Thursday, December 25, 2014

Book Review: "Almost Famous Women" by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

"Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women. Maybe there wasn't a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive."

The annals of history—and the literary world—are filled with tales of famous women, those whose names have become common knowledge and in some cases, even household words. But for every famous woman, there are countless women whose fame is fleeting, or even those who remain just out of the spotlight, yet their stories deserve to be told.

In Megan Mayhew Bergman's new short story collection, Almost Famous Women, she brings attention to the stories of some women whose names might be vaguely familiar, and many which are not. From a pair of conjoined twins who flirted briefly with show business to a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band in the midst of racial unrest, author Beryl Markham and Gone with the Wind actress Butterfly McQueen to Dolly Wilde, Oscar's niece, and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, Norma, the characters in these stories are vivid and fascinating in many cases, teaching us many things we'd probably never know and getting us to think in ways we might never do.

Some of the stories which resonated with me the most were: "Saving Butterfly McQueen," told from the viewpoint of a young missionary determined to convert the atheist actress to Catholicism; "Hell-Diving Women," which followed the aforementioned swing band as it travels through the south and meets controversy because of the band's integration; "Who Killed Dolly Wilde," told by a young woman fascinated by the reckless war heroine; and "The Siege at Whale Cay," which told of M.B. "Joe" Carstairs, a speedboat racer known as the fastest woman on water.

Bergman is tremendously talented (I absolutely loved her first collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise), and she fleshes out her characters with emotion, complexity, and flaws. Not all of the stories were as interesting to me, and some are so brief you have little chance to connect with the characters, let alone understand why they were selected to have their tales told. (I would really have loved to have read more about Beryl Markham in "A High-grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch," for example.)

If you're a fan of historical fiction, or enjoy particularly strong and/or quirky female characters, definitely pick up Almost Famous Women. You'll marvel at Bergman's storytelling ability, and perhaps even learn a thing or two.

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