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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

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Sentence: Miranda July

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams, the best sentence(s) I read last week, presented without further context or commentary:

I wouldn't use a British accent out loud, but I'd be using one in my head and it would carry over.

-- Miranda July, The First Bad Man

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday Sentence: Megan Mayhew Bergman

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further context or commentary:


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

-- Megan Mayhew Bergman, Almost Famous Women

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review: 'The Swap'

The Swap
By Megan Shull
Middle grade fantasy/contemporary setting
August 2014
Katharine Tegen Books
ISBN: 978-0062311696

Ellie's life doesn't look that great to her, especially when her best friend has a new best friend and they both ridicule her. What Ellie doesn't know is that to Jack, Ellie looks like someone who has her act together. She doesn't know the guy who looks like an in-control, popular athlete is the youngest of four brothers with a widowed father who has turned drill sergeant to keep his boys in line. He doesn't know she and her mother have been struggling to appear that everything is just fine since her dad left.

As school starts, when they both end up seeing the school nurse, they discover far more about each other from the inside out than either of them ever dreamed possible in Megan Shull's witty, wise and wonderful The Swap. Whoever that new school nurse is, she was able to switch things up so that Ellie is inside Jack's body and Jack is inside Ellie's.

The pair quickly agree to a plan that they will have a quiet weekend and try to get back to that school nurse as soon as possible. The plan, of course, goes awry because of their families and friends. But this is where Shull pulls off the fun with wisdom just underneath. Jack, as Ellie, is pampered by a mom who loves to spoil her only child. He could even get used to this spa treatment stuff. Ellie, as Jack, glories in being in with a bunch of roughneck brothers. Jack and Ellie may be in each others' bodies, but they are still themselves.

Being able to see how each other lives, Ellie and Jack also are able to take charge about the things that hurt each other the most -- Ellie's ex-best friend and Jack's distant father. As each other and acting together, they are able to accomplish things they never would have been able to do on their own. And, as they learn about the reality of each others' lives, they are not afraid to be themselves.

As these are tweens, the onset of adolescence from the other gender's point of view is handled with great humor and no vulgarity. This is one of the highlights of Shull's strategy of telling the story in each of their points of view in alternating chapters.

Although the ending at first felt a little too good to be true, it is actually far better than it might have been. Saying more would constitute spoilers, but let's just say sometimes, characters not only get what they deserve, they get an ending that is great for everyone.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sunday Sentence: 'How to be Both'

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence)s I read this week, presented without further commentary or context:

We need both luck and justice to get to live the life we're meant for, she says. Lots of seeds don't get to. ... And I'm not a seed or a tree: I am a person: I won't break open: I haven't got roots: how can I be seed or tree or both?

-- Ali Smith, How to be Both

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Review: 'Things Half in Shadow'

Things Half in Shadow
By Alan Finn
Paranormal mystery
December 2014
Gallery Books
ISBN: 978-1476761725

Edward Clark has a quiet, staid life in post-Civil War Philadelphia. He has a quiet house, a private income, a society fiancee. Even his job as a crime reporter has an air of predictability about it. It's not going to last.

In Alan Flinn's Things Half in Shadow, Edward is about to have his secrets revealed, his life turned upside down and intriguing new avenues open up. It begins when his editor assigns him to a series of newspaper stories unmasking the fake mediums that have invaded the City of Brotherly Love, as they invaded many other cities, in the late 19th century. The first one Clark investigates is the medium whose leaflets are handed out in the street by an obnoxious boy.

The medium, Lucy Collins, may be a fake but she is a spirited heroine in the mold of Amelia Peabody and Lady Julia Gray. Clark may think he's got her number after attending a seance. But it takes Mrs. Collins less than a day to discover his secrets, confront him with her knowledge and blackmail him into becoming partners to continue his investigations. He will get the stories his editor wants and she will help eliminate the competition.

The first medium they visit, Mrs. Lenora Grimes Pastor, is not what they expected. She may well be the real thing. Too bad the seance ends with her death. Now Edward, Lucy and the others in the locked room are suspects in her death. Not even being best friends with the police inspector will help Edward Clark now. If only there was something in his past or any spirits to help him out ...

Alan Finn's Things Half in Shadow works both as a whodunit and as a paranormal story that involves family connections and possible further mysterious complications. Finn conjures up the feel of post-war Philadelphia and the craze for spiritualists. The novel wraps up the story but it also makes it possible for further adventures. I foresee a great future for a series featuring Edward Clark and Lucy Collins.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review: 'The Moor's Account'

The Moor's Account
By Laila Lalami
Literary historical fiction
September 2014
Pantheon
ISBN: 978-0307911667

Winners may control the narrative, but in Laila Lalami's latest novel, who wins and who gets to tell the true story depends on how one views it.

The Moor's Account is based on one line in a report of a Spanish expedition to the New World in the 16th century. Nothing is known about the black slave who survived, but that one line was enough for Moroccan-born Lalami to weave a tale of many stories in a densely packed novel.

Mustafa is the hard-working and greedy son of a trader who takes his life and freedom for granted. When his Moroccan city is captured by the Portuguese, times get hard and his family struggles for the basics. He decides the way to save the others is to sell himself into slavery. His years working for a Spanish merchant offer few moments of happiness, and his loyalty and ability to help his master make a fortune are not appreciated. He ends up the slave of a soldier traveling to the New World to seek gold and lands for the king of Spain in New Florida.

Just as hubris helped lead to his downfall in his native city, ignorant pride leads to disaster for the Spaniards. Their journey through the wilderness does not lead to the gold they thought would be found easily. As their number dwindle and they are reduced to the most base forms of trying to survive, Mustafa, who was renamed Esteban, then Estebanico, finds ways to survive and thrive.

