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Almost Famous Women: Stories

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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" (Booklist).

239 pages, Hardcover

First published January 6, 2015

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About the author

Megan Mayhew Bergman

15 books298 followers
Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of three books, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Almost Famous Women, and How Strange a Season, forthcoming from Scribner in March 2022. She is currently writing a book on the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, also with Scribner.

She lives on a farm in Vermont with two daughters and several rescue animals, and directs the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers' Conference at Middlebury College.


Megan studied anthropology at Wake Forest University, has an MA from Duke University, and an MFA from Bennington College. Her work was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers and an Indie Next selection, and won the Garrett Award for Fiction in 2012. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the American Library in Paris.

Megan is a journalist, essayist, and critic. She has written columns on climate change and the natural world for The Guardian and The Paris Review. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Tin House, Ploughshares, Oxford American, Orion, and elsewhere. Her short fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2011 and 2015, and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She was awarded the Phil Reed Environmental Writing Award for Journalism in 2020.

While at Bennington College, she served as the Associate Director of the MFA program and Director of the Robert Frost Stone House Museum. She currently teaches literature and environmental writing at Middlebury College, where she also serves as Director of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference.

Her work has been optioned for film and translated into several languages. She’s collaborated with choreographer Annie Wang, traveled to Northern Kenya’s conflict zone with The BOMA Project, and can often be found on the coast of Georgia supporting her friends at conservation non-profit One Hundred Miles. Her photography has appeared in The Guardian, Wall Street Journal, and Audubon.

Megan recently served as a Senior Fellow at the Conservation Law Foundation. She’s currently a regular columnist at The Guardian and Audubon.

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Profile Image for Nat.
542 reviews3,170 followers
June 5, 2020
“You can fill up your life with ideas and still go home lonely.”
—Janis Joplin

(The epigraph is epic.)

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 Pretty, Grown-Together Children: 5/5 stars
“There were no secrets. Imagine: you could say nothing, do nothing, eat nothing, touch nothing, love nothing without the other knowing.”

This tells the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, a pair of English conjoined twins in show business. And it was truly and honestly unlike anything I’ve read before in a short story.

I started with one page and then put it down to get something to drink, and the whole time away I couldn't stop thinking about Daisy and Violet.
I hadn't heard about the Hilton twins prior to this, but I sure did my research after finishing.

“Violet and I might be broke and we might be strange but we were not ordinary.”

The Siege at Whale Cay: 3.5/5 stars
M. B. “Joe” Carstairs, the fastest woman on water.

Former star of a carnival swim show in Florida, Georgie, is going steady (for the time-being) with Joe.

“Her God-fearing parents thought she was teaching swimming lessons on a private island. They didn’t know she’d spent the last three months shacked up with a forty-year-old womanizing heiress who stalked around her own private island wearing a machete across her chest, chasing shrimp cocktails with magnums of champagne every night. A woman who entered into a sham marriage to secure her inheritance, annulling it shortly thereafter. A woman who raced expensive boats, who kept a cache of weapons and maps from the First World War in her own private museum, a cylindrical tower on the east side of the island.”

However, their relationship turns rocky when movie star, Marlene arrives on a yacht with a boatload of beautiful, rich people, actresses and politicians.

The overall story kept my attention, but I don't usually enjoy reading about rivalry in relationships so that made me lower my rating.

Also, what the hell with Georgie happened towards the end??

“She treaded water, fingers moving against the dark sea, pushing it away to keep herself afloat. There were rocks jutting out from the water, a near miss. There were strange birds nesting in the tall grass, a native woman bleeding on a straw mattress in a hut on the south shore, a stone house strangled by fig trees.”

What? It surely cannot end on that... I need to know what happened.

Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period: 3.5/5 stars
Told in four acts, Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period goes through time and back to describe the sisterhood between Norma and Vincent Millay.

It's a rather short story so not much was expanded, but I liked seeing how they had each other's back till the end of time.

Also, the writing in this is gorgeous.

“When she breathes in, her sister’s claret-colored hair falls across her face, and she feels deep love tinged with resentment, like the pure ice leaching red dye from the river.”

I love how specific it is.

Romaine Remains: 2.5/5 stars
“We are what we can be, not what we ought to be.”
—From Romaine Brooks’s notebooks

We enter Romaine’s later life told entirely from the perspective of her houseboy. Their interactions were always a bit cold and empty, but I never suspected him to behave in such a cruel way.

“I do not care for her, Mario thinks. I do not feel sorry for her. I only want to take some small slice of her life and have it for myself”

I didn’t like the way his characterization was handled—the story made him out to be so vengeful, to claim something that wasn't rightfully his, and I did not care for how it was taken care of.

“He can feel the new film of self-confidence he has acquired peeling back, revealing the well of self-doubt, the sense he has carried with him his entire life that he has been wronged, that he is owed more. He needs her to see who he really is, who he can become. He hates her and he needs her love, and she is never going to give it.”

Also, that ending was confusing as hell.

Hazel Eaton and the Wall of Death: 3.5/5 stars
In this short story Hazel Eaton is lying in a hospital room in Bangor after an accident happened when “her rear brake locked up as she was circling the motordrome at sixty miles per hour. ”

It was only a few pages, but I loved getting to research her past after finishing it.

“Don’t tell my parents,” Hazel slurs, but the nurse is gone. Her parents will see reports of the crash in the papers anyway, and her mother will write her a letter asking, Why? Why must you put yourself in harm’s way every week? Every day?
What they don’t know: nothing has topped the feeling of standing next to the motordrome, smiling into the din of applause. Nothing has topped the way men shake her hand and look her in the eye, what it’s like to be able to call a man chickenshit to his face and get away with it, to mean it, to feel free and dominant and in control of your life.”

