Category Archives: Reviews

Megan Mayhew Bergman – Almost Famous Women

Almost Famous WomenI have been so well with short story collections recently having just finished Barbara the Slut. Bergman does something very different with her short story collection, but I loved it nonetheless.

While this compilation is a work of fiction, each short story focuses on a real woman from the past and then spins a creative narrative about their lives. The women that Bergman profiles are, as the title suggests, “Almost Famous,” meaning that while they were all quite notable while alive, history has forgotten them. Some of the women featured in these stories I had heard of like Butterfly McQueen, the African American actress famous for her role as Prissy in Gone With the Wind, and many of them had familiar family names; Allegra Byron, Dolly Wilde, and Norma Millay. Many of these women though, I knew nothing about (Joe Carstairs, Hazel Eaton, and Tiny Davis) and found myself completely enthralled by the stories that Bergman told.

Bergman is an amazing storyteller and I found myself lost in her writing. Whit short story collections I normally find that I read one a day, but I completely burned through this collection because I couldn’t get enough. She also did a remarkable amount of research as evidenced by the lengthy appendix to the book and made a real attempt to understand these women’s lives before attempting to create stories about them. One of the things that I liked the most about these stories is that not all of them are told by the characters that they are focused on, but rather are narrated by secondary or outside characters. This narrative style is functional, allowing the author to create profiles of these women without having to be inside their heads, and also compelling as you are drawn to the subjects of the stories as well as the narrators. I loved this collection and can’t praise it highly enough.

Recommended Reading and Listening:

I couldn’t do any better than the appendix that Megan Mayhew Bergman provides everyone with in her book filled with suggestions for further reading.

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Caroline Moorehead – Village of Secrets (2014)

VillageofSecretsIn her previous work, A Train in Winter, Caroline Moorehead profiled a group of French women instrumental to the resistance in France. She followed their journey to concentration camps where many perished. Her newer work, Village of Secrets, looks at the French resistance from a different angle focusing instead on the residents of the French Village Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon.

In 1990 this town was one of two that were recognised as righteous among nations by Yad Vashem for being a safe haven for Jews during the Second World War. According to Moorehead, residents of the village secured the survival of at least 800 Jews by hiding them (many of them children) and helped an additional 3,000 get safely across the border to Switzerland.

There is an impulse to celebrate the Resistance, especially in France as the country struggles to cope with the existence of the Vichy regime and those that were complacent or even supportive of the Nazi’s. Celebrating an entire village is difficult however and there are naturally those that exist in a grey area. The world was not divided into Nazi’s and the Righteous and many kept their heads down in order to simply keep themselves alive. Still the efforts of those that risked their lives to save Jews from Nazi hands are extraordinary and they must be applauded.

At the end of her work, Moorehead follows those that were saved and survived, but the book ends on quite a melancholy note. Even in stories of the resistance and the good they did, the stories of the children get lost. Many of the children’s lives were saved but often they didn’t have a life to go back to. Instead they had to live with family they never knew, family they ceased to know, survivor’s guilt. Those who banded together in grief often fared better than those reunited with family. The Holocaust, and the efforts to save Jews, created an entire generation of orphans because the impulse to save the lives of children is often the strongest. Many of the survivors are quoted about how they struggled with being grateful to those that rescued them while also combating feelings of resentment for being torn from their families even though staying together meant an almost certain death.

Helen Bryan – War Brides (2006)

war-brides-by-helen-bryanHelen Bryan’s novel opens in the present day with an elderly woman packing to get on a plane to Europe. Her distination is unknown, but we know that whoever she plans on seeing, she hasn’t seen in over 50 years.

The bulk of Bryan’s novel takes place 50 years earlier during the Second World War and follows the lives of four women, Evangeline who has eloped from New Orleans, Alice a spinster living in the English countryside, Elsie evacuated from London, Tanni who has fled Vienna, and Frances a high spirited society girl sent to live with her Godmother, as how their lives intersect as they all find themselves in Crowmarsh Priors for the war. The novel had a great set up, but fell rather flat and had an unsatisfying conclusion.

I won’t say too much more at risk of spoiling the book, but there is a lot of character development during the first half of the novel which is well done, but Bryan seems unsure of where to go from there. Each woman is introduced on her own and has a compelling backstory; Evangeline is the daughter of a planter in New Orleans and is having an illicit affair with her mulatto cousin, Elsie is a slum rat in London but clever nonetheless, and Tanni find herself married to a family friend studying at Oxford in order to escape Nazi occupied Austria. Once all the women find themselves in Crowmarsh priors, their stories get tiresome. The women’s stories end before the war does, and the epilogue tacked on to the end is sloppy and seems out of place. It feels as though Bryan was rushed in writing this in order to make a deadline or something. I was quite disappointed after what seemed like such a promising start to the story.

