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

Ann Harding: Cinema’s Gallant Lady by Scott O’Brien

Title: Ann Harding: Cinema’s Gallant Lady
Author: Scott O’Brien
Format: PDF transferred to my Kindle Fire
Year Published: 2010
Source: I was sent this book by the publisher for review. 

Several years ago I read Scott O’Brien’s excellent biography of Kay Francis, so I couldn’t wait to read his book on Ann Harding. I wasn’t disappointed. Ann Harding: Cinema’s Gallant Lady is an excellent and extensively researched book about the film and stage star Ann Harding.

Harding grew up a military “brat” and ended up working on the stage, where she was an immediate success, due to her natural talent and beauty. This caused a rift with her father, Brigadier General Gatley, who did not approve of her career choice. Eventually she ended up in Hollywood.

Harding was one of the biggest stars of films in the early 1930s during the post-talkie, Pre-Code era, but she is little known today except by devoted fans of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Many of her movie roles were of the noble, self-sacrificing type, and she quickly became typecast in that kind of role. She was famous for her patrician beauty, throaty voice, and long blonde hair.

 
Here is Harding in one of her films, with the wonderful Myrna Loy and Leslie Howard:


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She wasn’t frivolous, but an intelligent, mature actress. She spent much of her time honing her skills on the stage, especially “little theater.” It is clear that O’Brien respects Harding as a fine actress. She had a common-sense approach to her career, too, not worrying about her status or whether she was still a “star” or a romantic lead. She was acting because she enjoyed acting. Being a “star” meant little to her.

Much of the book is consumed with describing Harding’s career on film and stage. Each film is thoroughly reviewed. There is some discussion of her personal life, however. Despite her genteel image, Harding did have a difficult private life. She had affairs with married men, suffered through two failed marriages, a custody battle with her first husband, and eventually a distant relationship with her daughter.

She seems to have cut herself off from many of her friends and even her natural daughter as she aged. Inexplicably, she seems to have “adopted” a grown woman in her later years. However, she seems to have escaped the real tragedies that have beset other Hollywood actors from the same era.

If you are a fan of Ann Harding or the stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, I highly recommend that you read this book. You can order this book by clicking the badge below!

Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels by Michael G. Ankerich

Title: Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen
Author: Michael G. Ankerich
Format: PDF transferred to my Kindle Fire
Year Published: 2011
Source: I was sent this book by the publisher for review. 

Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen tells the mostly tragic stories of now-forgotten actresses of the silent film era. 


The actresses included in the book are: Agnes Ayres, Olive Borden, Grace Darmond, Elinor Fair, Juanita Hansen, Wanda Hawley, Natalie Joyce, Barbara La Marr, Martha Mansfield, Mary Nolan, Marie Prevost, Lucille Ricksen, Eve Southern, and Alberta Vaughn. 

Each actress gets a chapter devoted solely to her. I’ve read about some of these actresses before (Ayres, Prevost, La Marr), but some of them I had never heard of before (Hawley, Ricksen). 

I found it fascinating to find out what happened to these women. Most silent actors faced a unique dilemma, because during the last years of the 1920s Hollywood began transitioning away from silent films to “talkies.” Some actors struggled to adapt to talking pictures, whether because of a poor voice or bad acting technique. 

Then the stock market crashed right during that transition, and some of these women, through no fault of their own, were wiped out financially. Some of them struggled with drug or alcohol addictions, and some suffered from untreated mental illnesses, at a time when these conditions were little understood and there were no proper treatment programs. When their careers crashed, their stocks failed, their youth and beauty started fading and they lost their stardom, they were left broke and unemployed. 

Others were simply incredibly unlucky, and a couple of the actresses profiled in this book managed to have somewhat normal lives after their fame faded away. Some of these are unbearably tragic and hard to read. It is actually sadder to read about the ones who weren’t self-destructive and died through no fault of their own – Martha Mansfield was killed in a horrifying fire, and little Lucille Ricksen died at age 14, possibly from tuberculosis. 