Expression Theory: 3/5 stars
Expression Theory describes Lucia Joyce's thought process. But I have to mention that I didn't understand what I was reading until I googled her. And since the story was really short, it didn't help to comprehend everything that was happening.

Saving Butterfly McQueen: 4/5 stars
We begin following Elizabeth, a student in med school, when she and her classmates are about to slice cadavers open. And just as she's about to cut into the body, her thoughts turn to Butterfly McQueen.

Back in the day, Elizabeth went with her youth group trying to convince people to “let the light of the Lord into [their] heart.” And so she thinks back to trying to convince Butterfly McQueen, who was in her eighties, to join the Lord.

But when she actually get to talk to Butterfly McQueen, Elizabeth realises that even she doesn't believe in what she's trying to sell.

“Don’t you worry about what’s going to happen when you die?” I said, suddenly genuinely curious.
“I already know what’s going to happen when I pass,” she said. “I’m giving my body to science.”

“This was the first time I’d ever heard of someone not wanting to lie in a grave in their best dress, plastic lilies stuck in the ground next to a granite tombstone. It seemed to me so rational and selfless, one of the greatest gifts you could give: your whole body.”

A truly fascinating take on both religion and science.

Who Killed Dolly Wilde?: 4.5/5 stars
Told from the point of view of a loved one, this story describes Dolly Wilde in her last year.

“For years people who admired Dolly’s wit and entertaining personal letters pleaded with her to write a book, but she never had. She was lazy, but I think she was also stymied by her uncle’s shadow.
“How can I be any good if he has used it all up?” she once said to me.”

I wasn't expecting to love this story as much as I did. But damn, this was phenomenal. The characters, the loves, the nights horrors. Everything and so much more made this story so incredible.

I also loved that a lot of the women mentioned in this collection were connected one way or another. It made everything feel that more real.

A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch: 2.5/5 stars
“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.”
—Ernest Hemingway, on Beryl Markham

Fearless Beryl Markham had been riding racehorses since she was eleven and the recent regal stallion she��d gotten for nothing at auction, mystifies her.

“I want to be alone when I turn the stallion out, she thought, looking for his proud head over the stall door. I want him to know me as his master, his alpha and omega.”

I wasn't expecting to read about her cruelty towards the horse, but I was definitely left terrified of her character. I seriously cannot read about animal cruelty, it breaks me apart.

The Internees: 4/5 stars

This short story describes the liberation process from the ghetto concentration camps. It was only a couple of pages but managed to encompass the whole world, for me.

“We were human again. We were women.”

Hell-Diving Women: 4.5/5 stars
Ruby lives on the road with America’s first integrated all-girl swing band, gig to gig, and while behind the wheel she starts to think about her friend/ crush, Tiny Davis.

“Ruby is the do-anything girl. It’s not the best job in the world, but it’s a job that keeps her close to Tiny and close to music. ”

Ruby tries not to show it, but she wishes to be part of the sound that the band produces.

“If only I could be part of that flow, part of that sound.”

There was also talk about race, sexuality, white-privilege, and it tackled each issue with the most honest and sincere truth.

“Hey there, black girl!” a man in a blue suit shouts, huge smile on his face. He holds his drink up to toast Tiny, sloshing small, clear drops of gin onto the floor.
“Hey, fella,” Tiny shouts, looking down and gesturing with her trumpet. “It’s not about being black. It’s not about being a girl, though I like girls. It’s about playing your goddamn music. Blowing your goddamn horn.”

Lastly, I want to mention that I absolutely loved getting to research each and every woman featured in this collection and getting to know them a bit better than before. I truly appreciate any book that makes me come out more educated once I finish, and that it did.

*Note: I'm an Amazon Affiliate. If you're interested in buying Almost Famous Women, just click on the image below to go through my link. I'll make a small commission!*

This review and more can be found on my blog.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,509 reviews2,510 followers
May 11, 2015
Twelve of the 13 stories in this collection take up the lives of historical women who are either virtually unknown or only known through association with more famous figures. As Bergman puts it in her author’s note, the stories “are born of fascination with real women whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes.”

Some of our ‘almost famous’ heroines are Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly; Edna St. Vincent Millay’s acting sister, Norma; and James Joyce’s unstable dancer daughter, Lucia. There are also historical figures you may have heard of but likely know little about: painter Romaine Brooks, actress Butterfly McQueen (one of the maids in Gone With the Wind), and early aviatrix Beryl Markham. There is such variety in this baker’s dozen of stories: they are split almost equally between the past and present tense, and between first- and third-person perspectives, although the latter wins out a bit more often.

Two stories even use the first-person plural, a viewpoint of which I’m particularly fond. “The Internees” is a story in miniature, just one and a half pages, depicting the female residents of Bergen-Belsen in 1945. When liberation comes and they are able to wear lipstick again, it restores their identity: “We were human again. We were women.” This perspective also has an intriguing use in the first story, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children,” about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Although Daisy is the chief narrator, she sometimes lapses into first-person plural: “We were somewhere between singular and plural.”

If the Hilton twins were beyond the pale because of their physical uniqueness, other heroines are so because of their sexuality. For instance, “The Siege at Whale Cay” is about Marlene Dietrich’s visit to lesbian couple Georgie and Joe – M. B. “Joe” Carstairs, a larger-than-life heiress who owned a Caribbean island and held sway over the locals. Dolly Wilde was also a lesbian; in two subtle connections with previous stories, she once shared a lover of Romaine Brooks’s, and corresponded with Joe Carstairs (both were ambulance drivers during World War I).

The main characters of the final story, “Hell-Diving Women,” are doubly unconventional: black and lesbian, they were members of the first integrated female swing band. Whether they break racial or sexual taboos or (like Romaine) are so old the world no longer remembers them, all of these women are outsiders. Yet they are such vibrant individuals they simply cannot blend into the crowd; “You don’t have the luxury of being mediocre,” the Millay girls’ mother chides them.