Mustafa's inherent dignity and willingness to meet the circumstances of each day as they find him, or his resilience, are shown more than told about in the novel. Indeed, every aspect of the novel is subtle, whether it's how Mustafa and the Indians are regarded by the Spaniards, or the small differences in how individuals view the world and their changing circumstances.

Written in a highly formalized fashion, The Moor's Account is more like a series of fables than a fast-paced novel. There are adventures aplenty, but the action is not the point It is the appreciation for the sun, the rain, food and good company you can count on that matters. It is the opportunity to tell one's story so that one is not forgotten.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday Sentence: Ali Smith

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read in the past week, presented without further context or commentary:

It is both blatant and invisible. It is subtle and at the same time the most unsubtle thing in the world, so unsubtle it's subtle. Once you've seen it, you can't not see it. It makes the handsome man's intention completely clear. But only if you notice. If you notice, it changes everything about the picture, like a witty remark someone has been brave enough to make out loud but which you only hear if your ears are open to more than one thing happening. It isn't lying about anything or feigning anything, and even if you weren't to notice, it's there clear as anything. It can just be rocks and landscape if that's what you want it to be -- but there's always more to see, if you look.

-- Ali Smith, How to be Both

Friday, January 2, 2015

Review: 'Godforsaken Idaho'

Godforsaken Idaho
By Shawn Vestal
Literary fiction short stories
April 2013
Little A / New Harvest
ISBN: 978-0544027763

From a man who has been dead for hundreds of years, trying to capture whole days or moments that made him feel vibrantly alive, to the man who loses his only daughter to fast-talking, looking-in-his-hat Joseph Smith, the men in Shawn Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho both embody and rail against the two things that one of them says turn the world -- greed and vanity.

The stories in Godforsaken Idaho, which this fall won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction, display an array of characters in settings that range from an eternal cafeteria, which is the bleakest version of heaven around, to the living room of an angry landlord whose heart gave up on him out on the street.

That cafeteria is in the opening story, "The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death", a story that brings to mind the fantastical stories in George Saunders's brilliant Tenth of December. The narrator talks in a matter-of-fact way about how whatever you can imagine is what you experience again in this version of an afterlife. But the only things you can experience now are things that you have already experienced. Food, for example, is only food that you remember eating. You can spend as long or as little as you like reliving certain times, certain moments.

Seeking out the memories worth going over again wears thin soon. When his ex-wife arrives, he talks to her. He talks to his son, who died at a much older age and who doesn't want much to do with a dad who left when he was young. Trying to gather a nuclear family for a meal in that cafeteria leads to complications that he didn't envision. What the narrator realizes is that:
If you want peace, you have to find it in the life you left behind.
But most of Vestal's characters are not interested in peace. They are restless, they don't believe in anything much, they expect disappointment and are not surprised when any of them make sure that disappointment is what they get. And yet. And yet.

Even in the bleakest parts of the greyest stories in this collection, there are moments that are so clear-eyed "along the trail to Godforsaken Idaho", as it is put in one story, that ground the reader in the experiences of the characters. Such is the case of a new father, who realizes when his baby son runs a fever that "he had become something else entirely, a new being who would only exist as long as his son existed".

Some of the characters, or those who may be the same characters or not but who have the same name, appear in different stories. The father in the first story is a boy in the second, for example. Many of the stories are set in or around Gooding, Idaho, a town of less than 4,000 located between Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho, which is Vestal's hometown.

He was raised Mormon, later leaving the faith, and the history and culture is reflected in many of his stories. But as he said in this Oregon Public Broadcasting interview, he did not set out to write stories about Mormonism. It's part of the prism through which he looks at the world because it's part of how he became who he is.

Bradshaw, that new father in "Winter Elders", left the church years ago but they won't leave him alone. Two elders appear at his door, continuing to show up as the snow piles higher. The reader doesn't need details about why or how Bradshaw left; it's in the way he views these men, especially the more dominant one:
Pope smiled patiently at Bradshaw, lips pressed hammily together. It was the smile of every man he had met in church, the bishops and first counselors and stake presidents, the benevolent mask, the put-on solemnity, the utter falseness. It was the smile of the men who brought boxes of food when Bradshaw was a teenager and his father wasn't working, the canned meat and bricks of cheese. The men who prayed for his family. Bradshaw's father would disappear, leaving him and his mother to kneel with the men.
Those men are in leadership in any faith, and it's easy to see how they could steer a hurting boy away from their institution.

The inability to be able to rely on faith affects Rulon Warren, who has the same last name as the other wandering elder in "Winter Elders" and whose story is told by the spirit of another man who inhabits his body. "Opposition in All Things" describes how Warren wants to terrify his fellow church members after he returns from the Good War and the men who have not seen other men killed want to congratulate him. The other man inside Warren went off the deep end and was killed by his erstwhile brethren. This unsettling story is a strong example of how Vestal's men do not believe in more than a church. They struggle to believe in themselves.

It's the same for Hale, the father in "The Diviner" who loses his daughter to Smith:
We do not live in the same world, my neighbors and I. They live in a world of codes and secrets and the hope that all will be understood, and I live in the world where bafflement and mystery are but the foundation and the condition.
And later:
How shall I understand our world when it becomes absurd, O Lord?
When greed and vanity overcome, what Hale discovers is that belief is not what matters. What matters is being together. It's that, rather than a faith system, that gives any of Vestal's men the power to go on. It's what they believe in.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission