Review: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

the-lottery-and-other-storiesI love Shirley Jackson; in recent months I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, Hangsaman (review here) and, of course, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I’ve also been familiar with some of her short fiction, having taught The Lottery, Charles and After You, My Dear Alphonse at school for the past few years. I love my students’ responses to these stories, especially The Lottery, as they settle into thinking they know what’s going on, only to be horribly traumatised by the ending. It really makes it worth going to school.

Like Hangsaman, the stories here deal with the boredom and frustration of being a woman in the 1940s, in the desperation of an apparently jilted woman in The Daemon Lover and the existential pain of a precocious but patronised teen in The Intoxicated. I don’t know a huge amount about Jackson’s life (although, once I’ve read all her fiction, I’ll be investing in the recent biography), but it’s easy to view the limited lives of her protagonists as a reflection of her own feelings. Some of the stories are oddly uneventful, like The Villager, in which a woman pretends to be the owner of a home she’s actually visiting to view furniture. I see this uneventfulness as deliberate on Jackson’s part, using stories half told to reflect the lives half lived by women at the time (I thought of that phrase earlier and am embarrassingly pleased with it).

Here, we also see quiet, almost indiscernible battles between women in Trial by Combat, A Fine Old Firm and Flower Garden; women are the centre of all these narratives, and yet are completely isolated in their predicaments, as it clearly isn’t the acceptable thing for any of them to voice their unhappiness. Similarly, Elizabeth shows a woman fighting to keep her place in society, battling against being replaced in her job; although dependent on a man for her career, she’s the most independent of Jackson’s protagonists, and it’s clear how much it costs her emotionally.

Both After You, My Dear Alphonse and Flower Garden show a progressive attitude towards race; the white mother in the former is humiliated by the narrator for her condescending attitudes towards her young son’s black friend, while the latter shows a woman ostracised by her community for daring to treat a black man as a human being. Bearing in mind that these stories were written in the 1940s, Jackson’s themes seem highly modern; while it’s The Lottery that is seen as the controversial one, there’s plenty of other ideas in the collection to be impressed by. The Lottery obviously shocks in its late turn towards ritualistic murder, but other common sinister tropes are on view here too, like creepy children in Charles and The Renegade, in which two young kids gleefully contemplate how their dog might be put down.

I think I’ll have to invest in the Dark Tales collection for more of Jackson’s spooky stories, but there’s real satisfaction to be found here too. There’s so much beneath the surface in Jackson’s writing; the iceberg metaphor often employed to analyse writing is definitely applicable here. If you’ve not read Jackson’s short fiction, do it.

Are you a Shirley Jackson fan too? Or have I convinced you to read her? This would make my day.

Top Ten Tuesday: The Authors I Want to Meet

This week’s TTT, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish as always, is about the authors we’d like to meet. I have a very bad record of making myself look like a tool in front of even vaguely famous people, so I think any conversation I would have with any of these people would be incredibly embarrassing, but I can dream.

Margaret Atwood
Obviously Maggie A is top of this list. The Handmaid’s Tale (as I have mentioned once or twice) is one of my favourite books of all time, and the book and Atwood herself have been huge influences on me since I was 16. I saw her speak a few months ago and she was hilarious, so, if I was able to conquer my famous-person-phobia and actually talk to her, I know it would be amazing.

Alain Mabanckou
I’ve become quite obsessed with Alain Mabanckou this year, reading his novels Broken Glass and Memoirs of a Porcupine, as well as the non-fiction The Lights of Pointe-Noire. His writing just makes him seem like an incredibly interesting person.

