Fairy tales and realistic studies happily coexist in this elegant collection.

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK IN THE WORLD

Eight stories about a variety of women from French playwright/novelist Schmitt (Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran & Oscar and the Lady in Pink, 2004, etc.).

Several start with intriguing puzzles. Who is the old woman repeatedly breaking into Odile’s Paris apartment? (The answer in “The Intruder” sheds an imaginative light on sickness.) What is the secret at the heart of Isabelle’s apparently successful marriage, and why should it begin to unravel at her hairdresser’s (“Every Reason to be Happy”)? The title story’s question is in a class of its own. The setting is a Soviet-era women’s re-education camp in Siberia. The new arrival, Olga, has a wild tangle of hair: Why is that so important? All the women long to communicate with their faraway daughters, and it’s deeply moving that the most ordinary among them hits on the perfect solution, revealed only in an epilogue. Schmitt’s tales echo Maupassant’s with their lean narratives, surprise endings, mordant humor and psychological acuity. That humor and acuity sparkle in “A Fine Rainy Day.” Hélène is a perfectionist and a malcontent; Antoine sees only the good. Their marriage is counterintuitive, yet it works. The eponymous “Odette Toulemonde,” a humble Belgian shop assistant, is the devoted fan of a potboiler novelist with big problems. Odette shows him the way out, moderating a meeting with the novelist, his publisher and his difficult wife. Even the slighter stories have their charms. A touring actor returns to the Sicilian village where, years before, a beautiful young woman invited him to a fabulous restaurant and then to her bed (“The Barefoot Princess”). A discarded mistress picks the wrong target for her revenge in “The Forgery,” which features a Picasso, while an old beach bum’s really bad paintings fetch big bucks in “Wanda Winnipeg”; the world’s wealthiest woman is repaying, finally, her first lover.

Fairy tales and realistic studies happily coexist in this elegant collection.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-933372-74-7

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Europa Editions

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2009

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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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