Private Demons, The Life of Shirley Jackson

jackson-shirley-family1I just finished reading the 1988 Shirley Jackson biography by Judy Oppenheimer and I am in a trance. It happens often when I read biographies: I lose all sense of myself and become that other person in my head. So I am Shirley Jackson right now, ask me anything about witchcraft, I own thousands of books on the topic.

It is rare these adult days of mine that I enjoy a book so much I am sad when it’s over, but it happened with this biography. It creates such an absorbing world that it becomes painful to disconnect from it.

What I particularly connected to were Shirley Jackson’s struggles as a mother who wrote in her spare time, whatever was left. I understood how she often had to prioritize: kids went with hair uncombed for weeks, they were unsupervised most of the time, the house was very messy, and so on. It is interesting that she is seen as a 50s woman who embraced motherhood and homemaking, when she didn’t actually seem to have been too preoccupied with any of it too much. Yes, she raised four children (well, she died quite young, so they were not all completely raised) and she lived in huge mansions where she did most of the housework, but she seemed to have been quite relaxed about what all those responsibilities entailed. And of course she had to be, because otherwise there would never have been time for any writing.

Most disturbing about this book was the need of the author to mention Shirley Jackson’s weight innumerable times. She was fat, grotesque, huge, not the way people expect a writer to look. Ugh! So upsetting! This is not her legacy. Nobody cares. What I mean, of course, is that nobody would care if she were a man. But a woman cannot just be brilliant, she must be good looking at the same time. Disturbing, to say the least.

Even with such a systemic effort to diminish the greatness of her shadow, the Shirley Jackson brought to life by this book is a memorable, awe-inspiring, cult-following worthy figure.

Now I can’t wait for the Ruth Franklin biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life,  which will be released by the end of this month. Such perfect timing!


DSCF5253 copyI discovered recently, by complete accident, that there is such a genre as “noir fiction.” Just like in the movies. Hello! Of course there is. And of course there are quite a few women authors who do it brilliantly. I’m in heaven! Because sure, cozy mysteries are great to relax with, but darkness is always more fascinating and makes for better literature.

Of course I am an opponent of the big genrification of fiction which implies the proliferation of formulaic and ultimately low-quality books, but I have to say, it does come in handy when one is looking for new things to read and manages to find a whole group of writers worth exploring.

I do understand the other perspective also, which is eloquently presented by the Boston Bibliophile in Do we need the mystery sectionBut I think it is a matter of proportion: how much of your decision to read a book is based on the genre it’s listed under? I think that most of the books I am reading have literary aspirations and the genre is only a side-effect of the story development, and not a formula used to develop the story.

Anyway, I’m deep into my first Sara Gran Claire DeWitt book. Of course I started with the second in the series, because what difference does it make, I don’t know how to read series. It has been called a “hipster noir“. Whatever. I like it a lot.

Rae Joyce comics

Rae Joyce, Three Words, Island to IslandMy incredible friend, writer and artist Rachel J. Fenton (aka Rae Joyce), has been working very hard lately on a multitude of projects, two of which having recently come to fruition in a most beautiful way: two shiny books filled with art and stories.

Rae Joyce, Three Words, Island to Island

Three Words, an anthology of Aotearoa/NZ Women’s Comics, edited by Rachel together with Sarah Laing and Indira Neville is a collaborative survey of the past twenty years of New Zealand women’s comics, bringing together over 60 contributors. It comes to show that, although frequently ignored, there are many women who make comics.

Find out more about Three Words here.

Rae Joyce, Three Words

Island to Island is an amazingly beautiful book that includes the works of six graphic novelists from New Zealand and Taiwan, Rae Joyce being one of them. It’s a beautiful creation of six artists who got to know each other and include one other in their own work: each piece is created by one of them and dedicated to another. I thought the concept was amazing and the final product is a thing of beauty.

That cute package is filled with the most delicious teas from Taiwan. Yes, I was royally rewarded for this review.

You can read more about both projects on Rachel’s blog Snow Like Thought.

Books in my life

A long time has passed since my last post about the books I’ve been reading. And I have been reading some really exceptional books, I have to say. Since I don’t have the time or the inclination to review everything that I’ve been reading for more than half a year, I am planning to just tell you about three books that have reminded me how much magic there is in letting myself be absorbed into a written world.
Cover ThethirteenthtaleThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is the latest one I’ve read from this short list. Maybe it made the list because it’s the last book I read, but it did offer me one of those otherworldly reading experiences that I remember from childhood. Maybe because it’s a story that reminds of a lot of those early readings and because Jane Eyre is mentioned often in its pages. I can’t quite explain its magic, but maybe that’s why it works. It a very dark and intriguing story, maybe a little too depressing even. I found it mesmerizing and inspiring. It reminded me why I always wanted to be a writer and in a way it encouraged me to want to pick up my own writing again and keep at it.

