Named after a fictional girls' etiquette handbook, Elissa Schappell's 2011 short story collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, offers a multi-perspectival, intergenerational portrait of American womanhood. Told with impressive care and patience, the eight stories of the collection inspire a familiar uncertainty at odds with the trite didactic moral lessons the title promises.
The protagonists of the stories are involved in an intricate web of acquaintance. Characters mentioned in passing in one story appear later as main subjects, all the while coping with the shattered illusion of safety that so often pushes people toward adulthood before their time. The collection is bookended with the stories of Heather, the "school slut" whom we see first as a teenager and later as a concerned mother. The six stories in between jump forward and backward in time, examining the characters' set expecations for their own lives versus the realities they face.
I like to yank hermits into the spotlight. I’m a sucker for women whose work is sometimes considered "secondary," who kept a low profile and got a lot done. Their lives are usually stranger and their work is often quite unique. So today I’d like us all to focus our attention for a moment on someone who made odd and wonderful fiction, who was constantly seeking out freedom, and who was, to her great dismay, isolated for a large chunk of her short life.
Katherine Mansfield was spirited and strong-willed; diagnosed with tuberculosis at 29, she died five years later after running up a flight of stairs to prove how well she was. She was one of the best writers of the 20th century, though she never wrote a novel, preferring to write in what she called "glimpses." Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal that Mansfield was the only writer she’d ever been jealous of.
Alissa Nutting's Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls is a collection of bizarre and wonderful stories about the difficulty of bodies and the possibilities that arise when their inhabitants transcend them. Nutting, who is the managing editor of the awesome Fairy Tale Review, paints a series of women deviants with irresistible fairy-tale simplicity, creating loveliness and magic in some extraordinarily wicked places.
We’re going to leave the 19th century soon, but not before we’ve covered a certain breed of independent woman literary icon. At a time when divorce was the height of scandal, Louise Mallard and Nora Helmer were literary characters who looked to a better life without their husbands. And they suffered terribly for it. Let’s explore the rise of representations of women learning to live their lives far from being under a man’s thumb.
A lot of complaints about MFA programs start with the assertion that writers should be "living," instead of going to school….If going to graduate school was supposed to provide me with some kind of injunction against "real life," against emergency phone calls from friends and family, physical and financial threats and challenges faced by people I love, money worries, racism, heartbreak, and the uncertainty of living in a world that seems constantly on the brink of large scale disaster, then the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has some serious explaining to do, because I never got my exemption paperwork.
Evans doesn’t spare the characters of her debut short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (Riverhead), from these problems either.
As a big fan of the strange short work by writers like Gary Lutz and Lydia Davis, I was drawn to Lindsay Hunter’s new book, Daddy's, nestled next to an anticipated Lutz rerelease in the small press section of Powell’s Books. Many of the writers in this section are faithful upholders of the short story, a form that can be hard to market and is often thought of by more commercial writers and publishers as practice on the way to a novel. But the writers I love, the ones who choose the short story as their primary form, use carefully chosen words to place their characters in unexpected, sometimes disturbing situations. Then they leave you to make your own conclusions about what you’ve encountered. I hoped that this was the kind of thing I’d find in Hunter’s Daddy’s, and the jacket blurbs bolstered my hope. Kyle Minor wrote, "Lindsay Hunter won’t be caught lie-telling in the name of nice. The miniature stories in Daddy’s are fierce and unapologetic." I’m happy to report that Hunter’s book did not disappoint.
I met her in the backyard. She was soaking up the sun, wishing it would never set. She greeted me with excitement, her energy radiating. When she spoke I could sense she was a strong woman that had worked hard for what she had. I quickly learned that she was a Portland-based writer & director...