Flavorful amuse-bouches from a talented chef.


Russian émigré Vapnyar follows her story collection There Are Jews In My House (2003) with this second small collection: six stories about immigrants in Brooklyn.

With one exception, the immigrants are Russian, coming to terms with America. Though food does indeed figure in all these stories, and an amusing, free-wheeling afterword includes recipes, food is not always essential to their development. Take “A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf.” Did Nina’s husband marry her in Russia because she was “his ticket to America”? She doesn’t think so; she has had ample evidence of his love; nonetheless, he leaves her. The story ends inconclusively with a cooking date with another guy, leaving the reader hungry for more insight into Nina’s failed marriage; to hell with the broccoli. In “Slicing Sautéed Spinach,” Ružena, a Czech immigrant, has weekly trysts with an American lover already committed to another woman, followed by restaurant meals at which she always eats spinach. That seems whimsical; the point of the story is the way Ružena outsmarts the American in their love game. “Salad Olivier” shows recent immigrant Tanya finding a boyfriend who bonds with her parents as they create Russia’s most popular holiday dish; it’s charming but slight. “Borscht” is more robust. Here carpet installer Sergey visits a part-time Russian prostitute. Alla turns him off sexually, but the famous soup creates a rapport; it’s the star of the show. Food is even more integral in “Luda and Milena.” Two elderly Russian women are competing for an even older Russian man; they are students in an ESL class, asked to bring dishes to an International Feast. To impress old Aron, they learn to cook overnight in this well-shaped tragic-comedy about loneliness and desire. In “Puffed Rice and Meatballs,” food is really the whole point as Katya recalls her Russian childhood, a time of deprivation underscored by the mad rush for rarely imported American junk food.

Flavorful amuse-bouches from a talented chef.

Pub Date: June 3, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-375-42487-8

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2008

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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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

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