Thursday, September 11, 2014

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

My first reaction to the book was one of an indifferent feeling of laissez faire

The first note-to-self asked : "and what is the point, exactly?"

What was the purpose of the book, was my question after reading the first few essays. Was it a creative writing class assignment at one point in time? 

"Write an essay on the life of any historical female icon, in which you capture the essence of her being, as though she appeared in a dream to you. Capture the person in the personality. Use carte blanche to weave tales around the woman, based on their true life stories. Climb into their lives. Become a close friend. Create bytes of some definitive moments and bring these women alive to generations who never knew them. Have fun!" 

Or something like that.

Initially the book did not make me pirouette on the coffee table with excitement, nor did I dance with joy. I looked at the number of pages, took a glimpse at the clock and wondered how much time it was going to take, and should it be taken, to venture further into the prose.

But I did the book a favor, thought I would safe my own sanity, and ventured off onto the internet, finding profiles of these women. 

That's where it happened for me. Suddenly the color rushed into the black-and-white photographs, the glazed-over eyes in the paintings lightened up, forgotten names and short biographies came alive. 

I was hooked.

Only then, did the book made me sit up straight. It masterfully captured the spirit, of these women who
- were exclamation points in history;
- had glamour and bravery;
- possessed almost savage femininity;
- often had more panache than money;
- experienced a flash of greatness;
- were brave but not imbeciles;
- possessed heroic femininity
- did not know the luxury of being mediocre;
- were able to call a man chickenshit to his face and get away with it;
(paraphrasing from the book)

The author put the reader inside the skin of each woman, and did so with vivid immediacy.

Some of the personas who made it into the book (Thank you Wikipedia):
Marlene Dietrich(December 27, 1901, to May 6, 1992) - famous actress;
Marion Barbara 'Joe' Carstairs (1900 – 18 December 1993)- a wealthy British power boat racer known for her speed and her eccentric lifestyle;
Violet& Daisy Hilton (5 February 1908 – January 1969) - a pair of British conjoined twins or Siamese Twins;
Romaine Brooks, born Beatrice Romaine Goddard (May 1, 1874 – December 7, 1970) - an American painter who worked mostly in Paris and Capri. She specialized in portraiture and used a subdued palette dominated by the color gray; 
Tiny Davis Trumpet player for the first racially integrated woman's swinging jazz band, the International Sweethearts Of Rhythm
Lucia Anna Joyce (26 July 1907 Trieste - 12 December 1982 Northampton) - the daughter of Irish writer James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the Burghölzli psychiatric clinic in Zurich. She was placed in an institution in Ivry-sur-Seine, France, in 1935
Hazel Marion Eaton Watkins (July 4, 1895 – December 22, 1970) - was one of the first "mile-a-minute girls" to ride an Indian motorcycle in a carnival motordrome known as the Wall of Death;
Clara Allegra Byron (12 January 1817 – 20 April 1822), initially named Alba, meaning "dawn," or "white," by her mother, was the illegitimate daughter of the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of Mary Shelley. (wikipedia info - mmmm .... did she have two fathers, I wondered)
Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen (January 8, 1911 – December 22, 1995) - an American actress. Originally a dancer, McQueen first appeared as Prissy, Scarlett O'Hara's maid in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. She donated her body to science.
Dorothy Ierne Wilde, known as Dolly Wilde, (July 11, 1895 – April 10, 1941) niece of Oscar Wilde - an Anglo-Irish socialite, made famous by her family connections and her reputation as a witty conversationalist.
Beryl Markham(26 October 1902 – 3 August 1986) - a British-born Kenyan aviator, adventurer, racehorse trainer and author. During the pioneer days of aviation, she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean and the first person to make it from London to New York nonstop. 

In 1925 Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to California restaurateur George Gutekunst, wrote

"Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West with the Night? ...She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book."

The tales were not sterile biographical paintings in color. Delving into these women's lives, doing research for the book, brought insight for the author as well.

