A brilliant first collection of stories—many set in the historical past, and all concerning varieties of scientific pursuit and discovery—by the author of such well-received novels as The Middle Kingdom (1991) and The Forms of Water (1993). Barrett begins with a stunner: ``The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,'' about an unfulfilled faculty wife, her family's heritage of violence, and a telling incident in the life of the plant geneticist Gregor Mendel that impinged on the family's life and continues to cast long shadows over the woman's own psyche and marriage. The other six stories, all distinguished by a thoughtfully meditative tone and a firm focus on characters eager to analyze and understand their own natures, are almost uniformly rich and suggestive. ``Rare Bird'' describes the furtive rebellion of a gifted woman who, refusing to defer to her stolid brother's inferior intelligence, ingeniously escapes his—and their century's (the eighteenth's)—domination of women. ``Soroche'' relates a woman's progress through marriage, loss of husband and security, and toward fulfillment—ironically compared with the sad misadventures of ``Jemmy Button,'' the Tierra del Fuegan Indian uprooted from his culture and all but destroyed: It's a beautifully conceived tale, filled with mysterious grace notes and resonances. ``Birds with No Feet'' recounts the burning away of a young zoologist's illusions when he finds in Darwin's theory of evolution a mocking, yet strangely comforting explanation of his own character and fortunes. And the title novella, about a young Canadian doctor's existential adventure ministering to typhus- stricken Irish immigrants, re-creates with astonishing conviction a vanished time and place, and memorably examines both the despair and the moral courage of people who believe they can do no more, and no less, than, simply, what is right. Marvelous stories, unlike any being written today, by a writer whose continuing growth may well be one of the most interesting literary developments of the '90s.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-393-03853-X

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1995



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



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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