A fabulist remix of the English language and a tribute to clever lexicographers everywhere.



An A to Z collection of atmospheric short stories composed entirely of example sentences from dictionaries.

Designer and illustrator Burrows turns an artist’s eye to these delicate, intricately constructed microfictions. It started, he explains in the introduction, with a single line, culled from the definition of “study” in the New Oxford American Dictionary: “He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.” With rules about the kinds of tiny edits he could make (changing pronouns, adding conjunctions, etc.), he set about assembling short stories from the bones of example sentences. Without forcing them, he achieves a remarkably diverse set of tales, assembling them much as one would a puzzle, finding which pieces fit together and then organizing them under general subject headings such as "apocalypse, the," "gossip," and "optimism." The stories are very funny, as in “Ten Dollars an Hour and Whatever You Want from the Fridge,” the only story in the "babysitting" section: “I’ll be home before dark. Here’s the money I promised you, a fifth of whiskey, a list of forbidden books, and a bulletproof vest. Thanks, I owe you one for this.” Many are mere trifles, such as “Bands You Probably Haven’t Heard Of” (in the "ego" section). Others are subtly, wryly subversive, as we see in the performance art–perfect “Fifty More Ways to Leave Your Lover” or the acidic “Breakup Side Effects.” Burrows also has a talent for a delightfully askew existentialism, as demonstrated by “Famous Last Words” that may include “Do you love me?” but just as blithely might offer, “Can I have the last slice of pizza?” Still others are calls to action, as in the entry titled “Reveille” in the "youth" section: “Keep your wits about you. Run along now. Run atilt at death. Go as fast as you can. Go, by all means. Go before I cry.” The stories are wickedly short but exquisitely rendered, accompanied by whimsical, minimalist illustrations by the author.

A fabulist remix of the English language and a tribute to clever lexicographers everywhere.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-265261-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Harper Perennial/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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