Poignant, exquisite, and endlessly witty.

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Upton’s (The Tao of Humiliation, 2014, etc.) latest collection comprises stories inhabited by characters entangled in either classic literature or their own convoluted tales.

In “A Shadow,” a maid discovers a piece of metal in J.M. Barrie’s sitting room on the morning of the author’s death. The item eventually finds its way to a boy, who’s haunted by an unrelenting shadow in his dreams, demanding he cut off a pirate’s hands. Well-known literary works play a significant role here, and Upton rarely disguises the source of inspiration. In “The Odyssey,” for example, 11-year-old, home-schooled Tahreen stumbles upon a man’s still-breathing body on the beach, like Nausicaä in Homer’s poem. Such references aren’t just dropped and forgotten. Tahreen, years later, judges her online-set dates based on each man’s response to her oft-told man-on-the-beach account. Upton sometimes makes broader bookish connections. The narrator of “Night Walkers,” for example—developing a distaste for reading after her husband leaves her for a writer/librarian—joins a book club since most members don’t actually discuss the books. Hints of fairy tales help shape the characters: the sudden appearance of apples makes an apparently meek elderly woman in “Ambrosia” seem sinister; in “Visitation,” Tiffany’s mother, wanting a bouquet for her daughter, may follow a flower-destroying groundhog down a hole. “Hello! I Am Saying Hello! Because That Is What I Do When I Say Hello!” is a standout, and not just for its title. In it, Natalie, who famously ruins things, like her cousin’s restaurant, questions why her friend Anita would ever ask her to be maid of honor. Upton, a published poet, infuses her narrative with lyrical details. A cynical Natalie believes her friend “had undone her marriage deliberately but carefully, the way a good tailor might rip out a seam without harming delicate fabric.”

Poignant, exquisite, and endlessly witty.

Pub Date: Aug. 16, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8071-6812-7

Page Count: 216

Publisher: Louisiana State Univ.

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2017

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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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