Thursday, August 27, 2015

(Review) Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Title: Almost Famous Women
Author: Megan Mayhew Bergman
Published: January 2015 (Scribner)
Rating: ★★★★☆
Format: Hardcover, borrowed from the library
Summary:The fascinating lives of the characters in Almost Famous Women have mostly been forgotten, but their stories are burning to be told. Now Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise, resurrects these women, lets them live in the reader's imagination, so we can explore their difficult choices. Nearly every story in this dazzling collection is based on a woman who attained some celebrity—she raced speed boats or was a conjoined twin in show business; a reclusive painter of renown; a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band. We see Lord Byron's illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde's troubled niece, Dolly; West With the Night author Beryl Markham; Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, Norma. These extraordinary stories travel the world, explore the past (and delve into the future), and portray fiercely independent women defined by their acts of bravery, creative impulses, and sometimes reckless decisions.

The world hasn't always been kind to unusual women, but through Megan Mayhew Bergman's alluring depictions they finally receive the attention they deserve. Almost Famous Women is a gorgeous collection from an "accomplished writer of short fiction" (Booklist).
I will preface this review by saying that I don't tend to like short stories. I am all about the characters and getting to know them, and when one has less than 40 pages (sometimes less than 10), there simply isn't an opportunity do so. But I stumbled across this collection when I was at the library the other day, and I was too intrigued to let the opportunity pass me by.

I went ahead and picked it up, and then I took the plunge and began reading it. I am immensely thankful that I did.

Megan Mayhew Bergman's writing is absolutely stunning. She weaves together similes and adjectives and the most unlikely strings of words on occasion, but they all somehow coalesce into a moving reading experience. Whether you are experiencing joy or revulsion or compassion, the words are there to make each moment just that much more poignant.

Her stories are all compelling, though each is completely unique. It is difficult to compare a story about a multiracial swing band to that of a cross-dressing heiress who owns her own island and races boats. What I can say about all of these stories is that they all explored human nature in the most interesting ways and from all different angles.

The idea of taking real women from history and writing fictional stories about them is risky, but the author pulls it off splendidly. I felt like I was immersed in each woman's life from the very first sentence of each segment. While it is not an uplifting read – the stories tend to be rather dark in subject matter – it never feels cumbersome or depressing. It is more like seeing each woman when she is most human, whether viewing her in a single moment or in brief snapshots throughout the course of a life.

If I have a single complaint, it would be that “The Lottery, Redux” did not fit with the rest of the stories, being based on a fictional work. I have not, in fact, read “The Lottery,” (or if I have, it's been quite a long time), so reading a *cough*fanfiction*cough* “cover story” on it did not interest me at all. The author does say in her notes, however, that McSweeny's specifically asked her to write a cover story of a classic, so apparently someone felt that it was needed.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this collection, the writing in particular, and I will definitely be checking out Mayhew Bergman's previous short story collection soon.
Let me tell it, I said.
No, you're a liar and a drunk, she said. Or I said.

L is choreographing in her head again, making mental diagrams: the arch of a back, a lunge, a flexed foot. Her own bare feet tap the floor of the rented flat. She wants to stumble upon an invisible idea and render it with her body, amplify it. She feels something savage and raw inside and wants to show it on the stage, or in a patron's garden. She wants to begin a discussion underneath the orange trees.

Time didn't matter on Whale Clay. You did what Joe wanted to do, when Joe wanted to do it. That was all.

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