L.A.-based writer Aimee Bender is one of the world’s masters of magical realism. Her first two books of short stories, “The Girl with the Flammable Skirt” and “Willful Creatures,” both featured characters — mostly women — dealing with extraordinary circumstances in quite ordinary ways. For example, the girl who treats her potato babies like normal human infants. Her novel. “The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake,” was a stretch on the genre, taking the unrealistic story of a girl who can taste the emotions of the people who make her food and making it the underpinning of an otherwise realistic story of family discord and loss.
Bender’s latest book, “The Color Master” is a return to the short-story form that made her famous. But even the most fantastic stories contain a certain sobering reality. The characters are more and more human, picking up their kids from school, stressing about aging, and dealing with infirm relatives. In two of the standout stories, “The Doctor and the Rabbi” and “The Fake Nazi,” Bender deals with Judaism in a head-on, direct way that she’s never done before.
In “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” Bender’s titular doctor, an atheist, is charged with caring for a rabbi who has a blood disease. He gives her weekly transfusions from Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and atheists, waiting to see if the new blood will cause her to think differently about her religion. Despite her healing, the rabbi remains a rabbi — and even encourages the doctor to pray with her.
Hans, the central character in “The Fake Nazi,” is a German man who confesses the crimes he committed while a Nazi officer. However, the whole story is a lie. For whatever reason, Hans wants to pay for the sins he seemingly never committed. His life (and eventual prison suicide) affects the people around him, who find themselves obsessing over hate, guilt and collective evil. Why would anyone lie about having been a Nazi when they weren’t? It’s a deeper and more troubling question than anything Bender has tackled in the past.
Bender has never talked about religion so frankly before. It’s almost impossible to imagine a character in “Willful Creatures” mentioning God or talking about big spiritual questions in such straightforward language. Though the more mature tone might scare off some of Bender’s fans who prefer magic over realism, longtime readers will enjoy watching Bender get older and use her whimsical storytelling to address big issues.
The book’s titular character, The Color Master, is a woman who is tasked with making a pair of shoes the exact color of rocks, so that when a prince walks along the rocks wearing them he will look like he is floating. His wish is a good metaphor for Bender’s style of dealing with Jewish topics — she comes out of nowhere, and yet she’s been part of the environment all along.