Cover ThenightcircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern builds a universe that is completely mesmerizing. A very creative sort of book, unlike any other I’ve ever read. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough if you’re into magical realism (with a extra-large dose of magic).

Cover NightfilmNight Film by Marisha Pessl is my favorite of the three. I was filled with awe white reading it, exclaiming after every chapter that it’s the perfect book, that it’s amazing, everything I’ve ever wanted in a book. Maybe it didn’t live up to it until the end, but it got pretty close. It has everything: a very mysterious central character, supernatural happenings, a gothic mansion, a cultish following, everything. This is for sure my favorite book of the year.

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New e-book reader

kindle voyage

This is my … fourth? e-book reader. All the previous ones (there was a beautiful Sony, a nice Nook, and another Kindle) have died premature deaths, well with the exception of the Nook, which still lives, but it is not an e-ink screen so it always felt more like a tablet. This new little fellow is the Kindle Voyage. Early birthday present. It’s an amazing device that makes me never want to stop reading (as if any of us ever want to stop reading anyway! Ridiculous!).

Of course, it turned out that all the covers I had from the long dead predecessors were of different sizes and not really suitable for the new kid on the block. Besides, none of them were wristlet-friendly. My thing is now that I want to take the little one outside with me every time I go out with the baby, and I need to always be ready to throw the reader in its case and have my hands free to grab the child and save him from at least one third of the injuries happening to him throughout the usual day.

Right. So I made this cover for it from a piece of leather I had. It works out pretty well. A bit too tight though, so it takes me several seconds to put the Kindle in, which kind of defeats the purpose of allowing me to jump to the child’s rescue without delay every five minutes. But I’m hoping it will stretch a bit with use and turn out to be perfect. We’ll wait and see. I bet though that the cover will again outlive the device and join its sisters in the box of beautiful unused covers. I’ll have to find uses for all of those. I actually know I will.

Until then, good reading times are waiting!

Books in my life

books MayI haven’t read a lot for pleasure these past two (and a half) months since my previous Books post. But there have been quite a few books in my life, mostly manuals for the courses I’m taking. I added two of those to this list because they are really great books.

the woman upstairs coverThe Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud: I loved this book. It’s the kind of book from which I learn about writing, because the plot is not much to talk about, but the characters are so incredibly interesting and alive and truly unforgettable. And the way in which authors manage to capture your interest like that, from apparently nothing, is just fascinating. Otherwise, of course, it’s just a book about middle class problems, which might put some off, but I didn’t mind.

51n75H7a7ML._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Living Goddesses, by Marija Gimbutas: This is a very interesting study of Marija Gimbutas about ancient civilizations and their cultures that evolved around women figures. Marija Gimbutas was a very respected researcher until she came up with the theory that Old Europe civilizations were matriarchal, based on all the archaeological evidence and theorizing (which is how this is done by everybody). But her theories were never fully accepted by her peers. We don’t need to wonder why. Anyway, the book is such an interesting insight into the spiritual and daily life of ancient humans, that I recommended it highly.

season of the dragonfliesSeason of the Dragonflies, by Sarah Creech: This book seemed very promising, about magic and sisterhood. But it turned out to me more of a romance type of story, than anything else. I think it makes efforts to go further than that, but it doesn’t, really. Nonetheless, I did enjoy reading it. It’s a fun read. Just not what I was expecting, I guess. If you are into magic realism and stories about women, go ahead and try this book.

station_elevenStation Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: This is not my usual read, and I don’t even remember how this book came on my radar, but it did and I enjoyed reading it, although in retrospect I think my time could have been used better. It’s an interesting story (post-apocaliptic sort of thing where almost everyone is dead on Earth except for a few not-so-lucky survivors) and the writing is captivating too. But the premise is rather ridiculous: about two decades after the virus-caused apocalypse, survivors live a primitive life, with no electricity and no technology. They don’t try to rebuild anything and just fight amongst each other for the resources that are becoming scarcer. I don’t know if I can recommend this to anyone. Only if you want to get angry at how absurd everything seems, then go ahead.


41CyoR6i2CL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The Non-Designer’s Design Book, by Robin Williams and The Practical Guide to Information Design, by Ronnie Lipton: If you are interested in learning design, these books are amazing. They teach you all the basics that you need to know. I am keeping these books for my reference library.

Kate Atkinson, Case Histories coverCase Histories, by Kate Atkinson: I wish the detective was a woman, but the case does involve many very interesting women characters who are victims, but also criminals and survivors, and generally have very memorable presences. I enjoyed the book and I’m going to pick up more of Kate Atkinson’s.