Most of the stories are set in the 1910s-40s, but a couple of notable ones break that mold. “The Autobiography of Allegra Byron,” narrated by the little girl’s nurse at the Italian convent where she lived the last two years of her short life, is set in the 1820s. “The Lottery, Redux” is set in an unspecified near future and has dystopian elements. It’s the odd one out in that it does not contain any historical figures. Rather, it is inspired by Shirley Jackson’s most famous short story. A second generation of exiles on the island of Timothy, banished for “environmental crimes,” must reduce their population one by one through a ritualized ceremony.

My favorite story of all is “Saving Butterfly McQueen.” The narrator, Elizabeth, is about to cut into a cadaver as part of her medical training in Baltimore. Suddenly her mind jumps back to the moment when, as a teen on a door-to-door evangelism mission in Georgia, she met Butterfly McQueen on her doorstep. McQueen was an avowed atheist and told Elizabeth not to waste her time; she was going to be donating her body to science. Especially when Elizabeth’s mother became ill with cancer, she came to realize how, for McQueen, dedicating her body to research “was about taking control of the thing that was undeniably hers.” Although the framework is fictional, McQueen’s story is historical. It reminded me of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, one of my favorite recent books.

Indeed, many of these stories could lead readers directly into longer works. Here are a few of my related recommendations:

If you like “The Siege at Whale Cay,” try Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood and The Night Watch by Sarah Waters.

If you like “Hazel Eaton and the Wall of Death,” try The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.

If you like “The Autobiography of Allegra Byron,” try Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen.

If you like “A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch,” try Circling the Sun by Paula McLain.

If you like “The Lottery, Redux,” try Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell.

This is a rich, wonderful collection. If I have one point of criticism, it is that the shorter stories (several in the range of 3–5 pages) don’t add much to the whole. The in-depth character analysis you get in the longer stories is where Bergman shines. I can see this book fulfilling a dual gateway function: inviting those who normally read non-fiction, especially biographies, to attempt some fiction; and luring historical fiction lovers to give both short stories and non-fiction a chance. Bergman’s author’s note gives her sources and initial inspirations for each of the stories, so readers can follow up on anything of particular interest.

As the narrator of “Who Killed Dolly Wilde?” muses, “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.” That is, until Bergman’s terrific book gave these almost famous women the perfect showcase.

With thanks to Maya Lang, and Kara Watson of Scribner, for arranging my free review copy.

(This review originally appeared at Bookkaholic.)
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,687 reviews14k followers
January 10, 2015
I will admit to spending quite a bit of time looking up many of the people these stories were written about. All exceedingly well written though, but there were two that really resonated with me. The two about the oldest and the youngest. Romaine remains, after a fully decadent life Romaine is now 93 and housebound. The people who are hired to care for her take advantage of her in many ways. Something about being that elderly and becoming a victim after living a life on virtually her own terms just filled me with pity.

The second story was the story of Allegra Byron, which starts when she is three. So incredibly sad, this young lady and her short tragic life. Loved the author for imagining someone who really loved her and tried to care for her, show her a little joy. Found myself hoping such a person actually existed.

Anyway there is something here that would appeal to anyone who loves short stories, although most have a common theme they are all written differently but oh so interestingly.

ARC from publisher.
Profile Image for Jennifer (Insert Lit Pun).
314 reviews1,955 followers
July 8, 2018
These are thirteen stories about extraordinary women whose “lives were reduced to footnotes.” My two favorites featured Allegra Byron (Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter) and Butterfly McQueen (an actress who played one of the maids in Gone with the Wind). All of the stories offer an unusual combination of grit and sensitivity. Most feature these women when they’re well past their primes, giving the whole collection a melancholy feel that kept me from wanting to read too many stories at once (there’s a lot of sagging flesh, drug addictions, and wasted dreams). But I highly recommend checking this collection out – Bergman is incredibly talented.
Profile Image for Britany.
941 reviews415 followers
June 20, 2017
I absolutely LOVED this one! I'm usually not a fan of short story collections. For me, they just don't work well together. This book, however, is the exception. I devoured this book, and would've finished it in one setting if I had the time! Each story represents a fictionalized account of an almost famous woman. I was fascinated, intrigued, and interested in reading about these amazing women. Some more impactful than others, but savored each one for what it was. It would be extremely difficult for me to even choose a favorite. I could sit back and go back through them all over again.
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,142 reviews488 followers
September 11, 2014
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.

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 sincere thanks for the opportunity to read this book.
Profile Image for ☮Karen.
1,450 reviews9 followers
February 26, 2017
I read this one story at a time over several days and weeks. The short stories (not my favorite thing) are about women who have a brush with fame, as the name implies, such as two women known only for being conjoined twins, or a wealthy heiress who had a relationship with Marlena Dietrich, or the sister of Edna St. Vincent Millay, etc. I didn't think these almost famous women were given much background information -- their stories are really just touched upon in these short stories -- and some of the stories didn't even say who the women were or why I should care to know about them. I was compelled to look up every one of them on Wiki and felt the author was making me work too hard.

All were strong-willed, passionate women who take risks in their lives and leave their own marks, big or small. I was glad the book brought them to light, but wish it had given each a bit more substance, more depth. 2 stars for me means It was just OK.
Profile Image for Dianne.
549 reviews883 followers
July 29, 2015
Extremely well-written and unusual collection of short stories. Each story is based on a different female historical figure who is just outside of the mainstream - Oscar Wilde's niece, Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, aviatrix Beryl Markham, Standard Oil heiress Joe Carstairs, and so on. The author puts her characters in richly imagined vignettes that have their roots in fact.

