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'Bring Your Baggage And Don't Pack Light' Is A Baker's Dozen Of Sharply Funny Essays

<em>Bring Your Baggage and Don't Pack Light: Essays,</em> Helen Ellis
Bring Your Baggage and Don't Pack Light: Essays, Helen Ellis

After a 15 year struggle to get published following her first novel, Helen Ellis made a splash in 2016 with American Housewife, a hilariously twisted take on domesticity that grew out of her Tweets @WhatIDoAllDay. Several stories were narrated by frustrated, blocked writers demoralized by repeated rejections.

This no longer describes Ellis. Bring Your Baggage and Don't Pack Light, a baker's dozen of sharply funny essays, is her third book published in five years. (Her first essay collection, Southern Lady Code, was published in 2019.) She no longer identifies as a housewife, even when playing high-stakes poker, where she used to costume herself like a 1950s sitcom character in prim, ladylike clothing with red nail polish and pearls to disarm her opponents.

"I've been trying out a new look because I'm not a housewife anymore. I'm a writer. There, I said it," Ellis writes in "There's a Lady at the Poker Table." "When I went on a book tour last year, I hired a housekeeper. With age comes a letting go. Of lifelong rules and regulations. I'm unbridled...I'm not as prim as I used to be. And it shows."

It shows not only in the delicately embroidered peasant blouses she wore at the 2019 World Series of Poker, but in her writing. Ellis has clearly found her stride — or, in her case, her strut. The writer who so memorably opened American Housewife with a Beyoncé-inspired "stallion walk to the toaster" is indeed noticeably unbridled and self-assured in this collection, which gallops between bonding with "grown-ass" lady friends and wondering about other couples' married sex and her own desirability as she approaches 50.

The book is filled with snappy plays on popular book titles. "Some women eat, pray, love. I bet, raise, shove," she writes in the poker essay. In "Are You There, Menopause? It's Me, Helen," she tweaks the classic Judy Blume book title, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, which she extols as "part coming-of-age novel, part user's manual," and notes that her mother had to buy it for her in Montgomery since it was banned in their hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the early 1980s. She also alludes to two other body bibles with this comment: "Now my friends and I don't know what to expect while we're expecting menopause. Our bodies are not ourselves."

The spirit of Nora Ephron — who wrote about such intimate topics as vaginal deodorants back in 1973 and her sagging neck 30 years later — hovers over this book. Ellis evokes Ephron most directly in "I Feel Better About My Neck," a satirical account of her quest among cat-faced casualties of too much plastic surgery to find a procedure to vanquish her lifelong double-chin. She settles on a series of injections of stomach bile to attack the fat cells — which she pays for with "money paid to me by my publisher for writing this very book. My double chin is now my Doubleday chin," she can't resist quipping.

Ellis' prose is filled with so many laugh lines, you might want to go ahead and book the Botox. There's a temptation to just quote her. Some of her best lines catch the tone of Ephron's bold pronouncements: "My uterus looks like an hourglass with six grains of sand left," she writes in the menopause piece. "Today at the deli, I fanned myself with a quarter pound of sliced honey-glazed ham. Yes, it was wrapped." Her first box of Kotex, she recalls, "had sanitary napkins so thick I thought I was straddling a picnic bench."

Along with her husband — Lex Haris, a.k.a. Poochie, the book's dedicatee and a frequent foil for her comedy — Ellis' posse of female friends play a major role in her life and work. These include her "Bridge Ladies," who "are all empty nesters, and let me tell you: empty nesters are the new gay men of New York." (Ellis is happily childless.) In matters menopausal and otherwise, these slightly older women are "like Sherpas to validate my symptoms and guide me through."

The most substantive — and moving — essay, "Grown-ass Ladies Gone Mild," is about a getaway trip to Panama City Beach — "The Redneck Riviera" — with four friends from childhood. "No matter how old we get, we see each other like we first saw each other: young," Ellis writes. She adds, "We don't judge each other's baggage, and we don't pack light."

Among the stories the five women unpack together are tales of their husbands, kids, aging and deceased parents, lost jobs, an ominous mammogram, and a final draft of Ellis' story about the group at her 13th birthday party, at which her father played a demonic trick.

In various combinations, the old friends scream on rides at a water park, play Cards Against Humanity, and weep together at a theater where a Long Island psychic exorcises the female audience's considerable sadness. Ellis, although skeptical, is moved, but she makes her position clear: "Me, I believe in the magic of lifelong friends."

Ellis is a hoot. She's also a force. What she isn't, she explains, is a character — which is Southern Lady Code for a "woman who's funny because she's tipsier than a Gibson's pickled pear onion."

Nor, as her Mama reminds her, is her humor for everyone. But she doesn't care. She has come to own the power of her personality — and her work.

"There's a saying at the poker table," she writes: "If you can't figure out who the worst player is in the first thirty minutes, it's you." She adds, "It's never me. Don't let the pearls or patchouli fool you."

Or the irrepressible quips. Helen Ellis is no lightweight.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.