A literary event over ten years in the making: the debut collection of short fiction by the critically acclaimed novelist Karen E. Bender.
We think about it every day, sometimes every hour: Money. Who has it. Who doesn’t. How you get it. How you don’t.
Bender uses this very powerful force to pull together a unified collection of stories that deeply explore the ways in which money and the subsequent estimation of value affect the lives of her characters. The stories in Refund reflect our contemporary world—swindlers, reality show creators, desperate artists, siblings, parents — who struggle to figure out how to obtain money, how to give it, earn it, lose it, all the while trying to answer the question: What is the real definition of worth?
In “Theft,” an eighty-year-old swindler, accustomed to tricking people for their money, discovers she has Alzheimer’s and boards a cruise ship to see if she can find something of true value—a human connection. In “Anything for Money,” the creator of a popular reality show is thrown into the real world when his estranged granddaughter reenters his life in need of a new heart; in “The Sea Turtle Hospital,” a young teacher and her charge survive another school lockdown to seek out comfort in stranded sea animals, as they learn to cherish themselves and all living things; and in the provocative title story, young artist parents in downtown Manhattan escape the attack on 9/11 only to face a battle over their subletted apartment with a stranger who might have lost more than only her deposit.
Set in New York City, the American South, and Los Angeles, these award-winning stories explore what we can afford and what we cannot and herald a work of singular literary merit by an important writer at the height of her power.
Refund was a Finalist for the National Book Award for fiction; it was also on the short list for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and the longlist for the Story Prize.
“The tales told in Karen Bender’s “Refund,” a collection of stories that centers on money and family, are exquisitely composed portraits of modern life, and chances are you will encounter characters that remind you a little or a lot of yourself. That’s the brilliance of Bender’s storytelling….Bender’s ability to transform observations of life into uncomfortably realistic stories cannot be denied.” Chicago Tribune
“The stories are replete with poignant, tragic moments…her graceful and sensitive treatment of her characters reminds us that in difficult times, it’s important to remember that everyone is fighting a hard battle.” The Boston Globe
“A masterful new collection.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Each of the “Refund” stories is an impeccably constructed miniature, a ship in a bottle that makes the reader wonder how the author got all that detail, all that craft, into such a small container. Taken as a whole, the collection is a 13-stop journey into some richly imagined worlds…Bender’s willingness to go deep, to burrow down into what’s right and wrong about 21st century America and Americans is a mirror that draws us in and does not allow us to look away.” The Los Angeles Times
“In the 13 electrifying tales of Refund, she examines the themes of wealth and poverty, health and disease, and the suddenness with which our lives can change — or even end….Bender ends on notes of hope and despair: hope because one is still loved and can love, despair at a life fraught with worry and disappointment. The author’s sharp observations and fine, crisp writing keep these stories crackling with energy and wit, while they excavate the buried secrets of 21st century America.” The Miami Herald
“Money is ostensibly the fuel that powers Karen E. Bender’s new collection, “Refund…” but Bender’s subtler preoccupation is the eroding effect of emotional want…Bender understands worlds about marriage and emotional need.” The New York Times Book Review
“There are some astonishing characters in this collection–the elderly grifter in “Theft,” the ailing child in “Anything for Money,” and the sisters in “A Chick From My Dream Life”…the stories’ strengths stem from Bender’s beautiful writing and her ability to convey the wonder and dread of ordinary life, the things we might notice–whether with terror or with joy–if we weren’t too busy worrying about paying the bills.”–Publisher’s Weekly
“Bender probes the depths people will sink to for love and money in this poignant, absorbing collection of finance-themed tales. Worth investing time in.” People magazine
“A fictional bonanza for penny-pinching times.” More magazine
“Each day Bender’s cast of ordinary people struggle to make sense of their debts, their fears, and how to be satisfied with what they’ve got, in short stories that are both lean and expansive.” O magazine
“Bender’s tales are stark, heart-wrenching, quirky….but they all work together, as Bender leads us to a unifying conclusion: you can’t put a price on human life or love.” Booklist
“Bender’s evocative prose takes us immediately to a place that we recognize, even if we haven’t yet lived there ourselves…I loved Refund. Highly recommended.” The Billfold
“The theme of money unifies Karen E. Bender’s extraordinary new collection of short stories, Refund…Bender’s style is forceful but simple as she shares her ironic, compassionate insights into money, security and family life.” Mirabile Dictu
“Money, money! The things we’ll do to get it, the distortions (especially when children are involved) of the space between desire and satisfaction: these are Karen Bender’s subjects, which she handles with savage wit, great economy, and a brilliant instinct for the telling situation. Her stories floored me.” —Andrea Barrett, author of Archangel and Servants of the Map
