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Being Normal

Stephen Shieber

" The faint scar on his mother’s neck is a badge of shame. It is not the wounding that she holds against him. It is the stigma. Her son. The madman.…"

Reviewed 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. 

Being 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. 

Suburbia 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 son. 

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.”
Michelle's other Short Reviews: Matty Stansfield "Donut Holes: Sticky Pieces of Fictionalized Reality"   

Publisher: Tonto Books

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author 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.

Read an interview with Stephen Shieber

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The Author's Recommended Bookseller: Tonto Books


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