Saturday, January 21, 2012

Daring Books for Grown Up Girls

This weekend finds me off to the remote internetless wilderness at the end of the earth a scout lodge on a winter campout. While I'm out summoning up all my own daring (and in case I get eaten by a bear), I thought I'd leave you with a few excellent short story collections that depict women's lives with honesty, emotional range, complexity, and yes, daring writing.

Author Elissa Schappell holds nothing back in Blueprints for Building Better Girls (Simon & Schuster, 2011) the stories are raw, often heartbreaking and resonant, covering the terrain of relationships, marriage, conception, motherhood, self-image, high school ostracism, eating disorders and assault. If you are like me, you may find yourself urging this book on your closest friends when you are done. I was also thrilled to have the chance to ask Ms. Schappell some questions, and absolutely loved her very open, very forthright answers about the collection, writing about women, her own writer's journey, and her work as an editor at Tin House literary magazine. You can read the interview here.

This is Not Your City by Caitlyn Horrocks (Sarabande Books, 2011) is an elegant and yet unsettling debut. One of my favorites in the collection was “Steal Small,” in which a woman, just scraping by, reflects on the past while struggling to make peace with her present. It is a hard existence, she and her husband each working low-wage jobs, collecting and selling want-ad dogs to pharmaceutical companies for extra cash. Her closest family, a younger sister, is in another city starting college. Just as the woman was unable to protect her sister in childhood, she is unable to protect the dogs now. She is grateful, however, for what little she has, and in one of the most beautiful lines in the book, one that I thought summed up Horrocks’ take on her characters in general, she offers:
If this is what I get in this world, I’ll take it. Love and squalor, but mostly love. I’ll take it and I’ll take it and I will not be sorry.
Horrocks does not shy away from complicated moral and emotional terrain in any of her stories, and her characters own the complexity of their feelings — they are not sorry. The stories may leave a reader pondering, uncomfortable, surprised and even disturbed, but they are all striking. 

Access: Thirteen Tales, by Xu Xi (Signal8Press, 2011)
While most of the stories in this collection are told from the point of view of Asian women, this is perhaps the only connecting theme, for each takes the reader in completely new and unexpected directions, radically shifting perspectives between types of women, circumstances, and even countries. Xi’s characters are – in constantly shifting combinations – smart, desirous, powerful, heartbroken, damaged, dutiful, hungry, jealous, sometimes defying convention and sometimes struggling under their compliance with it. The stories in Access tend to challenge, they’ve got a bit of an edge, and don’t even always leave the reader with clearly defined conclusions. But for the more adventurous lover of short, literary fiction, Access may be both a very memorable introduction to Xu Xi (recipient of an O. Henry prize; author of seven books of fiction and essays, one of which was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize; and editor of three anthologies of Hong Kong literature in English) and also a striking reminder of why it is well worth expanding one’s reading horizons beyond the familiar and the comfortable.

Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner, release date March 2012) is about women and their most fundamental relationships — to lovers, spouses, children and parents — and their most primal hopes, disappointments, fears and desires — the loss of a parent, fear of loneliness, the desperate wish to have a child. What makes the stories most unique is their profound and beautifully observed connections to nature, and most notably, to animals. The animals in this collection are as important as the human characters themselves, and Bergman draws upon her own first-hand experience to write about them with exceptional insight and expertise (her husband is a veterinarian, and lives with four dogs, four cats, two goats, a horse, and a handful of chickens). Bergman is also the mother of two and a professor at Bennington College. I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask her about her work, teaching, and forging a writing life in the midst of all those animals, you can read the interview here.

Have you read any daring books for grown up girls recently? Share in the comments!

These reviews were originally published in longer form at Complimentary review copies of all three books were provided by the publishers; all opinions expressed are my own. 

Happy Reading!


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Lisa- really enjoyed all of them, each impressive, with such profoundly different writing styles.

  2. Fantastic reviews. They all sound right up my alley!

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. They probably are! Would be so interested to hear your opinions on the different writers/styles.

  3. these books look really great! thanks for spotlighting them so i can add more to my tbr pile :-)

  4. Sounds fun and relaxing....hanging out at a scout lodge and in the winter too. Enjoy yourself and don't get eaten by any bears please. :-)


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