An honest look at the complexity of human emotion and the influence the natural world can have in everyday lives.


In each of these challenging stories, Wortman-Wunder presents nature not as a static specimen but a dynamic presence that interacts with, and often unsettles, human relationships.

A quick flip through this debut collection will tell you that nature is a clear theme for the author. Her characters have “crawled into town from the riverbed” covered in “tar…and gravel, and river mud,” stuffed their bodies into bears’ hibernaculum during the dead of winter, and spent their days burning oakbrush to try to revive suffering ecosystems. But while skimming these stories might convey the “lazy, late summer” tunes of song sparrows and the “damp and algae and mud” smell of life alongside a creek, and would certainly demonstrate the author's poetic gusto, such a cursory glance would only tell half the story. Per the titular warning, this is not a book of comfort. While the mysteries of science and beauty of nature consume her characters, the author is clearly here to explore the messiness of human emotions and the ways people long for, envy, and challenge one another amid these natural environments. "Otters," for example, considers Cynthia’s resentment toward her husband, Billy, who has moved with her to a trailer along the Dolores River. As Billy grows to appreciate “homesteading in rafting country” and takes pleasure in his wife’s fieldwork, Cynthia sleeps late and yearns for a more civilized life. In "The Endangered Fish of the Colorado River," a marine biologist traces the evolution of her bond with her deceased son. As she reflects on the endangered fish she studied during his lifetime, each species serves as a milestone of sorts in their rocky relationship. Not all protagonists are researchers. In the title story, a nurse named Annie tends to a homeless woman who has thrown herself off a freight train. Hungry for details about the woman’s life “of freedom,” Annie tries to get close to the stranger while eschewing her co-workers’ focus on donation drives and social work brochures. Instead of rehashing the trope of man versus nature or romanticizing lives on the margins, Wortman-Wunder offers a fresh take on the murkiness of the connection between humanity, society, and the natural world.

An honest look at the complexity of human emotion and the influence the natural world can have in everyday lives.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-60938-681-8

Page Count: 148

Publisher: Univ. of Iowa

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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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: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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