Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Radio Belly by Buffy Cram

It's been way too long since I read a short story collection, but Cram's first book Radio Belly was a perfect reintroduction to the genre. It's a mix of quirky and serious, whimsical and sad and each story manages to be complete and satisfying on its own. While of course I had favourites, there wasn't a specific story that I would recommend skipping or that I didn't enjoy in some way.

In Radio Belly, Cram excels most when her stories are a little less literal. My favourites were the weirdest. There are nine stories, beginning with "Mineral by Mineral" in which a woman finds herself with a deep hunger for soil and other inedibles after her life falls apart. It's insightful and observant, the wry comments at which Cram is so good, passages like:
"If she had a warning label, it would read: “Good friend, not great. Talks more than listens. May or may not have a conscience. Manipulative in an emergency. Needs constant attention. May or may not be capable of authentic connections. Should not be exposed to displays of sickness, grief, shame. May contain traces of fraudulence."
In the second story, "Love Seat" was one I had difficulty to connecting to; it's a sort of twisted love story involving the Grateful Dead and a lot of tanning lotion and a radio show host. I actually enjoyed the beginning, before it got into all the Grateful Dead stuff, since I've never listened to the band and all the connections and symbols just didn't make sense to me. It might work better for an older, or more musically literate, reader.

"Large Garbage", the third story, was previously published in Darwin's Bastards, a collection edited by Zsuzsi Gartner (author of Better Living Through Plastic Explosives), who seems to be mentor of sorts for Cram, based on her author's note. "Large Garbage" was another story that was just twisted and strange enough to work, without losing me as a reader. It's filled with Cram's strange images and comparisons like,
"I was wondering how, exactly, was I different from this mushroom? I ate, I slept, I too grew larger and paler by the day."
"Mrs. English Teacher" and "Refugee Love" were the two stories I enjoyed the least from Radio Belly. In many ways, they were also the most normal. In the first, a young woman goes to teach English in a war-torn country, and although "Mrs. English Teacher" is filled with social commentary, the way it is shared often veered on slightly boring for me. "Refugee Love" is an older woman looking back on the 80s and dating and love, and once again, it felt well-written but uninspired, and I never connected with the narrator. Cram has such a vivid imagination, and in these two stories, it doesn't feel like it is reaching its full potential.

In contrast, the title story, "Radio Belly" and the final one in the collection, "Floatables: A History" were both incredibly odd and incredibly wonderful. "Radio Belly" features a young woman who starts receiving weird transmissions from her stomach following an appendectomy, while "Floatables" takes place a top of a rubber island, created in a post-apocalyptic world where mother nature is not to be trusted, only the rubber is beginning to peel away and reveal something suspiciously green.

Overall, Radio Belly was a strange and enjoyable collection of stories. Even though a couple missed the mark for me, I found myself loving Cram's quirky and original perspective, as well as her observant description and unique story-telling. Readers looking for a fresh short story collection, or even just something a little out of the ordinary, would be well served by picking up Radio Belly and I am excited to see what Cram publishes next.

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