Nude by Nuala Ni Chonchuir coverNude, by Nuala Ni Chonchuir: My friend, writer and artist Rachel Fenton, gifted me this book. Her gifts are always the best. It’s a beautiful book, another lesson in how beautiful and unexpected writing can be in a masterful hand. I highly recommend it.

It's so you by Michelle Tea coverIt’s so you, by Michelle Tea: Stories about women and the meaning of their clothes. What’s not to like?

Books in my life

booksJanFebFebruary has been a slow month in books read. Maybe because of the interminable snow days, when I felt compelled to cook more, clean more (well, not really, that’s a lie), entertain the kids more, when I generally felt more stressed, so I couldn’t enjoy my reading. But January was better, so I’m going to put than in here too.


Asa Larsson, Until Thy Wrath Be Past: I am reading a lot of Scandinavian mysteries, and this one I enjoyed much more than others. It is a wonderful, very atmospheric book. It has elements of the supernatural (which I always like), but they don’t take a life of their own and only serve to create the surreal feel of the story.


Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Women in Clothes: Amazing book about what clothes are to women. It’s like reading 40 fashion magazines, but only a selection those really good articles (each issue will have at most one or two, if at all).


Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History: A lot to learn from this book about women’s history. Not particularly memorable, I thought (because I forgot almost everything about it, and it’s only been a month or so since I’ve read it), but a good read, nonetheless.


Lisa Unger,Beautiful Lies: This book was just all right. The writing seemed a bit self-indulgent to me and the storyline rather predictable. But I read it till the end, and I usually just give up on books that are terrible, because I value my time. So it’s not awful. The main character had a lot of potential, I thought. It could have been better. But I would give this author another chance, and read one more book, because this one did leave me hopeful.


Emily Spivack, Worn Stories: This is a small book and a little disappointing. It’s a collection of stories, each about one particular item of clothing that holds significance for the storyteller. The thing is that yes, I get that we seem more cool when our most precious piece of clothing is some rag from high school, but that’s really not interesting to anyone. There are one or two stories about actually beautiful pieces, but most of the book is about the pricelessness of some sort of ripped and stained t-shirt. A very American thing, I feel, although I might be wrong.


Karin Fossum,Don’t Look Back: I enjoyed reading this book, although it did feel like it had too many characters that didn’t achieve enough depth and the story was not paced properly, so the climax fell flat. But it was not a bad read. And isn’t that cover beautiful? My favorite out of this month’s bunch.


Susan M. Wyler, Solsbury Hill: I picked this book because, you know, I would read anything about the Brontes. It is a light read, and not at all bad. The house described in the book is pretty fantastic. And the main character is interesting: she’s a designer of wool clothing, who started by repurposing old sweaters from thrift shops. But it reads more like romance than anything else, and that is not my favorite genre in the world.

I think I have streamlined my reading list now so that I am never out of appealing titles, and I almost never have to give up on a book before the end. I’m using Goodreads more than ever and I like the functionality it offers: adding books to the To-Read pile and then taking them out into the Read pile. It’s simple but it works great, and I never saw it until this year, although I’ve been on Goodreads for a very long time. Never too late.


Old Europe’s Goddess

cucuteni goddesses
Female figurines made of fired clay, (Cucuteni 4200 BC – 3500 BC) Source: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University.

I read this week a great article in The Guardian, Season of the witch: why young women are flocking to the ancient craft, about women’s reclaiming the name of the witch, as a symbol of feminine power. The witch has enormous significance for women particularly in the Christian world. And pre-Christian, for that matter, in Western Europe at least, from my knowledge. I know a bit about Hinduism and the mythologies in that Eastern space, and I don’t see a similar concept there. Women as clairvoyants and healers, connected to an ancestral source of power that is entirely their own and within their reach–it’s a powerful concept.

There is strong evidence that in Eastern Europe it might have started earlier than the Medieval witch-hunt times and earlier than even the Druids. It started with the prehistoric world. Marija Gimbutas was an archaeologist who studied ancient European cultures and developed a very interesting and compelling (which obviously became highly controversial) theory of a matristic (woman-centered), Goddess-worshiping, egalitarian, highly artistic, and peaceful culture during the Neolithic era, in Old Europe, as she calls it. Many vestiges of this civilization have been found in Romania, at Cucuteni, that’s why it is very dear to me.

“The primordial deity for our Paleolithic and Neolithic ancestors was female, reflecting the sovereignty of motherhood. In fact, there are no images that have been found of a Father God throughout the prehistoric record. Paleolithic and Neolithic symbols and images cluster around a self-regenerating Goddess and her basic functions as Giver-of-Life, Wielder-of-Death, and as Regeneratrix.”

The Civilization of the Goddess, Marija Gimbutas.

The book that I’m working on now (don’t even ask!) has the Cucuteni culture as one of the main inspirations. It’s just a fascinating concept.

