Distinctive, quirky stories that deftly capture some of life’s messiness.

FUNNY ONCE

STORIES

In her immersive new collection of nine stories and a novella, Nelson (Bound, 2010, etc.), a much lauded novelist and short story writer, introduces not-always-happy or well-behaved protagonists who make questionable choices.

Ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends, stepchildren from dead marriages and former in-laws crop up in the present, affecting the status quo. In “Soldier’s Joy,” a woman who married her college professor goes home years later to help her injured father and rediscovers the attraction of an old boyfriend, whose rejection of her in the past is about to haunt her anew. A rich example of Nelson’s ability to conjure a fully peopled scenario in only 20 pages, “iff” reveals the poignantly interdependent relationship between a divorced woman and her ex–mother-in-law. Lovey in “First Husband” comes to the aid of her needy former stepdaughter—tending her children, accepting her manipulation—while considering different kinds of married love. These stories are set in scattered cities—Albuquerque, Houston, Telluride, Chicago—and focus on everyday families dealing with long-resonant emotions. While irony pervades many of them, a streak of despair runs through several, and suicide is touched on softly but repeatedly: in “iff”; in “The Village,” whose central character, Darcy, finds herself paying tribute to her father’s mistress, who rescued her once; and in “Winter in Yalta,” where a 30-year friendship unravels during a reunion weekend in New York. Nelson’s central characters can sometimes seem interchangeable: Mostly they are not-so-young women bruised by love, by leaving or being left, whether through death, divorce or dementia. But others—like Phoebe, the badly behaved woman of the title story, whose hair catches fire—are uniquely memorable.

Distinctive, quirky stories that deftly capture some of life’s messiness.

Pub Date: May 20, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-62040-861-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 7, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2014

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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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