A lesser work than such fully achieved recent fictions as The Years with Laura Diaz and The Eagle’s Throne, but of real...

HAPPY FAMILIES

STORIES

Sixteen cleverly varied short stories, separated by mostly free-verse interludes, form a broad image of modern Mexico in the latest fiction from that country’s most prominent writer (The Eagle’s Throne, 2006, etc.).

As its title allusion to Tolstoy promises, many of these pieces are concerned with relations among parents and children, spouses and siblings. “A Family Like Any Other” explores the stunted lives, graced only by sustaining illusions of accomplishment and empowerment, of a department-store salesman forced into early retirement, his romantic dreamer wife (a former bolero singer) and their career-challenged, embittered stay-at-home adult children. There follows a plaintive “Chorus of the Street Gossips,” channeling the plea of an unborn child not to be born into poverty and misery. Thus it goes, as Fuentes examines the ordeals endured by a crime impresario (“The Mariachi’s Mother”) who cannot divert her son from following her path; a powerful military commander whose own sons work for powers he helped overthrow (“The Armed Family”); a pair of male lovers whose contented union reflects the social changes of several decades (“The Gay Divorcée”); and a sexually adventurous woman who confesses to her present lover her enslavement by a brutal egotist (“The Secret Marriage,” perhaps intended as an allegory of Mexico’s ongoing vulnerability to opportunists and tyrants). The stories’ range is both impressive and somewhat predictable, as we keep meeting characters whose passions appear to confirm generic clichés about Latinos’ volatile emotions and ingenuous submission to the demands of a religion that counsels endless patience. Still, even when plots seem unoriginal, Fuentes earns our attention with vivid dialogue and detail.

A lesser work than such fully achieved recent fictions as The Years with Laura Diaz and The Eagle’s Throne, but of real interest as a Latin American little brother to John Dos Passos’s U.S.A., the book that may have inspired it.

Pub Date: Sept. 30, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6688-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 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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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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