Nebraska Center for Writers

Chimney Rock What the Critics Say
About Mary Helen Stefaniak


The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia
Copyright © 2010
by Mary Helen Stefaniak
WW Norton

Wonderfully seductive, one of those rare books you disappear into wholly. Itís joyous, shamelessly funny, heartbreaking, and page after page it gives you what you didnít expect. This is a novel youíll want to hand deliver to a friend. — David Long, author of The Inhabited World

Wonderfully engaging ... a great tribute to the power of education, strong women and the fine art of storytelling ... an intricate dazzling pattern of history and imagination and truth. — Jill McCorkle, author of Going Away Shoes

This novel has strong, long legs. I hope it walks forever. Besides delivering suspenseful, eloquently detailed, non-sentimental prose, it spoons out a big dose of clarity that America needs. — Clyde Edgerton, author of The Bible Salesman

Mary Helen Stefaniak is a born storyteller, with a fantastic gift for mingling the exotic and the ordinary, the comic and the heartrending. Her tale of drastic change coming to a small Southern town in the 1930s is filled with wild incidents, vivid characters, and a surprise at every turn — a delight to read. — Lynne Sharon Schwartz, author of Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books

A heartfelt, redemptive, and irresistible novel. Stefaniak knows that every story is many stories, and she handles the complex tales of romance, family, race relations, and secrets with intelligence, grace, and tenderness. — John Dufresne, author of Louisiana Power & Light and Love Warps the Mind a Little

Stefaniak ... delivers a deeply engaging story from the heart of 1930s-era Threestep, GA, that manages to include stop offs in 1775 Baghdad and 1864 Savannah along the way. — Publishers Weekly

The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia is a delightful story, at times funny, at times tragic but never dull. Once you enter its pages and the world therein, it's hard to leave them for a less colorful reality. — Carol Bikak, Omaha World-Herald

Self Storage
Copyright © 1997
by Mary Helen Stefaniak
New Rivers Press

In this short story collection, Iowa writer Mary Helen Stefaniak explores life in the late twentieth century. She gives the reader a tour that includes the eccentric culture of a self-storage facility, letter from an elderly woman to the columnist Mike the Mechanic, and a family that must deal with the death of a neighbor's child. Stefaniak deftly handles the details of the many recognizable — if surprising — personalities of millennial America. — from the jacket

What a joy these stories are! Spun from the stuff of everyday life, they are carefully constructed, lovingly sewn, and touched here and there by the miraculous. Mary Helen Stefaniak knows her craft, and she is a wonderfully humane writer. These are transformative tales. Like the woman in "The Dress from Bangladesh," we slip into them, expecting the same old thing, and suddenly, we shiver all over, as if touched by "an electric tingle." The world around us is the same but we are changed, our awareness heightened, our empathy renewed. — Sharon Oard Warner

Much like Bailey White but with more salt in her sauce, Mary Helen Stefaniak spins stories on the wheels of the laugh-out-loud neighborhoods in which we live. Read these stories to your friends and loved ones, to the cop on the corner or the regulars at the laundromat. You'll love Stefaniak's fiction. — James Harris, owner, Prairie Lights Books, Iowa City, Iowa

In the nine stories that make up this admirable debut collection, characters face the challenge of doing what they can to bridge the distance between themselves and others. Whether it be a distance between friends, family members, neighbors, genders, generations, or ethnic groups, these stories feature well-intentined characters in situations that tst their capacity for empathy. These are stories about what it means to be human — moral stories taht are never moralistic, wise and generaous stories tahta re never didactic. ... These are important stories, entertaining and ennobling, from a writer who has the gift of making us feel less alone. — Lee Martin, Prairie Schooner

In Self Storage and Other Stories, her accomplished debut collection, Mary Helen Stefaniak presents us with nine stories, gentle but forthright, wise without pedantry, and often laugh-out-loud funny, that illustrate what it means to be human. Her characters, so well drawn that we recognize them as ourselves or people we know, wrestle with moral choices, with the knowledge that they are connected to others and that what they think and do makes a difference. They try to follow the angels' advice to the poet Czeslaw Milosz, quoted at the book's beginning, "day draws near/another one/do what you can." Their efforts to do what they can are depicted in beautiful, deceptively simple prose, peppered with images so vivid they can startle. — Citation from the Banta Award

Mary Helen's own stories are luminously clear, yet deeply woven with the core complexities of our own lives. To this reader, her stories seem to swing in an easy-handed, yet supremely skillful way between the tender and humorous and the soulfully reflective. What's more, they are filled with the real things people say to one another, and the real ways in which we say them.
"I like to write stories that don't require one to be literary to appreciate them," said Mary Helen, "but that have a lot that is literary in them. After all, the groundlings in Shakespeare's day could sit down in front and enjoy the broad humor, but there was a lot more than that going on. Rarely do I inflict my characters with a purely poetic consciousness, nor do I write long passages of sublime description. Rather, I like to make characters who are learning from each other in the course of the story, where each one holds a part of the answer." All of this comes true in "On the Coast of Bohemia," which reads like a breath of fresh (sea) air. — Meg Hill Fitz-Randolph, The Source, Fairfield, Iowa, March 1995