I thought this was a very interesting and clever idea. Each of these eccentric heroines will live on in my imagination for some time. I defy you to read this without sneaking off to "google" at least one of these ladies!
Profile Image for Magdalena aka A Bookaholic Swede.
1,911 reviews763 followers
October 22, 2016
This book and I got a bit of a wrong start. I was expecting (looking really forward to) reading about these almost famous women as a nonfiction book. But it turned out to be historical fiction instead. But I prevailed and I actually liked most of the stories since. For instance, we get to know Dolly Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s niece, Butterfly McQueen who was in Gone with the Wind, author Bery Markham, the painter Romaine Remains etc. Some people in the book had I heard of before, some I hadn’t.

But there were things with the book that bemused me like for instance a chapter about Allegra Byron, Lord Byron’s daughter, she was 5 when she died, hardly a famous woman, more like a famous child or, at least, a famous girl. Then we have a chapter called The Interness about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Every other chapter up till then had been about one famous woman; this was about how expired lipstick was given to the women in the concentrations camp. Felt a bit like this story should have been in another book that was more about groups of women, like suffragettes. Last but not least the Lottery, redux, this is a “cover story” of Shirley Jacksons “The Lottery”. Good story but why put a pure fiction story, a remake of a classic, in a book about almost famous women that have actually lived?

In the end, I liked the book. It was interesting and many of the women did I google to find out more about. Btw that was also a problem, a short biography before every chapter had have been nice. Now it felt that Megan Mayhew Bergman felt that the reader, of course, knows everything about the women that the story is about. (But this is an ARC this could change in the finished book.)

I want to thank the publisher for providing me with a free copy through NetGalley for an honest review!
Profile Image for Quirkyreader.
1,501 reviews41 followers
December 29, 2017
This book was a piece of historical fiction about many overlooked women. I have previously read biographies about some of the women featured in this collection. And because of that, the stories were a bit of a treat.

I enjoyed Bergman's writing style. Especially in her homage to Shirley Jackon's "The Lottery". Also, there are a few surprises in this book. Read closely and you will find them.

In the back of the collection the author put a list of resources that I devoured. Many of the books that Bergman listed I have now added to my TBR.
Profile Image for Sandy .
349 reviews10 followers
March 22, 2016
Some books are easy to forget. Close the cover; move to the "read" shelf; star-rate appropriately; don't bother to review; start reading another book. That is what I had intended to do with this one but -- not so fast! -- it has been nagging at me.

This collection includes some very interesting stories - interesting enough, I guarantee, to send you to Wikipedia and beyond a few times. The stories range in length from 2 to 40 pages (in the large-print edition) - so there is one to fit any possible slot of spare time. If you have a few hours - or only a few minutes - to spare and a TBR list that is not long enough, this is the book for you!

This book has left me with mixed feelings. I feel excited, for sure, about its educational value - I have been introduced to people, places, and periods of history about which I know little or nothing, and I always enjoy researching a new topic. I feel annoyed by the sensationalistic treatment of some of the stories with reference to sexual orientation, mental health issues, and addiction. But mostly, I have begun to realize, I feel sad. Why sad? - because if there is one thread which connects this collection of stories, in my opinion it is the word "victim". All of these "almost-famous" women suffered emotional wounds rooted in a variety of experiences - physical and emotional abuse or abandonment during childhood; horrific experiences on the front lines during the Great War; prejudice and racism - and seem (at least as the author has portrayed them) to have been defeated by these wounds. Thirteen sad stories in one book - maybe that is twelve too many for me.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that I also feel frustrated by these stories because, as the author clearly states in her Author's Note,

. . . each of these stories is unequivocally a work of fiction.

She continues -

The women at the heart of my stories lived. . . . I have, however, placed them in events and surrounded them with characters of my own creation. . . .

While I would be the first to admit a love of historical fiction (or creative nonfiction, as it is sometimes called), I was surprised by this disclosure, especially by its appearance at the end of the book. Quite simply, I had expected biographical sketches and this information would, I believe, be more appropriately placed at the beginning of the book.

The Author's Note is valuable, however, not only for this explanation but also for the details about her factual sources and her passionate approach to this project. If the reader is inspired by the author's enthusiasm for one or all of her subjects, many useful possibilities are suggested for further reading.

Profile Image for lucky little cat.
545 reviews100 followers
December 28, 2021
Historical fiction that's inventive and often unexpectedly touching. All while remaining true to the

Natalie Clifford Barney circa 1900 looks surprisingly contemporary

marginalized and often fierce real-life women who serve as inspiration.

Holds up beautifully to rereading, too. Reading "The Lottery, Redux" hit me muuuuch harder post-quarantine than it did pre-.

One of painter Romaine Brooks' continuous-line drawings, "The Impeders"
Profile Image for Dana.
440 reviews292 followers
September 25, 2014

This book was so cool and I love the title. I think the idea of paying homage to almost famous women is a great idea and I really respect the authors efforts in this. I enjoyed all of the stories, although I found that The Lottery, Redux story (as great as it was) didn't really fit with the general vibe of the collection.

My favourite story of the bunch was probably the first one The Pretty, Grown-Together Children, although I thought that all of the stories were very well done. I really appreciated how unique each of the stories were and am impressed that they are all written by the same author. I would probably read more from Ms. Bergman.

Note: I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Kristin.
325 reviews
August 10, 2016
Almost Famous Women is a collection of fictionalized short stories of real women in history “whose remarkable lives have been reduced to footnotes”. I’ll admit, most of these women I hadn’t heard of, but there were a few I had, and almost all I found incredibly fascinating. They were talented, they were strong, and they were independent women who dared to live life the way they wanted to.