“Every once in a while a book steps onto the stage and convinces readers all over again that literature is the great companion and interpreter of life. This is one of those books. In these eleven absolutely masterful stories by Karen E. Bender, the reader gets the most intimate education in politics, language, love, family. The book cares about every single idea it comes across— in a way it is political to the core. On the other hand, the writing is affectionate and attentive to the way life feels, to the way a phrase can grasp a moment so entirely. This is the book of the season, and the book everyone should read who wants to understand the depth and capability of the short story.” –Rebecca Lee, author of Bobcat and The City Is A Rising Tide
“In an American moment where money rules and anxieties fester, Karen Bender has stepped in to tell all our stories with unsettling honesty, an eye for our absurdities, and an openness to the moments of grace that keep us going. Bender is a master storyteller and Refund is a superb collection.” –Tom Barbash, author of Stay Up With Me
“These stories are among the best short fiction I’ve read in a generation. From the chains of straw and coins and angels that bind us to earth, Bender weaves not only gold, but the rings of Saturn.” —Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean and Second Nature
“In Refund, Karen Bender offers us a vision of contemporary life that is tragic and deeply funny, disturbing and – most of all – true. These are stories about us, women and men living with the trappings of comfort and security, while anxiety thrums under the surface and a sense of calamity looms. This collection moved and enthralled me throughout.” —Danzy Senna, author of Caucasia and the story collection: You are Free
Karen E. Bender burst on to the literary scene a decade ago with her luminous first novel, Like Normal People, which garnered remarkable acclaim.
A Town of Empty Rooms presents the story of Serena and Dan Shine, estranged from one another as they separately grieve over the recent loss of Serena’s father and Dan’s older brother. Serena’s actions cause the couple and their two small children to be banished from New York City, and they settle in the only town that will offer Dan employment: Waring, North Carolina. There, in the Bible belt of America, Serena becomes enmeshed with the small Jewish congregation in town led by an esoteric rabbi, whose increasingly erratic behavior threatens the future of his flock. Dan and their young son are drawn into the Boy Scouts by their mysterious and vigilant neighbor, who may not have their best intentions at heart. Tensions accrue when matters of faith, identity, community, and family all fall into the crosshairs of contemporary, small-town America. A Town of Empty Rooms presents a fascinating insight into the lengths we will go to discover just where we belong.
“In the very best of fiction, an intimate, spiritual communion momentarily transpires between reader and author. In the case of Bender’s novel, these moments occur during these flawless passages of authentic longing and isolation. Like some of today’s best contemporary realistic authors, Bender skillfully excavates and animates the human fragilities and missteps of life, transporting the reader deeper into the narrative and the interior lives of her characters. Taken together, “A Town of Empty Rooms” elicits both great pleasure and heartache.” –S. Kirk Walsh, The Boston Globe
“Conversations — about love, faith, belonging, and the nature of God — rattle and hum throughout Karen Bender’s outstanding new novel, “A Town of Empty Rooms.” The book itself is a series of conversations, though it is the ones we don’t have, Bender suggests, that matter the most.” –Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Bender’s a keen observer of marriage and the psychological bonds that tie mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons. The novel excels in stirring the reader’s sympathy and outrage…Bender offers an absorbing and often touching look at the struggles of an urban middle-class family to adjust to an unfamiliar America—rural, provincial and homogeneous.” -Publisher’s Weekly
“A Town of Empty Rooms is a gift to anyone who loves real books about real people. It is profound, moving, and so beautifully written as to break your heart. It’s as though Karen Bender is channeling Willa Cather, with a bit of George Orwell. Charming, real, and absolutely necessary.” —Craig Nova, author of The Constant Heart
“Quiet power is something we have too little of in our fiction these days, so I cherished it all the more in Karen Bender’s Town of Empty Rooms. She observes her characters from what you might call a respectful distance, but in a way that penetrates to the psychic muck. She knows that gossip is one of the ways we reveal ourselves. This doesn’t sound like any other book about a Southern small town.” –John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead
“I read this absorbing book in one sitting. It has everything to make you go on reading – conflict, hope, disappointment; displays of confusion, displays of ignorance, displays of foolishness —and, at bottom, an affecting depiction of human isolation.” -Edith Pearlman, author of Binocular Vision
“Karen Bender’s novel is filled with subtle recognitions. As her exiled characters rebuild their lives, they discover the human heart’s resilient capacity for love. A Town of Empty Rooms does what all terrific novels do: it resonates with the reader long after its covers have been closed. Read the book; you’ll see.” —Tom Grimes, author of Mentor: A Memoir
Is it possible to know another person, even one you love, is the question posed in this novel…..Bender portrays a marriage in crisis with heartbreaking accuracy. –Kirkus Reviews
“Bender has created complex characters in a novel that provocatively considers our basic need to connect with other people, and how very fragile those connections can be. –Booklist
“There is a great deal to absorb and consider as one reads this novel. Karen E. Bender has set the bar high here, attempting to depict and explore the souls of individuals and communities. The result is a novel well worth reading.“-Erika Dreifus, “From My Bookshelf”
