Audio Book Mini Reviews: marriage, a haunted “smart” house, and savage children fit to drive Shirley Jackson insane

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

If you focus on the tree called “Old Hickey” as you listen to this audio book, you’ll understand the characters better, focusing less on their indecisive natures. Also, pay attention to the parents’ relationships as examples of unlikely endurance. I loved Sean Crisden’s vocal portrayals of Roy, Big Roy, Olive, Dre, Davina, and even Celestial — which makes me wonder why Eisa Davis was needed to read Celestial’s titular chapters. Crisden reads all of Celestial’s letters to Roy in prison, so that was wonky when you know Davis is part of the voice team. I tried reading part of An American Marriage in paperback, but the audio really does the characters and story more justice.

The turn of the key by ruth ware

Having listened to Imogen Church read The Woman in Cabin 10, I was excited to see her name again. Church speaks clearly and convincingly pulls off various accents. Ware’s book drops clues all over the place and tromps at a good pace, until we hit discs 8 and 9 out of 10. Ware does her thing, just like In A Dark, Dark Wood, and grinds the plot to a crawl, making me want to quit. Ware’s narrator asks the dumbest questions — multiple at a time — to speculate what was going on. “Could it be X? No, X was in X’s room. What if Y was creeping in? Y gives me a bad feeling. But what would Y’s motive be??” Lady, let the reader ask the questions. But, I carried on and was surprised by the ending, which is both more horrible and less scary that I thought it would be.

Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

With Lesa Lockford narrating Shirley Jackson’s memoir about her life in Vermont, this lovely, charming voice comes at you. But Jackson’s writing grabs you by the front of your shirt and drags you, even though this is “just” a domestic memoir. One particular passage about Jackson, her husband, her son, her daughter, and her baby all having grippe about gave me a panic attack. Sounds innocuous, but she hit all my anxiety buttons. Jackson’s children can be wacky, sweet, and total lying shit heads. The setting is memorable: we’re pre-seat belts or car seats, people still send out their laundry and have a milkman, and Jackson at nine months pregnant continues to smoke and drink coffee. With the rhythmic writing I associate with Jackson’s novels and Lockford’s mother-of-the-year voice, I found myself enjoying (yet gripping the steering wheel) the small-town nuttiness. No wonder Shirley Jackson wrote horror.

30 comments

    • I recently just finished the second one, too. It’s called Raising Demons. I’ve since learned that she leaves a lot of stuff out, causing some people to refer to her memoirs as fictionalized. She doesn’t discuss writing at all, nor does she mention the fact that her husband was a serial cheater. I have a biography on Jackson I’m going to read soon so I can get a different perspective.

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  1. I can imagine the Tayari Jones novel would be great on audio. And I’ve yet to read a Ruth Ware because a young friend absolutely adores her works and I’m convinced she loves Ware enough for both of us (and I don’t think I’d love her enough to suit)!

    My understanding is that these Shirley Jackson pieces weren’t published initially as a memoir, but that they have become interesting, to later readers for the parts which are drawn from her personal experience. Is it fair to say that she has left things out if she initially began writing short essays for various women’s magazines (which, in the 1950s, likely wouldn’t have been interested in publishing pieces about marital infidelity) and now they are published in a volume together as though it’s a work of memoir? Nevertheless, I agree with your inclination to want to read all and everything about/by her. That’s always the best solution, in my experience: read more. 🙂

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    • I’ll bet you’re right, and I hadn’t thought of the fact that it would have been inappropriate to publish articles in 1950s women’s magazines about infidelity. That was definitely the “stand by your man” era. Ew. And I knew she published this articles first, so I should have put it together. The memoirs themselves were published in the 1950s, too, so it’s not like she would have added sections about her philanderer to the books.

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  2. Interesting comment about the audio version of An American Marriage working better than the book version. Maybe my expectations were too high when I read it (it had won so many prizes) but I wasn’t all that wowed by it.

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  3. I have read quite a few reviews of An American Marriage and concluded that it wasn’t for me. I got the feeling I would end of being thoroughly annoyed with the protagonists. Ruth Ware, on the other hand, is on my reading list. From what I have seen, The Death of Mrs. Westaway might be a better one to start with though.

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      • No one I know has a Nook and we don’t have Barnes & Noble over here! But I will see a copy soon enough, I live in an area of big readers and everything remotely popular pops into the charity shops a year or so after it comes out!

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        • Oh, that’s so nice that you have well-established resale book stores. Those are hard to keep open in the States. The places I know of are owned by retired people who have the used book store in the lower part of their multi-story homes.

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          • There’s only one that’s a designated book store, the others are thrift stores with a bookshelf. Oxfam run books-only shops, and we have one in our suburb and one about 2 miles away in the next suburb. But the amount of readers in the area mean all the prize winners and trendy books appear on the chairty shop/thrift store shelves if you just wait a little!

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  4. I think I’m still on the wait list for American Marriage on audio. Glad you enjoyed it and hope to get to it eventually. I’m trying to read down my currently reading stack. I’ve never read Ware either but many like her books. One to look for in the future

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    • Woof, that sounds like a long wait list. I did enjoy the book and liked the audio, but am perplexed as to why the male voice actor read all of the woman’s letters to him in prison in a “women’s voice.” Why not have he read her own letters so the dialogue between them feels more genuine?

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  5. I’m glad you enjoyed An American Marriage on audio! I have such a weird relationship with that book, in which I enjoy reading it (I’ve read it twice, the second time mainly to double-check my rating) but then only remember the things I disliked about it afterward. I do think it’s a solid read though, and am glad to hear the audio does the story justice!

    I also completely agree with your stance on Turn of the Key (at least its ending) as “horrible but not scary.”

    And I’m currently reading (and loving!) Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, so am thrilled to hear that her memoirs are so enjoyable and effective as well! I’d love to read more of her work.

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    • Jackson’s children are totally a product of their time. Her son clearly thinks he’s better than she is because she’s a woman, but he’s around nine years old in Life Among the Savages. Children aren’t supposed to be scary and give you anxiety, are they??

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      • Ooh, that’s definite Turn of the Screw vibes. I wouldn’t have thought children are supposed to be so frightening either, but that is an alarming perspective for a nine year-old, no matter the time period!

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  6. I feel like I have more in common with Shirley Jackson than I ever thought possible!!! It’s funny I never noticed that Ware’s characters ask questions, but I suppose that would be way more obvious in an audio book. And personally, I find a smart house the most terrifying part of that entire book.

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