Much like Bergman, I am in awe of their stories. So much so that I have looked up a good number and want to know more about them and their real story, or what is known of their real story. Bergman is a talented writer and researcher who has weaved imagination with history so well that it is hard to tell which is fact or fiction.

“I’ve never been comfortable with writing historical fiction, though I love reading it. When forming these stories, I kept with me Henry James’s notion that all novelists need freedom, and I gave myself permission to experiment, and to be honest about my inspiration. . . . I did not want to romanticize these women or dwell in glittering places; I’m more interested in my characters’ difficult choices, or those that were made for them. I’m fascinated by risk taking and the way people orbit fame. I wanted to explore the price paid for living dangerously such as undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder in women who served in WWI.

Suffice it to say, the world has not always been kind to its unusual women though I did not intend for these stories to serve as cautionary tales.”

So to give you a taste, here are my favorites:

Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who lived from 1908-1969 and performed in various sideshows and burlesques. These two are probably the most well-known of the bunch and possibly one of the saddest stories. Bergman reflects on their very different personalities and how their abuse formed their view of the world, one embracing the spotlight, one shying away from it. Sadly, they both died of the flu, with Daisy passing a few days before Violet. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to be physically attached to your dead twin…for days. That poor woman.

The Queen of Whale Cay, Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstiars, lived quite the interesting life, particularly for a woman in the 1930’s.

“She usually dressed as a man, had tattooed arms, and loved machines, adventure and speed. Openly lesbian, she had numerous affairs with women, including Dolly Wilde—Oscar Wilde's niece and a fellow ambulance driver from Dublin with whom she had lived in Paris—and a string of actresses, most notably Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich.”

Rumored to be quite the narcissistic womanizer, Bergman provided a snippet of Carstairs story from the vantage point of one of her “girls”. During her stay on Carstairs island in the Bahamas, of Whale Cay, they are visited by Marlene Dietrich. For a short story, you get a true feeling of Joe’s independence, her PTSD, her need to be needed, and her need for fame and power as evidenced by her own private island complete with lighthouse, school, church, and cannery.

Beatrice “Romaine” Brooks was an American painter during the early 1900’s. Bergman’s story focuses on the later portion of her life as a wealthy recluse. As part of the imagined (?) story, Romaine continually receives letters from an old flame, Natalie, that her caretaker takes the advantage of reading. Interestingly, Romaine was indeed involved in a long-term relationship with an American writer by the name of Natalie Barney. Natalie was a known to have many affairs, including one with Dolly Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s niece (notice a trend here?). Studying art history (many moons ago), I was surprised to have never heard of Romaine, particularly due to the fact that she was a very talented portraitist who according to Bergman, was once described (quite accurately I think) as a “thief of souls”.

Thelma “Butterfly McQueen was an American actress known most notably for her portrayal of Prissy in Gone with the Wind. Now I must admit, I remember snippets of this movie growing up but I have never actually watched it. Something about it always bothered me as a kid. What is interesting about her inclusion is that she was known to be embarrassed by her role in the movie, and was an atheist who donated her body to science. Again, for the times, I find this truly remarkable. If only we could all be as half as strong in our convictions.

Allegra Byron was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron and was dumped at a convent in the early 1800’s at the age of 4 and died shortly thereafter of either malaria or typhus. Her story is sad and lonely one and not only drives home Bergman’s point that “we pay for the mistakes our forbearers made” but is also eerily similar to Dolly Wilde’s story.

Dolly Wilde, the niece of Oscar Wilde was a “socialite, made famous by her family connections and her reputation as a witty conversationalist” (Wikipedia). As you can see from many of the stories here, she was tied to various women over the years, most notably with Joe Carstairs and Natalie Barney. She was also a notorious alcoholic and drug addict who suffered from cancer and most likely PTSD from when she served as an ambulance driver with Joe Carstairs during WWI. She passed at the age of 45 due to unidentified circumstances, believed to either be an overdose or cancer related. However, it is also rumored that she was murdered. At some point, I plan to get my hands on Truly Wilde as hers was one of the more fascinating tales.

I leave you with this last one in which I was less related to a specific woman, but to all. I apologize for my jumbled mess of a review but if nothing else, I hope it shows that Almost Famous Women provides a special insight into the lives of some fascinating women.

“We were human again. We were women.” – Almost Famous Women, Bergman

Bansky, Holocaust Lipstick

“It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity." - Extract from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO 23 May 1945

I received an arc copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you NetGalley!
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,440 reviews29.4k followers
December 26, 2014
Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

"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 annals of history—and the literary world—are filled with tales of famous women, those whose names have become common knowledge and in some cases, even household words. But for every famous woman, there are countless women whose fame is fleeting, or even those who remain just out of the spotlight, yet their stories deserve to be told.

In Megan Mayhew Bergman's new short story collection, Almost Famous Women, she brings attention to the stories of some women whose names might be vaguely familiar, and many which are not. From a pair of conjoined twins who flirted briefly with show business to a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band in the midst of racial unrest, author Beryl Markham and Gone with the Wind actress Butterfly McQueen to Dolly Wilde, Oscar's niece, and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, Norma, the characters in these stories are vivid and fascinating in many cases, teaching us many things we'd probably never know and getting us to think in ways we might never do.

Some of the stories which resonated with me the most were: "Saving Butterfly McQueen," told from the viewpoint of a young missionary determined to convert the atheist actress to Catholicism; "Hell-Diving Women," which followed the aforementioned swing band as it travels through the south and meets controversy because of the band's integration; "Who Killed Dolly Wilde," told by a young woman fascinated by the reckless war heroine; and "The Siege at Whale Cay," which told of M.B. "Joe" Carstairs, a speedboat racer known as the fastest woman on water.

