THE SEVEN YEAR ATOMIC MAKE-OVER GUIDE

AND OTHER STORIES

Bell follows her two novels (Saint, 1985; The Perez Family, 1990) with a first collection of nine stories that limn the quirks and quandaries of the human heart with sympathy and a wry sense of the absurd. The characters here come from the striving lower class where respectability, while often desired, must always contend with somber economic realities and unexpected tragedy. In the title story, a young woman living with her handicapped aunt and their maid, believing that every seven years we change the atoms of our body, is ready for ``real First Love'' again. She finds and loses it but along the way makes money by feeding false gossip about royalty to the tabloids. Another tale, ''A Pillow and a Rock,'' gives Elvis Presley a twin brother, presumed dead at birth but saved by the midwife who gave him to a childless couple. In ``Nashville Night,'' a still-grieving mother recalls the summer she nursed her dying daughter, who wasn't exactly ``mean but was still a long way from the sweetness that invites disease.'' Saved by a stranger from a marauding gang who later kill a woman at the same place, a wife and mother (in ``Cliff from Chicago, Annie McDermott, and Me'') can't forget the sheer randomness of the incident. The young woman protagonist of ``A Good Thief,'' sentenced to do community service at a home for the retarded, doesn't exactly reform but learns after a bungled robbery with one of the inmates in tow that she ``wasn't as good a thief as she thought.'' And in a whimsical change of pace, ``Mockingbird'' relates how a noted sound sleeper lost and then regained his wife, who had left him to find a good night's rest. Affecting and unpretentiously original: a quiet delight.

Pub Date: June 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-393-03945-5

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1996

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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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