An unexpected delight: tales about an unlikely girl that linger well after the last page.



Frank and telling stories that detail the developing years of young Minnesotan Lillian Anderson.

Former resident of the Ten Thousand Lakes area herself, first-timer Harfenist sets her 11 linked tales against the poignantly imagined backdrop of Sioux County, Minnesota, during the years from 1959–70. Starting when Lillian is eight years old, we are given snapshots from the girl’s life, stories whose perspective gradually matures just as Lillian does. In the beginning, she seems happy with life in her family’s lakeside house. But as the stories follow her into her teenage years, the tone darkens. Her father, who before had seemed merely cantankerous, is unmasked as a bitter and lazy drunk, while Lillian’s mother, once depicted as fun-loving and carefree, looks now to be just a careless mess. Harfenist doesn’t fall into the common trap in coming-of-age stories of making Lillian seem above her surroundings. While bookish and eager to make a life for herself in the Twin Cities, Lillian retains the smart, capable airs of a rural girl while, at the same time, fighting to keep her eyes on something beyond the broken-down chaos her parents wallow in. The sights and sounds of the 1960s creep in around the sides of the narrative—the incessant Beatles tunes, a brother sent off to Vietnam. But these notes are minuscule, surrounded by the immensity of the cold and watery Sioux County landscape with its duck hunters, snowmobiles, and occasional trips to the city. Most importantly, though, the author makes Lillian a memorable character whose forced but confused voice evidences a maturity not chosen but thrust upon her. Unafraid of hard work, but not pining for responsibility, she and her friends drive the long Minnesota roads, chain-smoking and dreaming of their futures: “All you need is a radio in a rust-free car and twenty-nine cents for a gallon of gas.”

An unexpected delight: tales about an unlikely girl that linger well after the last page.

Pub Date: June 25, 2002

ISBN: 0-375-41393-6

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2002

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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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