Simon Armitage
Any fellow English teachers reading this will instantly nod knowingly and say some variation of “mmm-hmm” because Armitage is the number one heart-throb of our tribe. I have seen him read and discuss his poems but was, unfortunately, in the company of my sixth form class at the time, so was unable to chase him backstage or ask him to sign my underwear.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Obviously, I would love to meet Adichie. I love her books and she’s a really fascinating speaker too. I would perhaps take advantage of this fictional meeting to talk to her about making unfortunate statements about experiences beyond her own too…

Shirley Jackson
Yes, I know she’s dead, but I’m not that likely to meet any of these living writers either, am I? I’m reading my way through all of Jackson’s novels and becoming increasingly fascinated with the writer herself. I have found so many feminist subtexts in her work that I am convinced she was writing about feminism before it was really a thing.  If I bring her back from the dead, I can ask her if I’m right.

Jeff Vandermeer
I have about 7 million questions about the Southern Reach trilogy and only meeting Vandermeer will provide me with the answers I need. Also I could try to persuade him to give me an early copy of his new book and then I would do a happy dance.

Elena Favilli
Favilli is behind the gorgeous Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls which I’ve been reading with my daughter. I’d like to meet her essentially so I can give her an emotional hug and thank her for the small one’s feminist awakening.

Caitlin Moran
There is literally no way that meeting Caitlin Moran wouldn’t be the most fun experience ever. She is hilarious and cool and I feel like she would be a very good role model for me.

Nnedi Okorafor
I’ve read her novellas, Binti and Binti: Home, as well as the novel Who Fears Death, all of which are completely brilliant and fascinating. I’d love the chance to talk to Okorafor about her work; she’s a really unique voice.

Nick Hornby
Another longtime literary idol, I’d love to tell Hornby how much his books have meant to me, especially Fever Pitch and High Fidelity, which phrased so perfectly so much of what I’ve felt about football and music.

If you have met any of these writers, be sensitive about telling me; I might be too jealous to cope. Who made your list this week? Leave me links in the comments.

Tie Your Mother Down: Terrible Mums in Literature

In honour of Mothers’ Day, here’s my lament about rubbish fictional mums again.

Has anyone else noticed that mothers get really bad press in pretty much all forms of literature? From YA to the classics, with plenty of examples in literary fiction, it seems to me that if you’re a character in a book and you decide to have a kid, you are going to end up getting blamed for a lot of crap.

dorothy.jpgLet’s talk about some of the terrible mothers in recent YA fiction. The mothers in Dorothy Must Die and Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls are both drinkers, rendering themselves incapable of caring for their daughters properly; in the case of Danielle Paige’s book, we are two novels and a handful of novellas in, and still unaware of whether Amy Gumm’s mum has noticed that she’s gone. We also have ineffectual mothers, like Mrs Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Jonah’s mum in When We Collided by Emery Lord, both incapacitated…

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Review: Radio Sunrise by Anietie Isong

radio sunrise.jpgThe Premise: Ifiok is a young journalist working for Radio Sunrise, a government-sponsored station in Lagos. He wants to do the right thing but doesn’t really try very hard and, consequently, finds his life beset by complications; from the forced end to his radio drama to the appearance of a young and attractive intern, Ifiok really needs to be a little more morally proactive than he actually is.

Thoughts: Radio Sunrise is a really easy and quick read (under 200 pages), but one which introduces a range of more serious and complex topics. I’ve read a number of books set in Lagos recently, and the idea of corruption seems to be a running theme; as Ifiok makes one stupid decision after another (mainly involving an inability to keep his trousers on), it’s easy to question how much the circumstances that surround him have nurtured this behaviour.

My favourite part of the novel was the later section, when the opportunity to make a documentary about ex-militants takes Ifiok back to his parents’ home, where his lack of a wife is a serious concern. Ifiok’s moral hypocrisy in meeting and judging a woman who seems perfect aside from her mysteriously nice jewellery collection exposes the satirical nature of Isong’s novel, in which cultural ideas are skewered.

In Conclusion: for anyone wishing to read more diversely, Radio Sunrise is a good pick; it’s short but interesting and engaging, and its setting and themes create some nice intersections with other recent novels, like Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos, which came out around the same time. I think the blurb’s description of Radio Sunrise as “hilarious” is pushing it a bit, but it is an entertaining and rewarding read.