The random adventures of life stitched together and explained with unconventional devices—that both do and don’t work.

COUNTRY OF COLD

STORIES OF SEX AND DEATH

Thirteen loosely connected stories of rural Canada less about sex and death than about everything else.

The Manitoba-born Patterson (a memoir, The Water In Between, 2000) often delivers miniature essays amid his stories on subjects as far-ranging as emperor penguins and the utilitarian aesthetics of rope, while a consistent theme is the emotional cabin fever that’s as much a result of the landscape of the title as it is of a standard and familiar domesticity. The people here are as likely to reach out to others as they are to turn on one another. “Gabriella: Parts One and Two” is about an ex-soldier who finds himself sharing an apartment with two Spanish women—in a story that aspires to realism by going nowhere. “Saw Marks” is the frailest of plot adumbrations hung on a piece of seemingly straight nonfiction about man’s prehistory in the Serengeti. In “The Perseid Shower,” a boy’s generalized disappointment with his father finds its focus in dad’s preoccupation with incinerator drums, model airplanes, and the yearly meteor shower. And “Insomnia, Infidelity, and the Leopard Seal” is a lesson on mood disorders as manifested in a character’s sleep deprivation—and before it cures our insomnia we’re sure to find out what happens to those emperor penguins. Patterson’s attempt to tie his pieces together by ending each with “This was in 1980” or “This was in 2004,” etc., gives a feeling that each story amounts to a kind of journal entry: the connected-story premise disconnects, and one wishes that Patterson’s talent for disparate narrative voices were hung on a strategy less flimsy. Still, sometimes the static voice of essay comes to stand perfectly for these people and this place: “A static structure bears perpendicular surfaces well. The column reliably supports loads only when vertical and straight; when gravity is the only antagonist, flat continuous planes at right angles to one another . . . .”

The random adventures of life stitched together and explained with unconventional devices—that both do and don’t work.

Pub Date: Jan. 21, 2003

ISBN: 0-385-50627-9

Page Count: 276

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2002

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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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