CHANGES AND DREAMS

A second collection (after The Medlar Tree—not reviewed) of 13 carefully crafted stories from Beagan, a Welsh poet and writer, offers gentle evocations of time and place but seems finally rather bland. Set mostly in Wales, the pieces here are contemporary in their concerns and struggles—divorced women, children stalked by a molester—but are also often suffused with a sense of an older time, a time when druids kept the sacred shrines, life was lived close to the land, and children spent their lives largely out of doors, exploring the countryside. Two of the more notable tales are ``Glut,'' in which a no-nonsense wife and mother, learning of her husband's infidelity with a wealthy neighbor (whose bumper plum crop the wife has frugally made into jam), must struggle to rebuild her domestic kingdom; and ``Snatches of Guilty Time,'' in which a woman recently widowed attends a creative-writing course on the island of Anglesey (``the last bastion of the druids'') and finds that her imaginative appreciation of the island's old powers to heal and evoke love allow her finally to accept her husband's death. Other notables concern a child's increasingly violent encounters with a molester (``Green Eggs and Larches''); the life of a divorced woman, ``old enough now not to want winter,'' who teaches literature in a small town, an activity she describes while ruefully recalling the past and anticipating her evening meeting with a new lover, a very correct middle-aged man who quotes Donne (``Women of a Certain Age''); and a young woman who discovers the truth about her dead father when she attends her mother's second wedding (``The Gingerbread House''). In the title story, a grandmother, seeing her first lover and childhood playmate again, recalls the past, her disastrous marriage, and fantasizes about what might have been. Tales of loss and desperation unfortunately too pallid to resonate fully.

Pub Date: May 22, 1997

ISBN: 1-85411-173-6

Page Count: 132

Publisher: Dufour

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1997

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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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