"Or maybe I knew less. Maybe what I knew was that there was more mystery and hurt than I could have imagined. 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 prose, undoubtedly, establishes Megan Mayhew Bergman as a promising master of historical fiction.
(Some examples of the prose in the book

"All around me, killers. My brother. My neighbor. My countrymen. My enemies. Everyone has a saturation point."

"This is what the war has taught me: we kill each other and we kill ourselves. Even though we sleep in nice hotels on soft French linens. Even though we have dresses we never wear. Even though we drink champagne while others work in coal mines or the trenches of Vimy Ridge, smelling of gangrene. We have always been this way, killers inside. It is the human condition."

"The world folds in on itself in a ball of fire."

"She went back to leaning against the stable. She sipped the wine and watched enormous, salmon-colored clouds of flamingos drag their overturned heads across the muddy shallows of Nakuru. Deafening birdlife meant a constant stream of shit on the racetrack, but her horses were too well trained to stop and smell it, or lick at it the way her dogs did."

"The British soldiers opened the box and threw tubes of lipstick at the crowd, and we wanted it — we were surprised how badly we wanted it — and we walked the halls, some of us still without adequate clothing, some of us with piss-drenched blankets tossed over our shoulders like shawls, with scarlet lips. We rubbed the lipstick over our mouths. Over and over. We had pink wax on our rotten teeth. We were human again. We were women."
I am not a short story reader, neither spend much time with essays. I love long fictional journeys through the winding roads of history. Therefore I found the collection of moments in these women's lives lacking, extremely well presented though, but way too short. It is brilliantly written. In fact, should the author decide to write historical fictional novels about each of these women, I will read them all. The prose is just that good!

In my opinion the book resort more in the mixed genre category in that each story is a blend of some elements of fiction with elements of nonfiction used in a very deliberate way. Some of them are very short, more like essays, and others are more expanded. The research was excellent as is clear from the text. The selected women deserved the show case - another shot at fame. They also deserved the color that was added back to their pictures in history books. If I did not take the time to read up on these women, I would never have discovered their remarkable place in history, nor appreciated their stories, and not enjoy this book as much as I did in the end. 

The book inspired me to spend long hours on the internet, reading about these women, adding fuel to my bibliophylic addiction. I even ordered another book "Scandalous Women" by Elizabeth Kerry Mahon.

The author's note at the back of the book explains her inspiration to choose these particular women and provides her sources of research used to write it. I was so involved in the stories that I simply could not believe my eyes when there was nothing more to read at the end. Four stars it is for the entertainment value and brilliant writing. 

Note to fellow readers: do your homework before you read each story. Make friends with Google! You won't regret doing just that and then enjoy the masterful compassionate prose in Almost Famous. I simply loved the entire experience. In the end I did THE pirouette and THE dance!

The book is destined for publication Jan 6, 2015. A Simon & Schuster | Scribner publication through NetGalley. My sincerest thanks for the opportunity to read this book.


From "a top-notch emerging writer with a crisp and often poetic voice and wily, intelligent humor" (The Boston Globe): a collection of stories that explores the lives of talented, gutsy women throughout history.

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"



Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise, a collection of stories forthcoming from Scribner in March 2012. Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection for spring 2012 and an Indie Next Pick for March. 

Megan's work has appeared in the New York Times, Best American Short Stories 2011, New Stories from the South 2012, Ploughshares, One Story, Oxford American, The Kenyon Review, Narrative and elsewhere. 

Raised in North Carolina, Megan now lives on a small farm in Vermont with her two daughters, veterinarian husband, and a host of rescue animals.

Visit the AUTHOR'S WEBSITE for more information

Genres: Historical fiction, Short Stories, Essays, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Women's History

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Nook, Kindle,
Number of pages:
Edition language:
Publication date: 
January 6th 2015
Publishers: Scribners

  • ISBN-10: 1476786569
  • ISBN-13: 978-1476786568
Purchase links: Amazon USA | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble | More purchase links

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