Gustine’s stories give the impression that in every life there is a story worth telling, of triumph and of pain, if only we...

YOU SHOULD PITY US INSTEAD

Gustine’s debut collection examines the compelling lives and struggles of people we might think of as ordinary and the pain that can come from simply trying to make it through life.

It might be easy to mistake these stories, with their focus on the familiar, for quiet ones. The emphasis is largely on emotion and situation rather than drama, but this doesn’t detract from their power. In fact, the intensity of people we might pass on the street every day—a mother whose baby will not stop crying or a father driving across the country to clean out his dead daughter’s apartment—makes this collection all the more powerful. In “An Uncontaminated Soul,” for example, Gustine starts with a familiar picture of a woman living alone with more than 50 cats, but rather than creating a cliché, she instead makes Lavinia sympathetic, deep, and heartbreaking—not pitiful at all. The struggle mothers face in trying to protect their children is one theme that runs throughout this collection, and it links an Israeli woman whose adult son has been kidnapped by Hamas to an Ohio woman conducting nightly vigils in her backyard, armed with a child’s baseball bat against encroaching coyotes. The weakest moments come in stories that prioritize suspense, as in “Goldene Medene,” in which a doctor inspects incoming immigrants at Ellis Island. He handles infectious patients with a distracted air and imagines abusing his power to take advantage of a vulnerable woman in a way that feels tired. There is no easy resolution to be found in this collection, and the fact that life will, and indeed must, go on is both a blessing and a burden for the characters.

Gustine’s stories give the impression that in every life there is a story worth telling, of triumph and of pain, if only we take the time to look.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-941411-19-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Sarabande

Review Posted Online: Oct. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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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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