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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Review: 'Almost Famous Women'

Almost Famous Women
By Megan Mayhew Bergman
Literary fiction short stories
January 2015
Scribner
ISBN: 978-1476786568
                                                                                                                                      

Megan Mayhew Bergman's first book of short stories, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, was a highly regarded debut that looked at life from several angles. This time, in Almost Famous Women, she looks at women who have famous names, often because of famous relatives or because they are known for one thing.

Neither of these conditions is anything close to conveying the complete aspect of who or what a person is, however, and Bergman uses both what is known about the women and what may be true about them to create yet more examples of who gets to tell a story about themselves and who owns history. How the rest of the world views these women is an undercurrent throughout the stories, not explicit yet always just there, threatening to drag them under.

The sisters in Pretty, Grown-Together Children, the first story of the collection were called freaks, and appeared in Tod Browning's film of that name. Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins, lived from 1908 to 1969, and were vaudeville entertainers and grocery store clerks. Right there it's easy to see how any writer would want to wonder about their lives. How do conjoined twins handle the stage and the comedown of being grocery store clerks? How do they live? How do they manage the practical and the more elusive dreams? In reality, they died of the flu, Daisy first and Violet at least a day later.

This opening story sets the stage for the collection: How do women, whether sisters or always on their own, handle dreams when it looks like life doesn't want them to dare hope for full lives? What keeps anyone going? No woman needs to be a conjoined twin to dare hope for a full life.
Looking at the sisters, it's hard to imagine how anything about their lives could be the same as people not conjoined. But the story shows how every woman, every human being, is the same in the ability to dream of more and better, and both how we can fool ourselves and make at least part of a dream come true. It depends on what vantage point the story is being told from.

The Siege at Whale Cay is about M.B. Joe Carstairs and the first to deal with post-traumatic stress for a WWI ambulance driver, although the story does not initially focus on the war. It is instead a complex story about a rich lesbian who owns a small island off the Florida coast, who deliberately closes her eyes to the suffering of another woman on her island. In the role of the conscience of the story is her latest young lover, a young woman who was a mermaid in a tourist trap, now competing for her older lover's attention with a famous, reclusive, cold movie star.

More famous people feature in Norma Millay's Film Noir Period. It is about being the one who serves the famous person, the famous sister, the mother with talent, regardless of what you can or might be able to do. And what happens afterwards when that is all you have. A companion story, Who Killed Dolly Wilde, appears later in the collection. Both also are tied to both The Siege at Whale Cay and Romaine Remains, partly because one or more of the characters knew each other. There also is a connection in the theme of being caregivers to older women whose faded glory is more of a curse or a haunting to both the famous person and to the caregiver. Having once been famous certainly doesn't seem to be worth much.

Romaine Brooks in Romaine Remains, is an paranoid, angry old woman, as is Oscar's niece Dolly. Romaine's younger male nurse realizes when reading letters she will not touch "there is vitality in the world, and he does not have it, he has never even tasted it in his mouth. He has never lived the way he wants to live, never felt in control, or able to express his desire for people and things. For men in new leather shoes drinking wine at the hotel bar, or the boys standing outside the less reputable discotecas smoking cigarettes. He has never been explicitly himself." The talented woman is the one without power, the one who is used. Mario the nurse doesn't seem to recognize how alike he and Romaine are, just at different times of their lives.

Dolly isn't doing well in her later years either. Like Joe Carstairs, she was a WWI ambulance driver and it still hurts her. Dolly once was popular because of her uncle and her resemblance to him, but now is a drug addict who no one wants around except the childhood friend who still tries to believe in her. It's a story about unfulfilled lives and how war cripples inside as well as outside, and about how caring doesn't always involve the same tasks.

Care-taking at the other end of life's spectrum is the story of a nun in The Autobiography of Allegra Byron. A nun whose own child died years ago finds herself loving the cast-off child of the poet. This story is about learning how to give up what was never yours to begin with, but loving any way, which can be a caregiver's burden.

The child of another famous writer, the daughter of James Joyce, notes a burden on the other side of fame in Expression Theory. In this moody, dank tone poem about creating dance, she says: "I have no native tongue, L. says. What do you expect?" Good question. What should be expected of the child of someone who did so much with language? Or an even better question, why should that child be burdened with expectations?

For some, childhood expectations and that stage in a girl-child's life when crushes come easily can sometimes lead to life changes. A girl at just that stage, crushing on a minister, agrees to go see Butterfly McQueen. The Butterfly McQueen, who is as famous for being an atheist as she once was for a few lines in a big movie that is a central part of the myth of the state where she lives. The 80-year-old atheist turns away the girl sent to evangelize at her door, but opens the child's eyes and mind to wondering and questioning. Unvarnished truth is important to her.

The girl, now a woman studying medicine and conducting her first autopsy in class, remembers:

"My mother's was the first dead body I knew, the first one I touched. ... She wanted a wig and the mortician's makeup for the casket. I didn't pass along her wishes. Does it matter what we do when consciousness has passed? I was the one who had to look at her, and I wanted the real her, even if the real her was hairless and wasted."

Her conclusion is one of those earth-stopping moments in reading. It's a simple statement that is all the more profound for it, and the wisdom of it can be questioned and admired at the same time:

"What I hope, I guess, is that the right kind of callus will form around my heart."

This sort of fearlessness, a type of defiance at what sentimental society demands of its women, is at the heart of a story about Beryl Markham. The title, A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch, uses the name Hemingway gave her (which I see as a honor he did not intend to convey). For Markham, living on her own in Africa, channeling that defiance is essential to survival. "She'd always been a cruel person, she knew that, and today it was in her favor."

There is cruelty in the last story in the collection, too, mostly from men, white men, fascinated and disgusted by the women of color in a band traveling through the Jim Crow south. In Hell-Driving Women, that callus around their hearts from the Butterfly McQueen story allows some of them to protect their hearts, not cut them off completely.

The women in these stories would never pass for Harriet Nelson. This leads to wondering whether that's society saying women must not be "normal" to strive to be famous or to stand out, or that if they are not "normal" wives and mothers, can they hope to be anything except freaks? This is something that is not explicit in the stories, however, but is more the kind of thinking that Bergman's stories allow.

The women, according to the way the world usually regards them and treats them, are supposed to be grateful to be in supportive, secondary roles, and to fade away quietly when someone else deems it is time for them to do so.
The moments of happiness are fleeting, but those moments show that living in the moment is the way to find joy. Holding on to it is bittersweet at best. Defiantly going to one's fate is more of a victory than giving in quietly. Loving living is the best revenge.
©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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