Lauren Holmes – Barbara The Slut and Other People (2015)

23398781__UY2514_SS2514_I have a difficult relationship with short stories, and aside from David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day, I have yet to come across a compilation of short stories that I absolutely love. Well I finally found it.

I’m not even quite sure how to explain what makes this collection so great, which is terrible because I’ve decided to review books in my spare time, but it definitely has to do with Holmes’ writing style. She writes in a very candid way with short and snappy sentences never leaving her characters to dwell on a thought for too long. Her writing is very matter-of-fact and often times dripping with sarcasm or irony. Maybe I just loved her writing so much because I feel like I speak in a similar way.

The stories themselves are also all great ranging from the story of a law student with an identity crisis acting as a lesbian to work at a female-positive sex shop, so a woman who falls in love with a Swedish guy who she grows to dislike more and more as he gets attached to her dog Pearl. I feel like short stories seem like they would be easy to write, but are actually in reality quite difficult. It’s easy to come up with the idea for one, but then to create a compelling enough storyline that people actually care about before reaching a satisfying conclusion in a limited number of pages is tough. As with most short story collections, I likes certain stories better than others, but they all hit all the right notes.

I can’t recommend this enough. It’s a short smart and quirky read that you’ll want to lend to your friends so that you can laugh about it together.

Mollie Moran – Minding the Manor (2013)

Minding the ManorAfter the first few seasons of Downton Abbey exploded in the United States, books like this one started to be published and quickly became a dime a dozen. There’s nothing especially remarkable about this particular book, but I liked it nonetheless. Mollie was obviously a spitfire in her day and that spirit and sass comes through in her writing even though she was 93 at the time this was published.

This book takes place pretty close to the Downton Abbey period as Mollie takes up service just before the Second World War. Her memoirs detail the friendships she made (and kept) as well as the hardships she bore and the things she learned as she worked her way up from scullery maid to head chef in a manor house. The appendix also contains a number or recipes that are made reference to throughout Mollie’s writing. She writes about the importance of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a book I’ve become quite familiar with, and includes one of my favourite quotes, “Sauces are to cookery what grammar is to language.”

It’s a neat little read and while it doesn’t shed light on anything particularly new about the time period, fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy it.

Suggested Listening:

This podcast about the food from Downton Abbey.

 

Nick Hornby – Funny Girl (2014)

FunnyGirlNick Hornby is right up there as one of my favourite authors. He is sharp, witty, and while I’m not sure if anything equal my love of High Fidelity, Funny Girl, his newest book was pretty great.

The novel focuses on Barbara Parker, a beauty queen from Blackpool who wants nothing more than to be a comedian like Lucille Ball. She leaves her small town striking out for London but finds that she is considered too good looking to be seen as being funny. This is the 1960s and Barbara, who changes her name to Sophie, only gets bit parts in plays and TV shows often as a Ditz. Hornby then introduces a whole cast or characters; BBC writers Bill and Tony, producer Dennis, and leading man Clive. The novel follows the production of Barbara (and) Jim starring Sophie/Barbara and Clive as it becomes one of Britain’s most beloved sitcoms and as the plots parallel the lives of the other characters in the story.

I loved everything about this novel, the character of Sophie/Barbara was so likeable, and the other characters were also layered and interesting. 1960s London is an amazing time to set a book like this dealing with. Hornby is sophisticated and funny in his writing as always and there were some parts that had me laughing out loud. I can see this being made into a movie so easily, especially as one directed by Richard Curtis, and will be so excited if that does come about.

Recommended Listening:

NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour episode about Funny Girl 

NPR also has a review and provides and excerpt of the book

Recommended Reading:

The Atlantic’s article about the real feminist impact of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The AV Club on why I Love Lucy still endures.

 

Hilton Als – White Girls (2013)

WhiteGirlsWhile the collection of essays is titled White Girls, to simply call it a book about white girls both true and false. The subjects of these essays, Truman Capote, Michael Jackson, Eminem, and Richard Pryor are all ‘white girls’ in some respect, according to Als.

This collection was very dense and theoretical and I sometimes got lost amid all of Als writing. I understood what he was trying to do but for a general audience (Als is a staff writer for the New Yorker), if feel like readers might find themselves a bit in over their head. It’s not exactly theory, but it’s not far off.

Throughout his collection Als interweaves his own personal memoir and reflections on society with biographies of major cultural influences. Essentially as a gay black man, Als writes about other gay black men’s desires. “White Girls” are the absolute opposite of gay black men, yet the symbol with which they most identify with. It is within this paradigm that Als fits cultural icons into, treating them as the “White Girls” that he wishes he could be.

Its a worthwhile read for anyone studying culture in an extremely critical way. He takes notions of race and gender and upends them quite successfully. It’s dense and tough to get through at times, definitely not a beach read, but quite worth it if critical theory is your thing.