One of the most interesting aspects of this story is that the Cucuteni civilization simply vanished quite suddenly in historical terms and the reasons are hard to explain based on the current archaeological evidence. One of the unexplained traditions of these old European culture was to burn their villages down periodically (every 60 to 80 years) and rebuild new ones on top of the ashes of the old. One day they just burned the old settlements down and never rebuilt them. None of the culture’s devastatingly rich, advanced, and refined art or traditions survived. Draught, invasion, and migration to other territories have been stipulated as possibilities for the disappearance, but there is no strong evidence to strongly support any of these directions.

I just think it’s important that we don’t forget there was a time before patriarchy that we can look back to and that can serve as inspiration for the future, and as a source of strength for the present. Women do need to reclaim the power of the witch, of the Goddess, the power within themselves.


Disagreeing with Virginia Woolf

herbs and notebookDuring this winter vacation I read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” a book that has been on my reading list since forever. Big round of applause for this minuscule achievement! Right. Thanks. Moving on.

I knew I would enjoy the book, but it exceeded my expectations. I agreed with everything Virginia Woolf says to such extent most of the time I felt I could have written this exact same book myself. Of course, it would not have been this book, but one much worse that nobody would have read, so good that things turned out as they did in the end.

There were just a few of her ideas that I that I feel very strongly against.

For example, while I couldn’t agree more than one of the reasons why women were not able to rise to any prominence in the arts was because they had to care of house and children, and had no time of their own, I don’t know if I agree that the ones who managed to write, wrote fiction, of all genres, because it was easier.

This is what Virginia Woolf says in “A Room of One’s Own”:

If a woman wrote, [speaking of the woman of the nineteenth century middle class] she would have to write in the common sitting-room. And, as Miss Nightingale was so vehemently to complain — ”women never have an half hour . . . that they can call their own”— she was always interrupted. Still it would be easier to write prose and fiction there than to write poetry or a play. . . . Therefore, when the middle-class Woman took to writing, she naturally wrote novels, even though, as seems evident enough, two of the four famous women here named were not by nature novelists. Emily Brontë should have written poetic plays; the overflow of George Eliot’s capacious mind should have spread itself when the creative impulse was spent upon history or biography. They wrote novels, however.

I find very interesting this idea that poetry would require less interruption and more concentration than a novel. I can’t speak about history, biography or “poetic plays,” since I don’t have any experience writing those genres, but I assume they are all difficult and requiring a space bigger (physically and mentally) than a common sitting room. But poetry? Was Virginia Woolf thinking of epic poems or something like that? Because poetry is a short, concentrated form that can be written and edited in short bursts of time and creativity, with the greatest chance of surviving undamaged by frequent interruptions.

I find writing novels a much more complex and gargantuan intellectual task for which interruptions are much more damaging. The writer needs to keep in mind at all times a big number of characters, developments, themes, and needs to maintain an order and structure that can take everything off tracks if one loses their train of thought for a few minutes. What am I not seeing here?

Another idea that Virginia Woolf presents in “A Room of One’s Own” is that Jane Austen wrote better than Charlotte Bronte (despite the fact that Charlotte Bronte had more genius) because Jane Austen didn’t write out of anger.

This is what she says about Jane Austen:

Here was a woman about the year 18oo writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at Antony and Cleopatra;

And this is what Virginia Woolf says of Charlotte Bronte and her Jane Eyre:

One might say, I continued, laying the book [Jane Eyre] down beside Pride and Prejudice, that the woman who wrote those pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?

I have to say that throughout the book Virginia Woolf says it over and over again that women should write like women, not like men. However, I feel that here she is defending masculine writing to the detriment of the writing that comes natural to women. She argues against passion and sentimentality, which are characteristic of the way women often think and live their lives. I don’t think that Jane Eyre loses any of its power because of its enraged author. On the contrary, that’s what makes it such a powerful piece of literature.

Of course, I am biased. I’ve loved Jane Eyre with a passion since the age of twelve, and nothing will dissuade me from worshipping it and its author forever and ever, amen.

It doesn’t feel right to disagree with Virginia Woolf. Feels a bit like a betrayal. But I do tell myself that it is fine to have disagreements and differences of opinion, because literature and genius and feminism are nuanced, complex, subjective matters that cannot be accurately painted in just black and white. And debates are always healthy and only advance an issue, rather than suffocate it. Right? Right. Unless, of course, due to the inherent interruptions of womanhood, they don’t coagulate and instead degenerate into something meaningless. Like this derailed train of a blog post. Sorry. Still braindeadly sleep deprived over here. But soon, soon, I’ll get back on course. Because, you know, I am the happy owner of a basement workspace. No more sitting-room writing for me. Soon.