I’m glad that Michael Ankerich wrote this book and really glad that he chose some silent movie actresses that have been neglected by other authors. There have been plenty of books and articles written about Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson, for example. It is about time these actresses get their due. If you are a silent film fan, I heartily recommend this book. 

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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: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Title: Me Before You 
Author: Jojo Moyes 
Format: Kindle 
Year Published: 2012 
Source: I purchased this book. 

Jojo Moyes’ novel Me Before You has been labeled a romance novel or chick-lit. 

However, the book tackles some very serious issues: What if your life is irreparably changed in an instant? What if you suddenly have no control over any aspect of your life? 

Louisa Clark gets a job as a caregiver for a quadriplegic, Will Traynor. Will was a man who lived big – he was a financial wheeler-dealer, he climbed mountains, jumped out of planes, and loved traveling the world. All that changed when he was hit by a speeding motorcycle and his life was changed forever. 


At first Will and Louisa don’t like each other. Will is understandably bitter – the former daredevil now only has very limited use of one arm. He needs care 24/7 and is completely dependent upon others.

Will was a corporate type and Louisa is more of a free spirit, at least in the way outrageous ways she wears clothes, but is far more careful in her personal life where she prefers things to be simple and safe, due to a traumatizing personal incident that happened years earlier. 

But as they get to know each other, Will and Louisa learn to understand each other more than they thought they would. Will is intrigued by her kooky dress sense and her warm spirit. Louisa gets to know the charming, playful side of Will that he rarely displays to anyone anymore. They grow to care for each other and depend on each other. But is it enough? 

What I Liked: Even though the subject matter is so sad, I thought that the book was well written and was completely immersed in it right from the start. I was curious to see how the book ended. I liked Louisa very much – she’s spunky and fun, but she does need to expand her horizons. 

What I Didn’t Like: At first I didn’t like Will very much. He is very, very bitter, which is completely understandable in his case. He has made a certain decision that will not be changed by anyone else. He also never really tells her how he really feels until the very end. 

His mother is rather cold, but that may just be her way of handling trauma. We all have different ways of handling stress and tragedy in our lives, and that just may be her way.

Also, as some feminists have pointed out, why does Louisa need a male figure to expand her horizons for her? Can’t she do it herself? 

However, because of the dark incident in Louisa’s past, she needs to learn to get past that fear and learn to live again – to live big. Will helps her to do just that.

Conclusion: I believe that this book is worth reading. It does raise serious issues that need to be discussed, which is why I believe this book is a favorite of book clubs.

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: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Title: The Devil in the White City 
Author: Erik Larson 
Genre: Non-Fiction 
Format: Audiobook 
Year Published: 2003
Source: I purchased this audiobook

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America is Erik Larson’s account of The world’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893. There are so many intersecting storylines that happened during that unusual event – including a serial killer who lurked in Chicago at that time.

So many events coincided with each other – The World’s Fair was a difficult project to bring off for the architect Daniel Burnham. The project included construction of many temporary buildings – “The White City” – and included the first Ferris Wheel.

Also part of the story is the first modern serial killer in H.H. Holmes, the killing of Chicago’s mayor by an assassin in the last days of the Fair, and a deep economic depression (The Panic of ’93). 


H.H. Holmes, a trained doctor, apparently committed between 27 and 200 murders during this time period. He even built a special hotel for his victims, including a gas chamber and crematorium! Holmes’ crimes are quite gruesome and very sad. We will never know how many victims he had. Larson really makes you feel as if you know the victims (most of whom were women, but some were men and he even killed children).

I never got around to reading this book, but listened to the audio version of the book on a long trip. It is interesting to realize how different it is listening to the book, since I find reading so visual. It was a little confusing at first, because the narrative jumps around to many different characters, and I had to keep them clear in my head (in a physical book it is easier).

