I have always found the short story - or rather, the collection of short stories, to be a problematic venture. To a fast reader, one story is not enough for a reading session; yet a well-written story demands a pause for absorption. This is why possibly its best placement is within a magazine, as a single. With a short story collection, if it is the collected works of several writers, the difference in voices, one to another, is a bit like eating a spoonful of steamed fish, followed by a Yorkie Bar, followed by a raw egg, and so on. Or like a collection of literary slaps in the face.
When it comes to a collection by the same author, unless they are highly skilful, the reader quickly masters and absorbs the writer's literary tics and style, and starts each new story becoming surer and surer of what the author is doing and will do - a sense of déjà vu sets in, the sense of one story written again and again with marginal variation.
Rare is the author who masters this, who can work creatively WITH the form, again and again, but not be mastered, or stultified by it.
Preamble over - I do believe Aimee Bender IS that master. There is a deft, sure use of precise writing, there are (very different) narrative journeys, the volte-faces are satisfying, the characters individual, Inevitably there are some stories which are close to perfect, others a little less satisfying - but, rare is the novelist without the occasional phrase, character, or event that doesn't act like a sudden stumble, on the reader's eye and ear.Read more ›
A delightful book of stories that willfully defies easy classification - some of them feature fairytale elements like in the opening and closing stories, "Appleless" and "The Devourings", the latter about a marriage between an ogre and a woman, with unexpected consequences.
Fantasy features strongly in the title story and "Tiger Mending", but the settings are variously believable and immediately accessible whether they are in Middle-class America or in medieval times.
The more realist fiction in this collection include "The Fake Nazi", which examines a court secretary's growing obsession with a man who suffers guilt for war crimes he did not commit, the bitterly funny shopping mall drama of hapless teenage girl who grapples with her position on the fringes of the 'in' crowd in "Lemonade", the more sober relationship of "The Doctor and the Rabbi", and the powerplay in gender/sexual relations in "On a Saturday Afternoon" and "The Red Ribbon". But even in these stories, Bender's playful wit and creative imagination slip in, especially in "Faces", where a mother is worried that her son's inability to tell his friends apart is symptomatic of a more pressing problem.
A very enjoyable collection that got me hooked from the first (and often startling) words in each story, I finished this book in two sittings, because it was impossible not to be lured into yet another one the moment you glimpse the next page.
Was this review helpful to you?
FictionFanTOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 16 Aug. 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
The best description I can come up with for this collection of fifteen short stories is 'modern folk tales'. Ranging from more traditional tales of magic and monsters to very modern stories of sex and technology, if there is a common theme, it is of alienation and loneliness. Some of the stories are short and quirky, others longer and better developed. Sometimes humorous, sometimes moving, occasionally creepy, the stories are extremely well written and compellingly readable.
While the quality of the writing never wavers, I found the quality of the stories themselves to be somewhat variable. There were some that I felt hinted at a depth that didn't in fact exist, and others that seemed rather pointless and occasionally a little gratuitously distasteful. For instance, the first story Appleless is a beautifully written tale glossed over with an air of magic and mysticism, which in the end fails to disguise that it is fundamentally a rather unpleasant description of a rape. There are undertones in it of Eve and the fall from grace, but the story is too short to have developed these well.
However, to offset against the stories that don't quite work, there are a few that really stand out as very fine examples of the short story form. Here are a couple that I think would make this an enjoyable book for most fiction readers, and an essential read for those with a love of folk, faerie and magical realism...
The title story, The Color Master, is a prequel to Perrault's Donkeyskin, in which a king wishes to marry his daughter and orders three dresses for her, one the colour of the moon, one the colour of the sun and lastly one the colour of the sky. Bender's story takes us to the store where the dresses are made.Read more ›
I've been an Aimee Bender fan since I read one of her stories in Tin House. She's her own unique, funkylicious self and it comes through in her writing. Of the 15 stories in the book, my favorite was "Tiger Mending". It literally glowed with freshness and imagination, something sorely lacking in most short stories I've read lately. The title story, "The Color Master" came in a close second: the tale of a store in a kingdom that only makes clothing the colors of natural elements. There's a color master who advises the workers, finessing the finished products by adding as many as forty colors. This story literally brings rainbows to your eyes and makes you see colors in nature that you never saw before...it's that good.
