Sunday, September 9, 2012

Just an Ordinary Day

Just an Ordinary Day, by Shirley Jackson

Publisher's Blurb:
The stories in this edition represent the great diversity of her work, from humor to her shocking explorations of the human psyche. The tales range, chronologically, from the writings of her college days and residence in Greenwich Village in the early 1940s, to the unforgettably chilling stories from the period just before her death. They provide an exciting overview of the evolution of her craft through a progression of forms and styles, and add significantly to the body of her published work.

Just an Ordinary Day is a testament to how large a talent Shirley Jackson had and to the depth, breadth, and complexity of her writing. Though this remarkable literary life was cut short, Jackson clearly established a unique voice that has won a permanent place in the canon of outstanding American literature, and remains a powerful influence on generations of readers and writers.

My Opinion:
Most of the reviews I looked at before starting this collection indicated that the short stories are extremely uneven in quality.  I have to agree, though it's only to be expected.  (Remember, many of these were never published in Jackson's lifetime, and very likely she herself considered them lacking.)  Some of the stories were quite good; others were merely passable; some were downright dull.  Though I think there were a few exceptions, most of my favorites were her published "creepy" tales.  (See below for specifics.)

Before reading this book, I'd been on the look-out for Jackson's memoirs of her young family's life (Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons).  However, after having read the stories/essays in this collection that seem to have been based on/inspired by her family, I'm much less enthusiastic.  Maybe the full, polished memoirs are better than these previously unpublished snippets, but if not, count me out.  In general, I found the children in all these stories to be just plain annoying.  Horrid, disrespectful little brats, in other words.  (No holding back, now!) 


Well.  So, was it worth the read?  Yes, but only for the sake of relatively few of the stories.  Still, there were enough good ones to interest me in locating copies of Jackson's previously collected (and apparently stronger) short stories.  Autumn's coming, and it's the perfect time to read some creepy short stories.

(And by "Specifics" I mean quick notes I jotted down after reading each story...)

"I Don't Kiss Strangers"
Weird.  Don't really get it... Would she act that way if he were dying?

"Summer Afternoon"
Odd.  Spooky, but doesn't really go anywhere.

"Indians Live in Tents"
Odd.  Seemed like some dystopian future with very limited housing... but in the end, I guess it's meant as comedy.

"The Very Hot Sun in Bermuda"
A charming tale of a b***h of a college student and the art professor who finds her so captivating that he cheats on his wife (with whom he has kids).  Lovely.

Unsettling... Twilight Zone-ish.  Feels like a hallucination... or a nightmare.  (How surprising, given the title!)  Ending is weird, though.  Not much of an ending at all, really.

"Dinner for a Gentleman"
The name "Dimity Baxter" is oddly familiar...  A kitchen fairytale.   Somewhat "meh".

"Party of Boys"
Laurie (the narrator's son) is obnoxious.

"Jack the Ripper"
Creepy.  The title gives is away somewhat, though.

"The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith"
People in Jackson's stories say "look" or "listen" more than people today really do.  A sign of the times in which she lived?  Weirdly anticlimactic story.

"The Sister"
Odd.  Supposed to be funny, maybe... (But obviously it wasn't that successful with me.)

If this is based on her real family... I'm sorry, but I can't stand her son, Laurie.  What a rotten kid!  This makes me glad I don't have kids, honestly, though I'd hope that my own kids wouldn't much resemble the children in these stories...  Blugh.

"Mrs. Anderson"
Weird.  Interesting idea, but weird.

"Come to the Fair"
Pleasant fairytale of happy endings.

Totally bizarre.

"Gnarly the King of the Jungle"
Weird... Another spoiled kid.

"The Good Wife"

"Devil of a Tale"
Bizarre and fablelike... and not in a good way.

"The Mouse"
Is it true that mice will avoid a trap that's already caught a mouse?  I guess it makes sense that they could smell the death... I just never thought about it before.  The story is bizarre.  Did Jackson have something against childless women?  Like we're all unnatural creatures with no maternal instinct whatsoever?  (Ok, so maybe this woman doesn't represent all childless women...)

"My Grandmother and the World of Cats"
Odd and-- well, pointless.

"Maybe It Was the Car"
(No comment, I guess.  (g))

"Lovers Meeting"
Don't really get it...  The point, I mean.

