Considered, sometimes-stiff experiments enlivened by Albahari’s wordplay.

LEARNING CYRILLIC

STORIES

Expats, lovers and writers from Belgrade to Calgary wrestle with distance and loss in this pensive, postmodern story collection from the veteran Serbian author.

Albahari’s prior works in English translation (Götz and Meyer, 2005, etc.) emphasized the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazi rule. The 27 stories here are relatively gentle, more interior tales, though World War II remains on Albahari’s mind. In “Hitler in Chicago,” a writer meets a woman on a plane who claims to have met the dictator, delivering a final line that suggests his ghost isn’t leaving soon: “Everyone must see Hitler once in their life.” In “Tito in Zurich,” a woman takes practically orgasmic joy in a poster in her room of the Yugoslavian strongman, evoking a tension between security and surveillance. More typical, though, is the title story, in which a man teaching Cyrillic to Serbian children in a cold North American town befriends Thunder Cloud, a Blackfoot Indian; Thunder Cloud’s folk tales intermingle with the church’s and the narrator’s own Serbian background to make for a somber study of displacement. Metafictional gamesmanship abounds: Pieces like “The Basilica in Lyon” and “A Story With No Way Out” are stories about storytelling and the futility of applying order to our messy lives. (“I don’t know why I began this story, nor why my wife and I turned up in it.”) Though not exactly flash fiction, these stories tend to be brief, introducing a relationship and abstracted complication, and Albahari’s habitually open-ended conclusions can be unsatisfying. But sometimes the approach produces gems like the two-page “Squirrel, Peanut, Hat,” in which a squirrel at the narrator’s front door sparks a memory of his father’s stint in a Nazi camp. Albahari lives in a lively, quirky present, but a dark past is never far away.

Considered, sometimes-stiff experiments enlivened by Albahari’s wordplay.

Pub Date: Dec. 23, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-62897-090-6

Page Count: 180

Publisher: Dalkey Archive

Review Posted Online: Oct. 15, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2014

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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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