like to read this book, click the badge below!

Foxy Lady:The Authorized Biography of Lynn Bari by Jeff Gordon

Title: Foxy Lady: The Authorized Biography of Lynn Bari
Author: Jeff Gordon
Year Published: 2010
Format: PDF transferred to my Kindle Fire
Source: I was sent this book by the publisher for review. 

Lynn Bari was a beautiful, underrated actress of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She made many films, and became a reliable star at Twentieth Century Fox. However, she never really became a top-rank star, despite being intelligent, beautiful with a statuesque figure, and adept at both comedy and drama,

She was known as the “Queen of B Films,” a title she despised. When she did an A film, she typically played “the other woman.” But she had a sense of humor about it: “I’d go from one set to another, shooting people and stealing husbands.” This sense of humor made her popular on her home lot of Twentieth Century Fox.

Jeff Gordon has written a thoroughly researched (more than 500 pages!) biography of Bari: Foxy Lady: The Authorized Biography of Lynn Bari. Gordon analyzes why Bari never became the star big star she should have been: problems with her home life. Lynn was saddled with a difficult, alcoholic mother, haunting memories of her father’s apparent suicide, and her continual poor choices of husbands.

One of the main reasons that this book is so well-done is that the author actually interviewed Bari numerous times for the book, shortly before she died in 1989. He was also able to interview several of her friends and relatives to piece together Lynn’s life and find out the true story of what happened to her.  This access to Bari and other people who knew who is invaluable. The author is also sympathetic and understanding towards his subject, and the book is well-written, with many beautiful photos!

Bari spent the last several years of her life dealing with various personal and medical maladies. Despite her problems, she was good-natured with a wonderful sense of humor, which helped make a difficult time in her life easier.

I highly recommend this book to other fans of Lynn Bari, and fans of The Golden Age of Hollywood.

You can order the book by clicking the link below:

Book Review: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by John O’Dowd

Title: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story 
Author: John O’Dowd
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography, Film
Format: Paperback
Year Published: 2007
Source: I purchased this book.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story by John O’Dowd is the very sad true story of how a beautiful actress who once co-starred with big stars like William Cagney and Gregory Peck ended up as an alcoholic street prostitute on Skid Row.

Barbara Payton seemed to have it all in 1951. She was starring in a film with James Cagney, she had youth and beauty, and she had a string of lovers. She didn’t care what people thought of her, but flaunting her complicated private life in the staid 1950s didn’t win her many supporters in the movie industry. She paid far more attention to her love life than her career, and people in the movie business did not take her seriously.

Here is the trailer for her best film, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, in which she is touted as an emerging star:

Her apparent inability to contain her private life is what did her in. She had a compulsive nature and a perverse wish to destroy herself. Both of her parents were alcoholics, and Barbara’s eventual severe addictions to drugs and alcohol ruined her career and drove her into prostitution on Skid Row and eventually killed her at age 39. She may also have suffered from an undiagnosed mental disorder, which would explain some of her most self-destructive tendencies, in addition to a genetic predisposition to alcoholism.

The book was meticulously researched and well written. The author goes into incredible detail about Barbara’s life. What I like best is that he shows both sides of the story, not just the self-destructive side, and you get to know Barbara had many good qualities, too.

If you are interested in Old Hollywood, you might be very interested in this book. It is extremely well done.

You can read more about the book here

Book Review: Dearie by Bob Spitz

Title: Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child
Author: Bob Spitz
Genre: Biography
Format: Hardcover
Year Published: 2012
Source: I purchased this book.

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child is Bob Spitz’s long but entertaining biography of the woman who transformed the American culinary landscape, in addition to being an important figure in television history.

Julia McWilliams Child was an entertaining character. She didn’t become famous until she was around 50 years ago, but she led an interesting life well before then. Born in Pasadena, California, into wealth and privilege, she attended Smith College, but she still had no idea of what she wanted to do. She had no interest in being a mere housewife and country club matron. Julia was never one to go unnoticed – she was about six feet three inches tall and had a unique, warbling voice, and a great sense of humor. Julia was an original.

Julia had an adventurous spirit and decided during WWII to go to Washington, DC, to work for the government and eventually joined an intelligence agency and went overseas. In Ceylon, she met Paul Child. They eventually married, and theirs was a lifelong and devoted love affair.

Paul was in the foreign service, and they eventually settled in Paris. Julia’s first taste of French cooking changed her life, and she went on to attend the famous cooking school Le Cordon Bleu.

She eventually published Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was a cookbook geared towards Americans to learn how to cook gourmet French food. The book was so popular that she ended up on television to promote the book and was such a success – partly because of unique persona – that she ended up hosting “The French Chef” and various other television programs, most of them on fledgling PBS. More than anyone else, she is responsible for the success of PBS!

The American public immediately fell in love with Julia. If you are not familiar with Julia Child, let me present to you one of her most famous moments: Julia Child and the Chicken Sisters!

Dearie is a very affectionate look at Julia’s life. The author admits in the acknowledgments that he had a powerful crush on her when he met her even though she was around 80 at the time! That said, he doesn’t hesitate to mention some of Julia’s less admirable traits. Fortunately, most people really liked Julia.

The book definitely could have been shorter. Sometimes the author rambles on a bit, but he is also very funny at times. Despite the length of the book (over 500 pages!), the book is very entertaining and an enjoyable read.

