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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

What I’m Reading: American Housewife

This Fall I listened to the audio of the story collection American Housewife by Helen Ellis.  Summary from Goodreads:

A sharp, funny, delightfully unhinged collection of stories set in the dark world of domesticity, American Housewife features murderous ladies who lunch, celebrity treasure hunters, and the best bra fitter south of the Mason Dixon line. 
Meet the women of American Housewife: they wear lipstick, pearls, and sunscreen, even when it's cloudy. They casserole. They pinwheel. They pump the salad spinner like it's a CPR dummy. And then they kill a party crasher, carefully stepping around the body to pull cookies out of the oven. These twelve irresistible stories take us from a haunted prewar Manhattan apartment building to the set of a rigged reality television show, from the unique initiation ritual of a book club to the getaway car of a pageant princess on the lam, from the gallery opening of a tinfoil artist to the fitting room of a legendary lingerie shop. Vicious, fresh, and nutty as a poisoned Goo Goo Cluster, American Housewife is an uproarious, pointed commentary on womanhood.
Appeal: These are stories of modern women, from right now, not the 1950s, who are extremely flawed [even bordering on unreliable at times], have pent up rage, and are not afraid to extract revenge. They do not hold back, but they also get their revenge with a smile on their face-- a pasted on, fake smile, but a smile nonetheless. And the result is hysterical.

Okay, well let me clarify. This may not be funny to every reader because it is a macabre, dark, almost Gothic sense of humor. But it is not bleak. The pacing is brisk with the barbs and jabs being thrown at the reader and the characters with the precision of a carnival knife thrower. You are shocked, awed, and entertained, but you also understand there is a darkness at the core of your fun.

It is satire at its best. Hardly a topic that faces women today is missed. The social commentary and through provoking aspects of the stories-- both taken alone and read as entire volume-- are impossible to evade; you cannot hide from Ellis’ sharp prose. Even when the humor goes a bit over the top at times, it never obscures the fact that Ellis wants you to be entertained while reading, but then, after closing the book, she wants you to truly think about how her satire speaks to you and your specific life.

I think it is also important to note that off the 12 pieces here, less than half are traditional stories.  A few are lists or very short vignettes.  My favorites were the ones about the wainscoting war and the reality TV show, but I enjoyed every story for what it was and what it was trying to do.

I think all American women, no matter what their career choice, would have something to gain from reading this.  Yes, the dark, macabre humor is not for every reader, but the social commentary is. In fact, I think many men would learn a lot by reading this volume too, it just might be a hard sell.

Audio Narration: I cannot exaggerate enough how much I loved this book on audio.  I am not sure I would have liked it as much without the expert, southern drawls by the various female narrators. Ellis must have worked with them to get the emphasis and tone just perfect. I would not have enjoyed the book as much reading it in my own head. Although it is not a readalike in anyway, this is the same experience I had when I listened to one of my 2015 favorites, Delicious FoodsClick through to Audible for more comments by other listeners and full info on all the narrators.

Three Words That Describe This Book: satire, hilarious, macabre

Readalikes: Right after finishing this collection, I read Today Will be Different by Maria Semple, another sardonic look at modern womanhood. You can click through to read my review, and while I enjoyed Semple’s novel, I thought American Housewife was better. But, I also concede that the audio experience was so fantastic for me with this Ellis collection, that my opinion could have been swayed by the format.  Either way, they make for excellent readalikes.  The Semple review also has a bunch of readalike suggestions which I will not repeat here.

In her star review of this collection in Booklist, Donna Seaman said: "By extracting elements from the southern gothic tradition, Shirley Jackson, and Margaret Atwood, Ellis has forged her own molten, mind-twisting storytelling mode. “ I agree with those readalikes. To keep with the stories format try Jackson’s The Lottery and Atwood’s collection, “The Tent.” But work by either author is a good suggestion here.

The macabre and sardonic southern humor of Carl Hiaasen would also appeal to fans of this collection.

Two titles I haven’t gotten around to reading, but who fellow library workers have recommended to me and that are very similar are The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie and Dietland by Sarai Walker.

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