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: 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: The Cat Who Came for Christmas by Cleveland Amory

Title: The Cat Who Came For Christmas Author: Cleveland Amory
Genre: Animals, Memoir
Format: Hardcover
Year Published: 1987
Source: I purchased this book many years ago.

Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came For Christmas is the delightful holiday tale of Amory and his cat, Polar Bear.

It was Christmas Eve 1977 and Amory, a well known Boston Brahmin, society writer, and former TV Guide critic, had established The Fund for Animals, and was deeply involved in animal rights issues.

On a rescue mission, he meets Polar Bear, a stray cat who is living in deplorable conditions. Polar Bear immediately touches his heart in an unusual way. Amory loved all animals, but had never been owned by a cat before – he was a “dog man.”


But that cold Christmas Eve changed all of that. He seems to know instinctively that this small, half-starved creature will be important to him. Amory and Polar Bear were perfect for each other.

The book was a huge bestseller upon its original publication in 1987 and has been republished numerous times, with the most recent edition in October 2013.

The book can also be very funny as Amory tries to see things from a cat’s point of view. It is a sweet story and makes for wonderful Christmas reading.

The book was so popular that Amory wrote two sequels:

The Cat and the Curmudgeon, 1990

and The Best Cat Ever, 1993

Curmudgeon is about the continuing relationship between Amory and Polar Bear, especially after fame has struck.

The Best Cat Ever is actually mostly about Amory’s interesting life and not so much about Polar Bear, although it does have the very sad but inevitable conclusion to their enduring friendship. Amory passed away a few years later in 1998.

Or you can get all three volumes in one book, Cleveland Amory’s  Compleat Cat.

For some reason, these books are not available for Kindle or Nook – yet.

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: All That Is Bitter and Sweet by Ashley Judd

Title: All That Is Bitter and Sweet

Author: Ashley Judd
Genre: Memoir
Format: Kindle
Year Published: 2011
Source: I “borrowed” this Kindle book from www.digitallibrarynj.com through my local library

Ashley Judd’s memoir is not your typical movie star autobiography. She actually hardly discusses her movie career at all. It’s mostly about her traumatic childhood and her adult role as a humanitarian.

Judd discusses her extremely dysfunctional childhood (how many memoirs would there be if people had functional childhoods?) Her mother is Naomi Judd and her older sister is Wynonna Judd. Her mother and sister would sometimes leave her alone for days at a time and Ashley had to fend for herself. Sometimes she would live with her father (her parents were divorced) or with other relatives.


Ashley’s childhood was chaotic and unstable and as a child she never felt that her emotional needs were being met. If she tried to voice her feelings, she was not taken seriously. She also suffered from being molested. She felt marginalized and was made to feel that she was unworthy. From a very early age she suffered from undiagnosed depression.

She was a brilliant student at the University of Kentucky, studying French and women’s issues among other things, and became involved in many humanitarian and feminist causes. She realized that she wanted to be an actress. She also wanted to continue her involvement in humanitarian causes, but didn’t know how she could do both. It turns out that her fame as an actress opened many doors to being involved at an international level.

Her feelings of abandonment and abuse stood her in good stead as a humanitarian. Ashley’s work has focused particularly on the way women are treated around the world, especially in Third World countries. These women have no training or education and live on subsistence levels. Many end up working as sexual slaves. The treatment of women has a direct correlation to the AIDS pandemic in many countries.

Ashley has found a real purpose for her life in humanitarian works, but the bad memories stemming from childhood traumas sent Ashley spiraling into a terrible depression and she finally needed to be hospitalized. She got the help she needed, and she is now a happier person.

She is also a profoundly religious person, and has been inspired by her meetings with people such as Desmond Tutu. Ashley went on to graduate school at Harvard and is continuing her fight for the rights of the the poor and voiceless around the world.

You can also read Ashley’s blog.