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CARPE LIBRUM: Collections from two great non-fiction writers

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Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s new biweekly book column. Every other week I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum, but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation.

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

JacksonLet Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson

Edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt

Random House 2015, pgs. 214


By Neil Gaiman

Harper Collins 2016, pgs. 522

“Did you read ‘The Lottery’ in school? The story about the village that stones someone to death once a year?”

Thus begins my once-a-day conversation with a bookstore patron about Shirley Jackson. It is her most famous short story—the one that made her name when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1948. Since then it has been anthologized numerous times and is standard assigned reading in late middle school. Though it is her most famous work, she produced much more, including one of my favorite books: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” and “The Haunting of Hill House,” which Stephen King praises frequently as one of the finest ghost stories he has read.

Last year two of Jackson’s children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt, released a volume of her stories, essays and speeches, culled from her papers at the Library of Congress. Though they put together a book of their mother’s short fiction in the late 1990s, “Just An Ordinary Day,” what makes “Let Me Tell You” so fascinating is how clearly it demonstrates Jackson’s range of ability. I tend to think of her as a horror writer: more on the terrifying inhumanity of people’s treatment of each other than the horror of the supernatural (though she does both exceptionally well). In this collection, there are pieces about her family and child-rearing that could have been written by Erma Bombeck (“Questions I Wish I’d Never Asked,” “How to Enjoy a Family Quarrel”). She came of age during the Depression and early years of WWII. She married in 1940, and in this collection she presents a series of early short stories set in and around the WWII home front (“4-F party,” “Homecoming”). Rather than depicting the much vaulted lives and sacrifices of The Greatest Generation, she shows the confusion, pain, misfires and minor human tortures we continue to inflict on those around us as great events swirl through history.

Cheap SeatsThere are two elements to this book that make it irresistible. First, Jackson’s ability to mingle magical realism and elements of both mystery and horror genres with daily life. In one piece she describes her haunted house that no one in town will come near and the almost loving care it takes of the family. In another she travels through the utensils of her kitchen and explains the disagreement between her waffle iron and toaster (the problem, she admits, is she bought frozen toaster waffles); the sarcasm of her egg beater; and her dish towel’s near worship of her baby daughter, who once promoted the dish towel to a doll blanket for an afternoon thereby winning its undying admiration.

Secondly, as a writer, reviewer of books and theatre, and bookstore owner, I am drawn like a fruit fly to a sticky, sweet, compulsive death trapped in honey by Jackson’s essays on writing. In “The Play’s the Thing,” she recounts the path to writing an adaptation of “Hansel and Gretel,” which was commissioned by her children. She learns first hand every playwright’s struggle: The script is only half the work. Watching it come alive, take shape and change in the hands of performers can alter it beyond conception. Unimaginable humor emerges (sometimes at the writing’s expense), the balance of power between characters shift, and what was thought of as comic can become tragic. Though Jackson would just like the play to disappear, it seems to take on a life of its own.

“A Vroom for Dr. Seuss,” about writing a children’s book with a sanctioned word list, feels almost like a private conversation about my thoughts on Banned Books Week and children’s literature in particular. To say the collection deepened my conception of Jackson’s work and broadened my appreciation is an understatement. It converted me from an appreciator and casual fan to an acolyte.

Since Shirley Jackson’s death in 1965, the medium of delivery has changed in many ways: the introduction of e-books, Internet for news websites, availability of digital recording for independent filmmaking, to name just a few. Though Neil Gaiman writes regularly for The Guardian, an England-based newspaper with an extensive international readership online, at heart he and Jackson are still doing the same thing: telling a story to show an audience something truthful about the world we inhabit.

It is pretty tough to live and read in America today and be unaware of Neil Gaiman’s work. From “The Sandman” graphic novel series in the ‘90s, to the films “Coraline” and “Stardust,” based on his novels, to the forthcoming production of “American Gods” on Starz—not to mention Tori Amos’ frequent nods to him in her songs—he seems to be everywhere. Though “Good Omens,” the book he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett about the apocalypse, is one of my favorite books ever written (I pick it up about once a week), I didn’t fall in love with Gaiman through his novels. I certainly have come to respect him as a novelist, and admire his skill and artistry with short-story form. I came to love Gaiman through his voice as an essayist and speaker. His clear, heartfelt plea to honor the creative in each individual and recounting his fumbles along the way to finding his own path just refills my depleted well of hope and determination.

Gaiman captured my heart forever with the much-recorded and shared speech he gave at commencement for the University of Arts Philadelphia in 2012, “Make Good Art.” His endless encouragement of young artists and writers during Q&A sessions and at conventions has endeared him to me forever. Don’t get me wrong, I have developed a strong and lasting bond with Gaiman’s fiction, both long form and short form: “Stardust” is one of my favorite books, and his short-story collection “Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders” is brilliant. But his non-fiction really hooked me first.

So when a collection of his non-fiction was announced, I began counting the days until its release. Much of it I have encountered in other locations (The Guardian, introductions to other people’s books, YouTube), but many of the speeches and much of the music writing was completely new to me. I read his Newbery Award acceptance speech (for “The Graveyard Book”) aloud to Jock, along with the piece on visiting Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. It was painfully reminiscent of the essay “Biafra: A People Betrayed” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. that was collected in “Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons.” In both cases the writers were brought to see firsthand what was occurring, in hopes they would be able to bring some attention to the cause—to make the plight relevant to people on the other side of the continent.

Where “Let Me Tell You” shows Jackson’s broad range of topics and styles as a writer, “The View From the Cheap Seats” shows just how focused and immersed Gaiman is in his craft. Though the story he recounts repeatedly is from different angles, the voice throughout the book is his and does not change. What we see instead is his own reflection on his growth as an artist and how that deepens, develops and intensifies as he matures in his work and understands the world we live in with a wizened eye. (Also, his dog becomes an oft-cited offstage character—a sure sign of wisdom if ever there was one.) Does he share insights that deepen and enhance the experience of loving his books and stories? Absolutely. More so, he demonstrates his real magic as a sorcerer of words: creating a world so alluring, desirable and effortless in appearance that the reader wants not only to inhabit it but to add to it.

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