Acker shows that the lives of black girls and women are vast and varied, pushing back on the monolithic ways they are often...

TRAINING SCHOOL FOR NEGRO GIRLS

In her debut collection, Acker pays tribute to Washington, D.C.—the Chocolate City—and the changes it went through during the last years of the 20th century.

The 11 stories, each centered on the life of a black woman, depict D.C. life beyond the monuments and government antics outsiders normally associate with the city. In fact, the tourist D.C. is barely background scenery in Acker’s milieu, which manages to go more local without alienating readers who are unfamiliar with life inside the Beltway. For instance, in "Mambo Sauce," a sample of that local condiment becomes the catalyst for Constance, who's just moved to D.C. from Brooklyn, to try to stave off gentrification in her new neighborhood—and the reason she begins to reconsider her interracial relationship. And in "Strong Men," a high school graduation becomes the occasion for a D.C. crab bake. Acker is strongest when she's excavating the interiority of her characters. This is especially true in “Cicada,” which chronicles a young girl’s experience as she participates in her first piano competition, and “Now, This,” in which Acker astutely describes the inner thoughts of Rae, a premenopausal woman who has to care for her ailing mother while coming to terms with the reality of her own aging body. Yet the collection is uneven. Sometimes the ancillary figures are more interesting than the main characters; in "Strong Men," the protagonist is 13-year-old Bit, but her older brother, Ronnie, whose alleged drug dealing, obsession with local basketball legend Len Bias, and desire to see the world puts him at odds with their father and jeopardizes his enrollment at Howard University, is quite a bit more interesting than Bit, who has trouble with boys and best friends. Acker’s exploration of the inner workings of Washington’s black middle class in the title story comes off as heavy-handed, resulting in exaggerated characters that might have been better suited for satire. Nonetheless, the collection ends on a tender and memorable note in "You Can Leave, but It's Going to Cost You," as a father and daughter cruise the city to the accompaniment of the music of its native son Marvin Gaye.

Acker shows that the lives of black girls and women are vast and varied, pushing back on the monolithic ways they are often portrayed while giving readers everything but go-go music in a generally lovely ode to D.C. life.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-936932-37-5

Page Count: 232

Publisher: Feminist Press

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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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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