Read Just an Ordinary Day by Shirley Jackson Free Online
Book Title: Just an Ordinary Day|
The author of the book: Shirley Jackson
Date of issue: December 1st 1996
ISBN 13: 9780553103038
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 2.42 MB
Read full description of the books Just an Ordinary Day:IT'S A LONG REVIEW FOLKS, BUT WORTH IT!
What a fascinating collection! Perhaps not a good choice for an idle reader of Jackson looking for something to chew on after "The Lottery" (that choice would be The Lottery: Adventures of the Demon Lover or possibly The Magic of Shirley Jackson - I have not read the latter) but for those who have commenced through the superb The Haunting of Hill House and the wondrous We Have Always Lived in the Castle and are wondering what to read next - here's a solid option. And the interesting thing is that it will give you both what you *want* out of Jackson while also challenging your perceptions of her as a writer... and how you take that challenge will depend on your tastes.
The concept is fairly easy - this is half a collection of Jackson's short fiction that has previously been uncollected, and half a collection drawn from a box of manuscripts discovered after her death. And that's where the really interesting part comes in - what are these pieces? Juvenilia? In at least once case, certainly. But they also comprise experiments and rough drafts and unpolished texts and almost certainly works intended to be returned to but abandoned. To some, this will make half the book less than worthwhile but such a dismissive attitude will seriously undermine your enjoyment. If you're interested in a great writer's works, or are a writer yourself, you can certainly gain quite a bit by reading these texts - and make no mistake, they are all complete texts (well, one actually is thoroughly undeveloped but still "whole", if you get my meaning) - and gain respect for Jackson's talent and scope.
The most productive way to group these stories for review (and, yes, I'm going to review them all, as is my wont - it will be long) is into two tones - The Light and The Dark - and this itself is generally informative because it's good to be reminded (unless one has read Raising Demons or Life Among the Savages) that Jackson was not a "horror" writer but instead was a lit writer with interests that embraced both sides of the human equation. And she was a working short fiction writer who wrote stories to sell to magazines. So, again, if you think you'd only be interested in Jackson's dark work here, well... this review can serve as a guide and that's your prerogative, but you'll be missing the opportunity to read a top writer in solid control of her craft turning out some funny and powerful work that will broaden your conception of writing. Not all of it is successful of course, but that's why I write these reviews. Among Jackson's strengths was her economy of words and observation skills, her "sharpness" (for lack of a better word) - and the weaker of the abandoned texts are work that hasn't been properly stropped to a fine edge yet, or whose focus is unclear and undeveloped (and occasionally, so cut back as to be a little too spare on story hooks).
So let's start with The Light. Jackson had obvious interests/concerns/themes as a writer that she repeatedly made her focus. Men and women and their relationships, boys and girls and how their minds develop, family dynamics, social status and interpersonal interactions and class - these are themes that turn up again and again. And these are usually subtly explored in a number of ways from differing viewpoints. Sometimes out-and-out comedy, sometime wry neutrality or charming tale-spinning. Quite a number of them were written for, and published in, women's magazines of the time like "Mademoiselle", "Woman's Home Companion" and "Good Housekeeping".
As I said, not everything here is excellent - even with the caveat framing of half being abandoned texts. So let's get those out of the way first. "When Barry Was Seven" is the only throw-away here - essentially a humorous transcript of a discussion about books and reading between Jackson and her husband and their young son - it reads like placeholder notes for Raising Demons. "I Don't Kiss Strangers" seems an early experiment in sharpening Jackson's dialogue skills and centers on a break-up between a college-age couple. In "The Very Hot Sun In Bermuda" a flirty college girl has an extended discussion with the married painter she's having an affair with. I'm guessing the point is the contrast between the passionate devotion of painter (who will likely have his marriage destroyed and lose his children) and the girl's treatment of the whole thing as a romantic lark (likely pursued to gain her an easy painting for her art class that she can pass off as her own work). But that's me guessing. "Deck The Halls" seems to be about class consciousness and a good deed performed on Christmas Eve. Fine but bland, as there's no conflict or real humor, rather Hallmark-card-y. "On The House" is something like a Raymond Carver piece - a blind man and his young wife scam a liquor store cashier out of some money - perhaps it was an experiment in a different approach (although this was a published piece) but it didn't work for me. "Little Old Lady In Great Need" is somewhat similar to the preceding story - set during the war-rationing years it has a very proper, upper class great-grandmother instruct her young daughter on how a real Lady *should* and *shouldn't* behave as she bargains a butcher out of the only piece of meat he has in the shop, his own evening's steak. Okay but nothing to write home about. "Alone In A Den Of Cubs" is a light domestic comedy about being Den-mother to a Cub Scout troop and observations on how young boys' minds work. Again, pretty slight but not unenjoyable. "The Omen" reuses elements from some darker tales (leaving your life to chance and a random encounter with a street advertising campaign) and tells of a woman, faced with a matrimonial problem, who decides to use a randomly acquired list of strange notations to drive her movements and thus let fate answer the question. Light, cute, thin.
