Part love song to Cuban literature and lore, part Borgesian encyclopedia of the subspecies of flight, part questioning of...


A deft, playful collection of linked stories about migration, flight, (mis)translation, the joys and disfigurements of myth—that is, about Cuba.

The fourth book of fiction and second collection (In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, 2001, etc.) by Cuban-American journalist Menéndez consists of 27 fragments of varying lengths, but it's not a miscellany. There's plenty of metafictional apparatus (a prologue by an Irish transplant to Havana, a lyrical dream-parable by a persona named Ana Menéndez in which she says that "Details are stupid and unreal" and urges us not to "get sucked in by my lies"). There are little riffs or games, such as the story that consists of Google translations of iconic Cuban poems. There are tributes to Cuban writers (Alejo Carpentier, Jose Martí and others). There are also more traditional stories—often with magical elements—like "The Parachute Makers," which ends, as several of these stories do, with a protagonist taking to the air to escape. In another book, all this intellectual superstructure might seem clunky or stilted, but in the case of a book about Cuba—especially a book about the emigre's longing for a Cuba that is now mythical and that may always have been, a Cuba made up of a few obsessive themes and metaphors—it works well, revitalizing the old tropes and stories by giving them a new setting and emphasis. This is most evident in a brace of Elián González stories, especially "The Boy Who Was Rescued by Fish," in "Glossary of Caribbean Winds" and in "The Boy Who Fell from Heaven," which begins with a list, grading from fact into fiction, of Cubans who've stowed away in the wheel wells of jets departing Havana.

  Part love song to Cuban literature and lore, part Borgesian encyclopedia of the subspecies of flight, part questioning of the very conditions of fiction-making—and all charming.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-8021-7084-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Black Cat/Grove

Review Posted Online: June 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2011

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


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: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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