Despite an occasional slip into glib slice-of-life, Nelson is at her best creating densely packed, almost novel-like family...

NOTHING RIGHT

SHORT STORIES

Although family or the desire for family is frequently the overt subject, secrets and solitude lie at the heart of these 11 stories, of which several have appeared in the New Yorker.

Nelson (Some Fun, 2006, etc.) tends to front-load her crises. Not only is Emily, the heroine of “Party of One,” dying of cancer when she agrees to meet her sister Mona’s lover, she also knows—although Mona doesn’t know she knows—about Mona’s previous affair with Emily’s husband. Despite the potential for melodrama, Emily’s encounter with Mona’s lover evolves into a painful education. In the title story, another less-than-heroic heroine lives with her 15-year-old problem son while her ex-husband gets the son she favors, but when the troubled boy’s girlfriend has a baby, family relationships clarify into something resembling redemption. In “OBO,” a young grad student weasels her way into spending Christmas with her professor’s family. A con artist, she’s also heartbreakingly, cluelessly infatuated with the professor’s distracted wife. A similar loser in “Or Else” pretends to himself as much as to his date that a vacation house belongs to his family. The actual owners treated him with generosity until he betrayed them one time too many. In “Shauntrelle,” a woman who has destroyed her marriage describes her “season of uncertain and drifting identity,” summing up many of these characters’ predicaments. The liberal family of “We and They” adopts two black children with unintended, depressingly comic consequences. The brilliant, obese scientist in “People, People” has the unerring ability to tell people truths they don’t want to know. The settings are Western and middle-middle class—Sarah Palin country—but the characters defy stereotype. In one of the loveliest stories, “Kansas,” characters who assume disaster when a baby in the family goes missing with her teenage aunt find themselves almost disappointed by the benign ending.

Despite an occasional slip into glib slice-of-life, Nelson is at her best creating densely packed, almost novel-like family mini-sagas.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-59691-574-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2008

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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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