Bergman is tremendously talented (I absolutely loved her first collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise), and she fleshes out her characters with emotion, complexity, and flaws. Not all of the stories were as interesting to me, and some are so brief you have little chance to connect with the characters, let alone understand why they were selected to have their tales told. (I would really have loved to have read more about Beryl Markham in "A High-grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch," for example.)

If you're a fan of historical fiction, or enjoy particularly strong and/or quirky female characters, definitely pick up Almost Famous Women. You'll marvel at Bergman's storytelling ability, and perhaps even learn a thing or two.

See all of my reviews (and other stuff) at http://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blo....
Profile Image for Susie.
244 reviews714 followers
June 27, 2015
I really enjoyed this reading experience. Would love to find other short story collections with this feel.
Profile Image for Orsolya.
600 reviews287 followers
August 11, 2015
Many people error into thinking that short stories are easier to compose than a full-length novel. The opposite is actually true as the author has to throw the reader into a character plot and arc which feels like it already began before the book opened. Basically, not everyone is cut out for this type of writing. Luckily, Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of the short story collection, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise” (which I loved); can procure such writing and therefore returns with a new collection in, “Almost Famous Women”.

In “Almost Famous Women”, Bergman pens 13 stories on the theme of real-life women who were ‘almost’ famous or lived as side notes in the lives of other popular figures. Each story is comparable to a mini- HF story which could spell disaster in terms of short story writing style but Bergman manifests it well.

As always, Bergman envelops the reader with depths and nuances that are smooth and unforced making the reader feel as though he/she is engaged in a longer piece of text. Each character and tale stands out on its own with vivid plots and voices. Bergman is a master at making stories come alive and fitting lots of morsels into a small space.

Uniquely, the stories in “Almost Famous Women” vary in narration with some being told in first person per the women described whiles others are depicted by those surrounding the women which successfully helps the stories not feel repetitive. Of course, some stories are longer than others and better constructed but overall the collection meshes together well.

Sadly, although the stories in “Almost Famous Women are interesting (especially for HF fans); they fail to evoke the emotional response that Bergman typically stirs up. There is just ‘something’ missing and the stories are not as finessed as “Birds of a Lesser Paradise”. Despite this, the stories are relatable and dramatic in imagery making them visual wonders dancing in the reader’s mind.

Bergman incorporates the “Easter egg” common to many short story collections in which the author mentions a character from a former story in another later on thereby connecting the stories in a novel plot-like way. Bergman doesn’t overdo this, however, and it therefore genuinely adds some spark to the pages.

The concluding stories in “Almost Famous Women” slightly deviate from the theme as “The Internees” is a couple-page tale not about an individual woman (but the most emotion-packed in my opinion) and “The Lottery- Redux” ‘covers’ Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” which most readers are familiar with (if you are not, then do so read it post-haste). The final story reverts back and wraps up the collection relatively well before Bergman then proceeds to list her inspirations for each story.

“Almost Famous Women” is a strong collection with lovely prose, structure, and detail which Bergman wraps around the reader with ease. The author’s work continues to standout (and I truly hope Bergman decides to write a novel some day). However, “Almost Famous Women” is simply not as enthralling as was expected based on “Birds of a Lesser Paradise”. Regardless, the collection is recommended for fans of short stories and of female-driven HF.
Profile Image for Chris Blocker.
691 reviews158 followers
March 6, 2015
First off, Bergman is a wonderful story writer. She has a way of shaping stories from the most basic components and making them very much alive. Her stories are intelligent and expressive. Secondly, I love the concept of this book. Here are women we know little or nothing of, women who were “almost famous” because of the men were in the company of, or “almost famous” because they were notable, but just not quite visible enough in a patriarchal society. Here these women are reimagined, given new life and a chance to tell their stories. Many of these stories felt more to me like the product of Bergman's imagination than based on truths; however, a glance at the author's notes reveals she conducted considerable research.

All that aside, Almost Famous Women is a good book with a great concept, but the stories don't quite match the caliber of Bergman's previous effort, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. While there are many stellar stories in her first collection, Almost Famous Women is full of consistently good stories, almost great stories, but none quite as wonderful as “Housewifely Arts,” “Another Story She Won't Believe,” or “Saving Face.” Birds of a Lesser Paradise is worth the time to read because of its best stories. Almost Famous Women is worth the time because of the interesting characters it introduces the reader to.

Personal favorite included “The Siege at Whale Cay” and “Saving Butterfly McQueen.”
Profile Image for Becky.
578 reviews101 followers
June 2, 2015
This was an unusual mix of short stories ( some only a page or 2) about " almost famous women". Many of the names rang a bell, maybe a sister or a niece of a "famous" person. The author gives us a little glimpse of these women through fictionalized accounts, mostly sad, many tragic but very interesting & in quite a few cases, I want to look up these women & see who they really were....I will be meeting Megan Mayhew Bergman this weekend & I am looking forward to hearing how she came up with this idea & how she chose these "almost" famous women....
Profile Image for shakespeareandspice.
340 reviews537 followers
May 5, 2018
Review posted on A Skeptical Reader.

Almost Famous Women is a collection of stories that revolve around, as the title puts it, ‘almost famous’ women in history. The collection contains some fantastic, solid stories that rocked my imagination but there were certainly a few duds in the mix that left a lot to imagination. Story reviews as follows:

◗ The Pretty, Grown-Together Children - A good opening to the collection. Tragic story of conjoined twins who spent their lives with unrecognized talent.

◗ The Siege at Whale Cay - Characters dealing with PTSD in the backdrop of a love triangle between three women. I felt bad for Georgie throughout but it felt like she knew what was getting into.

◗ Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period - I liked the final act a lot, especially the beautiful, soft descriptions.

