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Pumpkin-Heads and Potato Babies: Meet the "Willful Creatures"


By Karinya Funsett
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 15, 2005
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RATING: 9/10

Aimee Bender defends her position as one of America's most daring and gifted short fiction writers with the publication of "Willful Creatures," her latest collection of stories. The book is divided into three sections of five stories each, and the stories are each only a few pages long. To read them too quickly would be a mistake, as these are not stories to run through, but stories to savor. While a fast read-through will entertain, a slower or second read-through will allow the reader to appreciate the skillful artistry Bender uses to unfold her tales.

Bender invites thoughtful readers to examine both themselves and the story carefully, as there are often no clear-cut villains or heroes, and the line between what is good, bad and justified is often a fuzzy and subjective one. This can be disconcerting, especially when the stories reflect the more shameful aspects of human nature.

"End of the Line" is a story that brings to light the dark side of human behavior. In it, a "big man" purchases a "little man" as a pet. This miniature human is kept in a cage and at first is treated as a beloved companion. Once the novelty of the little man wears off, the big man resorts to progressively crueler forms of harassment, humiliation and torture to amuse himself.

Also uncomfortable is the position readers find themselves in as they witness the brutality that popular teenage girls bestow on their less-socially successful peers in "Debbieland." The disturbing tale reveals human nature at its cruelest, and follows the girls and their victim - whose real name the tormenters never even bother to learn - as they grow into women, shaped by their brutal teenage existences.

Bender makes readers examine their perception of humanity again through stories about distinctly non-human creatures. "Dearth" is a tale of a woman who suddenly finds herself with seven potato babies. Puzzled at first, she comes to love the potatoes - who grow more human with each passing day - just like they were her own children. "Ironhead" is another story about the humanity of non-humans; this time documenting the heartbreaking story of a family of pumpkin-heads who mysteriously find themselves with an ill-fated child who has an iron instead of a pumpkin for a head.

These fairy tale-esque scenarios are examples of Bender's mastery of magical realism. They're so well told that readers will find themselves willing to accept that there are pumpkin-heads or miniature men in the world because their stories are so captivating and believable.

In "Willful Creatures," Bender's vivid images, sparse and tightly controlled prose, and memorable, quirky characters work together to form more than just entertaining short stories. They are works of art, masterfully crafted and intended to be savored.



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