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Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

3.25  ·  Rating Details ·  627 Ratings  ·  125 Reviews
From an emerging master of short fiction and one of Canada's most distinctive voices, a collection of stories as heartbreaking as those of Lorrie Moore and as hilariously off-kilter as something out of McSweeney's. In Better Living through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner delivers a powerful second dose of the lacerating satire that marked her acclaimed debut, All the An ...more
Paperback, 216 pages
Published December 2012 by Pintail (first published April 1st 2011)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Richard Derus
This review has been revised and can now be found at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud.

Everything from 4.75* to 2* averages to 3.5*--but a whole book...?
Maria Elena
Dec 19, 2012 Maria Elena rated it liked it
Zsuszi Gartner' s delivers a sharp collection of short-stories filled with dark humour and snark. At first I thought the stories were just bizarre but then I found myself chuckling at some of Gartner's outlandish metaphors or agreeing with the strange reasoning of her characters.I was sucked in and I decided to surrender to the wonderful weirdness of the stories.

A few of my favourites:

"Once, We Were Swedes" - a journalist who's now teaching at a college is drifting apart from her spouse. She rem
Jun 17, 2012 Craig rated it it was ok
Greetings from Cleverville! Please enjoy these hipster rants on modern life.
Oct 09, 2011 Andrew rated it did not like it
It’s difficult to say just how badly Nina is sweating inside her Olympic mascot costume, as even under ideal circumstances she is the Lance Armstrong of perspiration. If there were an Olympic medal for sweating, there she’d be, on the tier of the podium closest to heaven, her Athens-vintage Roots singlet plastered to her body, brandishing gold. She blames her Eastern European heritage, something hirsute and unfavourable embedded in her twist of DNA, combined with a childhood of pork fat, too man ...more
Oct 27, 2011 Cheryl rated it really liked it
Barely controlled energy propels these short stories. Sharp, fast jabs then wild arcing swings.
The first story, "Summer of the Flesh Eater" was my favourite. The story is told from the perspective of one of the pretentious neighbours who really doesn't have any insight into their snotty-ness, as if their thinking and attitudes are the default position against which the others are measured. The suburban locals refer to one of their neighbours as ‘the Truck Guy’ or ‘Lucy’ (as in missing link). His
Mar 25, 2015 Krista rated it really liked it
Rufus and Alex used to speak IKEA with each other, a language redolent with umlauts and nursery-rhyme rhythms. Drömma. Blinka. Sultan Blunda! It was lingonberry of another tongue -- tart, sexy even, in a birch-veneer kind of way. Their private lingua franca.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives is a collection of ten short stories by Zsuzsi Gartner, and as darkly humorous social satires, each examines some aspect of modern (primarily Vancouver-based) life, and with the use of strange metaph
Oct 23, 2011 Vicki rated it liked it
In her new short story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner cuts a satirical swath through the early years of the new millennium. Everyone and everything is fair game, with Gartner's laser sights set on those who smack of entitlement or hubris. Whatever we now call yuppies and their older demographic successors are and apparently always will be up for grabs, and Gartner takes no prisoners in terms of mocking their houses and lawns, their dietary, career and ...more
Aaron (Typographical Era)
Nov 17, 2011 Aaron (Typographical Era) rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2011, nook
A lot of people say that I waste far too much time finishing books that I’m obviously not enjoying. They’re quick to tell me to do things like only give a novel “X” number of pages, the “X” being a variable number ranging anywhere from twenty to sixty pages, and if I’m not into it by then, cut my losses and start something new because life is far too short to waste time on horrible fiction.

I get what they’re saying, but I’m just not wired that way. When I start something, regardless of how bad i
Quirky doesn't even begin to cover it. I was seduced by the title (after all, I'm only human). I have to admit that this book was way about of my reading comfort zone. It's wild, it's weird, the humor in intellectual and cutting, the ideas are wildly creative. No subject is safe from Gartner's unique and penetrating observations. Fans of Douglas Coupland, George Saunders and David Foster Wallace will feel the most at home with this book. While I am not one of those people, I found the ...more
The word that keeps coming to mind to describe this book is visceral. It is a collection of short stories taking place in British Columbia, Canada, and every one of them is of a deeply urban setting and mindset. The stories are visceral, gritty, challenging, and ultra-modern. Some deal with the conflict of our cave-man ancestry making itself known in a posh urban lifestyle, one even has a language based on Ikea. But they all reached to a place deep inside of me, and I felt a need to ponder each ...more
Leigh Matthews
Jan 11, 2015 Leigh Matthews rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a fantastic collection! Gartner has an incredible imagination and a really interesting style. There are several themes and motifs running through the stories, including a sense of creeping urban decay and decrepitude, which is fascinating to behold given the Vancouver setting of the pieces.