“What made this book a joy to read was not only the plot and character development but the writing…this book would be a great discussion piece on the interplay between religion and society as we navigate the personal and public and the place of religious life in our culture at large.” –Pastor William C. Mills, “Walking With God”
“A Town of Empty Rooms is a novel powerfully infused with psychic pain…one must admire Bender’s commitment to the complexity of mental distress. It’s this complexity, the incommunicability of our pain, that makes us unreachable to one another…this novel conveys the problem; it is also, in its unsentimental sensitivity, a kind of corrective.” –Chatham County Line
And where A Town of Empty Rooms truly succeeds is…in how we, as readers, can observe how invested these characters are in those arguments. Ultimately, each attachment in the book—the rabbi, the scouts, the tree in Serena and Dan’s yard, the jewelry—is a substitute for the death of a loved one and the possible death of a marriage. They also represent a chance for one last conversation, a conversation that’s impossible with the living. What emerges, then, is a novel about the unsaid, the unspeakable, and the ways we talk past the dividing lines between us. -Tikkun magazine
A Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, Los Angeles Times bestseller and one of the Washington Post’s best books of the year, LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE charts the lives of “three richly textured characters whose irreducible idiosyncrasies, griefs, longings, and loves will surely expand our sense of what it means to be like normal people” (Chicago Tribune). The story of this family revolves around an off-kilter center: Lena, who is forty-eight years old but mentally locked in childhood. Following Lena’s escape from her residential home with her troubled twelve-year-old niece and her widowed mother’s search for them, Karen Bender moves deftly between past and present, through three entire lifetimes in a single day, as each character searches for love and acceptance in a world where normalcy is elusive. “Poignantly and brilliantly portrayed” (TimeOut New York), LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE is a hilarious, heartbreaking, unforgettable family drama that resonates long after the last page is turned.
International acclaim for Like Normal People:
Some first novelists arrive on the literary scene already so proficient it’s hard to believe that we are reading their debut effort. This is true of Bender, whose remarkable narrative of three generations of women has the wisdom of mature insight and the grace of empathy and understanding…Bender’s subtle humor, her understanding of a parent’s need to offer protective love and her tolerant view of human nature infuse the story with universality. In the end, this heartwarming novel dealing with societal misfits, family relationships, and loss is about all flawed human beings, “normal” and not. –Publishers’ Weekly, starred
Beautifully done. Bender has a remarkable gift for showing how the security of family interrelationship warms chafes, imprisons, and ultimately liberates. –Kirkus reviews, starred
This is marvelous writing: energetic, precise, sympathetically alive to the strangeness of ordinary life. –New York Times Book Review
Graceful and beguiling—distinguished by lyrical language and a real generosity of spirit. –Washington Post Book World
A remarkable fictional debut. –Newsday
Poignantly and brilliantly portrayed. –Timeout New York
Three richly textured characters whose irreducible idiosyncracies, griefs, longings, and loves will surely expand our sense of what it means to be like normal people. –Chicago Tribune.
A luminous, meditative novel on the boundaries between childhood, adulthood and old age. A. –Entertainment Weekly
Irreverant and affectionate. –Vogue
Radiant…rendered in delicate yet indelible prose…Like Normal People is quietly reminiscent to structure and sensibility of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. –Portland Oregonian
To this vivid portrayal of family dynamics, Bender brings a persuasive understanding of the human condition. –Guardian
Grand…Like Normal People is an uplifting and bittersweet testament to uncompromising love. –New York Post
A distinguished first novel…a remarkably complex work that attempts to explore lives of three different people in one day. –Baltimore Sun
Sweet, funny, and melancholy…Lena has a compelling presence, radiating love, humour, and difficulty in equal measure. Elle (London)
The quality of this book, its true sense of humanity, reminds me of the best of modern authors. –Joanne Woodward
Tender, touching, gravely beautiful, Like Normal People presents a luminous world constructed by the purest unconditional love. –Carolyn See
Karen Bender writes about the darkness and beauty of love in all its varieties like no one else. Like Normal People is funny and heartbreaking on every page; so smart, so beautiful, so real. –Elizabeth McCracken
What an amazing novel: the complexities, imperfections, and triumphs of Karen Bender’s extraordinary characters will keep you rapt from start to finish you’ll love this book. –Meg Wolitzer
“A remarkable work about the intergenerational ties between women in a family. Utterly original, absolutely believable, these women quickly work their way into your heart and remain there long after the last page is turned. Like Normal People marks the emergence of a tremendously gifted new writer.” —Hope Edelman
“Karen Bender writes with magical clarity, descriobing the blessed human confusion of childhood, old age, and what lies in between.” –Cathleen Schine
“Her sentences dazzle. Her tender characters reveal an exquisite sensitivity to family love and sorrow. Like Normal People is the best first novel I’ve read in years.” –Martha McPhee
CHOICE explores the one of the most polarizing political issues of our time reproductive choice.
