Inspired by the lyric fantastic, a first fiction collection from novelist Vaz (Saudade, 1994), this year's winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Vaz's tales rely often on the yeast of her songlike love for language, which can transform her prose, influenced by magic realism, into poetry. ``Sex happens,'' she writes in the title piece, ``the way a pearl is formed. It begins with a grain or parasitic worm that itches in the soft lining until the entire animal buckles around it.'' In ``Island Fever,'' Vaz displays her strong visual sense and her wit: ``The mouths in the crowd, including his wife's, were chattering like bivalve castanets.'' These 12 linked stories about Portuguese ÇmigrÇs from the Azores also rely on the force of improbable events to propel them forward. In ``The Remains of Princess Kaiulani's Garden,'' a laundress with extraordinary powers at the ironing board positively affects the lives of her customers: ``One old lady put on a skirt ironed by Elena and could do cartwheels. . . . A priest who had sent in his collars to be starched preached the best sermon of his life.'' Vaz can induce in a reader a fine and effusive rapture when her characters, inflamed, are carried skyward by their emotions. ``Math Bending Into Angels,'' in this vein, shows how love and an incurable spiritual hunger lead a woman to turn into an otherworldly sprite. In other tales dealing with more worldly matters, the writer's whimsy sometimes fails to persuade: an ease in Vaz's luscious lyricism can, in an earthly context, appear too pretty; with her head turned by metaphor, the author comes across as unable to take reality seriously. At such times, she lacks conviction in the primal logic of an unreasonable fate that guides the major magic realists. She's also more sentimental than they, and her language can seem contrived, lacking a fundamental emotional connection with the lives she describes. Still, when the theme of a story is in balance with its style, the result is elating.

Pub Date: Oct. 17, 1997

ISBN: 0-8229-4051-5

Page Count: 169

Publisher: Univ. of Pittsburgh

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1997

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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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