Short Stories

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.

Best Short Stories of the Year


I love anthologies, particularly of short stories. But I must confess I never follow the editor’s carefully thought-out arrangement.

Certainly, I hit pay dirt with this year’s O. Henry prize collection.  The very first story I dove into “Good faith” by Colleen Morrissey wowed me on first reading and ended up being my favorite.

What made it so good? Snake handlers, religion, a summer road-trip, girls coming of age, family conflict, romance, and camping out under the stars. It tells the story of a religious family travelling the south who meet two rich young men on the road.

That night the leading character Rachel does snake handling, not for entertainment, as she tells the more serious young man, Mr. Pattinson, but as part of her faith and religious practice. Read more »

Let Me Be Frank With You


I’m not from Jersey, but Philly, which is a short bridge- or boat-ride away, but boy has Ford captured the Jersey patois, sense of alienation, and its ironic humor. Plus that reverence Jerseyites feel for what they call The Shore, a kind of mythical Fun Paradise with nature in the otherwise cemented-over Northeast.

Realtor and ex-sportswriter, Frank Bascombe returns in these four intertwined tales.  Ford has stuck with the sensitive, observing hero from three of his novels The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, two of which won major awards.

Something bad, really bad, has happened to The Shore. Houses and lives have been ripped apart and most everyone is in a bad mood. Hurricane Sandy recently ripped through and most people have lost not only their homes, their finances, but also confidence in the future. Read more »

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher


If you loved Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, this collection of stories will convince you that she can capture modern people at least as well as medieval ones showing all their foibles and unachieved dreams. 

Mantel’s prose is startling clear, her metaphors striking but en pointe, and her feel for characters both rich and sure.  She has a ready feel for plot and for infusing her stories with a deep feel for the mysterious.

In the opener, “Sorry to Disturb,” she portrays a sick British ex-pat living in Saudi Arabia, who is almost a prisoner in her own apartment (because of women’s very restricted social and cultural standing there.) An Asian foreign man starts to visit her in the afternoons and though he is married, she immediately suspects his lack of good intentions. When he tells her that she reminds him of his first American girlfriend who was risque, she knows her perceptions are right. Read more »

Problems with People


This is Guterson’s first story collection in nearly twenty years. Ignore the bland title for these stories set in his native Northwest and in foreign countries including Germany, South Africa, and Nepal are muscular, well-written, and anchored with a deep sense of place.  An air of melancholy and of possible tragedy hangs over a few of them, especially two of my favorites, “Pilanesberg” and “Krassavitseh.”

In “Pilanesberg” a brother visits his sister in Africa to go wildlife viewing, but you soon discover that the sister has cancer and her favorite thing to do is “sleep.” They share a wonderful experience viewing big mammals: elephants, tigers, etc. but the trip is marred by the fact that they animals are fenced in, and the couple find themselves at dusk locked in as well.  Next follows a humorous and ludicrous conversation with the gatekeeper who says he cannot let them out. Read more »



No one else does wry humorous stories full of punch the way Lorrie Moore does. In Bark, her newest collection, she examines modern life after divorce and the difficult art of parenting teens. In the opening story “Debarking” she describes the dating life of a newly divorced man, Ira Wilkins. He meets a zany pediatrician Zora at a dinner party, and they begin seeing each other. Unfortunately, this also involves contact with Zora’s teenage son—the zip-lock mouthed, Bruno. Does it give Ira the willies that Bruno and Zora have an uncomfortable habit of sitting close and touching? Yep.  Yet Ira plows on with a romance that is hardly reciprocated. His confidence is down so he allows Zora and Bruno to take advantage of him—he buys them meals, movie tickets, etc. They even take the rest of his birthday cake home after a lackluster celebration because Bruno needs it for his school lunch. This can’t end well and it doesn’t but what fun happens along the way.