Stefaniak is a writer who can successfully carry the ruminations of an exceptionally wide variety of characters. — Chelsea

The Turk and My Mother
Copyright © 2004
by Mary Helen Stefaniak
WW Norton

Hilarious and moving, a masterful debut novel about a Milwaukee immigrant family's secret history — for fans of Amy Tan and Carol Shields. As mysterious, complicated, and improbable as any real family, four generations are brought to vivid life in pages spanning the entire twentieth century, from the outer reaches of Siberia to the heartland of America.
Why does prudish Agnes nearly faint during a movie featuring Omar Sharif? Did she, or didn't she, make love with a Turk — or was he Croatian? — back in the Old Country? Why didn't Uncle Marko ever write home after he was taken prisoner in World War I? How did Grandmother come to know the blind Gypsy violinist Istvan, who turns up for a visit? As for the Polish Kaszube girl, Georgie's first love — was she his half-sister?
Warm, intelligent, and beautifully written, The Turk and My Mother immerses the reader in the sheer, indulgent pleasure of storytelling. A magisterial symphony in the form of a comic novel about immigrant life, inevitable death, and forbidden love, this is a book sure to win the hearts of a large audience. — from the publisher

Compulsively readable, brilliantly constructed, and laden with funny, flawed, unforgettable characters. — Sandra Scofield, author of Occasions of Sin: A Memoir

A journey across continents and history that is hilarious, heart-breaking, and deeply touching. — Jonis Agee, author of Acts of Love on Indigo Road and The Weight of Dreams

Breathes life into the hardships, secrets, and enduring love that bind an American family to its immigrant past. — John Smolens, author of Cold and The Invisible World

Sparkles with originality, humor and insight. ... I love this novel! — Elizabeth Stuckey-French, author of Mermaids on the Moon

Compulsively readable, brilliantly constructed, and laden with funny, flawed, unforgettable characters, The Turk and My Mother reinvents the family saga and the art of storytelling as we know it. — Lan Samantha Chang

Lovingly crafted ... Stefaniak's easy familiarity with the vernacular idioms of the old country and the new, and her zestful, respectful ear for different voices, create a world whose past, present and story-loving afterlife are at once magical and grounded in reality. — Publishers Weekly

A prim woman who swoons at the sight of Omar Sharif and a grandmother who once traveled with gypsies are among the characters in this radiant debut, inspired by Stefaniak's immigrant Milwaukee family. A novel rooted in real-life characters and events, the story is narrated by the author's octogenarian father, George Iljasic (who, in reality, died at age 59). Tales of Iljasic's ancestors reveal a cast of colorful characters, from his mild-mannered mother, Agnes, who had an affair with a tall, dark-eyed Serbian war prisoner (who she thought was a Turk) to his grandmother Staramajka, who enjoyed a spirited friendship with a blind violinist. Fans of Amy Tan and Carol Shields will revel in the themes of remembrance, forgiveness, family devotion and forbidden love. When daughter Mary Helen returns to the Old Country in the wake of her father's death, she discovers flesh-and-blood proof that at least one of his tales is true. Or is it? In this warmhearted, inventive novel, the truth seems beside the point. — Booklist

The mysteries of four generations of a Milwaukee immigrant family come to light in The Turk and My Mother (W.W. Norton), based on the real-life experiences of first-time novelist Mary Helen Stefaniak. — More

This multigenerational story tracks the paths of a handful of Croatians forced by war and other hardships from their Balkan village to Siberia and Milwaukee. ... [A] folksier ... more down-to-earth version of [Doctor Zhivago]. — New York Times Book Review

The remarkable characters in this novel, from Grandmother Agnes and her mother-in-law, storyteller Staramajka, to the exiled Marko the shoemaker, bring another dimension to family history. These wonderful stories are the framework of cultural identity, the way we envision ourselves in the past and the tales we whisper to our children before bedtime. Spoken history is a cultural treasure, a precious commitment to the continuity of ancestral folklore. And if reality is obscured by myth, who is to say which is true? — Curled Up with a Good Book

Mary Helen Stefaniak has written a magical, funny, and touching novel about four generations of a Hungarian family whose lives span the globe and the twentieth century, from the wilds of Siberia to the streets of Milwaukee. Stefaniak is a graceful and compelling storyteller who draws the reader into this family in a tale that is both comic and tragic. — Nebraska Center for the Book Newsletter

The book is comic, touching, erotic, sad, violent, innocent, harsh and crafty, just like the world it describes. Ö Stefaniak's book tells their stories in a poetic and gently humorous voice. — Milwaukee Magazine

Mary Helen Stefaniak's vibrant Ö new novel, The Turk and My Mother, Ö creates likable characters whose accounts of the old country and their all-too-human attempts to arrange their lives in the New World are sensitive and engaging. Ö careful and delightful craft. — Chicago Tribune

"Magical, funny, and touching ... [A] compelling narrative about the extraordinary and everyday music of family life." — Midwest Book Review

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