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Refund: Stories

Refund: Stories

5.0 1
by Karen E. Bender

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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


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 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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"somewhere around its titular story, Refund turns toward the remarkable. Stick with it. If fiction’s task is to distill what it was like to live in a specific time and place, I can give no better example than this, from "Refund," which is set in New York in the weeks after 9/11"—VOX

"In these 13 keenly drawn tales, hope and human connection are commodities as coveted as decent health insurance. [Bender's] writing is small-scale but impactful, and undeniably topical." —Entertainment Weekly

"In this tale, as in some of the others, 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." —Miami Herald

"'Refund' meets the challenge of the short-story writer — to create a vivid, believable world in which compelling characters pull the reader up and over a taut narrative arc, all within the space of a few pages. Taken separately, 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." —LA Times

"[E]xquisitely 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." Chicago Tribune

"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

"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

"These stories are replete with poignant, tragic moments, where the characters delude themselves in the hopes of escaping their circumstances, taking foolish risks that, in better times, they would have scoffed at....[H]er 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." —Boston Globe

"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, Stay Up With Me

"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

"There are some astonishing characters in this collection…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." —Publishers Weekly

"…a masterful new collection…" —Atlanta-Journal Constitution

"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 Other Stories, Finalist for the Story Prize and Winner of the Believer Book Award, and The City is a Rising Tide

"These stories are among the best 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." —Danny Senna, author of Caucasia and You are Free

"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

"A fictional bonanza for penny-pinching times." —More Magazine

Praise for A Town of Empty Rooms

“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.” - 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

Praise for Like Normal People

"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)

Publishers Weekly
Money and its mysteries—how to get it, keep it, steal it, and do without it—link the stories in this collection, but so do the mysteries of having children or being one. Bender’s youthful characters are imperious creatures who leave their parents bewildered, exhausted, and wrung out with love. Parenting, of course, is linked to money: only parents in the middle class—and Bender (A Town of Empty Rooms) makes it clear how tenuous that status is—notice when their children are “experimenting with disdain,” even if they don’t how to respond. (The poor are too busy; the rich have outsourced their child rearing.) Her characters struggle to identify the right thing to do, and wonder how to do it given dire circumstances. 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”—but most of the stories are fairly low-key, taking up not the diagnosis but the wait for it, or the sudden anger at a neighbor’s child. And though readers may sometimes crave bigger or more conclusive endings, 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. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
In these 13 stories, Bender (A Town of Empty Rooms, 2013, etc.) showcases families that "endure" in both senses of the word: suffer patiently and carry on despite enormous travail.The title story—concerning a sublet in Tribeca that goes horribly wrong for both the struggling couple renting it out and the woman who takes it beginning in September 2001—epitomizes the high anxiety that permeates Bender's stories. The New York setting is unusual, though. The book's landscape is mostly drab fast-food- and mall-saturated suburbia, often in Southern states where displaced northerners, usually Jewish, have arrived under financial duress. In "Free Lunch," two New Yorkers in North Carolina are as uncomfortable around a Hasidic rabbi and his wife as they are among their Christian neighbors; in "The Third Child," an overwhelmed mother, distraught to find herself pregnant again, nevertheless acts generously toward a neighbor child, only to be viciously snubbed by the girl's Baptist mother. Family and financial tensions often combine. In "For What Purpose?," a woman whose parents died in a car crash experiences a brief sense of belonging with work mates until she's let go. In both "What the Cat Said" and "This Cat," the family pet becomes the metaphor, or scapegoat, for disappointment and dysfunction. "Anything for Money" offers the book's only wealthy character, who becomes the most desperate when his daughter needs a new heart. The first two stories are among the least depressing. In "Reunion," a woman goes off the deep end, buying a phony beach lot from an old boyfriend, but her marriage survives. In "Theft," an aging scam artist and a jilted young woman forge a friendship that improves them both. And the volume's gentlest story, "The Sea Turtle Hospital," concerning a young teacher's kindness to a kindergartner, takes place in the aftermath of a school shooting. Although her tone can veer toward bitterness, Bender excels at characters on the edge of despair, particularly mothers who resent the children they love.

Product Details

Counterpoint Press
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Each Monday at eleven o’clock, Lenny Weiss performed his favorite duty as executive producer of his hit game show, Anything for Money: he selected the contestants for that week’s show. He walked briskly across the stage set, the studio lights so white and glaring as to make the stage resemble the surface of the moon. In his silk navy suit, the man appeared to be a lone figure on the set, for his staff knew not to speak to him or even look at him. He had become the king of syndicated game shows for his skill in finding the people who would do anything for money, people that viewers would both envy and despise.
The assistants were in the holding room with the prospective contestants, telling them the rules: No one was allowed to touch Mr. Weiss. Mr. Weiss required a five-foot perimeter around his person. No one was allowed to call him by his first name. No one was to be drinking Pepsi, as the taste offended Mr. Weiss. Gold jewelry reminded him of his former wife, so anyone wearing such jewelry was advised to take it off.
He stood by the door for a moment before he walked in, imagining how the losers would walk, dazed, to their cars, looking up at the arid sky. They would try to figure out what they had done wrong. They would look at their hands and wonder.
Then he walked in and they screamed.

Meet the Author

Karen E. Bender is the author of the novels Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, Story, Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, and other magazines. Her stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, and have won two Pushcart prizes. She has won grants from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the NEA. She is also co-editor of the anthology Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion. She has taught creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Tunghai University in Taiwan. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, novelist Robert Anthony Siegel, and their two children.

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Refund 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Important literary fiction. Very moving stories about the economic and emotional devastation in the country since 9/11. Highly recommended.