I 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.
Helen 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.
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.
Nick 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.
Set in the Southern United States at the height of the Great Depression, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls follows Thea Atwell, a teenage girl sent away from her family to attend the prestigious Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls for reasons that don’t become clear until the end of the novel. This mix of young adult fiction and historical romance work.
The book opens with Thea Atwell being taken to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls after causing her family to fall apart through unknown actions. Despite the fact that Thea is an avid rider and Yonahlossee is a prestigious place, she knows that this is a punishment. The story alternated between Thea’s life at Yonahlossee and flashbacks to her life in Florida where details are gradually revealed. It’s a compelling story and DiSclafani is a vivid and beautiful writer. There were also small parts of the book that were unexpected given the portrayal of Thea but which only served to make her more complex and layered.
The only problem with telling the story this was is that you fall into the same trap that Sarah Water’s did with The Paying Guests. The story is so compelling up to a point. It gets very predictable and it’s hard to keep the reader engaged after providing them with all the details, It feels like DiSclafani struggled a bit with how to end this in a satisfying way and played it safe with Thea. There was so much build up and I loved reading this so much, but sometimes the follow through just isn’t there.
Having previously read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as well as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, I came into this book familiar with Hunter S. Thompson. I liked this book way more than the previous ones.
I don’t even really know why; it’s similar to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but the Caribbean setting just makes it better for some reason, and I found I liked all the characters better too. This book is exactly what you’d expect from Hunter S. Thompson, a semi-autobiographical rum-soaked account of working as a journalist in the Puerto Rico. The story is about the journalists who work at a ill-fated magazine and their tangled love triangles, jealousy, and drunken shenanigans and violent outbursts.
While it feels like it was written by a older man reminiscing, Thompson was only 22 when he penned this narrative, something I did not know until doing a bit of research. It’s surreal in a way, the experience that 22 year old Thompson had in Puerto Rico. It’s a fun read and a great introduction to Hunter S. Thompson for those unfamiliar with his hilarity, absurdity, and genius.
Growing up in a Catholic household, I was raised, especially by my Grandmother, to believe that the Jesuits could do no wrong. Obviously as I grew up and became disillusioned with the Church I turned more cynical and didn’t necessarily subscribe to her views. Still, in Catholic School, and then University, learning about the Jesuits always fascinated me because of their predisposition towards exploration. Reading and translating the Jesuit Diaries for an undergraduate class was an amazing experience, and despite how problematic the diaries are, I loved reading them.
In her novel, Mary Doria Russell imagines what it would be like if Jesuits were the first group of people to make contact with an alien species. I’ve heard a lot of amazing things about this book, and while I liked it, it didn’t blow me away. There is no denying that it is beautifully written, but I had a hard time visualizing things at time. Russell jumps back and forth in time starting with introducing us to Emilio Sandoz, the lone survivor of the mission who has returned to earth physically and mentally damaged. Throughout the novel you learn more about Sandoz and the other cast of characters who end up involved in the mission. You find out how they made contact, and finally what went wrong.
The novel is much more of a character study than it is a work of science fiction in its classic sense, which was fine with me. The characters are all compelling in their own sense especially as they grapple with issues of religion and faith. There just wasn’t a moment in the book that completely wowed me, but maybe I had my expectation driven up too high by all the things I’ve heard about the book. It was still a great concept and a good read, especially for those who enjoy character driven stories.