Information, Answers & Reviews

Refund: Stories

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.

Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life

“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.

Mister Roberts (1955)

Mister Roberts (1955), starring Henry Fonda, is based on the stage play by Frank Nugent. Fonda, who starred in the Broadway play, reprised his role as Lieutenant Douglas Roberts for this film, with an A-list of players supporting him. Jack Lemmon also stars as Ensign Pulver, a role which won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor; James Cagney as Captain Morton and William Powell as "Doc" round out the cast. Sadly, the film also ended the longtime friendship and working relationship between Henry Fonda and director John Ford who, in a fit of anger, reportedly sucker punched Fonda in the mouth.

After Life

I was told once that it is bad form to start an article or speech with a question, however this film seems to require a question to be asked … so now that I have the statement out of the way let me ask you that question.  If you could have just one memory in your life to live in forever what would that memory be?   This is the question proposed in Hirokazu Koreeda’s movie After Life.  The premise is simple, after death the dead arrive at a sort of clearing house and are given one week to choose a memory from their life in which to spend eternity.   At the end of that week the moment is reconstructed and the dead spend eternity in that moment.  There is a catch. 

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

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.

Circling the Sun

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.

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