Saturday, May 31, 2008

Life Among the Savages, by Shirley Jackson

Bah. This book wasn't really all I was hoping it would be and that's probably Erma Bombeck's fault. It was very Bombeck in nature. If you like Erma's style, you'll like Jackson's style. Probably.

The interesting thing that sets Jackson apart, I think, is her lifestyle choices (i.e., smoking & brandy). You can be reading along, as happy as a lark, when all the sudden she mentions that she lit up a cigarette. And she's always pregnant when she mentions this. It's a stark reminder that times have changed since the 1940's! What I also found interesting was that neither she nor her husband could drive and she was the one first pushed into learned. That also just strikes you a bit odd as you are reading along. It's really no fault of Jackson's. It's just period dated which you are constantly reminded of.

I think I like Bombeck better than Jackson because while Bombeck frequently paints a chaotic picture of her life, you just get the feeling that some of it is for the reader sake and she has more control over the situation that she gives off. Somehow, someway, it feels like Bombeck's world hosts more order while Jackson's world is pitiable at best. Her kids really do come across as savages and I really don't admire that characteristic in people of any age or size. I kept wondering if Jackson's children grew up with some degree of normalcy and became somewhat productive members of society. At least with Bombeck's children (I like to think anyway!) that they could grow up saying, "Yeah, I'm a Bombeck. Life was crazy but I sure do love my mother!" I don't get the same feeling from Jackson's "savages."

Another thing that sets them apart to some degree is Jackson's monologue descriptions of various conversations that she had with people. It's a bit disjarring (at least to me) and throws you off kilter a bit when she goes from describing a situation and telling you a story to launching into a conversation. It's easy to get lost in the conversation and you have to remember what it is that she's really trying to say or tell you about. I think Bombeck does a better job completing her stories without losing you.

I don't mean to make it sound like I really hated this book. Because I didn't. Jackson is a very humorous writer. But you really can't read her after you've read a lot of Bombeck otherwise it just spoils the whole thing. I didn't hate it. I was just bored. That's all. I can't say I wouldn't recommend this book - because I probably would. I'd just recommend something - ANYthing - by Bombeck before I'd suggest Jackson. That's my take.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Fountain and Tomb, by Naguib Mahfouz

This was a unique and enjoyable book, consisting of over seventy brief vignettes (some only a few paragraphs long). Speaking in present tense, the narrator describes life in the Cairo neighborhood where he grew up in the 1920s. The stories focus on the people and customs that surrounded the boy and made an impression on him, defining not only his life but the life of the alley. He tells of romances and heartaches, marriages and deaths; he describes both highborn and lowborn neighbors, pious people and lawbreakers. In his telling he neither judges these characters nor asks the reader to. He presents a distinct look at a distinct culture, but is not compelled to defend, explain, or propagate the religion and customs of his people. He merely weaves, in spare but picturesque language, a fascinating portrait of life as seen and interpreted by an observant and impressionable young boy.

I found this book easy and fun to read; the structure makes it easy to read in short segments, although often I was enjoying myself too much to put it down. I loved the brief look at so many different, fascinating people. Sometimes I couldn't help thinking, Are there really this many interesting (even eccentric) people to be found in one close-knit neighborhood? I wish I could observe such types of people and be able to describe their story in such a succinct yet poetic way!

(This review also posted on Leaf and Frame.)