Cover Image: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

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Member Reviews

This book got on my radar when it was nominated for the National Book Award for fiction. Had I known it was a collection of short stories, I might not have read it as that is not my jam, but I am glad I did. Deesha Philyaw brings to life the inner lives of African American women -- their loves, their families, their faith -- in a really authentic and accessible way. In some ways, this collection reminded me of the wonderful series by Edward Kelsey Moore about a group of African-American ladies (The Supremes). A stingy three-star review (really deserves a 3.5) for good quick read.
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With thanks to the author, publisher and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this in return for an honest review.

This was possibly my most anticipated read this year and I felt so, so lucky that I was given the opportunity to access it.  It totally lived up to my expectations and I feel it is short stories read of the year for me.

I felt such a bond to the stories, I couldn't explain why.  The stories are mysterious, beguiling, loud, angry, sad, tragic, and in one special case, annoying.  Yes, I didn't love everyone, how could I?  I felt each story was interlinked, like family members.  A bit like the gorgeous letter a sister writes on behalf of her siblings to a sister none of them knew, but they would like to, now their father has passed.  I felt like the book was about all of those sisters.

Such a great read.  I would keep this on my shelf and read it over and over.  In fact, I think I'll buy a hard copy to keep around.  

#TheSecretLivesofChurchLadies #NetGalley
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3.5 rounded up

I'm pleased this was longlisted (and became a subsequent finalist!) for the National Book Award this year, as it probably would have passed me by otherwise. Philyaw has written a very strong debut collection of stories centring around various church-going women. The stories focus on the personal relationships of these various women outside of their religion, and their desires and inner thoughts which often go against what one might expect - their infidelities, for example, feature heavily.

The Peach Cobbler story was my favourite, but most were very strong: the author excels at dialogue and immersing and investing the reader in a character's life and desires in very few pages, and I finished most stories wanting more. Recommended, and I look forward to reading whatever Deesha Philyaw writes next.
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The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philylaw lives up to all of the praise it is receiving. These stories spill the tea on what is happening outside of Sunday services and they do not hold back. These stories almost had me taking the Lord's name in vain...

One of my favorite aspects of these stories is how they exist in a world, where blackness is assumed and central throughout the stories, yet the stories do not explicitly focus on racism or navigating white spaces as a black person. The stories do highlight colorism, but how colorism is rooted and viewed within the black community. These stories delve into the multitude of the different of identities of blackness and in particular the queer black identity. The black church has historically been the community center or the communal watering ground for black people. However, attending church is often so performative, and so The Secret Lives of Church Ladies takes us past first Sunday and the large hats to what is happening outside of church, into the lives of women when they are not in their Sunday best and when they are not performing the role of a Godly woman. 

This collection is filled with so many gems, it is one of my favorite things that I have read all year. If this collection is not on radar, I recommend that you add it.
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This short story collection glimpses into the private lives of Black women with ties to Southern churches and communities. From parenting to sex to yearning to fear, the stories focus on the tension between community expectations and personal desires. Philyaw's writing is so effortless and so powerful; she punched me in the gut at the most unexpected moments. The tension between strength and vulnerability is so expertly portrayed in her characters. This is everything I want from a short story collection.
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This is a great collection of short stories detailing the hidden lives of church women.
Some were more interesting than others. Overall this is a very good book
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Believe the hype. This National Book Prize finalist, a short story collection from a tiny university press, is as brilliant as everyone says it is. Touching on themes of race, sexuality, class, relationships, sex, family, daughters and mothers, to just name a few, Philyaw delivers a powerful collection, with each new story more engrossing than the last. Short story collections are often tricky for me. Either the collection has a couple of very good stories surrounded by ones less compelling, or the stories feel too similar, or radically different to fit well together. SECRET LIVES only offers gold, stories tied thematically in some respects, but each unique in tone and delivery. This one will be tough to beat for the prize.

Thanks @NetGalley for the advanced readers copy in exchange for an honest review.
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What a great selection of stories that speak to lives, struggles, and passions of church-going Black women. They are all well written and compulsively readable.

Thanks to NetGalley and West Virginia University Press for the ARC to read and review.
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Each story was breathtaking.  They lingered with me long after I'd read them, and I had to sit with them before moving on the next.  Philyaw is a master storyteller.  Her characters will stay with you long after you've turned the page.
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This is a slim volume but the stories in it are filled with awesomeness.  Exploring the impact of family and culture on repression and self-acceptance, the characters are all interesting, smart, damaged humans, coping with life and making their way through with humor, sadness, sex, infidelity, family, regret, hope, and peach cobbler.  The stories are both accessible and profound, weighty and breezy, sexy and sad.  Deservedly a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction, this is one of the best books I've read this year.
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This short book packs a powerful punch. The book is comprised of nine short stories intertwining the roles of church and self in black women. 

