O. Henry–winner and novelist (I Told You So, 1999) Budnitz shows major talent in her creation of a distinctive fictional...

NICE BIG AMERICAN BABY

STORIES

Twelve tales edging toward the surreal yet grounded in nitty-gritty details of domesticity.

“Where We Come From” sets the tone, somewhere between fairy tale and ghost story. In an unnamed country, an unloved daughter grows into her name, Precious, after her more beloved brothers are lost to war and famine. Then a visiting soldier impregnates Precious. Desperate to have her child born in the US, she keeps the child in her womb for four years. When she finally gives birth, American officials immediately take the child away and deport Precious. She returns, perhaps, to watch her son through the bedroom window of the adopted home where he grows up loved but alien. Another baby crisis occurs in “Miracle” when a white couple gives birth to a baby with ebony black skin. Despite the child’s oddness—abnormally heavy, he tends to disappear and reappear at will—the mother’s love is overarching. When his skin turns pink, she panics that he is no longer her child (every mother’s fear as her child changes, Budnitz implies). This tenuous relationship between looks and identity crops up in the volume’s third major story, “Saving Face,” the complex “testimony” of a woman who may be the former dictator of another unnamed country or may simply be a woman whose face represented the dictator on posters painted by the woman’s lover. The final story, “Motherland,” brings the volume full circle. An island’s men leave for war and never return. Soldiers (American) briefly visit and impregnate the women left behind. The resulting daughters and sons are raised apart to avoid incest, but when a lone man shows up, the daughters experiment with him and find themselves pregnant as a group once again. So the cycle continues.

O. Henry–winner and novelist (I Told You So, 1999) Budnitz shows major talent in her creation of a distinctive fictional world, ambiguous and complex.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-375-41242-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2004

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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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