American Housewife: Stories

American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis, 2016

American Housewife is a fun, quick & smart read. Ellis’s collection of short stories is irreverent and witty with some wicked twists on feminine stereotypes. The collection is at once hysterical and bittersweet, and almost all of it rings completely true.

“Hello! Welcome to Book Club” offers a scenario where a book club isn’t just cliquey, but also cult-y. In “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” a one-time novelist competes against a Playboy Bunny, a famous scientologist couple, and Mario Batali for rebooted fame. “What I Do All Day,” is a hilarious passive aggressive email battle between two slightly unhinged apartment neighbors.

There are a few flash fiction pieces interspersed that pack a big punch in just a couple of pages and help break up the longer stories. Although I enjoyed the wicked housewives theme, the tone and voice was the same across all of the stories and frequent first person narrative was used, making all of the stories seem relatively the same. Otherwise I sped through this book completely entertained. If you’re looking for some fierce females to root for definitely pick this up.

-M

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Trigger Warning

“I firmly believe that short-story collections should be the same sort of thing all the way through. They should not, hodgepodge and willy-nilly, assemble stories that were obviously not intended to sit between the same overs. They should not in short, contain horror and ghost stories, science fiction and fairy tales, fabulism and poetry, all in the same place. They should be respectable.

This collection fails this test.”

-Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning, xvi

Short story collections are one category of book that I wish I read more often. I always enjoy them, but never pick them up. Since I’m obsessed with Neil Gaiman, however, this short story collection has been on my radar for a while. These stories did not disappoint.

The best story in this collection is “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” but I know I will be thinking about a lot of these stories for a long time. Black Dog even includes Shadow, the protagonist from American Gods. I really appreciated the foreword where Neil describes the process of creating each of the stories. “The Truth is a Cafe in the Black Mountains” came about as part of an anthology of stories with a science-fiction or fantasy edge. Gaiman got the idea surrounding this story in a story by Otta F. Swire about a cave near the Isle of Skye that was filled with gold. If you were brave enough to enter, you could take all the gold you could carry, but each time you enter the cave, you lose a bit of your soul. Gaiman says “that cave, and its promise, began to haunt me.”

“The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” tells the story of a man brave enough to enter the cave and what he discovers inside. There is even a great surprising twist in the end. I also loved the story about Doctor Who, titled “Nothing O’Clock” and the story about a missing sailor titled “Down to a Sunless Sea.” “Down to a Sunless Sea” is literally two pages but Gaiman somehow creates a realistic, haunting world in those two pages.

I would highly recommend this collection to any Gaiman fans, any fans of science fiction, any horror fans and any fantasy fans.

-A

 

Delicate Edible Birds

Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories by Lauren Groff; 2009

Delicate Edible Birds is a tidy collection of short stories by Lauren Groff. There is no question that Groff is a talented writer and – at least from my perspective – the Beyonce of contemporary lit. Groff has such precise word choice that every time I’m reading something by her I’m just like YAS.

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“L. DeBard and Ailette” gutted me, “Delicate Edible Birds” and “Lucky Chow Fun” haunted me; “Blythe” was my favorite. Not each of the nine stories was my favorite all the way around, but as a whole, the collection truly slays. The stories cover themes like true female independence v. love and marriage; coming of age; female friendships; and the freedom of sex – or lack thereof – for a woman v. a man. All are loosely connected by themes of metamorphosis, where women usually find unexpected happiness (though these stories are not overtly “happy” by any means).

The collection takes us across decades and continents: New York City during the Spanish influenza, modern day Philadelphia Main Line, the French countryside in WWII, upstate New York in the early eighties. A woman seeking something more is at the center of each story. In “Lucky Chow Fun,” a lonely swimmer comes of age while her small town is rocked with scandal. Harriet struggles to balance her own ambitions and identity with an all-consuming friendship in “Blythe.” In “Delicate Edible Birds,” Bern is a lone female war correspondent amongst men traveling across the French countryside in WWII. We learn about Bern through the varying perspectives of her male companions:

In her every small movement she was the woman of the future, a type that would swagger and curse, fall headlong, flaming into the hell of war, be as brave and tough as men, speak loudly and devastatingly, kick brain matter off their shoes and go unhurriedly on.

SLAY!!!

Anyway, Groff can do no wrong in my eyes. This is now the era of nasty women, and Delicate Edible Birds should be required reading for it.

-M

Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout; 2008

The book took A LOT out of me. Olive Kitteridge is a collection of short stories about the residents of Crosby, a small town in Maine. Olive Kitteridge is a stormy force in the town: the wife of the kind pharmacist, Henry, and a fearful math teacher at the school. Olive becomes the life and center of the collection, as she filters in and out of other people’s lives, impacting them in ways she doesn’t realize. I’m not sure I would have read this one if not for my personal challenge to read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, because everything I heard about this book was that it was uber depressing. True – but I’m so glad I read this.

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I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE short story collections that are tied together by characters crossing in and out of each other’s lives. It reminds me of Forster’s ‘Only connect,’ and how personal relationships and humans help to define one another. Olive is featured predominately in most of the stories, but it’s the stories where she appears only briefly in that background that the reader gets a better understanding of the depth of her character.

It is depressing as hell. Mostly because it’s TOO real. Strout captures life and getting older to a T, which I think probably makes readers (myself included) uncomfortable. There’s a lot of death, a lot of affairs, and a ton of heartbreak. But it’s also about the choices we make, and how we see ourselves v. how we’re seen by other people.

I made the MAJOR mistake of watching the HBO miniseries when I was about 3/4 of the way finished with the book. The miniseries is about 80% more depressing than the book, so I almost couldn’t bring myself to finish. I’m glad I did; the ending isn’t quite what you think, and it ends with hope and appreciation for life. Olive and its characters will stay with me probably forever. Have some fresh doughnuts around when you read this one. Trust me.

-M

The Grownup

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

The Grownup was a nice little treat from Gillian Flynn to help tide me over as I continue to wait for her next book. It wasn’t my favorite from her, but the short story involves a lot of her staples, namely a manipulative, edgy female narrator and a story with dark and twisty turns. There’s a haunted house, fake psychic, and creepy stepson. Flynn is a Queen, so I won’t even say more. It’s a seriously entertaining hour of reading. Do it!

-M