A first English translation of short fiction by the great Estonian author (The Czar's Madman, 1993; Professor Martens' Departure, 1994), who begins to look more and more like a prime Nobel Prize contender. These six long pieces, all written between 1979 and 1986, record the ordeals of Kross's countrymen from the onset of WW II through its immediate aftermath, first under German, then Soviet occupation. The stories are about the dynamics of political commitment and the mechanics of personal survival, as explored by their common protagonist Peeter Mirk (manifestly his creator's alter ego), a sophisticated young law student and leftist intellectual who has—in his own words—``tried his hand at various things: writing poetry, bragging, searching for the truth, conspiracy, and . . . lecturing.'' Complex and densely woven, these are tales that take in a broad range of experiences, relationships, and exchanges of opinions; people's whole lives are skillfully telescoped and analyzed in relation to the specific actions in which they're involved. ``The Wound'' and ``Lead Piping'' describe variously abortive efforts to leave Russia-dominated Estonia and emigrate to Germany (at Hitler's invitation), vividly denoting their characters' complicated political allegiances. ``The Stahl Grammar'' and the troubling title story, both set in prisons, unforgettably show how the power politics of such sealed microcosms exactly mirror the larger conflicts of the world outside. ``The Conspiracy'' in particular reveals the ease with which people who think they're neutral slip into accommodation with injustice and evil. And the wonderful tale ``The Day His Eyes Are Opened'' confronts Mirk with the chastening spectacle of a survivor of the forced-labor camps whose political courage shows up the shallowness of Mirk's own ``suffering.'' An informative introduction by Kross's (exemplary) translator offers a solidly detailed context for this invaluable opportunity to sample further the works of one of Europe's greatest living writers.

Pub Date: July 18, 1996

ISBN: 1-86046-005-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1996

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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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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.


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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