"My Recollections of S.B. Fairchild"
This just makes me really irritated on the narrator's behalf.  And there's no real resolution!!!  ARGH!
"Deck the Halls"
Feels incomplete.  I was sure the girls were running some sort of scam on the whole neighborhood-- or rather that their mother was using them to run a scam.  Who sends her kids out begging for gifts?  If nothing else, wouldn't she go in their place to spare them the experience?  (And if they needed clothes, there are charities that provide free clothing to the truly needy.)  I found a place online where a few people were commenting on this story, and some of them seemed to think that the couple should have given away the teddy bear.  Personally, I don't think so; actually, I think it was very poor behavior for the girl to make a scene about it in the first place.  (I know-- I'm cold and heartless.  Oh well!)  Oh, and five dollars wasn't nothing back when this story was written.  (This story makes me so mad at the mother for sending her kids out begging!)

"Lord of the Castle"
Meh...  Not her finest work, to say the least.

"What a Thought"
One of the stronger of the unpublished works.   I think almost everyone has occasionally had one of those awful random thoughts.  Never anywhere near this insistently, of course-- so don't pack us off to the looney bin, please-- but just the passing, uninvited idea of something horrible that presents itself almost out of the blue...  Horrifying to imagine one that comes and just won't go away.  Sudden madness?  Demonic possession?

"When Barry Was Seven"
A family memory maybe, but not a real story.  Feels like a Peanuts or Family Circle cartoon come to life... or a mash-up of the two.  If her nonfictional books are like this, I'm less interested than I was before...

"Before Autumn"

"The Story We Used to Tell"
Creepy.  Another story about a haunted painting!

"My Uncle in the Garden"
Odd.  No plot, really.  Were the uncles supposed to be... "touched"?  They certainly didn't feel quite normal.

"On the House"
Another weird story that just makes me mad.

"Little Old Lady in Great Need"
Meh.  More characters that make me angry.

"When Things Get Dark"
Don't really get it.  Seems unfinished... Lacking.  (Like many of these stories do.)

"Whistler's Grandmother"
Meh.  Unfinished feeling again.

"Family Magician"
I liked this a lot.  Reminds me of Marry Poppins and other lightly magical children's stories.

"The Wishing Dime"
Too predictable and sickly sweet.

"About Two Nice People"
Ok, but predictable.  Felt like it was supposed to be funnier than it actually was.

"Mrs. Melville Makes a Purchase"
Annoying, frustrating characters and situations... and no real conclusion.  Very unsatisfying.

"Journey with a Lady"
Ok, I guess... It felt odd that we were supposed to sympathize with a thief and a kid who thought a thief was cool.  I half expected her to turn out to be a murderer... push him off the train on the way to the dining car, or something... (g)

"The Most Wonderful Thing"
Meh.  (Not so wonderful, apparently.)

"The Friends"
Very unlikeable, catty people.  If you like "Desperate Housewives", try this!  ;o)

"Alone in a Den of Cubs"
Boooring.  I wonder how much truth/real-life inspiration is in these "family" stories? 

"The Order of Charlotte's Going"
One of the be st in the book, imho.  Awful, of course-- and somewhat predictable-- but interesting.

"One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts"
Odd tale.  Not the ending I expected.  Which is the whole point.  Thought-provoking twist ending.

"The Missing Girl"
What...?  Not sure why even the mother gave up.  Seems unlikely.  Just because she had other kids?  Insufficient explanation.

"The Omen"
Ok.  But nothing amazing.  But fine.  (g)

"A Great Voice Stilled"
Weird and boring.  More awful people that you don't really even love to hate... Awful people that you just don't want to waste your time hating.

"All She Said Was Yes"
Predictable that of course they would disregard Vicky's warning... but still a little creepy.  I expected more of a bang of an ending, though.

They're planning on staying in that house...? Creepy.  They'll never be able to use that road in the rain, I guess...

Fine, but a bit boring by the end.  Could've been shortened.  Again, Jackson's depictions of children make me want to avoid children-- but maybe real kids aren't this sickening?  At least, I don't remember being that bratty and generally infuriating...

"The Possibility of Evil"
Dark, nasty little story.  But in a good way...? ;o)

If you read all my brief reactions to individual stories, one right after another, in one big gulp... it looks like I must have hated 95% of the book.  Not really so.  I'm just more likely to express dissatisfaction right after reading an individual story (possibly with only a small aspect of it), even though looking back at the book, even the ones I thought weren't strong weren't necessarily awful.  

Anyway, here's a list of the stories I remember liking most / finding the most thought-provoking (and would be the most likely to want to re-read):

"Come to the Fair"  (but be warned that it's a non-creepy romance)
"Deck the Halls"  (even though it infuriates me)
"What a Thought"
"The Story We Used to Tell"
"Family Magician"
"The Friends"  (despite the awful people in the story)
"The Order of Charlotte's Going"
"One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts"
"All She Said Was Yes"  (...I guess.)
"The Possibility of Evil"