Flavorful amuse-bouches from a talented chef.

BROCCOLI AND OTHER TALES OF FOOD AND LOVE

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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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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