Helen Ellis’s latest book of essays is sure to make you smile
Helen Ellis is writing for me.
A woman in my late 40s/early 50s. Someone who stares in the mirror and wonders: Is my hair grayer than it was yesterday? Did my cheeks always have those ridges at the bottom?
No, I do not live in New York City nor have I published several books or collected thousands of followers on my social media accounts. But we connect on the big stuff, the parts of life that really matter.
Friends. Husbands. How hard it is to change. Where to find happiness. The best way to be in the world.
Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light is Ellis’s fifth book, her second collection of essays. These 13 true tales are every bit as delightful as 2019’s Southern Lady Code or her 2016 short story collection, American Housewife.
Ellis has long been queen of the one-liner. “The look is very Chuck E. Cheese lost-and-found box,” she writes of poker players’ outfits. She wields metaphors like a chef’s knife. It was “sagging like a bar of Dove soap in a sock,” she says of her own wobbly neck.
But Ellis is never mean. Or funny just to get a laugh. Her point is to tell her truth and to have us all recognize ourselves in her on-the-mark observations.
After reading Bring Your Baggage you’ll feel like you’ve been seen, celebrated, nudged in a better direction. In short, befriended.
Those who’ve been reading Ellis for awhile will feel at home with this collection. She’s still raunchy (“Happy Birthday…”). She’ll bring tears to your eyes (“The Backup Plan”). And while she doesn’t do the slow build to the over-the-top punchline, there are laugh-out loud moments (“My Kind of People”). Ellis is quick to highlight the ewwww in every setting (“I Go Greyhound!”). And there’s that list essay (“I’m a Believer!”) that she does so well. It speaks to the heart by doing nothing more than recording carefully chosen details.
Her wordplay is better than a country song’s.
“If I write ‘Call me,’ it means I want you to hear my tone and my timber. As in TIMBER! Redwood-size secrets are about to fall out of my mouth.”
But what makes Ellis’s essays meaningful is her humility, her ability to walk beside us on a busy sidewalk and catch our eyes. In Bring Your Baggage, she shares her fears and vulnerabilities and doesn’t take herself too seriously. Just when you’re feeling like her life might teeter on the trivial, Ellis circles back to the moment where we can all relate.
She is in a plastic surgeon’s office, having a consult about a face lift she’s been considering for years. After the doctor comes on strong, insulting her in the process, Ellis writes: “I didn’t make a second appointment because I already felt cut.”
So, make plans to sit on your porch swing or settle into your pool chaise and give yourself the treat of an afternoon with Ellis. After you’re through, you’ll close the book, blink into the over-bright sunshine, and be ready for whatever the world might serve up. You’ve got a new friend whose got your back.