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Time, Life, and a Collection of Glimpses

CBR_Logo2The Story Ends—The Story Never Ends

by Joyce Goldenstern

Chicagoan Joyce Goldenstern’s The Story Ends—The Story Never Ends is a collection of glimpses. But her stories, while quick, are dense with detail, depth of character, and enthralling storytelling. Like a book of poetry, what is not there is just as important as what is; Goldenstern is as deliberate as a poet.

Whether from the perspective of a child, a young adult, a housewife, or an old woman, the author’s voice comes through resolutely, easily. Themes of religion, tragedy, acceptance, and morality pop up again and again. A woman comforts goldenstern story endsthe man who betrayed her when he experiences a misfortune of his own. An aging woman obsesses over a Catholic school fire in Chicago that killed ninety-five children well before she was born. Generations of dutiful women serve in 4-H yet question patriarchal tradition.

But the question of what it means to grow up is also prominent in these stories; at what age, if any, do we stop getting hurt by uncaring partners, by not having a real home or sense of belonging? And how much of our suffering, or ability to fight it, is just a story we tell ourselves? As the narrator in “Circus Acts” says of her life assisting a cruel side show magician, “Surely I must be the main character of this story for I’ve changed the most and many times.” Abandoned as a child, she had nowhere else to go and never left because of “loneliness and fear and habit and perversion.”

“Communion Dress” ends when a young girl figures out that floating through life without making any real connections does not please anyone, including herself. “‘You cannot,’ my mother tells me through her tears, ‘stay alone in your room for the rest of your life and make up stories.’” In “Earth and Sky,” a file clerk who considers herself a theologian concludes that men in her life, whether a dead philosopher or her lover or God, are distracting her, keeping her from becoming the woman she wanted to be. These narrators all share that desire: to uncover their purpose, their personal story.

Joyce Goldenstern

Author Joyce Goldenstern

The vignette-like tales are told with stunning prose, and they create a collection that fits nicely between categories; part prose poetry, part folktale, part short story. Though not the best-executed cover design for this book, the image of a young girl in her communion attire enveloped by flames does speak to the themes that reveal themselves in these stories: We are too easily devoured by our own desires, traditions, and fears.

Though you will not want some of these stories to end, they live on as you think and rethink through their meaning. “Time: the way it does and undoes. What surprises you about getting old? I will tell you: what happened thirty years ago can still cause you to wince or bring tears to your eyes,” says the narrator in “Heart, etc.”

Do we ever truly change? Do we ever become detached from our history? Goldenstern successfully shows us how stories truly never end, and we can only hope that her writing of them won’t, either.

Four-Star Review

December 2015, ELJ Publications
Fiction/Short Stories
$18.99, paperback, 120 pages
ISBN: 978-1942004189

—Reviewed by Meredith Boe

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Beautiful and Painful ‘Sex and Death’

CBR_Logo2Sex and Death
by Ben Tanzer

Because now here you are, wondering what comes next, but no longer wondering how you got here.

Award-winning author Ben Tanzer has packed Sex and Death, his small, powerful collection of short stories, with some insightful, evocative lines like this, lines that gently peel open and then tear at your heart.

sex&death.coverThis little gem of a book, measuring just 4½” x 6” and coming in at just over 70 pages, packs an outsized punch as Tanzer delves gently though unflinchingly at some of our sharpest emotions: love, lust, longing, ecstasy, anxiety. These short stories are populated with memorable characters who often go unnamed but whose feelings are so deeply felt that they practically vibrate with every page.

Tanzer, a Chicagoan whose many roles include director of acquisitions at Curbside Splendor, has in these pages captured and relayed passions at once unique and universal, tapping into emotions so many readers have experienced, feelings simultaneously isolating and invigorating, specific and common. There is a lot of pain in these stories, pain associated with love and longing and anger and fear. But Tanzer has a way in this collection of delivering that pain gently, with compassion and without judgment.

