MARCOVALDO

OR THE SEASONS IN THE CITY

In their first English translation and US publication: 20 short sketches written in the early 1950s and mid-1960s, all featuring the hapless aspirations of Marcovaldo, a father, husband, and unskilled laborer in a northern Italian city. With sly wit and utter economy, Calvino satirizes the drabness of the impoverished 1950s, the hollowness of the "booming" 1960s—yet never settles for easy targets or sentimentality, much preferring the ambivalence of whimsy. Thus, Marcovaldo may be forever yearning for the simpler, pastoral pleasures—and Calvino sympathizes—but his dreamy quests almost always have an under-cutting, wry outcome. With "an eye ill-suited to city life," for instance, Marcovaldo is overjoyed to spy mushrooms sprouting on a city street ("something could still be expected of life, beyond the hourly wage. . . with inflation index"); but this bucolic miracle leads only to a stomach-pump at the local hospital. Likewise, Marcovaldo has little luck with schemes to enjoy the night air, to feast on roast woodcock, to adopt a rabbit, to get his fish direct from the river. Nor, on the other hand, do his attempts at entrepreneurship—offering wasp-sting treatments (for arthritis), collecting free detergent samples, turning ugly neighborhood billboards to economic advantage—work out much better. And sometimes the clash between the realities of Marcovaldo's life and the consumer-society around him result in surreal vignettes: a visit, with empty pockets, to a super-supermarket, filling up cart after cart with unbuyable items; a disoriented ramble through the dark city, looking for the right tram. . . but winding up on an India-bound airplane. Rich with implications about the social milieu, yet far more insistent on fable-like charm than any message: a gentle, small early-Calvino treat, shrewdly translated and agreeably packaged.

Pub Date: Nov. 16, 1983

ISBN: 0156572044

Page Count: 132

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1983

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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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