Winningly arch and unusual takes on common household predicaments.


Eleven quirky tales from the Chilean novelist (Ways of Going Home, 2013, etc.), powered by people's fear of relationships and the strange ways we project our urge for connection onto others.

Twice in this collection a character clings to a computer for warmth, an act that symbolizes the alienation the inhabitants of Zambra’s world feel and his curious take on those feelings. “Memories of a Personal Computer" tracks the history of one machine from its purchase in 2000 to its banishment years later; in between, Zambra exposes just how much the machine draws together and separates the owner's family, wryly depicting it as quasi-human (“the computer’s conduct was, during this period, exemplary"). Similarly, “Family Life” follows a man who’s taken a catsitting gig after hitting the skids; searching for the cat, he begins a flirtation with a local woman, prompting him to extend his bumbling playacting at domesticity. Zambra is particularly interested in the childhood roots of his characters' harmless but unusual behavior: In the title story, an altar boy is guilt-stricken after caressing another boy; in “Camilo,” the arrival of the godson of the narrator’s father throws off the household’s rhythms; and the school kids in “National Institute,” who are terrified of their domineering teachers, are at first so dehumanized that the narrator refers to his classmates as numbers. Though the subjects throughout are serious, Zambra has a light touch; former dictator Augusto Pinochet is referred to numerous times but more as a generational marker than as political shading. At times, Zambra’s cleverness gets the better of him, as in “I Smoked Very Well,” an offbeat quitter’s diary, but the concluding “Artist’s Rendition,” about a crime writer rushing to finish a story, artfully shows the transformation of difficult fact into resonant art.

Winningly arch and unusual takes on common household predicaments.

Pub Date: Feb. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-940450-52-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: McSweeney’s

Review Posted Online: Dec. 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2014

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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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Told through the points of view of the four Garcia sisters- Carla, Sandi, Yolanda and Sofia-this perceptive first novel by poet Alvarez tells of a wealthy family exiled from the Dominican Republic after a failed coup, and how the daughters come of age, weathering the cultural and class transitions from privileged Dominicans to New York Hispanic immigrants. Brought up under strict social mores, the move to the States provides the girls a welcome escape from the pampered, overbearingly protective society in which they were raised, although subjecting them to other types of discrimination. Each rises to the challenge in her own way, as do their parents, Mami (Laura) and Papi (Carlos). The novel unfolds back through time, a complete picture accruing gradually as a series of stories recounts various incidents, beginning with ``Antojos'' (roughly translated ``cravings''), about Yolanda's return to the island after an absence of five years. Against the advice of her relatives, who fear for the safety of a young woman traveling the countryside alone, Yolanda heads out in a borrowed car in pursuit of some guavas and returns with a renewed understanding of stringent class differences. ``The Kiss,'' one of Sofia's stories, tells how she, married against her father's wishes, tries to keep family ties open by visiting yearly on her father's birthday with her young son. And in ``Trespass,'' Carla finds herself the victim of ignorance and prejudice a year after the Garcias have arrived in America, culminating with a pervert trying to lure her into his car. In perhaps one of the most deft and magical stories, ``Still Lives,'' young Sandi has an extraordinary first art lesson and becomes the inspiration for a statue of the Virgin: ``Dona Charito took the lot of us native children in hand Saturday mornings nine to twelve to put Art into us like Jesus into the heathen.'' The tradition and safety of the Old World are just part of the tradeoff that comes with the freedom and choice in the New. Alvarez manages to bring to attention many of the issues-serious and light-that immigrant families face, portraying them with sensitivity and, at times, an enjoyable, mischievous sense.

Pub Date: May 1, 1991

ISBN: 0-945575-57-2

Page Count: 308

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

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