by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau
I'm a sucker for things that defy
"normal." It's what drew me to Stephen Shieber's debut collection.
Well, that and the artsy, colorful cover.
Normal, a book dedicated to "everyone who has the courage
to dance to the beat of their own drum," didn't disappoint. Granted,
there's really nothing exceptional about Shieber's characters, or their
stories. They're just ordinary people struggling to live and define
life on their own terms. And with it, to find some semblance of
happiness and meaning. But Shieber's writing is honest, and for the
most part, unselfconscious. Being Normal
provokes you to re-examine what "normal" really means.
"The thing is, Doc, I don't know
what I am anymore. What I mean to anyone," says the main character in A Little of What You Need.
The doctor refers him to an unorthodox clinic, where he gets cuddled as
therapy. Did it solve the character's marital problems? No. But it
worked, in so far as putting him back on solid footing. Indeed,
Shieber's characters don't really ask for much beyond acceptance,
forgiveness, freedom or affection, and the way they go about it evokes
recognition, if not pathos.
In the title story, a teenage boy
physically self-harms as a way to handle emotional pain. In Happy Birthday, Son,
a mother clings to a painful, annual ritual because she cannot let go.
In A Public
Demonstration of Clairvoyance, the narrator has to choose
between hurting her mother with the truth, or disappointing her with a
lie. In The Naming of
Gods, a student does everything he can to win another
student's heart, only to discover that kindness and affection don't
always equate to love. And so on.
Out of the 14 stories, several
stood out more to me than others. Sunday
Lunch is one, wherein a gay man rocks the boat by
"proposing" to his lover at the traditional Sunday lunch with his
lover's family. Witty and sharp, the story has no hint of false
emotion, and ends on a right note.
is another. A simple-minded woman ventures out into the world (read:
she takes a quick bus trip), only to find that the beauty she seeks and
admires can be unkind. Deftly told, it left me with an ache. And while
I found parts of the story familiar, Voices also touched
me. In it, the voices in a boy's head leads him to harm his mother, and
he is sent away to an institution, permanently robbing him of a chance
at a normal life. What struck me most here is the mother's tragic and
overwhelming concern for appearances over the sake of her own
On the flip side, a couple of
stories didn't seem as strong. Even though I still enjoyed them, they
felt manipulated to arrive at the desired ending. The Gift is one,
and the other is the closing piece, Don't Try This at Home.
Overall, Being Normal
succeeds in making the ordinary interesting. And while it didn't
necessarily blow me away, it's a satisfying and delicious debut. I look
forward to more of Shieber's work.
Read a story
from this collection on LauraHird.com
| Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau wants to
explore the world by foot, pen and lens. Raised in Manila, she lived
for a time in Los Angeles before moving to France. A Pushcart Prize
nominee and 2008 Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition finalist, she
has stories in places like “the Humanist” and “Southword.”
Publisher: Tonto Books
bio: Stephen Shieber lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He
holds an MA in Creative Writing from Northumbria University and has
published his short fiction on the Internet and in three print
anthologies, including two for Tonto Books. He's currently working on a
novel as well as a second collection of stories.
with Stephen Shieber
this book (used or
Author's Recommended Bookseller: Tonto Books
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you in the US
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