THE GOOD NEGRESS

In a knife-edged, poignant debut, Brooklyn-based Verdelle cuts to the heart and innermost thoughts of a black girl—a girl coming of age in 1960's Detroit—who struggles against racial limits and family entrapments to develop a mind yearning for fulfillment. When Denise's mother, Margarete, freshly widowed, leaves Denise with her grandmother in rural Virginia, the little girl is heartbroken. But she adapts quickly to country ways so that when she's summoned home to Detroit several years later to help her now- pregnant mother, her near-grown older brothers, and their new stepfather, she hates to go. A short, though warm, homecoming ushers in fresh realities: Denise's superior cooking and cleaning skills clinch for her the position of family housekeeper, while her down-home speech greatly impedes her progress at school. Taken under the wing of a new and exacting teacher, Miss Gloria Pearson, Denise begins to shine as a student and to dream of a better life; but in the face of mounting chores on the arrival of Margarete's baby, along with a tense situation at home as stepfather-son relations deteriorate, Denise has to make a Hobson's choice between future and family. She finds the will to juggle her responsibilities—a triumph of determination and dignity, but one with a terrible cost as she is unable to keep her favorite, ne'er- do-well brother, Luke Edward, from harm's way. Concerned after having watched him humiliated by their grandmother for shoplifting, and later driven from home for his attitude, Denise tries to protect him when his next theft is discovered, but her warning falls on deaf ears. Both the vitality and perils of life in divided families—as well as the larger conflict between a woman's duty and desire- -receive deft, honest handling here, revealing a vibrant new voice in our midst. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1995

ISBN: 1-56512-085-X

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1995

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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