On a slightly better (if still somewhat problematic) level are stories like: "Party Of Boys" which is similar to "Cubs" - as it has a suburban mother put in charge of a gaggle of young kids she must wrangle (and thus puts it in the orbit of Life Among the Savages) - but adds a level of subtle but pointed class observation as the mom discovers that the town ne're-do-well shares her son's birthday (and nobody is going to throw that juvenile delinquent a party!). Funny and well done. "The Sister" is a bit like a humorous, barbed, drawing-room sketch by Saki as an adult brother and sister (she marrying below her station, he secretly married below his station) wrangle in the family dynamic. Cute. "Portrait" is one of those pieces that someone else will have to decipher for me as it's another experiment - little scenes interspersed with lines from a poem or song. Possibly of interest for fans of Merricat (from We Have Always Lived in the Castle) with the line "they want me to comb my hair". "Gnarly, The King Of The Jungle" is an odd story about a spoiled young girl who uses her extra-special birthday present as an intermediary to take petty revenge on the put-upon housemaid. More class concerns, certainly, but it's hard to see the point as nothing more than "spoiled little girls can be cruel", unless it's more subtle than I'm giving it credit for and went right over my head. "My Recollections Of S.B. Fairchild" is a domestic comedy written in a dry, droll, understated way - a record of the purchase of a tape-recorder (a big ticket item at the time) that subsequently breaks and how department store bureaucracy sets in motion a domino chain of frustrating correspondence. Funny. "My Uncle In The Garden" is a cute modern fable involving a visit to the country cottage of two doddering, somewhat cantankerous relatives, one of whom has made an unthoughtful, if minor, deal with the Devil (who seems a rather understanding chap, although he never appears in the story proper). If the final payoff of the plot of "Mrs. Melville Makes A Purchase" is familiar as a well-circulated urban legend, the execution is excellent (although, second caveat, perhaps a bit too long) and it contains some very funny writing as a stuffy, fussy, wealthy woman goes shopping among the lesser folk. Some awful members of the literati congregate during the imminent death of a literary giant in the acidic "A Great Voice Stilled" but they're all more concerned with themselves - nice social observation and wry comedy.
There are a number of good solid "Light" stories as well. The first of the previously unknown pieces, "The Smoking Room", is a fun deal-with-the-Devil story in which a smart young college girl outwits Old Nick (yet again) with some legal chicanery. "Summer Afternoon" shows Jackson's mastery of evoking the mindset of children as two little girls tour the neighborhood - the interesting thing about this story is that it just might be a very, very subtle ghost story as well! "Indians Live In Tents" is similar to "Fairchild" above - an epistolary tale, this one charting the cause-and-effect relations between a group of unrelated people leasing and subleasing rooms and furniture from each other - funny and an interesting window into how people got on with the process of living at a certain moment in time. "Dinner For A Gentleman" and "Family Magician" are similar stories, both frothy domestic comedies somewhat like Mary Poppins or Thorne Smith's work but with household magic themes (and presaging popular versions of the same, like I DREAM OF JEANNIE, BEWITCHED and NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR). In the first a young woman gets magical help in preparing a meal for an eligible suitor and in the second a fatherless family has a wonderfully magical maid enter their lives. Charming. The equally funny "Arch Criminal" is a somewhat more savage take on DENNIS THE MENACE, specifically about how mothers can be completely blind to their son's less than wholesome qualities when they've got criminal mischief and false repentance down to an art. One of the nice aspects of a story like "Come To The Fair" is that since Jackson gets dark writing about women on the route to spinsterhood, an unexpected upbeat ending gives you a splendid surprise - and this piece about a lonely, middle-aged teacher being forced into reading fortunes at the community charity fair (and discovering hidden talents in herself and being rewarded for it by fate) is very nice indeed. "My Grandmother And The World Of Cats" is also interesting in this respect - another cute domestic comedy about an old lady's problematic relationship with the long list of felines in her life, it ends on an oddly serious and possibly even dark note with just one turn of phrase. "Maybe It Was The Car" should be read by all women who are both mothers and writers as it sketches out a probably very familiar instinct that takes hold of you when you just need to escape your domestic role and inject a little creative adventure into your life. "The Wishing Dime" is about exactly that item and what two little girls do with it - Jackson has a real talent for capturing small details of family and domestic life and dialogue, which also comes out in "About Two Nice People", where mistiming and unfortunate minor circumstances can bring two people together in something resembling anger but which turns out to be love. "I.O.U." has an attempt by an old women to work out a debt with some small children over a destroyed garden blossom into a whole new commerce system in a small town - one that grows exponentially and brings the community together - very nice! "The Most Wonderful Thing", on the other hand, is both human and profoundly sad, as two women (one middle-aged and one young) share a hospital room together because of birthing problems. This story also has an extremely wonderful small moment near its end involving the room nurse that I greatly appreciated.
Jackson dabbles with the supernatural in "The Very Strange House Next Door" (aka "Strangers In Town") which has a subtly Addams Family-esque household (or perhaps they're related to Bradbury's "Elliots") move into a conservative little New England town. The maid acts strangely (on top of the family even *having* a maid - which is shocking in itself), the family has odd furniture, they're vegetarians and maybe their cat talks as well. Such benign and innocuous strangeness cannot stand and the blue-blooded biddies of the hypocritical gossip committee soon get to work driving wonder out of the town. Charming, but the small-town venom is so stingingly drawn it burns a bit.
The best story on the "Light" side here is undoubtedly "Journey With A Lady". A nine-year-old boy makes his first train trip by himself and ends up talking to, and unexpectedly helping out, an interesting lady with a secret. Charming, compact, with the usual excellent eye for children's dialogue and thought processes, this story deserves to be better known.
And then there's "The Dark" side of Shirley Jackson's short fiction. It's undeniable that Jackson's problems with depression and melancholia informed her work, as did her fascination with social and familial dynamics. Hypocrisy and resentment also recur again and again. She seems fascinated not just by men and women but why men kill women, and why women kill men and why lovers kill each other and why people kill strangers and why humans hurt each other in cruel ways. And she couldn't stop herself writing about it, sometimes in painfully honest psychological detail and sometimes in odd bemusement.
The weakest of these stories are experiments in other forms. "Devil Of A Tale" is a flash-fiction like parable about a deal between The Devil and a woman that will produce an heir for the Prince of Darkness. Despite her cagey planning, though, the woman's plans are undone by the simple truth that some sons just don't love their mothers. Slight. "Lord Of The Castle" shows Jackson experimenting with the Gothic style (which she obviously liked reading) but all that this story (about a a noblemen burned at the stake, his vengeful son, a previously unknown brother, the castle on the hill and some Satanic rituals) proves is that Gothics do not work when stripped back into Jackson's terse style. An interesting, oddly bloodless failure.
"The Mouse" has a husband's life run by his domineering wife until their new abode proves to have problems with vermin - nothing really changes except his realization of just how cruel his spouse is. Unremarkable but it has some nice dialogue work. "Before Autumn" is one of those Jackson stories that is *so* stripped back that you finish it wondering if you've missed the point (perhaps indicative of why it ended up in a box) - what we initially take as a woman planning an affair with a teenage handyman may actually be her plotting her husband's indirect murder. An interesting idea, imperfectly executed. The most surprisingly uneven story here is "The Missing Girl", something I've been looking forward to reading since I'd heard it was inspired by the real world disappearance of a Bennington, Vermont student in 1946 (see here) which also inspired Jackson's novel Hangsaman, which I haven't read. Reset to a girl's summer camp, "Missing" has an oddly absurd and comic tone on the surface (all the counselors and troops are named after various fairy tale and children's story characters) but underneath is a recurrent dark and bleak Jackson theme - the girl/woman who left so little impression on those around her that she seems to have barely existed at all (see also Eleanor Vance from The Haunting of Hill House). It's not a bad story, just not what I was expecting and a bit underwhelming.
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Read information about the authorShirley Jackson was an influential American author. A popular writer in her time, her work has received increasing attention from literary critics in recent years. She has influenced such writers as Stephen King, Nigel Kneale, and Richard Matheson.
She is best known for her dystopian short story, "The Lottery" (1948), which suggests there is a deeply unsettling underside to bucolic, smalltown America. In her critical biography of Shirley Jackson, Lenemaja Friedman notes that when Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" was published in the June 28, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, it received a response that "no New Yorker story had ever received." Hundreds of letters poured in that were characterized by, as Jackson put it, "bewilderment, speculation and old-fashioned abuse."
Jackson's husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, wrote in his preface to a posthumous anthology of her work that "she consistently refused to be interviewed, to explain or promote her work in any fashion, or to take public stands and be the pundit of the Sunday supplements. She believed that her books would speak for her clearly enough over the years." Hyman insisted the darker aspects of Jackson's works were not, as some critics claimed, the product of "personal, even neurotic, fantasies", but that Jackson intended, as "a sensitive and faithful anatomy of our times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the Bomb", to mirror humanity's Cold War-era fears. Jackson may even have taken pleasure in the subversive impact of her work, as revealed by Hyman's statement that she "was always proud that the Union of South Africa banned The Lottery', and she felt that they at least understood the story".
In 1965, Jackson died of heart failure in her sleep, at her home in North Bennington Vermont, at the age of 48.
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