Stories that wear their moral outlook on their sleeves.



A debut collection primarily concerned with the societal strictures laid on both whites and blacks.

But not laid with equal weight. Although Nailah bookends her 14 stories with a heavenly prologue and epilogue in which an older brown angel teaches a younger one that skin color is only a small part of human nature, the tales themselves impart a different lesson. In “Trudy,” a white woman accuses a black cashier of pocketing two quarters. “The Ride” shows a white businessman falling under the brief but attitude-changing tutelage of a black cab driver who miraculously undoes years of racist training in the space of their ride to the airport. When the basketball star of “Bucket” is warned by his team’s owner not to attach himself too closely to a certain lady friend, his lack of freedom recalls his family’s years of indebtedness and the shadow of slavery before that. Other pieces focus on black people’s inner struggles. “Four” depicts young kids who typify black male archetypes (crazy misfit, super-athlete, gifted genius, street fighter), portraying the unhappiness that accompanies each and the solace they find singing four-part harmony on a summer evening. The teenager in “French” and the middle-aged businessman in “Inside Out” both unsuccessfully attempt to distance themselves from their African-American roots. Race resides on the periphery, however, when Nailah delves into her other major subject: children burdened with imperfect parents. In “My Side of the Story,” a little boy runs away to find the mother who walked out, but the squalor of her new life brings him up short even before she sends him back to his well-meaning if distracted father. An even younger child pays a “Sunday Visit” to her mother, imprisoned for the death of the girl’s baby brother; the facts of the story remain murky, but the daughter’s neediness is heart-wrenching.

Stories that wear their moral outlook on their sleeves.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-385-50293-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2001

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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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