January 12 2016
In case you haven’t heard yet, May is International Short Story month and if you’re still looking for a way to celebrate let me help you out by recommending my favourite short story collection of the year (so far) – American Housewife by Helen Ellis.
Whether you‘re a regular reader of short fiction or dipping your toes in for the first time, this collection is smart and sassy with razor sharp wit. And as an added bonus, women are at the centre of it all. If that’s not enough to convince you I can give you four more good reasons why you’re going to love it.
1) “What I Do All Day”
This is a short simple story, written stream of conscious style, about what one woman does in a day at home. It’s not particularly groundbreaking, she doesn’t reveal any surprises or secret scandals. This unnamed woman just goes about her day. She watches Sixteen Candles, she goes to the grocery store, she has a glass of wine. But the free flowing, unguarded style, really gives the reader a glimpse into all the thought, the emotion, the joy and the worry that hides behind every act. And if nothing else this story contains my favourite line from the whole collection:
“I fix myself a hot chocolate because it is the gateway drug to reading.”
If Helen Ellis/Doubleday printed that on a mug tomorrow I would be first in line to buy it.
2) “The Wainscoting War”
If you’re unsure about short story but you are a fan of infamous prankster David Thorne this may be the story that sells you on the format.
Told entirely via an e-mail exchange between two neighbours – one who has recently moved into the building and one who has lived there for years – the story tracks their negotiations regarding the common hallway. Gail, the previous tenant, wants to leave it the way it is, with antique wallpaper and art and Angela, thinks it could use some remodelling, since it “looks like a room at the Met that makes schoolchildren cry.”
Their correspondence starts out polite, with forced pleasantries, but soon devolves into a something much more scandalous. From insults, to vandalism, to threats, to cat murder, this story took a dark turn that I wasn’t expecting, but that I couldn’t get enough of.
3) “Dumpster Diving with the Stars”
The narrator of this story is a writer herself. Her debut novel was a huge hit, a “cult classic,” but in the fifteen years since then she’s had a hard time finding her voice. To keep her career going, and stay relevant, in the meantime she decides to take part in a reality TV show called Dumpster Diving with the Stars. Just like the name suggests the show centres around a number of celebrities as they compete to find the best “treasures” among junk in various settings.
This story is much more light-hearted than “The Wainscoting War.” The author competes aside celebrities like John Lithgow, Mario Batali, one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends and a pair of actors who belong to the church of Scientology. It has the zaniness of a reality TV show, with contestants making personal revelations, forming alliances and making complete fools of themselves as they fight over pieces of what is more often than not, pieces of garbage.
4) “My Novel is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax”
The last story in American Housewife is a little strange and a little dark (a common theme throughout the collection) but it is easily my favourite of the bunch. Just like “Dumpster Diving with the Stars” this story is also narrated by a writer, and this writer is also having a bit of trouble putting pen to paper. But whereas the earlier author was free to distract herself with a stint on television, this author is under a much stricter contract because her novel is sponsored by Tampax.
Though the premise of this story is a little absurd (I hope), the lengths the author goes to in order to procrastinate is something I think many people will be able to relate to. She works on marketing strategies and promotions and convinces herself that these are all important parts of the process. But eventually all that procrastination catches up with her in some expected ways.
These are only four of the twelve excellent stories you will find in American Housewife. If the energetic writing, and the compelling characters don’t win you over, the dark humour and over-the-top scandals definitely will.