If you live in Vancouver, you might find yourself looking a little differently at civic politics, architecture, development, and more.

This is a great collection, and one to which I'll return again and
Carlyn Craig
Oct 06, 2011 Carlyn Craig rated it it was amazing
Recently shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, this is a great collection of postmodernist short stories. Gartner's humour is pleasingly black. Get a taste by listening to the lead story, "Summer of the Flesh Eaters," in audio. A most entertaining listen, we would love feedback on the narration. Download the MP3 file or listen online at
Steve Wilson
Aug 08, 2012 Steve Wilson rated it really liked it
Some of the stories were hilarious and super creative. Others were not quite on the mark for me. I initially wanted to use this in the classroom with ages 14-15, but I think it is better suited to an older (18+) audience, partly due to sexual content and pop culture references from the 80s and 90s. She is a vividly descriptive writer.
Feb 16, 2012 Margarita rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction
There are some wickedly funny and/or clever moments - i.e. Ikea speak, but there aren't enough of them to keep the reader focused. She is definitely a sharp writer full of ideas to share, but these ideas are often lost in her dense, adjective, double adjective driven prose. A simpler writing style would perhaps have been more effective.
Part of the charm of this collection for me was that fact that it is set in an geographical area I know well. The attitudes, places and social commentary are what I have grown up with and I found it highly amusing to read about it even though I'm not sure I "got" the points to all the stories.
Better Living Through Plastic Explosives is the second collection of short stories by Zsuzsi Gartner, who previous published All the Anxious Girls on Earth over a decade ago. The dark satire present throughout the collection often reminded me of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, a novel I unfortunately did not enjoy. For example in "Once We Were Swedes", Gartner writes:

"It was the year provincial health insurance had started covering Botox injections and teeth-whitening technology f
Alex Gregory
Feb 14, 2015 Alex Gregory rated it it was ok
The only thing I took away from this book was that it was a self-masturbatory wank on the part of the writer.

Zsuzsi Gartner's "Better Living Through Plastic Explosives" purports to be a collection of short stories, but ends up instead as a challenge to any reader. Not a page goes by when some pompous drivel is listed, ranging from loathsome characters with no redeeming qualities and anecdotes that are so layered with witty asides that it's a wonder the author pulled her head from her own backsid
Rob Slaven
Apr 11, 2013 Rob Slaven rated it it was ok
Shelves: first-reads
As usual I received this book from a GoodReads giveaway.

I really wanted to like this book but I just could never quite catch my stride with it. The stories contained here are brief and disjointed in a way that fails to capture one's attention. Viewed in isolation the author is obviously good at their craft but somehow taken as a whole it's hard not to just skim over the words and realize only later that you've been reading for 20 minutes but not consumed anything the author had to say. In fact,
Sep 30, 2011 Kendra rated it really liked it
Shelves: giller-nominee
Zsuzsi Gartner's collection is full of satire and desert-dry wit. At first, I didn't quite catch on to what I was reading, but as the first story progressed, and then the rest of the collection, I began to appreciate how cleverly Gartner pokes fun at how we live our lives, especially families in urban or suburban lifestyles.

There was a lot of literary fibre, so I found myself requiring a mental 'rest' after reading each story. I find that's often the case with story collections -- you get so in
Kaycie Hall
I read over half of these stories in an afternoon before putting down the book and promptly forgetting about it for a month. I don't know what speaks for it more---the fact that I read over half of the book in one day, or the fact that I then completely forgot I was reading this book.

Maybe the latter.

They're not bad stories. I particularly liked the first two "Summer of the Flesh Eater" and "Once We Were Swedes," both of which speak to de-evolution of man--quite literally in the former and more
This is the first collection of short stories I've read in awhile. Possibly the only one not read for school. There were some stories I loved (Summer of the Flesh Eater, Once We Were Swedes, Floating Like a Goat, We Come in Peace), some I did not enjoy (Mister Kakami, What Are We Doing Here?), some I couldn't even get through (Someone is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of America) and the rest that were just okay. It was interesting and in the end I'm not sure what to think. As a whole, ...more
Mar 03, 2016 Carolyn rated it it was amazing
Contemplations on Canadian modernity through extended metaphors cum magic realism done superbly and artfully. This book proves the written word is a legitimate and visceral art like any other and can do far, far more than just tell stories or convey facts. Vague but precise, creative and mystical yet with its finger on the pulse of 21st century human beings and the society in which they live. Profound and deeply provoking in ways I can't quite yet voice. A book to ruminate on.