If you're looking for a book full of stories that will make you see the world around you differently, then this is the book for you. I've been reading for over 50 years and these stories astonished me with their ingenious originality.
Aimee Bender is certainly a distinctive and unique writer; I think any reader who knows her work could pick one of her stories out of a crowd after reading the first couple of paragraphs. Much of this uniqueness is in the surreal elements that often feature in her stories, but it's also in her soft, rich, and lyrical narrative voice. Even when rather horrific things happen in her stories (which isn't often) her voice is soft and understated.
But it's probably the magical and surreal aspects of her stories that are most distinctive. In "Wordkeeper," people all over the world find themselves losing words -- they're unable to remember the names of everyday things. In "Tiger Mending," a skilled seamstress is recruited to help with stitching together wild tigers who keep splitting open for unknown reasons. In "Americca," a family finds that small items -- a tube of toothpaste, cans of soup, and so on -- keep mysteriously appearing in their home. Some stories don't have any element of magic, but these too are inventive in their bizarre situations and eccentric characters.
When stories take place in a strange or unreal world, it can be difficult for readers to connect with the characters. Adding to this is the cool and distant fairytale-like style that many of these stories are written in. In a few stories, the central characters aren't even named, but are referred to as "the rabbi," "the secretary," and so on. It's a mark of Bender's artistry as a writer that in spite of these seeming obstacles, her characters come through as real, living people that we connect with and care about.
Having said these positive things, I do have reservations about some of the stories in this collection.
About half of the stories here feel rather unstructured; they seem to wander from one idea to another. In "A State of Variance" for example, a woman finds herself unable to sleep for more than an hour a night. Because of this she often has quick little hallucinations, but she does her best to hide this. Meanwhile, her son is reaching adulthood, and he finds that no one trusts him because his face is too perfect, too symmetrical. He tries to get into a fight, hoping that a solid punch will make his face less symmetrical. What do these elements have to do with one another? Why are they in the same story? What connects the beginning of the story to the end?
The stories of this sort feel like baskets into which Bender has tossed a collection of charming but unrelated ideas, and maybe that's how they should be accepted and enjoyed. Alternatively, maybe I'm missing something -- some thread of connection that's too subtle for my eye. Whatever the case, I found these meandering stories less enjoyable than the ones with tightly structured plots where all the ideas were more clearly tied together.
But in all of these stories there is that unmistakable Aimee Bender voice, and that voice is always a pleasure.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Aimee Bender is someone I'd like to have coffee with...30 Jun. 2013
I tend to gravitate toward short stories the same way I do toward short films, or tapas. Don't like this one? Try another one! It takes a special short story writer to grab my attention, and Aimee Bender was the first author I chose, to bring me back into book reviewing after a couple of years. I have only read her short story collections so far, but I know that I need to read the novels as well, because I'm sure they are just as amazing.
I have read some reviews for some of her books where people tell others that they're "not going to like it." I'm not going to say that. In fact, I'm going to say the opposite. Whether your genre is romance, mystery, western, etc...try it out. I tend to avoid fantasy/sci fi or surrealism like the plague, because they tend to frustrate me, and I normally love truth, much more than imagination when I read a book. But, I love how her books take me away to this other place. It's almost like she accesses a different part of my brain. She is an amazing, creative storyteller! I want to know what makes her come up with such crazy ideas!
Some of my favorites from this collection are: "Red Ribbon", a story about a woman, who, after having a dinner conversation with her husband about his college roommates and prostitutes, decides to spice up their sex life. After that, she can't go back to the way it used to be, and it changes her completely.
"Faces," about a boy who has "facial illiteracy," and his mom discovers it one day after asking about his friends and what they're like. She discovers that he can't really see faces. (I was almost convinced that this is a real thing, after reading this story.)
"Lemonade," one of my favorites, and one of the more "normal" stories. It was about teenaged girls and the angst of growing up and having female friends. Though this may drive some readers crazy, I loved that there were not a lot of periods while we were in Louanne's thoughts. Also, it had a lot of run on sentences. A typical woman's brain to me is like a telephone cord, with everything all tangled up. I really connected with the character, because I felt that she was somewhat strange, an outsider like I was, trying to fit in with her friends and knowing that she didn't.