CHOICE attempts to raise the discourse on reproductive choice, which often devolves to cliches and name-calling, by posing the question–what is it like to make any sort of reproductive choice? What is it truly like to use birth control, the morning after pill, use a sperm bank, have an abortion, adopt a child, give a child up for adoption, bring a pregnancy to term?
In these 22 stunningly honest essays, writers describe their experiences making some of these decisions, as well as many others. Established writers such as Francine Prose, Jaquelyn Mitchard, Pam Houston, Carolyn Ferrell, Ann Hood, Deborah Macdowell, and Sarah Messer contribute essays, along with emerging writers such as Kimi Faxon Hemingway, Stephanie Anderson, and Ashley Talley.
The essays in CHOICE explore the complexities inherent in every reproductive decision, whether it is to choose to have a child or terminate a pregnancy; the guiding philosophy of the book is that this issue is too complex and individual to be legislated, and the writers honesty about their experiences will humanize this issue, no matter what the reader’s stand on it.
“…this collection of essays from women writers is dedicated to bringing nuance,
compassion and understanding to an issue that has been reduced to bumper-sticker sloganeering and knee-jerk oversimplification.” – Los Angeles Times
“From adoption to abortion, birth to infertility, Karen E. Bender and Nina de Gramont‘s anthology of stunningly honest essays encompasses all the contradictions and complicated emotions surrounding Choice.” – Vanity Fair
“Karen E. Bender and Nina de Gramont have made an important contribution to [the] ongoing national debate with Choice…Theirs are moving, alarming, uplifting, frightening and provocative testaments…No matter where you stand on the abortion continuum, there are stories here that will make you weep or smile or think harder about what you believe. Or all three at once.” – Hartford Courant
“Choice examines contemporary reproductive issues from every perspective…smart and heart-wrenching…” – 7×7 Magazine
“Choice rightly asserts that the debate over reproductive choice is more layered, more personal and less political than it appears at first glance.” – San Francisco Chronicle
”[T]o lay bare personal experience is to leave oneself vulnerable to attack from either side. Yet the 24 contributors to Choice have taken this risk, writing with searing honesty and intimacy about their own choices. The result is an exceptional and brave collection…The essays in Choice are at once thoughtful and emotional, intensely personal yet eminently relatable. Together they illustrate the complexities and subtleties of an issue too often reduced to simplistic moral judgments. This is a must-read for every woman. No, make that everyone.” – Debra Ginsberg, Shelf Awareness
“…wrenching…These essays dismantle the abstract notion of reproductive rights by showing the consequences of choice and demonstrating how loss and devotion reside deep inside that right. I defy any conservative to read a single piece in this book and think that choice implies that the decision is easy.” – Literary Mama
“…[a] superb anthology…Many are harrowing to read…Even the most wrenching, however, are leavened by the hope that the ability to choose allows their authors.”
– Brain, Child Magazine
“…startling strength and clarity of these incredibly personal stories…[the contributors] are fierce in their belief that no one could have, or should have, told them what the best choice was for them. They are staunchly united in their opposition that anyone should ever impose such restrictions on what they know, first hand, to be incredibly personal decisions. And their stories need to be heard.” – Feminist Review
“This collection, compiled by two savvy fiction writers fed up with the bumper-sticker mentality of most pro-life and pro-choice arguments, illuminates the volume of options, obstacles and ambivalence that reproduction brings through personal, often painful stories of real women…Each tale is unique, and politically charged buzz terms (RU-486, Roe V. Wade, etc.) gain new impact nestling alongside these writers’ honest quests for basic human needs: love, nurturing, and above all, possibility.” – Publishers Weekly
“The essays explore the complexities behind decisions women make about their reproductive lives…This collection offers exquisitely individual and candid looks at the meaning of choice.” – Booklist
“This anthology’s content is aptly described by its title, and the quality of
its prose is what makes it distinctive…Bender and de Gramont’s attention to the full range of women’s reproductive choices should be welcomed in most libraries.”
– Library Journal
“This is a moving book that demonstrates in no uncertain terms that reproductive choice is a responsibility, and that there can be no valid reason to take that choice from women and give it to legislators. I recommend this book to every man in America who cares about our society.” – Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres,
Ten Days in the Hills, and Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel