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Refund: Stories

ISBN: 
9781619024557

Although she has written three novels, this is Karen Bender’s first collection of stories. Wow can the woman write.

Two of her short stories have won Pushcart Prizes and several others have been included in Best American collections, both for short stories and for mystery stories.

The pieces are irreverent, funny and sad at the same time, and rich with the absurdities and bizarreness of modern American life.  For instance, “The Sea Turtle Hospital” vividly describes a lockdown at a grade school. Bender’s writing is non-judgmental but rich in detail.

The narrator in this story gets the job of locking the door and pulling down the shades (what protection would thin shades provide?),  while the other teacher hustles the children into a closet. They proceed to eventually rolling the children up in a stinky rug after shots ring out. All the while anxious parents text the narrator.

One of the weirdest stories is “The Cat” where a mother adopts a kitten. Bender is a whizz at getting children down--both their conversations and behavior. 

But the story is really about the mother in this story, six years out from breastfeeding, but the kitten’s mews cause a let-down reflex and her milk to return. This leads to consultations with a breast surgeon who has a pet iguana. “Cold,” the mother says.  You’ll have to read it to find out what happens.

Bender seems drawn to non-politically correct topics.  In “A Chick from My Dream Life” she describes two teenage sisters whose parents offer them little attention. Their father is very depressed but the girls don’t know why he spends all day on the living room couch not wanting them near.

The younger sister, Betsey, has an arm that ends in a point like “the tailed end of whipped cream.” As the older sister, Sally, takes it upon herself to hide it in tube tops or paint it in vivid colors. When their dad starts ignoring them, they wander to the beach where Betsey sneaks away to kiss boys, telling them that her name was Sally.

“Theft” describes an older woman’s vacation on a cruise ship to Alaska after a life of crime. She meets a young woman, Darlene, who has a broken heart. The two women bond. Ginger tries to toughen Darlene up, tells her what to say to get her boyfriend back, while revealing some of her own backstory and how her parents and sister abandoned her. That’s what spurned her to become a first-class swindler.

Many of the stories etch out feelings of loneliness or loss, but with a quirky, off-kilter humor that makes everything bearable. Her narrators are smart, observant, and fallible--very much like us. Bender’s writing recalls that of the wonderful short story writer Flannery O’Connor. Try Flannery's Complete Stories.

Nimona

ISBN: 
9780062278234

Nimona is a powerful shape-shifter who dreams of becoming a super-villain, so of course she signs up to be the sidekick of Lord Ballister Blackheart. Blackheart is already a known evil genius and arch nemesis of the country's top hero. However, this hero, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, might not be the hero after all. Nimona and Blackheart are out to prove that Goldenloin and the Institute he works for are the true evil in the land - that is if Blackheart can control Nimona even a little bit.

This graphic novel is original, creative, and hilarious. Nimona and Blackheart are great characters with intriguing back-stories. The world in which the story is set is part medieval and part modern with a bit of a futuristic twist. This is a quick read and will leave you hoping for more! Noelle Stevenson, we need a sequel please! If back to school has got you in a pleasure reading slump, pick up this fabulous graphic novel.

Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life

ISBN: 
0805065539

“I was never deeply interested in being a child.” Twentieth-century war correspondent and novelist, Gellhorn always said these words would open her autobiography if she ever wrote one.

Unfortunately, she never did but Moorehead’s deeply researched biography of the writer is so rich with Gellhorn’s work, family life, love affairs, and travels that probably not even Gellhorn could have gotten it down with such precision.  Also, Moorehead provides a rich tapestry of historical and cultural information for the nine decades of Martha’s life.

During WW 11, the military refused to give her a pass to Normandy for the German invasion, so Martha sneaked aboard a troop ship and hid in the bathroom until they were well at sea.

Her father, an ex-German doctor settled in St. Louis and married Edna, an intelligent member of the local upper class. Both parents were half Jewish. One of the fascinating things in this book is to discover the lifelong extremely close connection between mother and daughter. Read more »

Modern Romance: An Investigation

How do we choose our romantic partners?  How has choosing a partner changed in the last 50 years? 25? Even 10 years?  What role has technology played in forming and maintaining our relationships?  And has technology had a net positive impact, or negative?  You might expect answers to these questions to come from Dr. Phil, Dan Savage or Dr. Ruth.  But Aziz Ansari?  What does he know about this sort of stuff?

Surprisingly-or not once you start reading Modern Romance- a lot! Along with sociologist Eric Klineberg, Ansari has waded through countless studies on relationships, conducted focus groups around the world and has enlisted the help of reddit for a massive online focus group. The Ansari/Klineberg team also combed through data provided to them by Match.com and OkCupid.com.  Even with all of this data on their hands there are a few limitations in regards to the content of the book.  First, it is primarily focused on heterosexual couples.  Ansari states that he felt it would require a separate book to examine the impact of modern technology on homosexual relationships-maybe we can hope for a follow up! Secondly, the people he spoke with and the data he received came mostly from the middle class.  So if you’re looking for information to land a sugar momma/daddy then this book won’t help much.

Ansari tackles all the aspects of dating from the first stage to the last. It may not come as a surprise that the way we meet has changed since the 1930s.  But did you know that 1/3 of all marriages in 1930 came from couples that lived in a 5 block radius from each other?  Today, with emerging adulthood and the internet our radius for potential partners has expanded to all corners of the world. 

Another effect technology has had on dating is time-as in: how long should I wait to respond to an electronic advance.  In the old days (read: 20 years ago) you may have gotten an answering machine the first time calling someone new.  Then it may have taken them a couple of days to get back to you and it was no big deal.  Now in the age of instant communication, we’re having crises of confidences if a text hasn’t been answered in 20 minutes.

The book isn’t all data and science-there is also a smattering of advice and little insights into Ansari’s own life.  He even included a feature from his latest Neflix feature-actual texts from people’s phones. One section even deals with the optimal type of dating profile pictures (spoiler: ladies-leave your pets outta there! Men- keep them coming!) If you are looking for your information with a side of comedy, then Modern Romance is your jam.

All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West

ISBN: 
9780393089998

This is a hard book to categorize. Is it a dual biography? A history of a region? An environmental paean to a place? A literary memoir of the West? A road book to both grand and despoiled places?

It’s all of the above and more. Gessner began the book as a tribute to two western writers who have inspired him: Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. Gessner went to grad school in Colorado and fell in love with the southwest. Abbey and Stegner became his heroes and teachers, although not literally—he learned through their writing.

He compares the more revolutionary-seeming Abbey who broke laws (trashed earth-moving machines to stop development and threatened to blow up dams) with the more straight-laced Stegner. Read more »

Circling the Sun

ISBN: 
9780345534187

Miwanzo is the Swahili word for “beginnings.”  In this fascinating fictional biography, this word could stand for so many things: Beryl Clutterbuck’s family arriving in Africa from England when she was a child of four; the young girl establishing a close emotional bond with the local native families, known as Kipsigis; the first time she trained a thoroughbred on her own; and the first time she piloted a plane.

What an exciting life Beryl led. Beryl was one of those women who pushed against the boundaries of convention to fully partake in life.

She became the first female licensed racehorse trainer in Africa and the horses under her care won many races. She became an early bush pilot in Africa and the first woman aviator to fly across the Atlantic from east to west. Read more »

Seraphina, Rachel Hartman

ISBN: 
9780375866562

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is a fast paced, beautifully imagined fantasy. Seraphina is a talented musician working at the royal court, but she also has a dangerous secret she has to keep - she is half dragon. In the world of this novel dragons can inhabit their natural form or a human form called a Saar. While in their human form they have forged a treaty with Seraphina's home country of Goredd, but it is a tenuous peace with both sides still holding deep prejudices against each other. 

Seraphina finds herself thrust into the very heart of conflict. The story is adventurous, mysterious, political, and romantic. Seraphina is a character to root for and one who will find her way into readers' hearts. Pick up this fabulous book (or it's sequel Shadow Scale) and let it transport you to a new world.

Station Eleven

ISBN: 
9780385353304

There sure are a lot of books about the End of the World these days; Dystopian novels have been very popular in our rapidly changing present and uncertain future. I would consider this one "literary" fiction, in the sense that the novel isn't really about the genre, but rather uses it as a device that focuses more on its descriptive language and sense of place. This book is set specifically in the Toronto/Great Lakes area as it evokes a sense of wonder about our civilization in its retrospective loss of everything. The story weaves back and forth between several characters before, during, and after an outbreak of "The Georgia Flu" (the Eastern European kind). As any good, modern plague story, airplane travel is quickly identified as the initial means of pandemic. This is not a fast paced, action-driven story (as most of the dystopias I have read), but rather revels in its lack of immediacy. There is no reason to rush, because we have been exposed to the outcome; there is no longer any hustle and bustle of the modern world.

The book jacket suggests this is a cross between Cormac McCarthy and Joan Didion. I can see those inspirations in the author's writing, but it really isn't as blunt or lyrical as either of those great writers. Yet, seeing the comparison in itself is a compliment to the thoughtfulness put into the characters. The story is a bit too disjointed to every really care enough about any particular person, for me, but its detailed authorial observations kept me intrigued throughout (like how gasoline can "go bad" after a certain amount of time or the simple lack of something like a newspaper, in a world without electricity, can break down all institutional communication). The book is less suicide-inducing than The Road and less grief-stricken than The Year of Magical Thinking, but worth a read if you want a well-reviewed book from last year that no longer has a holds waiting list.

The Black Snow

ISBN: 
9780316376419

Irish writer Paul Lynch begins his second novel with a vivid barn burning scene--one of the most powerful novel openers I’ve read in a long time. It starts out calm, some farmhands working quietly in a field, the farm owner’s wife, Eskra, baking, until the scent of smoke and a dark cloud rising suggest that something is very wrong.

The farmer, Barnabas Kane, races to the barn with a loyal worker, and Barnabas presses inside and nudges Matthew Peoples inside also. They try to rescue the fifty seven cattle that are banging their stalls in a frenzy of fear. A friend rescues the farmer, but the other man never gets out, nor do most of the cattle.

The book shows the aftermath of that fire.  For months, the house stinks of smoke: the towels, the sheets, even the wallpaper. In one scene, Barnabas rips down curtains, slashes the wallpaper, even tears his clothes off after recognizing their smoky smell. Eskra comes home and believes he has lost his mind. Read more »

Armchair Travel Delights

If this isn’t the year for a summer vacation, why not have a stay-cation with these books and delight in some armchair travel to places you may never have a chance to visit otherwise.

 

 

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Mom says, "Don't come creeping into our room at night."
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs.
She says, "Don't startle us when we're sleeping."
"Why not?"
"We might shoot you."
"Oh."

So begins Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, a memoir of her childhood in growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during civil war.  Born in England, Fuller immigrated to Rhodesia with her parents when she was a toddler.  It’s hard to imagine why her parents thought moving to Rhodesia during a civil war was a good idea, but both had ties to the continent.  Her father moved to Kenya as a young man and her mother lived in Kenya during the twilight of its empire days.  Fuller never gives the impression they were imperialists but settlers.  Fuller’s dad was often absent-fighting for “white rights” in Africa.  At home, her mom managed her depression mostly with alcohol- “We're all mad, but only I have the certificate to prove it.” 

Life was hard.  The family moved from one poor performing tobacco farm to another.  Fuller focuses on stories of family life while moving around Rhodesia with the Rhodesian Civil War framing the background.  For example, Fuller’s first school picture is include and in it she is holding an Uzi. But for every mention of the war, there’s also a tale of life in Africa.  From planting during the spring to reclaiming a farmhouse from the encroaching jungle to even the sounds, Fuller paints such a detailed picture of the landscape that you can almost feel you’re there.

For more about Fuller’s family and life in Africa read: Scribling the Cat and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

  Read more »

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