Tag Archives: short stories

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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Stories Far From Idiotic

CBR_Logo2Twilight of the Idiots
by Joseph G. Peterson

Twilight of the Idiots gathers together short stories about people who take wrong turns in life and who suffer or even die because of it. No matter how hard they try, opportunities for love and happiness slip away. The title of the collection is a play on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, itself a decadent twist on Richard Wagner’s opera, Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung).

A sense of moral and spiritual dissipation defines Peterson’s work here. Unlike his novel Gideon’s Confession (reviewed for CBR here), there is no humorous reprieve or hope; there is only suicide, murder, or at best emotional failure. The author has set himself a true challenge in imagining these desperately tragic lives. Readers will be shaken by the troubled relations between ordinary, mostly uncultured people.twilightcover400

“Romance and Respect” tells of a woman’s entanglement with a violent man. The woman leaves her listener (and the reader) feeling frustrated and uneasy as it becomes clear that she is ill-equipped to make good decisions. If there is wisdom in suffering, it requires a level of self-awareness that seems to elude her. “Rita’s Last Crazy Idea” presents a similar narrative from the man’s point of view. A free-spirited woman seems to lure the main male character on a dangerous boat ride. As he eyes “the skin of the woman underneath the bikini,” he claims to “hear the question she really asks: not if we can do it, but if I have enough lust for her to row her out there.” His misinterpretation is alarming, even more so given his reasonable tone of voice.

Other stories cover unwitnessed, unpunished crimes. Only the fiction writer, by strength of imagination, can traverse time and space to observe such cruelty perpetrated without consequence. The best of these stories, “Golfer’s Bog,” is a ghoulish, unforgettable account of the murder of a young boy. Malevolence and despair mingle with appalling nonchalance. The boy narrates his own death, remarking, “When it was all over, I remember thinking, I don’t know, it just seems like I shouldn’t have been so easy to kill.”

A few stories focus on the early loss of innocence. But more haunting is Peterson’s examination of a lifetime of disillusionment, especially in the diptych formed by “The Visit,” about a mother who visits her son, and “It Comes with Death, Such Feelings,” which covers her death years later. Both focus on the son’s alienation from his mother, a woman suffering from “life fatigue.” She seems to hide this side of herself from everyone else—or perhaps he misunderstood her all along. The true cause of their discord is never certain. One has to admire the author’s refusal to provide a satisfying rapprochement. As sometimes happens, regret and slow burning resentment here win out over all other feelings.

Most of these ordinary “idiots” (or young people) can barely fathom the possibility of misperception, though there are a few exceptions. In “Jacob’s Cheek,” the endearingly resilient main character has created “the most successful porta-potty business in town.” He has won himself stability and wealth despite his traumatic childhood. Yet no one believes it was traumatic, and this bothers him. To his credit, he ponders the fallibility of his own mind. “Did it really happen like this? Was his childhood really this oppressive?” If so, then he is alone with the burden of memory; if it was not oppressive, he must live with his delusion. Either way, human mental faculties seem horribly flawed, as much a source of pain as anything else.

Despite these scenes of death and dismal existence, somehow Chicago itself comes across, now and then, in a nostalgic light, whether a character is paddling out on the lake or staggering down Rush Street at night. But bitter psychological realities prevail. The heartache of ordinary lives is not softened with quirky humor or a wealth of local detail, as they are for instance in Stuart Dybeck’s The Coast of Chicago. Twilight of the Idiots, written in concise unembellished prose, focuses on people who lack any particular brilliance, insight, or wit. Some are Nietzscheans without Nietzsche, while others are tragedies without an audience. But Peterson sees each crisis through, if not quite judging, then bearing witness.

A final word must be said about the high physical quality and presentation of the book, which was published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. The cover features a striking photograph of a Düreresque rodent, crouched low, eyes open wide. One would not guess from its face that its torso is hollowed out, as if bitten in two, internal organs splayed open for inspection. The creature has suffered a staggering injury, yet it still lives. The image is from a massive outdoor mural by ROA in Chicago (photographed by Peterson). It effectively complements the arresting stories within, toying with perceptions of scale in regard to personal trauma.

Four-Star Review

April 2015, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography
Fiction/Short Stories
$14.99, paperback, 212 pages
ISBN: 978-1939987273

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

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