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The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: Stories Paperback – August 17, 1999

4.0 out of 5 stars 117 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In conventional fiction, war heroes return home minus an arm or a leg--or, to take Hemingway's worst-case scenario, the family jewels. In Aimee Bender's deeply unconventional collection, however, an even more suggestive body part goes AWOL: "Steve returned from the war without his lips." The army doctors have temporarily replaced them with a plastic disc, which impairs his speech. Luckily, this doesn't prevent him and his wife from engaging in some slightly surrealistic sexual maneuvers: "That night in bed, he grazed the disc over her raised nipples like a UFO and the plastic was cool on her skin. It felt like they were in college and toying with desk items as sexual objects."

That same combo--sex and off-kilter surrealism--provides Bender with her modus operandi. In "Call My Name," for example, a young heiress tails a stranger back to his apartment, gets her dress sliced off, and then consents to be trussed to a chair while he watches a TV documentary about Mozart. "Quiet Please" features a libidinous librarian who takes on all, uh, comers in the back room. Bender isn't, it should be said, simply a purveyor of French postcards. Her prose is exquisitely shaped, and its singsong rhythms suggest something out of a wised-up, whacked-out fairy tale. Indeed, if the Brothers Grimm had been a little more attuned to the pleasure principle, their fables might have boasted at least a family resemblance to Aimee Bender's. --James Marcus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The wise, highly original 16 stories in Bender's debut collection take place at the intersection of fairy tale and everyday life, of hilarity and heartbreak. From the book's first sentence ("My lover is experiencing reverse evolution"), it's clear that this world is far from ordinary. As the lover in the story ("The Rememberer") moves from ape to sea turtle to salamander, the reader moves from startled dislocation to delight. After this strong opening, what follows is equally good and equally surprising. The plots range from the unexpected to the fantastic: a woman gives birth to her own mother; in an effort to drive away grief, a bereaved librarian seduces man after man in the library's back room; a mermaid and an imp enjoy a high-school romance; an orphaned boy develops an uncanny talent for finding lost objects. As Bender explores a spectrum of human relationships, her perfectly pitched, shapely writing blurs the lines between prose and poetry. While full of funny moments, these tales are neither slight nor glib. They recognize that to be human is to be immensely fragile, and their characters are always unmistakably human. In "What You Left in the Ditch," a woman whose husband has returned from the war without lips tells her teenage lover, "The most unbearable thing I think by far... is hope," yet hopeAthat isolation and grief are temporary, that love exists, that the ugly can be made beautifulAis what she and all the stories' bruised and lonely characters insist on. Bender's is a unique and compassionate voice, and her debut is a string of jewels. First serial to Granta, GQ and Story; author tour.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (August 17, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780385492164
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385492164
  • ASIN: 0385492162
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (117 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #83,236 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Debbie Lee Wesselmann TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 8, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Aimee Bender's stories are perhaps some of the strangest being published in contemporary literature. With her surreal touch and a nod toward the Brother Grimm, this, her first collection, reads like a series of quick dreams - some disturbing, some funny, and all without regard to the laws of reality. The opening story, "Call My Name", begins the collection with the promise of convention, albeit it an off-kilter one, when a woman follows a man home, hoping to seduce him, only to discover that he has a simple but strange desire that only marginally involves her. While the emotions and situation in this story are odd, they don't prepare the reader for the first line of the next story, "Steven returned from the war without lips." None of Bender's characters are whole, whether they have an actually soccer-ball size hole in their stomachs ("Marzipan"), whether they are imps and mermaids in cognito ("Drunken Mimi"), or whether they are grieving for loved ones. In "Quiet Please," a librarian whose father has just died fulfills the librarian fantasies of several male patrons until she meets one whose extraordinary feats of strength finally exposes her emotional pain. In a line that applies to all the stories, the librarian acknowledges that "it's hard to tell the difference between fantasy and reality."
These odd, rambunctious, and startling stories are not for the literal-minded, but they will charm those who like their short fiction with an irreverent edge.
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Look, most of you are not going to like this collection. I do not recommend it for you. You will probably leave it unfinished, annoyed that you spent the money on it, and slightly cynical about any of my future book recommendations. Do not read this book. Unless...

Unless you're ok with sifting through this odd collection of freakshow characters, mundane settings and surreal plots to discover prose that cuts right through you and stories that leave you aching (usually) for the protagonist and wary of the world around you. I know what you're thinking. I, too, have a pretentious dislike of the overuse of the word "surreal," but I looked it up and it means "having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream." There may not be a more fitting description for Aimee Bender. Her stories are grounded in middle, modern America: suburban, prosaic places peopled with small-minded, self-centered individuals. And then something happens: like a boyfriend devolves into an amoeba, or a girl with a hand of fire and a girl with a hand of ice become friends, or a mermaid and an imp see through each other's high school student disguises, or a pregnant woman gives birth to her (previously deceased) mother. Something that makes the surreal seem commonplace-- and more importantly, vice-versa.

This is a collection of stories about community, about relationships, about the intrigue of being both an outsider and an insider and about deciding whether or not to face and accept the truth-- however weird it may be. Bender is sweet, irreverent, uplifting and completely depressing-- often within the same story. And seriously, you're probably not going to like it.
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Hear me out on this one, that reading an Aimee Bender story is like watching a Bad Lip Reading video.

Admittedly, I had binged a few of the latter in an interim of reading the former, but after a few vids and jumping back into the book, I did find myself marveling at a similar feeling of being somewhere familiar yet just slightly off-putting, but in the best moments being able to follow and appreciate the logic. Bender's first collection is stunning for its movement, how a single sentence can move the story along in such surprising ways, how her characters never make predictable moves and thus feel even more human, even when donning backpacks made of stone or birthing their own mothers. Bender's worlds are just slightly off-kilter, which at first had me wondering if they needed to go farther, but stories like "The Healer," where one girl has a hand of fire and another of ice, pursues its own logic artfully to bring you somewhere that is utterly profound and not merely fairy tale-esque. Though I wasn't as much of a fan of stories like "Fugue" and "Dreaming in Polish," I was overall amazed at how the absurdity of her worlds become quickly traceable and those strange words and emotions are actually rolling off those lips. "Marzipan," "Quiet Please," the aforementioned "Healer" and the title story are all exquisite.
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I read the "Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" for my book club and found that to be such an interesting, original and disturbing story that I had to read some more Aimee Bender. This book is definitely more of the same. It is difficult to write short stories but not for Bender. Her short stories are little short bursts of energy. They are strange, thought provoking, and eerie sometimes. I think she really has a different turn of mind. If you liked "...Lemon Cake" then I would highly recommend this collection. They will leave you with something to think about.
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