That he does so in each of these nine stories, some of them not much more than about 500 words, is remarkable. These are quiet stories, thoughtful and sympathetic. But they are not whispered. Many are written in a stream-of-consciousness style, internal thoughts barraging the narrator, often in a vicious circle of longing and fidelity.

Easily read from cover to cover in one sitting, Sex and Death takes us into the minds and hearts of tired parents, cuckolded spouses, crass teens discovering the difference between sex and love. Although each story is home to a different narrator and a new set of characters, the tone remains somewhat constant throughout, lending the collection the feel of a concept album. Each story makes sense on its own, each is compelling alone. But taken together, the collection is even more formidable, like a series of rolling waves crashing upon the shore again and again and again, soaking the reader in emotion.

As such, it’s easy to understand Tanzer’s status as a local favorite and as an award-winning writer. Sex and Death is a quick read, but it is a lasting read, with stories and characters and situations that settle in and don’t let go. It’s a gorgeous collection, carefully curated and lovingly told. A true must read.

Four-Star Review

January 2016, Sunnyoutside
$13, paperback, 72 pages
ISBN: 978-1-934513-50-7

Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Storytelling for Our Time

CBR_Logo2Music for Wartime
by Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai is already renowned for her books The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House. Her debut collection of short stories, Music for Wartime, will no doubt produce (and has already attained) similar acclaim. Makkai, a local author whose work has been published in four consecutive editions of The Best American Short Stories, is able to intricately weave stories together to present a compendium of tales that seem like a tribute to storytelling itself. There is a palpable need expressed in this collection for stories to be told, understood, digested, and passed on. In addition, three stories in the “legends” section are based on Makkai’s own family history in 1930s Hungary.

music makkai 9780525426691Some stories in this collection are little snippets, from only two pages, to overarching stories of seventeen pages long. There are stories that focus on a single moment (“A Bird in the House”) to stories that span multiple generations (“The Worst You Ever Feel”). The first story, “The Singing Women,” sets the tone. It’s a tale of war in an unknown country, with similarities to World War II with characters like “the dictator” and three surviving women. A composer is desperately trying to record the women’s language and songs, as they are the last known survivors of a dialect. The first story has the feel of a fairy tale, and the narrator confirms this at the end: “(But I’ve made it sound like a fable, haven’t I? I’ve lied and turned two women into three, because three is a fairy tale number.)”

Music for Wartime shows the power of storytelling in delicate and traumatic times. Narrators in this book include a boy coming to terms with his father’s past while playing a duet with a renowned Romanian violinist, and a narrator living in Chicago, trying to save a friend from inevitable failure, by having him perform at the Art Institute of Chicago. There is a desperation in these characters to tell these stories, to share them with anyone who will listen, either to relieve themselves from overwhelming guilt or to run away from, or rationalize, indescribable trauma.

Explaining and overcoming trauma is at the core of the story “Everything We Know About the Bomber” where the collective “we” narrator describes a man who committed a terrible crime. The details range from the obvious to the trivial. “He was someone’s son, and then he was not … He had a beard, and then he did not. His sister understood him, and then she did not.” The story becomes increasingly desperate, the narrators trying to explain the event to the reader as much as to themselves. “We plan to learn more. We plan to keep updated. We plan to look for patterns.” Makkai’s use of language and rhythm in this story makes it as poetic as it is emotionally jarring.

Music for Wartime is an impressive collection that focuses on the art of storytelling and the significance of history (both world history and personal/family history). Makkai expertly utilizes structure and pacing to make every word count. The two-page stories are just as powerful, arguably if not more so, than the expansive stories. This diverse collection will no doubt show audiences the need to learn and recognize history, the power of the short story form, and how important it is to pass these stories on.

Four-Star Review

June 2015, Viking
Short Fiction
$26.95, hardcover, 240 pages
ISBN: 978-0-525-42669-1

—Reviewed by Lyndsie Manusos

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