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It's hard to feel warmth from these stories; passions are mitigated or tamped down. But the writing is clever and skillful...

In her debut short story collection, McFarlane (The Night Guest, 2013) limns the hidden spaces of relationships.

It's impossible to say, at the onset of any of these stories, how grounded they will stay in the familiar. Some are entirely realistic. "The Mycenae" follows a humble Australian couple on vacation in Greece with their patrician American friends and plumbs the emotional disconnect. "Cara Mia" employs an even lighter touch to glimpse the inner life of a young Australian teen with a subtly complex family life. "Those Americans Falling from the Sky" has a similar flavor, but its wartime setting and the fate of some stationed American soldiers tinge it with mortality. Death has a larger presence in "Exotic Animal Medicine," which traces an unconventional wedding day in England; "Man and Bird" incorporates death as well as the sublime. Several of the stories levitate into surreal planes with very different moods. "Buttony" reads like sci-fi horror, while "Violet, Violet" is playful in its exploration of loneliness and the question of an uncanny bird. "The Movie People" does the same for connection and escapism—townspeople involved in a local film shoot refuse to let the magic go—and is quite funny. The title story is brutal and biblical. "Unnecessary Gifts" is a bit of an outlier, an exercise in suspense that teases readers’ expectations. Yet all these feats are pulled off while never technically escaping reality. McFarlane writes with a deceptively plain hand, and her style gives shape to the unanswered questions of how well we can ever know each other or ourselves. What she leaves out is more telling than what she describes.

It's hard to feel warmth from these stories; passions are mitigated or tamped down. But the writing is clever and skillful in spades.

Pub Date: May 10, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8654-7804-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 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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Told through the points of view of the four Garcia sisters- Carla, Sandi, Yolanda and Sofia-this perceptive first novel by poet Alvarez tells of a wealthy family exiled from the Dominican Republic after a failed coup, and how the daughters come of age, weathering the cultural and class transitions from privileged Dominicans to New York Hispanic immigrants. Brought up under strict social mores, the move to the States provides the girls a welcome escape from the pampered, overbearingly protective society in which they were raised, although subjecting them to other types of discrimination. Each rises to the challenge in her own way, as do their parents, Mami (Laura) and Papi (Carlos). The novel unfolds back through time, a complete picture accruing gradually as a series of stories recounts various incidents, beginning with ``Antojos'' (roughly translated ``cravings''), about Yolanda's return to the island after an absence of five years. Against the advice of her relatives, who fear for the safety of a young woman traveling the countryside alone, Yolanda heads out in a borrowed car in pursuit of some guavas and returns with a renewed understanding of stringent class differences. ``The Kiss,'' one of Sofia's stories, tells how she, married against her father's wishes, tries to keep family ties open by visiting yearly on her father's birthday with her young son. And in ``Trespass,'' Carla finds herself the victim of ignorance and prejudice a year after the Garcias have arrived in America, culminating with a pervert trying to lure her into his car. In perhaps one of the most deft and magical stories, ``Still Lives,'' young Sandi has an extraordinary first art lesson and becomes the inspiration for a statue of the Virgin: ``Dona Charito took the lot of us native children in hand Saturday mornings nine to twelve to put Art into us like Jesus into the heathen.'' The tradition and safety of the Old World are just part of the tradeoff that comes with the freedom and choice in the New. Alvarez manages to bring to attention many of the issues-serious and light-that immigrant families face, portraying them with sensitivity and, at times, an enjoyable, mischievous sense.

Pub Date: May 1, 1991

ISBN: 0-945575-57-2

Page Count: 308

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

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