Many stories feature characters grappling with their own sexual desires and how these conflict with the church.

When I put it that way, it sounds formulaic. It’s not. The stories eloquently illustrate the ties that bind the characters to extended family, church, and tradition. These ties offer comfort as well as constraints against each character’s sexual desires. 

One particularly poignant story shared a same sex couple from the South braving an icy winter in their new home in the North. The characters craved their warm southern homes but their families did not accept their relationship. Anyone who has endured her first winter in a snowy spot knows the deep despair that can grasp you on an icy day. I loved the way the author ended this story.
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This was a stunning collection of short stories. This is an area many people either don’t know about or don’t care about and that’s the personal lives of women of color in the evangelical church. The author’s voice is so incredibly strong that I was hooked from the first page and devoured the rest of the book within just a few days. If you are in a bit of a reading slump I think short story collections are always a good place to dive in and this particular collection has the certain theme that strings the stories together. This author is absolutely one to watch and I can’t wait to read more from her.
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I loved this book a lot. Philyaw writes from the soul and talks about the meaning of the African American community through multiple short stories - from the perspective of Church Ladies, Newly-Out Lesbians, and many other women of African American descent. The emotions and sense of community are so raw, it reminded me of my experiences with the Chinese diaspora. I'd highly recommend this book, and am thinking of rereading it!
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This was such a good selection of short stories. It took me a second to get into it and of course, some stories were better than others, but overall this was a solid read. I found myself outright disliking some characters and having to remind myself of the premise of the book. Many times, our hidden selves are not likable. There are parts of all of us that we want to keep out of the spotlight. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores those crevices unapologetically through a lens of Black womanhood, "sanctified" Black womanhood at that. I would highly recommend this book. Honestly, the more I think about it, the more I like it.
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I enjoyed The Secret Lives of Church Ladies immensely, and there’s really nothing left for me to say other than BELIEVE THE HYPE!! Get this book! It will make you feel all the things and then some. 

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores different generations of Black women and how their connections to the church and religion influence their inner and outer lives. Some of these stories are joyous and humorous, but also heartbreaking and bittersweet. I loved seeing how faith and religion were explored alongside the process of discovering one’s sexuality and experiencing the general unfairness of a world that can at times seem godless.

Deesha Philyaw is amazing at crafting her characters, and I’m already excited for her next work. It’s hard for me to play favorites, but I really loved Eula, Not Daniel, Peach Cobbler, Snowfall, How to Make Love to a Physicist, Instructions For Married Christian Husbands, and When Eddie Levert Comes. That’s pretty much the entire book, so my point is check this book out!
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The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw was a great read. I featured it as Book of the Day on my social media platforms.
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From the very first story I felt sucker punched. Sucker punched by the depths of emotion on the page. It’s rare to see characters so well developed in a short story collection. This is especially true when the stories aren’t all connected. 

Having grown up in the Baptist church of the South, I appreciated how the church and more specifically, the church ladies was spot on. The “church ladies” of the black church  archetype was spot on. I found myself devouring this collection just to see how it would all play out in each story. A lot of the stories center on wanting, love, loss, belonging, and discovery. Even if the discovery isn’t always something that will lead to a happy ending. But, there were also stories were happiness was found in the end. And it was defined on the protagonist’s own terms. 

Absolutely stunning collection and one of the top 5 books I’ve read in 2020 this far. Thank you netgalley and the publisher for the ARC!
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Nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction 2020
This collection contains nine short stories focusing on Southern Black women who attend or attended church, but defy conservative religious norms. The book shines because it manages to give its characters distinct voices that draw readers into their world immediately - it's easy to feel with the group of (half-) sisters who just buried their selfish father and now contact the one half sister they haven't met yet, with the girl who lives with a mother who has a long-term affair with the preacher, or the woman who struggles to overcome the alienation and shame she feels about her own body. These female protagonists feel so lively, so real, so three-dimensional, and the convincing way the author crafts facets of human interaction is really a spectacle to behold.

Food, sex, relationships with others - the women in the stories are looking for comfort and happiness while fighting various demons, and sometimes each other or even themselves. In most cases, short story collections have a certain number of meeehhh efforts or fillers, but not this one: Here, the one text that falls short, "Jael", doesn't work because it is over-ambitious and goes off the rails with its many shifts and tricks, thus at least failing in an interesting way.