More eerie is “The Juniper Tree” a kind of new age ghost story where three women share their talents: art, dance, song with their recently deceased friend who still haunts her house.  The first person narrator never made it to the hospital to see the friend, Robin Ross, and in fact came to this odd séance with no prepared gift. So on the spot, she sang a rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Read more »

Dorothy Day's Circle of Friends


I’ve read other books by Joan Silber, and I think she is a writer who deserves a bigger audience. If you’re a fan of historical novels, you will enjoy this book. It’s less a novel than a collection of interrelated stories centered on friends of Dorothy Day (or were related to her inner circle). She was a famous Catholic worker who fought hard for the poor.

The first story revolves on a group of young 20-somethings in Day’s New York circle about the time she was getting serious about Catholicism.  (She was an adult convert.)  In the title story, a young vivacious woman named Vera, loves her life surrounded by smart, interesting people, one of whom she marries. Silber captures the feel of New York City during this time, the freedom young adults experienced living together, going to political meetings, working their day jobs but also doing creative things on the side.

Vera is a sign painter until her employer insults her and then eventually fires her without cause.  Although in love with her husband, Joe, Vera is drawn to Day’s boyfriend, Forster, who is also the father of Day’s child. A chance meeting in a park brings Vera and Forster together when they discover the corpse of a poor man who froze to death on a bench. Read more »

Bobcat and Other Stories


If you like short stories don’t skip this new collection, Bobcat. Rebecca Lee’s stories about architects, matchmakers, academics, depressed children, a writer’s spouse, and student plagiarists are absorbing and continually offer fresh surprises. Lee writes fluid yet beautiful prose that cuts immediately to the chase.

In the story “Min,” the title character’s father, Albert, works in Hong Kong to resettle Vietnamese refugees for the UN. One summer Min invites his college friend to visit Asia with him for the summer.  Although they are close friends, Min and Sarah are not in love. 

While there, Sarah discovers that the promised job that Albert has chosen for her is to find Min a wife. Sarah’s only training is to read the notes Albert’s mother left when she selected her own son’s bride. Here are a couple examples: “Possibility—Midnight black hair, walk is like a leopard, carnal desires strong,” and “Monkey woman, scurries through the day, loves confusion.” Read more »

Parenthood, Birth, and Other Transformations


In A Guide to Being Born, Ausubel’s narrative voice is strong and unique.  She takes chances in her fiction yet unlike some modern authors, she still includes distinct narrative threads. You can tell she is an independent-minded author just from the layout of her collection--four sections titled: Birth, Gestation, Conception, and Love. Notice the order of her subjects, the reverse of what you might expect.

I fell in love with the first story “Safe Passage.” It begins this way, “The Grandmothers—dozens of them—find themselves at sea.” This boat full of older women find themselves adrift with hundreds of crates; they open them to see if any of the items will allow them to save themselves. The story is funny, whimsical, and fantastical all at once. Plus, it conceals a deeper level that you won’t discover right away. The grandmothers find shipping containers full of yellow roses, and they fill their arms with them despite the fact that the thorns leave blood tracks on their hands.

Another fantasy-rich story is “Chest of Drawers.” Toward the end of the wife’s pregnancy, her husband suddenly grows live drawers on his chest, a problem that necessitates many medical appointments and tests. Yet, the compartments come in handy for carrying things such as his wife’s lipstick and a bunch of tiny diversity dolls. Read more »

Dear Life: Stories


No other author manages to squeeze so much historical detail and under-the-surface emotion into her short stories as Canadian writer, Alice Munro. Her short fiction has enthralled me for years. Although she's written a novel or two, almost her whole output - 17 published books - is in the short story form.

In Munro's stories time is never strictly chronological. Munro artfully flits between the present and the past. She never loses control. Her transitions are seamless; the reader never has to search or root around for the correct time and place. Also, important to these stories is the emotional arc.

Dear Life is her most personal collection yet. To the ten stories included, Munro has added four memoir pieces that are not fiction, although Munro said that she fictionalized certain elements of them. If you've read the author's other collections, you'll recognize the farmland and small towns near Lake Huron, marked by poverty that Munro returns to again and again. There's also the young girl or woman breaking away from her family, seeking a better life.  Sexuality often becomes a main theme and the endings are seldom happily-ever-after, but more like life, both good and bad, always complicated. Read more »

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