Tony Goldwyn has a fine speaking voice and his narration is excellent. Larson’s story is well done considering how many different personalities are involved. It is indeed amazing how so many events happened concurrently. Larson did an excellent job explaining the complicated sequences of events as they occurred.

Book Review: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Title: Brain on Fire 
Author: Susannah Cahalan 
Genre: Non-Fiction 
Format: Kindle 
Year Published: 2012
Source: I purchased this book

Brain on Fire, Susannah Cahalan’s memoir of her difficult struggle with a mystery illness, is a fascinating exploration of medicine and survival.

Cahalan was a 24-year-old reporter for the New York Post. She had it all: youth, talent, love, and the beginning of a terrific journalism career. Then she suddenly started to act strangely. She was convinced her apartment was filled with bedbugs, the colors surrounding her became garishly bright, and she became paranoid. This started affecting her work and her personal life.

Diagnosed by one doctor as suffering the effects of too much partying, and by other doctors as suffering from a sudden and severe mental illness, it wasn’t until she started suffering violent seizures that she was hospitalized.


During the month that followed, as the doctors tried desperately to figure out exactly what was wrong with her, Cahalan became increasingly more ill.

She spent the month in the hospital, where she was occasionally caught on camera.

After more than $1,000,000 in medical tests, a very simple exam finally came up with a solution. She was suffering from a very rare malady.

After she made her slow process towards recovery, Cahalan decided to explore her lost month. There were some videos that the hospital camera captured, and they were hard for her to watch. She looks totally frightened and lost in those videos. Watching herself on video was like watching a stranger. She also interviewed her doctors and friends and family, because she has few memories of that time in the hospital.


She also may have saved some lives:


It is an excellent combination of medical mystery and reportage. I found this book fascinating and well written, and have already read it at least twice!

Book Review: Love Saves the Day by Gwen Cooper

Title: Love Saves the Day
Author: Gwen Cooper
Genre: Fiction
Format: Kindle
Year Published: 2013
Source: I purchased this book

Gwen Cooper wrote the charming memoir about her amazing blind cat Homer. I reviewed it here.

She has since written a novel about a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship and about the cat that brings them together, but only after the death of the mother.Love Saves the Day tells the story of a mother, Sarah, who raised her daughter in New York’s then-shabby Alphabet City in the 1980s.

Sarah runs a record shop with only the coolest records, and the daughter, Laura, grew up in an area where the odd was normal. She was surrounded by rockers, druggies, and prostitutes.


A series of traumatic events happen in Laura’s childhood that changes her perception of her mother forever. Laura is bitter over things she believed her mother did or didn’t do. When Sarah dies, she leaves behind Prudence, her loyal and smart cat. Laura, now a successful lawyer, is going through her mother’s things and must take Prudence home to share her apartment with her husband, Josh.

The novel in alternating chapters is sometimes in Prudence’s voice (yes!), sometimes in Laura’s, and sometimes in Sarah’s. In Prudence’s chapters, you get a cat’s-eye view of the situation. She doesn’t understand that Sarah is dead. She keeps waiting for her to come home. It is touching because Prudence cannot figure out where Sarah is! It takes her quite awhile to realize that Sarah is never coming back.

To Prudence, Laura is just another cat, and not a particularly affectionate one. Prudence is very upset being in Laura’s apartment because she instinctively feels that Laura does not want her there. Laura does associate Prudence with all her bad feelings about her mother.

At first it was odd to read some of the chapters in the cat’s voice, but I actually found it touching and poignant.  Laura may not come across as particularly likable at first, but her childhood was so fractured that you come to understand why she is the way she is. She has a fine career and is a fully functioning member of society.

Prudence just doesn’t understand why Sarah never comes home!  Cooper has a deep understanding of cats. Like her, I firmly believe that cats can be very wise.

Why is she now living in Laura’s apartment? Where is Sarah? Because of Prudence, Laura finally learns to come to grips with her complicated relationship with her mother. Prudence’s innocent love does, indeed, save the day.

You will both laugh and cry reading this book, and Prudence will steal your heart!