Written by Elisabeth Gail
There is something so compelling about delving into the intricacies of other people’s lives. The mundane is a fascinating place; snapshots of the ordinary can tell us a lot about our culture. Help Yourself is a collection of short stories that does exactly this. Sittenfeld writes accessible witty prose about ordinary lives subtly tapping on issues of race, gender, and class. Her focus is not on big issues—it is on her characters. She is simply conveying life, and there are always messages and meanings ingrained into life. Cultural issues are lived by everyone in that culture whether they realise it or not.
There are only three stories in Help Yourself—which makes it a very short book—each piece following a different cast of unique characters as they amble through life. White Women LOL follows a suburban housewife who goes viral on Facebook causing her to examine how she treats people of colour. Creative Differences is about a documentary crew who come into conflict when shooting an interview with a small-town artist. Show Don’t Tell follows a young writer as she examines her relationships and her ideals while nervously awaiting a scholarship outcome. I saw a lot of people I know in these stories: classmates who see every conversation as an opportunity for ‘constructive’ critique, friends who make Facebook posts without releasing the full context of their words until it’s too late, and even naive creatives (this one is also me) who jump at the opportunity to have their work recognised without asking any questions. Sittenfeld’s stories were so familiar even though I had not had those exact experiences myself.
The length of this book is great if you want a quick read, but not so great if you really enjoy yourself only to find eighty pages in that you’ve already reached the back cover. It almost felt like a taster of Sittenfeld’s writing, an appetiser to see if you like her style and voice, before committing to one of her longer novels. That is not to say the stories weren’t great in and of themselves, there just wasn’t enough to be truly satisfying (but I guess if a book leaves you wanting more that’s a good thing).
Sittenfeld’s stories are multilayered, with different storylines playing out alongside each other and interweaving with one another. In her afterword, Sittenfeld writes ‘I often know that I’m ready to write a short story when I have two ideas that intersect in a way where I suspect they’ll enrich each other’ (p.83). Even though these stories are short they are filled with layered detail, and every character is fleshed out and given life. They each have their own motives, emotions, and background which make them unique and real (pretty amazing to achieve in a short story format). But I guess that’s life. You don’t live out one ‘plotline’ at a time where others only live in the moments you interact with them. Everything is happening all at once, and everyone comes from somewhere. Sittenfeld’s writing captures that feeling of real-life so perfectly that I started second-guessing whether or not I was reading fiction.
This is an excellent little book for anyone intrigued by life-like stories. Help Yourself is available for purchase here
Elisabeth is a writer and editor from Melbourne currently completing her Honours in creative writing at Deakin University. While she’s keen to read any book thrown (or gently passed) her way, she especially loves reading and writing things that are spooky or funny (or both). In her spare time, you’ll probably find her getting creative with arts and crafts, watching Netflix, or staring off into the distance blankly.