Uncomfortable moments of adolescent epiphany marked by oblique dialogue, little sense of place and less humor.

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

STORIES

Slim collection of uninspiring coming-of-age stories by the winner of University of Iowa’s John Simmons Award for Short Fiction.

Varallo’s narrators desperately want to fit in with their families and social groups, yet don’t quite have that lovable quality. June, the young protagonist of the title story, hopes to be “one of those people who always knew the exact right thing to say at the exact right moment” as she navigates between the animosity of her mother and grandmother. She spends weekends visiting her bewildered, critical grandmother, who steals a pair of swim goggles at the mall partly from a sense of entitlement, partly because her daughter and granddaughter don’t love her. The hyper-observant first-person narrator of “Sometimes I’m Becky Macomber,” whose own family configuration is somehow ruptured, wants so badly to have a happy home life that when she stays overnight with her friend Becky, she tends to smooth the edges in the Macombers’ marital relations. In the epistolary “Be True to Your School,” a young boy writes to a friend who has moved away, jotting impressions of his single mother and his friend Liz in a painful attempt to “fix” himself and control his tendency to always be “angry,” an adolescent euphemism for feeling moved. “Sunday Wash” poignantly shows Jody trying to come to terms with the presence of his mother’s boyfriend Ron after the death of his father. Helping Ron move out boxes of his father’s effects, Jody is annoyed with himself for crying, since now “Ron had seen that part of him that was ugly and embarrassing.”

Uncomfortable moments of adolescent epiphany marked by oblique dialogue, little sense of place and less humor.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-87745-951-7

Page Count: 180

Publisher: Univ. of Iowa

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2005

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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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