Well-crafted and relentless. Women readers of a certain age and lifestyle will identify.

BOYS KEEP BEING BORN

STORIES

A melancholy fragrance reminiscent of Edna O’Brien lingers over these 13 stories, depicting women in their 40s as they look back at their younger, 1960s-era selves with exhausted nostalgia.

Most of Frank’s narrators are solitary, in childless relationships, or solitary within their relationships. Telling someone else’s story, they frequently reveal their own fears and midlife angst. In the brittle, angry “Exhibit A,” a woman recalls her romantic obsession with a married man who for years resisted their mutual attraction. Watching as he falls for someone else and his marriage collapses, she finally recognizes what a creep he’s been all along. Ensconced in a comfortable relationship of her own, the narrator of “The Queen of Worldly Graces” tells of an acquaintance who leaves his ever-patient, slightly shaggy live-in girlfriend for a more glamorous Parisian. Identifying with the shunned mate, the narrator feels threatened until she acknowledges that neither she nor her lover are brave enough to forego the safety of fidelity. Of the three stories told from a male viewpoint, two are little more than hostile exercises (particularly the self-evidently titled “The Extraordinary Member of Carlos Artiga”), but the third, “The Guardian,” is a small masterpiece. Middle-aged Boyd learns that the legal secretary who showed him genuine kindness during his lonely childhood was his father’s mistress during the marriages to both Boyd’s mother and stepmother. Using a less hard-edged tone here, Frank reaches a new depth as she explores secrets and the inability of anyone to fully capture another’s experience. Another standout is the painfully lovely “The Sounds That Arrive in the Present.” Worn-down by stress and overwork, Belle receives physical therapy from a slightly younger woman whose tale of fearlessness that caused a fatal accident reminds Belle of her own youthful zest while preparing her to live more fully in her middle-aged present.

Well-crafted and relentless. Women readers of a certain age and lifestyle will identify.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-8262-1355-3

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Univ. of Missouri

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2001

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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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