American writer Karen E. Bender is a master of the short story, managing to create fully rounded characters in well-developed plots within a limited word count.

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American writer Karen E. Bender is a master of the short story, managing to create fully rounded characters in well-developed plots within a limited word count.

Her latest release, The New Order, is a followup to her first collection, 2015’s Refund, which was a finalist for the U.S. National Book Award for fiction and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She has also written two novels — Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms.

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In The New Order, Bender explores contemporary themes such as living with threat of random acts of terrorism, the humbling experience of job-seeking after being laid off and debating whether or not to tell your airplane seatmate to turn off her phone.

The 11-story collection opens with Where to Hide in a Synagogue, in which two older women are given the task of identifying exit routes and hiding places for temple members if a gunman bursts in. Written prior to the recent horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the story’s characters are charged with a task that is likely commonplace in real life.

The narrator and her friend used to know each other well, but have drifted apart after the death of the friend’s husband. Bender aptly conveys the contrast in the friends’ conversation as they try to renew their relationship while imagining their fellow synagogue members scrambling in terror to escape from a sudden and bloody attack.

"Honey, the real fear is ISIS. ISIS is going to come destroy us. What we need to do, really, is bomb ISIS, not hire a guard." Upon hearing these words, the narrator realizes no one can ever devise adequate safeguards to protect oneself against life’s sudden violence.

In Three Interviews, the middle-aged Ms. Gold, a former reporter who’s been unemployed for more than a year, finds herself going to three interviews in one day. Bender clearly illustrates the woman’s desperation to find another job as she’s willing to take a cut in pay and a lower position. However, all three of the people who interview her are totally preoccupied with their own lives.

The first fellow is worried about asking a co-worker to have lunch with him, and uses Ms. Gold as a sounding board. The second interviewer is mourning the loss of her daughter, who suddenly walked out of her life, and sees a resemblance to her daughter in Ms. Gold. The last potential employer has just been told that he has terminal cancer and is pondering his past accomplishments; rather than interview Ms. Gold, he requests that she ask him questions about his life and career.

A somewhat nervous flier is seated next to a young woman in The Pilot’s Instructions. She becomes increasingly worried as the plane’s crew gets ready for takeoff and the young woman ignores the instruction to turn off her phone, continuing to text. The narrator isn’t really sure whether or not having one phone not set in airplane mode truly presents a risk to the plane’s operation.

"I did not want to be a fool. I did not want the entire plane to laugh at me. But. I did not want her to kill me with her texting either — such an innocent-looking action, and yet."

The only story that fails to hit Bender’s usual high mark is The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement, a dystopian tale about a world in which very few people are employed. The narrator is fortunate to be hired to work in a government agency that deals with workers’ sexual harassment claims. Most claims are settled with a financial payout, but the available money is running out.

Throughout The New Order, Bender manages to draw inspiration from her Jewish heritage, creating characters with whom the reader can relate no matter what their own background.

Andrea Geary is a reporter with Canstar Community News.

Andrea Geary

Andrea Geary
St. Vital community correspondent

Andrea Geary is a community correspondent for St. Vital and was once the community journalist for The Headliner.

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