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Genre: Non Fiction, History, Biography, Science
Format: Paperback
Year Published: 2010
Source: I purchased this book

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman who died in 1951 at the age of 31 from cervical cancer. She was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where it was discovered that she had an amazingly aggressive tumor and was in agonizing pain. While she lay dying, some of her cells, both healthy and diseased, were extracted from her for further use in research. This was done without her knowledge or permission, or the knowledge of her family. This was actually common procedure at the time. At the time, permission was not required.

Cells from other patients had not worked. Most cells will divide for a certain number of times and then die. But for some reason, Henrietta’s cells were amazingly vital and survived. Her cells were dubbed “HeLa”. HeLa cells were the first human cell line to prove successful in vitro, in test tubes or Petri dishes , which has had profound impact on medical research. For example, Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to test the first polio vaccine. They have also been used in cancer and AIDS research. HeLa cells were dubbed “immortal” because they could be divided an infinite number of times. They still exist, in various forms, today.

Henrietta’s family knew nothing about the HeLa cells until many years later. Here is where the story gets even more complicated: the original doctor, George Gey, seems to have had no bad motives. He was completely dedicated to medicine, and simply wanted the cells for further research. Gey freely donated the cells to other researchers. However, it was other companies who obtained HeLa cells who made money off of products invented because of the cells. Henrietta was forgotten or unknown to most of the scientists and researchers. While some corporations made millions, Henrietta’s family, while proud that her cells have helped countless others, have remained poor.

The whole idea of medical ethics is enormously complicated. Was racism involved? Was it because Henrietta was poor and black? Or was it simply in the interest of science and medicine? What about the companies who benefitted financially from the research? Are cells still harvested today without permission? The answers are not as simple as they may seem.

This book studies medical ethics, family history, racism, and poverty. Author Rebecca Skloot does a fine job in researching and setting forth her arguments. This book was obviously a real labor of love and she is passionately devoted to the subject. Skloot became so involved with the family that she set up a foundation to help them: The Henrietta Lacks Foundation.

If I have any quibbles about this book, it is that it is a bit too long. I did make my husband read the book. It is not at all the sort of book he usually reads, but he is a scientist and he found it fascinating.

I also highly recommend this book. It is not light reading, but it is undeniably intriguing and important.

Henrietta’s cells have helped many scientists and researchers develop new ways of dealing with disease. In this way, Henrietta Lacks has become truly immortal.

Disclosure: I purchased this book.

Book Review: Marie: A True Story by Peter Maas

Title: Marie: A True Story
Author: Peter Maas
Genre: Non Fiction/Crime
Format: Hardcover
Year Published: 1983
Source: I purchased this book.

Peter Maas was famous for his book on Frank Serpico, a whistleblower in the New York City Police Department. He also wrote other fine books about crime. But my favorite is Marie: A True Story.

Marie: A True Story is about Marie Ragghianti, the woman who blew the whistle on the corrupt Tennessee government in the 1970s.
Marie was a former beauty queen and abused wife when she entered Tennessee politics as an extradition officer. Marie eventually became the chairman of the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles when she discovered that criminals were paying politicians for paroles and pardons! If you could pay the price, you would be set free. It didn’t matter if you were a rapist or murderer — the money was what counted.

Marie finally contacted the F.B.I. and showed great courage in fighting against the corruption that she found. Several people were murdered during the course of the investigation, and Marie’s life was in jeopardy. Finally, the governor of Tennessee fired Marie, after setting her up by having her arrested for drunk driving. But Marie fought back, and sued to get her job back.

Peter Maas makes you really understand why Marie was so persistent in fighting corruption and why she just couldn’t look the other way. It makes for gripping reading.

The story of Marie Ragghianti was eventually made into a film starring Sissy Spacek. It is a fine film, although it does fudge the timeline a little bit:

Book Review: Mockingbirds

I have recently re-read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, while also reading the biography Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields. I hadn’t read the novel since high school. I’ve seen the fine film based on the novel, of course, but reading the book again is a different matter altogether. I’d completely forgotten that Harper Lee grew up next door to Truman Capote (then Truman Persons) and that they were great friends. Just before Harper became famous for her novel, she acted as a researcher for Truman’s In Cold Blood. It is truly amazing that such a small town produced two literary giants.

I guess they found each other to be kindred spirits, since both of them were misfits in their tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama. They were different from everyone else. Harper was a rebel in school and at home (I had always assumed that she was shy), and Truman was different because . . . well, he was just Truman! Both of them were profoundly affected by living in Monroeville, and Harper based the town and citizens of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird on the town and citizens of Monroeville. Truman, in fact, was the model for the character of Dill. At least two other distinguished writers, Mark Childress and Cynthia Tucker, grew up in Monroeville. Astonishing!
The novel, of course, is one of the great American novels. There is a reason why it remains so popular today, and why it is taught in many schools in the United States. Shields wrote the biography without Harper Lee’s permission, and therefore it is an unauthorized work. However, he makes a great effort to explore the mystery surrounding the elusive Harper Lee. I found it fascinating. She is not a recluse, she just is tired of answering the same questions over and over. She won’t answer questions about the book, but still shows up to accept various awards.

Harper worked for years on TKAM, and never published another novel. In a way, she reminds me of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind. They were both Southern female writers who had one novel published. Both books became publishing phenomenons and became the best-selling novel of their time (each has sold about 30 million copies!) They both won the Pulitzer Prize. Both never published another novel. Both had ambivalent feelings about their success.

It is obvious that Daniels did a great deal of research for his biography, and one that makes a valuable contribution to the mystery surrounding a great American novel. I found Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee to be a fascinating glimpse of an interesting woman who wrote a timeless novel that is filled with unforgettable characters, empathy, and a deep sense of humor.

Disclosure: I purchased these books.