A stunning, altogether irresistible collection.

LITTLE BLACK BOOK OF STORIES

With painstaking precision, Booker-winner Byatt (A Whistling Woman, 2002, etc.) analyzes the frailty, impermanence, and disturbing complexity of the human body.

Otherworldly and folkloric motifs link this new collection of five stories with earlier similar volumes (e.g., Elementals, 1999), especially as seen in its opening tale, “The Thing in the Forest.” This introduces two young girls, Penny and Primrose, WWII II refugees, who wander one day from the castle where they’re housed in a forest clearing, where they glimpse a monstrous misshapen form. The “thing,” seemingly “made of rank meat, . . . decaying vegetation, . . . [and] manmade materials,” haunts their imaginations forever after: it’s a powerful image of formative early fears that never leave us. “Body Art,” which interestingly continues the theme of corporeal irregularity and fluidity, details the combative yet mutually sustaining relationship between an emotionally Spartan gynecologist and the female free spirit who provokes and reshapes his emotions. The capacity “to make familiar things look strange” strongly affects an underachieving novelist-writing teacher in “Raw Material.” The breakdown of physical and intellectual form is movingly depicted in “The Pink Ribbon,” in which a retired classics professor tends to his unreachable wife, a mad babbling shadow of her composed former self, and unknowingly invites into their lives the figure that will bring them both release, and peace. And in the superb centerpiece, “A Stone Woman,” a survivor of life-threatening surgery undergoes a “metamorphosis” that takes her beyond her cramped personal world to the alluring landscape of Iceland (“where we are matter-of-fact about strange things”) and a strange, unforeseen and unimaginable liberation. It’s as if Isak Dinesen had magically reappeared, to give us one more unclassifiable baroque masterpiece. Byatt has never written better than in these exquisite stories that, together and thus arranged, assume the shape of a life from childhood through old age and death.

A stunning, altogether irresistible collection.

Pub Date: May 2, 2004

ISBN: 1-4000-4177-5

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2004

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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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HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS

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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