"Summer of the Fles
Jacob Andra
Aug 08, 2013 Jacob Andra rated it it was ok
If David Foster Wallace and George Saunders had a literary baby and raised it on methamphetamines, it might read something like this tour-de-force of maximalism gone awry that occassionally glimmers with something like relevancy or dark humor satire or insight if you can get past the mutant verbal appendages to figure out what the heck a given story is going on about. Why can't "rats the size of Whiskas-fed house cats" just be "rats the size of cats"? Would anything have been lost?
Aug 22, 2011 beentsy rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011-done
That was fun. I've been reading one of these stories each day on the way to work and one on the way home from work while riding the bus. Sort of a weird short story daily vitamin.

Some very odd characters and some even odder story settings and concepts. Really enjoyed them though, in particular I thought Summer of the Flesh Eater was amazing. A truly bizarre level of every day normal and outlandishly weird. Great story.
Niya B
Mar 11, 2014 Niya B rated it it was ok
Given the reviews, I wanted to like Gartner's collection of short stories. Her writing is tight, and pithy. The dystopia is Atwood-eqsue. If you live on the west coast of Canada it will seem familiar and jarring, but if you don't, it will seem inaccessible. While some of the work seems to flirt with more universal themes (families as tribes, art and creativity requiring a deeper hunt for vision) those are so buried in the local context that they can be difficult to extricate.
Oct 23, 2012 Alyssa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
{Disclaimer: I received this book through Goodreads First Reads.}
Definitely worth reading, though the stories vary wildly in tone and subject matter. Some are notably better than others, but there's a consistency across the entire book that makes it worth continuing even after finishing one of the less quality pieces.
Nov 01, 2011 Nykea rated it liked it
Some stories I found very interesting, funny, etc, and others were rather meandering and, um, boring, though perhaps I was not feeling insightful enough to enjoy them. Although the only one I've read, I do not think this book has my vote for the Giller. Buuuuuut glad it was written by a Canadian...

Shortlisted for the 2011 Giller.
Nick Black
Apr 28, 2011 Nick Black marked it as to-read
Shelves: to-acquire
I nominate this for Best Title of 2011
Cian Morey
Nov 26, 2016 Cian Morey rated it did not like it
The End.

Oh, this is going to be fun.

OK, so Better Living Through Plastic Explosives is... actually, I don't know what the hell it is, so let's skip that bit. (Apparently it's a book of short stories, but, well... figure that out for yourselves and let me know when you've got an answer.)

First, the positives - the writing is sometimes funny. It's dark humour and it's really twisted and a lot of the time the jokes don't hit home because they're so carefully buried in unintelligible Canadianisms, bu
It’s hard to judge with this book whether the author was being smart or being kind of stupid; I’ll explain what I mean later on. Most of her stories revolve around critiquing society, mainly Western (and specifically Canadian) middle-class mentality or customs. The first story was definitely critiquing… well, what would you call those people? Elitist without actually being elite – Poser Elite? Anyway, I’m not sure that was the best one to start the collection with, because it was kind of ...more
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  • The Beggar's Garden
  • Light Lifting
  • The Antagonist
  • Monoceros
  • A Good Man
  • Barnacle Love
  • Open
  • This Cake Is for the Party: Stories
  • And Also Sharks
  • The Little Shadows
  • Into the Heart of the Country
  • The Free World
  • L'Énigme du retour
  • Daydreams of Angels
  • A World Elsewhere
  • Extensions
  • Some Great Thing
  • Lemon
Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of the short fiction collections Better Living Through Plastic Explosives and All the Anxious Girls on Earth, the editor of Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow, and the creative director of Vancouver Review’s Blueprint BC Fiction Series. Her stories have been widely anthologized, and broadcast on CBC and NPR’s Selected Shorts. Better Living Through ...more
More about Zsuzsi Gartner...

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“Wisteria hangs over the eaves like clumps of ghostly grapes. Euphorbia's pale blooms billow like sea froth. Blood grass twists upward, knifing the air, while underground its roots go berserk, goosing everything in their path. A magnolia, impatient with vulvic flesh, erupts in front of the living room window. The recovering terrorist--holding a watering can filled with equal parts fish fertilizer and water, paisley gloves right up over her freckled forearms, a straw hat with its big brim shading her eyes, old tennis shoes speckled with dew--moves through her front garden. Her face, she tells herself, like a Zen koan. The look of one lip smiling.” 7 likes
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