◗ Romaine Remains - A look at the final days of Romaine Brooks. This one has an edge of mystery that was curious. I found Romaine fascinating but was not a fan of the fact that her story is told from Mario’s perspective. I wanted a more personal look at Romaine, perhaps from Natalie’s view?

◗ Hazel Eaton and the Wall of Death - I don’t care for such short short stories and I didn’t like this one. I couldn’t even remember what it was about the next day.

◗ The Autobiography of Allegra Byron - Given the title of the story, I didn’t bother to look up Allegra’s history and I am both glad and sad that I didn’t. I'm glad because it really allowed the story to built up on its own with a lot of anticipation. Sad because dear God, that ending. Utterly heartbreaking and yet beautiful.

◗ Expression Theory - Again, a really short story that I didn’t like.

◗ Saving Butterfly McQueen - Examining one of the first African American actresses in Hollywood. I liked it fair enough but I would’ve liked a historical story here instead—one where we could see McQueen in her filmmaking days.

◗ Who Killed Dolly Wilde? - Oscar Wilde’s forgotten niece struggling with drugs and poverty, tended to by a woman in love with her. It’s another brilliant one, with a lot of dark tones.

◗ A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch - Another story that didn’t work for me.

◗ The Internees - This is the shortest amongst all but works extremely well in a broader sense.

◗ The Lottery, Redux - I so badly wished I read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery to understand this better. It’s an ok read, but I know I’m missing something important.

◗ Hell-Diving Women - Solid finish! Loved Ruby, Tiny, and Rae Lee’s characters. A very lively story about a Black lesbian artist and her ‘friend’ performing in a mixed race entertainment group across the States.

Overall, this was a good collection worth reading. I’ve enjoyed Megan Mayhew Bergman’s earlier collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, and I am sure she’ll going to continue churning out excellent content.
Profile Image for Amy.
1,569 reviews132 followers
October 10, 2014
I've been fairly candid about my love/hate relationship with short stories. I want to love them but rarely do ... I tend to be more of a novel sort of girl.

I felt drawn to this collection of stories upon hearing about the fact that each story highlights a woman who gained some sort of fame during their lifetimes. That is right up my alley! And I have to say that I'm amazed by how much I enjoyed this collection. All but one or two stories were FANTASTIC and even those that didn't resonate with me were still good.

Each of the women she explores are fascinating PEOPLE who lived amazing lives. I loved learning about each of them. I found myself googling them all and learning even more about them! I highly recommend this collection ... it's fantastic and each story is like a little gift of great writing, wonderful storytelling and a fascinating view into the life of amazing women. Just fantastic!

I've had Megan Mayhew Bergman's Birds of a Lesser Paradise collection sitting on my Nook for almost a year and I can't seem to bring myself to read it as I'm scared I won't like it after hearing so many great things. But, now I plan to read it soon. She is an amazing writer - she has such a way with words, she paints beautiful pictures with her words. I can't wait to dig into another collection from her!

I think Megan Mayhew Bergman is an amazing short story writer who even a reader who isn't a fan of short stories will enjoy!
Profile Image for Erika Robuck.
Author 11 books1,051 followers
February 5, 2015
Not since the arrangement of Sylvia Plath’s story collection, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, has an anthology so moved me. While the stories each stand on their own, there is a thread that connects them both thematically and, at times, literally. What is demonstrated over and over again in these long and short pieces are the heartbreaking consequences of the suppression of the powerful, wildish nature of women.

From conjoined twins, to poet’s sisters and orphans, to aged artists, Bergman writes with conviction and immediacy on the specific and morbidly fascinating issues facing her characters. The prose is potent, crisp, and full of energy; it demands you lean forward in your chair. And yet, when each story ends, the reader feels as if she wants more. She cannot stop looking over her shoulder, wondering what became of the historical figures who appear in brief and poignant succession.

I was pleased Bergman included an Author’s Note that explains where her interest in each woman began. It is full of pertinent back story and suggestions for further reading, which I will pursue.

If you enjoy short fiction about characters of high color, scandal, and individuality, I highly recommend ALMOST FAMOUS WOMEN. It would be especially good for book clubs, because these fearless females beg to be discussed.
Profile Image for Carla.
1,180 reviews19 followers
March 13, 2017
Yes, I did give this five stars and Margaret Atwood's Dancing Girls four stars! These are short stories of women, "almost famous women" throughout history, and Ms. Bergman has brought them to life in short stories through fictionalized accounts of a small portion of their lives. Imagined conversations, they delight with beautiful writing, these accomplished women, who for many were born before "their time". A small picture and very very small bio accompanies each story. After finishing the book, and being very intrigued by most of these women, I am seeking out now, if I can, books about them. I was completely caught up with these women's lives and wanted to read more.

These are not historical biographies of theses women, but a look into perhaps their thoughts and feelings at a unique time in history.

I will definitely be seeking out Ms. Bergman's previous short story collection now Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Profile Image for Elizabeth A.
1,792 reviews106 followers
March 15, 2015
I love big books and I cannot lie, so short story collections are not my go-to genre. I'd heard great things about this author, who will be attending Booktopia Vermont this year, and I look forward to meeting her then. I listened to this collection well narrated by Lesa Lockford.

This is a collection of stories about Almost Famous Women. Some are longer pieces, while others are so short that I barely had time to register them before they were over. The one thing I will say about this collection is that I knew nothing about all but one of these women, and that in itself was fascinating. Another thing is that the writing is wonderful through out.

My faves in the collections were:
#4 - Romaine remains
#6 - Autobiography of Allegra Byron
#8 - Saving Butterfly McQueen
#11 - Lottery, redux
Profile Image for Stephen Kiernan.
Author 9 books839 followers
February 12, 2022
Only recently have I learned that short story collections mostly come in one of two kinds: an author writes stories from time to time over the years, until there are enough to make a book, or an author has a certain singular idea and explores it from a variety of interesting directions.

