VENETIAN STORIES

Longtime ex-pat Rylands delivers a charming portrait of Venice in a dozen stories that view the city from the perspectives of both natives and outsiders.

There’s always a lilting tone of history here, as though what we’re getting is fiction, travelogue, and lesson all wrapped into one. “Postman” begins with Luigi, “not a spazzino, nor any other kind of steward of the most serene Republic. He was a postino, a minion of the State of Italy.” Luigi’s tour of Venice serves as introduction, and he’s a character who will periodically recur. Venetian society comes under fire in “Collector,” when book heiress Trudi Gotham (another recurring figure) entertains a baroness who’s on the hunt for a particular diary. An American decorator in “Visitor,” in Italy for the first time, provides a more distant picture of Venice as he delivers a package trusted to him by a beautiful woman he meets on the plane. Another foreigner figures in the account of the marriage and fatherhood of a Venetian “Socialite,” Bo Benson, originally of Mobile, Alabama. “Mayor” catalogues the eccentric leader of the town, who skis down the 97 steps from his official abode and plays hooky from official events so he can watch Roman Holiday with his wife. “Mother” returns to Luigi’s apartment and provides a wonderful caricature of the family there—before the home suddenly catches on fire (is something of the old Venice about to be lost?). This is a Venice built not on canals, but on character and emotion. With so much interconnectedness to the tales, you wonder why Rylands, Venetian resident for nearly two decades, didn’t simply stitch them together into a novel that might have read like Lawrence Durrell. But no matter: these are charming tales of the personal vision of a city with a highly public character.

A smart and vivid debut.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-375-42232-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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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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