"A State of Variance," about a woman who turned 40, believed she would die at 80, and the fact that she could now only sleep for an hour at a time. Her son doesn't like the fact that he has a perfectly symmetrical face, and goes out of his way to get it messed up.
"Americca," was another one of my favorites. A family who is getting "reverse robbed." Things are showing up in their household, sometimes in duplicates. They have no idea where any of the items are coming from. 10 year old Lisa is trying to figure out who the "ghost" is that's doing this.
"The Devourings," the last story in the book. About a woman who married an ogre. This ogre eats people and children, but not the ones he knows personally. When he accidentally eats their children, his wife escapes, and tries to make it on her own in the woods, which is also ogre territory.
This is recommended reading for anyone who wants their brain turn to mush, in a good way.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Astonishingly bizarre and fantastic!15 Aug. 2013
- Published on Amazon.com
I should state up front that Aimee Bender is one of my favorite authors, right up there with Haruki Murakami. Even though I knew I'd likely fall in love with this new collection of short stories (and I did!), I was blown away by the extent of her versatility and imagination in The Color Master. From teenagers at the mall in "Lemonade" to ogres in "The Devourings," each of the fourteen stories is set in its own fantastical world with its own voice, tone, and set of rules.
The title story, "The Color Master" was by far my favorite. This is a spin-off of the French fairytale "Donkeyskin" by Charles Perrault. It was a little more plot-driven than the others, yet had a beautiful, glittery air of magic to it. The tailors had to make dresses the color of the sun, the moon, and the sky (!!!)... pretty incredible.
This collection is reminiscent of fables of old, containing social commentary and deeper lessons to be learned. Bender definitely has a surrealist bent, so read these offbeat, eccentric stories knowing that, in some cases, you may be waking up before the dream is completely over!
As much as I relished each story, I was still surprised by how astonishingly bizarre and avant-garde they are. If you are new to Aimee Bender's work, you may want to read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (novel) and Willful Creatures (short stories) first.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation for this review.
I've been hooked on Aimee Bender's work since I first picked up one of her stories. Her twist on magical realism - deeply American, usually urban, and frequently from a child's perspective - marked her from the beginning as a writer to watch. There was that terse elegance in her prose and the unpretentious way it evoked -- but never aped -- Kafka's style. In the years since that first encounter, Bender has continued to grow as a writer even as she's continued to demonstrate that beguiling mastery of plot and character as well as that elegant style.
Those who've read Bender's recent stories in literary journals, many included in "The Color Master" may have noticed that she's begun a subtle shift in her work. Her characters have grown more complex. Plot devices, still often "magical," have become part of a stronger whole where once they might subsume the story. This shift could already be seen in Bender's first novel, the lovely and tearful "Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake." Still, I've always suspected that Bender's greatest strength was her stories. This collection only bolsters that belief. As ever, Bender shows a particular sensitivity to grief and understands how it that emotion can best be brought to an aching fore with a judicious splash of humor.
No story better gives a sense of this shift than, "Red Ribbon," perhaps my favorite in the collection, which tells of a wife who can only enjoy sex with her husband in exchange for cash. No magical realism here, just heart break. Beyond deep characters, Bender offers a searing meditation on the complexities of sex. As with the best of literature, several of these stories distill emotions, making for a potent drink. "Appleless" is almost koan-like at a scant 2 pages and change. Among a group of girls, one stands out for not liking apples, and is hated for it. In an odd way this story harkens back to Bender's little man in the cage from her collection "Willful Creatures." Again, the emotions she explores hover beneath the surface out of sight like the most dangerous predators.
In many of the "magical" stories, the magical elements serve not so much as metaphor (though they are that), but as fuel for the characters' conflicts. That is the case with "Americca," a first person tale offered from a child's perspective as her family is "reverse robbed," strange possessions deposited in their house inexplicably with no apparent source. The same is true of "Tiger Mending," a beautiful consideration of the relations between sisters. Of course Bender has plainly not lost her fascination with fairy tales as we see in title story, "The Color Master."
As Bender continues to grow as a writer, she offers new and unexpected gifts to her readers. There are in this author's mind worlds yet undiscovered and we as readers should all be grateful that she's invited us to come along for her journey of exploration.