Almost Famous Women is a persuasive argument for the superiority of the second sort of collection.

The stories are not connected by characters appearing multiple times, nor by settings in which several stories appear. They are linked by situations that demonstrate the women's intellect, creativity, wit, strength, desire and resilience.

For such a slim book, the range of predicaments is vast: sisters born literally connected at the hip, lovers of a gorgeous movie star, musicians in a mixed race band touring the South. The boldest and perhaps most astonishing story is a retelling of Shirley Jackson's masterpiece The Lottery, revised to include feminine power and courage.

The prose is lucid and vivid, the shortest story is like a boxer's flurry of blows, and there are moments of wry humor throughout.

Highly recommend. The author has another story collection coming soon, too: How Strange a Season. After reading this book, I pre-ordered it.
Profile Image for Kats.
663 reviews40 followers
March 14, 2015
This short story collection is about different real-life women with an interesting background or life story. I had heard about the Hilton (conjoined) twins, which is the first story in the collection, and then later I realised that all of the following ones were based on true stories, too. I wish that the brief background that the author gives at the very end of the book would have preceded each story as it would have made it easier to follow.

What happened to me is that I listened to the audio book, and there were times when it was difficult to tell when one story ended and the next one began. First of all, the audio book didn't have an index of the stories' titles, and secondly the narrator rarely read a title before launching into the story. Besides, there were at least a couple of stories that were so short that just as I was beginning to get into them, they were over.

This book is probably more enjoyable in print where the reader can see clearly the beginning and end of the various tales. Having said that, the narrator did a good job including accents and voices.

There were three or four stories that will stay with me, for different reasons. These were my favourites:

Romaine remains
Set in Nice in the late 1960s where Romaine Brooks, the painter, has decided to spend her final years. She is in her 90s, a cantankerous, wealthy old lady and fires her house staff on a whim. The story is narrated by Mario, a young man who tries to persevere and hang on to the job as her carer, mostly because it gets him away from his mother and because he is hoping that some of Romaine's wealth will "rub off on him". Romaine's career fizzled out a few decades earlier when she decided to stop painting though she is clearly amazingly talented. Her former partner, Natalie, keeps writing to her from Paris, but Romaine is not interested, but we learn of their relationship through Mario who keeps nosing through the letters. Mario also tries to get Romaine to paint or draw again, possibly for his personal gain.

Googling around a bit, the story becomes even more interesting as Romaine actually got married to a friend, a homosexual man named John Brooks (a poor pianist), most likely to help him out financially (as she was independently wealthy from a young age thanks to a vast inheritance). Her husband spent most of his life living on Capri and seemed to have been in a relationship with EF Benson (author of the Mapp & Lucia series). I find it so fascinating how these people are connected.

The Autobiography of Allegra Byron
The illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont (Mary Shelley's stepsister - another interesting connection) was passed around four different families in as many years before being sent to a Roman Catholic convent to be raised by nuns. It is one of those nuns who takes a shine to Allegra and tells us about the four-year-old's emotional turmoil at the convent. Very sad young life.

Who killed Dolly Wilde?
Oscar Wilde's niece who was not only Wilde by name.... but lived a life fuelled by alcohol and drugs and ended up self-medicating (this is the point in time where Mayhew tells the story from the point of view of a friend) to cope with the agony of untreatable breast cancer.
As a 19 year old Dolly went to France to work as an ambulance driver in World War I. It was there that she became acquainted with Joe Carstairs who features in an earlier story in this collection called “The Siege at Whale Cay". More fascinating intertwining of strong women.

The Pretty, Grown-Together Children
The first story in the collection featuring the life and fate of the conjoined Hilton twins from Brighton, England, who were first toured around Europe and Australia and then America as some kind of "freak act" before settling down in North Carolina. Siamese sex scenes make for very uncomfortable reading (and, I imagine, even more uncomfortable sex), but it's not just for those descriptions that I shall remember these poor, exploited yet strong and "almost famous" women.

Profile Image for Davida Chazan.
587 reviews98 followers
December 11, 2018
No, this isn’t a book about the 2018 mid-term elections; it is a collection of historical, fictional short stories about real women we probably know nothing about, although some of them carry well-known names. I loved “Almost Famous Women” by Megan Mayhew Bergman when I read it, and I thought now would be a good time to remind people of this lovely collection. (Okay… I’ll admit, the results of the US elections did influence my choice to post about this particular older book review.) You can read this revised review on my blog now. https://tcl-bookreviews.com/2014/12/2...
Profile Image for Debra Flores.
135 reviews1 follower
March 31, 2016
I enjoyed Bergman's fictional short stories based on real women who were almost famous. After the first short story, I became so fascinated with the conjoined Hilton sisters, I googled them. Thereafter, I googled each woman before I read the short story.

These stories are not trying to raise awareness to the women that history unjustly forgot. It is not even a celebration of these women. Instead, the stories are about strong women who made tough choices and paid the price for seeking independence and adventure during times that were not acceptable for women to do so.

Profile Image for Lindsey.
74 reviews
October 23, 2015
Short stories about women I had either never heard of or knew very little of. I did extra research on nearly everyone in this book. There's really no background info so I tried to look them up before getting into their story. Very interesting--I wish the stories had been longer so I could learn more about these fascinating women!
Profile Image for Siobhan Ward.
881 reviews6 followers
November 29, 2019

This book was ok. Some of the stories were pretty good, whereas I struggled to get through others, whether it was due to poor characters or a plot that didn’t engage me. There are a couple of stories towards the end that don’t really fit with the rest of the collection and definitely felt out of place (one about Holocaust survivors and the other a rehash of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery). Overall, not my favourite short story collection, unfortunately.
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