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A mixed bag: not as satisfying as Kalfus’ recent novels, though technically accomplished and often with great insight into...

A gathering of new stories by Kalfus (Equilateral, 2013, etc.), drawing on his long-established interests in history, science, and at least a few of the seven mortal sins. 

A self-satisfied French financier “in the service of the public” luxuriates in the oversized bathroom of an oversized deluxe hotel in New York, reflecting on a pattern of sexual behavior that has landed him in the newspapers and in court—and on the legal and political radar of his home country as well, since “Sarkozy is another Nixon” keen to put evidence about his enemies, however gathered, to bad use. If the reader connects with a certain legal case much in the news of late involving a French financial wizard and an African hotel housekeeper, then it’s certainly no accident; the value Kalfus adds, so to speak, often involves illuminating certain prurient details (“With her eyes closed and her skirt pulled up, she was intently fingering herself”) while examining the psychology of a man who blends an unhealthy dose of paranoia with a host of very real enemies. Whether those enemies are deserved or not is for the reader to judge, but Kalfus’ titular novella, detached and sometimes stilted, won’t do much to engage his or her moral compass, well-written though it is. The shorter stories tend to be less fraught than all that; one is a seemingly tossed-off vignette about a spell in the hygienist’s chair (“Given the long, bloody history of my gingivitis, I go in for a periodontal cleaning every three months”), another an obligatory homage to Borges, still others less obvious nods to Borges, some quite effective, as when Kalfus imagines the possibilities of resurrecting a language “that is not spoken by more than one other living person.” In one of the best pieces, human law meets quantum physics; in one of the least successful, a would-be writer laments how hard it is to be a would-be writer.

A mixed bag: not as satisfying as Kalfus’ recent novels, though technically accomplished and often with great insight into the curious ways of people.

Pub Date: May 12, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-62040-085-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2015

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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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Told through the points of view of the four Garcia sisters- Carla, Sandi, Yolanda and Sofia-this perceptive first novel by poet Alvarez tells of a wealthy family exiled from the Dominican Republic after a failed coup, and how the daughters come of age, weathering the cultural and class transitions from privileged Dominicans to New York Hispanic immigrants. Brought up under strict social mores, the move to the States provides the girls a welcome escape from the pampered, overbearingly protective society in which they were raised, although subjecting them to other types of discrimination. Each rises to the challenge in her own way, as do their parents, Mami (Laura) and Papi (Carlos). The novel unfolds back through time, a complete picture accruing gradually as a series of stories recounts various incidents, beginning with ``Antojos'' (roughly translated ``cravings''), about Yolanda's return to the island after an absence of five years. Against the advice of her relatives, who fear for the safety of a young woman traveling the countryside alone, Yolanda heads out in a borrowed car in pursuit of some guavas and returns with a renewed understanding of stringent class differences. ``The Kiss,'' one of Sofia's stories, tells how she, married against her father's wishes, tries to keep family ties open by visiting yearly on her father's birthday with her young son. And in ``Trespass,'' Carla finds herself the victim of ignorance and prejudice a year after the Garcias have arrived in America, culminating with a pervert trying to lure her into his car. In perhaps one of the most deft and magical stories, ``Still Lives,'' young Sandi has an extraordinary first art lesson and becomes the inspiration for a statue of the Virgin: ``Dona Charito took the lot of us native children in hand Saturday mornings nine to twelve to put Art into us like Jesus into the heathen.'' The tradition and safety of the Old World are just part of the tradeoff that comes with the freedom and choice in the New. Alvarez manages to bring to attention many of the issues-serious and light-that immigrant families face, portraying them with sensitivity and, at times, an enjoyable, mischievous sense.

Pub Date: May 1, 1991

ISBN: 0-945575-57-2

Page Count: 308

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

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