So thanks, National Book Award, I wouldn't have picked the book up if it wasn't nominated, which means I would have missed out on a wonderful, intense, powerful collection.
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Book Review: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
Author: Deesha Philyaw
Publisher: West Virginia University Press
Publication Date: September 1, 2020
Review Date: September 21, 2020

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

From the blurb:
“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the raw and tender places where Black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good. The nine stories in this collection feature four generations of characters grappling with who they want to be in the world, caught as they are between the church’s double standards and their own needs and passions.

There is fourteen-year-old Jael, who has a crush on the preacher’s wife. At forty-two, Lyra realizes that her discomfort with her own body stands between her and a new love. As Y2K looms, Caroletta’s “same time next year” arrangement with her childhood best friend is tenuous. A serial mistress lays down the ground rules for her married lovers. In the dark shadows of a hospice parking lot, grieving strangers find comfort in each other.

With their secret longings, new love, and forbidden affairs, these church ladies are as seductive as they want to be, as vulnerable as they need to be, as unfaithful and unrepentant as they care to be, and as free as they deserve to be.”
I don’t usually do this. I’m adding some short reviews were included at the beginning of the blurb. I wanted to share them as they describe this phenomenal book much better than I can:

“2020 National Book Award longlist for fiction:
Short stories about race and sexuality by a Pittsburgh author whose work on African American topics has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and McSweeney's.
“Tender, fierce, proudly black and beautiful, these stories will sneak inside you and take root.” 
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Triumphant.” —Publishers Weekly
“Cheeky, insightful, and irresistible.” — Ms. Magazine
“This collection marks the emergence of a bona fide literary treasure.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Full of lived-in humanity, warmth, and compassion.” —Pittsburgh Current
“These are stories about Black women that haven’t been told with this level of depth, wit, or insight before, so it will not shock me if Oprah gets around to selecting it before the end of the year.” 
—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Incredibly moving.”  —Pittsburgh City Paper
I love African-American literature. I am not black, but I appreciate the literature as an American, and these stories hone in on a specific aspect of African-American culture. I came across this book in a recent article in the New York Times Book section, listing books that had been long-listed for the 2020 National Book Award. This book was one of the long listed books that grabbed my attention, and not only was it available on NetGalley but I was lucky enough to be approved to read it. 

There is a thread in the characters running through the 9 stories. The characters were gorgeous, the setting and scenes beautiful. Each story was perfect in itself and hung together as a set so, so wonderfully. I think my favorite story was INSTRUCTIONS FOR MARRIED CHRISTIAN HUSBANDS. The tenor was so strong and forthright. I loved the woman that wrote this story, someone who knew every ounce of what she wanted in her life and had no place whatsoever for compromise. 

I finished the book wishing to taste that peach cobbler. You’ll have to read the book to understand what I mean. This is a 5+ star book. Highly, highly recommended. This book would be a good example of a text to use in a college upper level writing course, about how to write a book of short stories that hung together as a whole. 

I have found some of the best books I have read have been from university presses, and this is one of those. 

I feel like I am rambling here in this review. What I want to say is, this is an extraordinary book in terms of characters, structures, cultural importance. I hope it might win the National Book Award.

Thank you to West Virginia University Press for allowing me early access. Best of luck to Deesha Philyaw in your writing career. 

This review will be posted on NetGalley, Goodreads, and Amazon.

#netgalley #thesecretlivesofchurchladies #deeshaphilyaw #westvirginiauniversitypress #africanamericanliterature #nationalbookaward
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I have read very few Black writers, I readily confess, so I wanted to push myself a little beyond my usual reads by choosing this book available on Netgalley. I'm so glad I did! I'm not American, I'm not Black and I'm not a Christian, and so it's a testament to the skills of Deesha Philyaw that I was able to have an insight into the lives and minds of these Christian Black women.

These stories show girls who are trying to be good (saintly maybe?), but who also yearns to be free and express their unique identities. Sadly, in many cases, the Church forbids them to do what they want and keep them stuck in shame, in secrets and lies. There's the girl who grows up watching the reverend comes to her mother's house and eat all the peach cobbler that she has made for him. She's never allowed to taste one bit, and in her eyes he is God, but as she grows up, she gets to understand how the reverend took advantage. There's this other woman who is ashamed of her body and her desire and who bit by bit, step by step, grows to be more daring (“How to Make Love to a Physicist”). There's this queer Black woman in the North of the US who misses the South and her mother's cooking, and we understand that her mother has disowned her when she came out.

Religion, family, sexuality are themes showing up in one way or another all along this collection. There's a lot of pent-up anger against the Church men and the constraints put on the lives and bodies of these Church ladies, but I still found the book full of grace and hope. The numerous daughters of their ne'er-do-well deceased father welcome a possible new sister into their fold. Most of the women in these stories find strength and resilience in a newly acquired freedom.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.
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