A fresh voice from a writer who deserves discovery.

OTHER PEOPLE WE MARRIED

Psychologically acute, often very funny and only occasionally glib, these stories show great promise, though a few of the dozen in this debut collection are almost as slight as the best are compelling.

Straub writes predominantly from the perspective of a youngish woman in New York (where she lives and works as a bookseller) and often in the first person, though these narratives seem to transcend the thinly disguised memoir of so much fledgling fiction. Certain motifs seem signature. Many of the stories have a coming-of-age quality to them, though the “girls” who are experiencing these rites of passage might be well into their 20s or 30s, and some are even mothers. Like Franny, the unhappily married (or at least unfulfilled, for happiness may be beyond the emotional range of so many of Straub’s characters) protagonist of three of these stories: “She still thought she was a cow with her leftover baby weight and yet insisted on wearing those stupid pigtails all young mothers seem to think it’s their right to wear, as if they were all waiting, gasping, praying for someone to say, Oh, you! You can’t be the mother of this child! You couldn’t possibly be old enough! In addition to arrested development, or a post-adolescence that extends into what was once considered middle age, a surprising number of these stories find two (or more) characters on vacation, or in a state of dislocation, a place where either the relationship changes or they (or at least one of them) discovers what has been wrong all along. They must, as Franny discovers in the pre-marriage “Pearls,” where her friendship with her very different roommate briefly turns romantic. In the first-person opening story, “Some People Must Really Fall in Love,” a young teacher in the grip of what she considers an inappropriate infatuation with a student tells her freshman class that “stories didn’t have to have morals at the end.” And many of these stories are left comparatively open-ended, rich in interpretive possibility.

A fresh voice from a writer who deserves discovery.

Pub Date: Feb. 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59448-606-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

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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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