Eleven poignant stories that look to the past to portray the present.



An insightful collection of stories that paint diverse portraits of present-day Los Angeles.

Johnson (Elsewhere, California, 2012, etc.) exposes the deep ruptures between her characters' relationships to one another, their surroundings, and their pasts. In “Rogues,” J.J., a broke college student, clashes with his older brother, Kenny. Kenny laughs off J.J.’s more idealistic worldview. “Sorry College,” he says after J.J. critiques his use of the n-word as a man of color. Later, Kenny states more bluntly, “Well Obama don’t live in this neighborhood, do he?” This question resonates as the story examines the consequences of race and racism on their lives. In the title story, Dean is haunted by the city’s past and the knowledge that he, too, will belong to the past one day. As he sits with his mother on the roof deck of his building in downtown Los Angeles, he imagines the city before he lived in it. Downtown has gotten nice, his mother notes. It’s all cleaned up. “And by all cleaned up,” Dean thinks, “she means, of people.” In “The Story of Biddy Mason,” Johnson’s timeline is widest and creates the most powerful view of the palimpsest of this American city. We see Los Angeles as it was shaped by two people in history: a white man from “good stock” who was a railroad magnate and art collector and a former slave who walked from Mississippi to California, where she became a philanthropist and founded a church. We end with an arresting second-person perspective that shows us the Los Angeles we might see today and what, if anything, we'd experience of those who came before us. The city doesn’t figure prominently in every story in the collection, but the themes of race, perspective, and history carry through.

Eleven poignant stories that look to the past to portray the present.

Pub Date: Aug. 9, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-61902-732-9

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: May 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2016

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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.


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: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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