Like Magic Rocks in a fishbowl, these stories turn the stones of grief into something bright, crystalline, mesmerizing.

THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST

Linked autobiographical fictions explore the loss of a young husband.

With a delicate balance of cleverness and emotion, the 16 stories in Pietrzyk's (Pears on a Willow Tree, 2011, etc.) collection explore the event of her husband's sudden death at the breakfast table in 1997. Literal facts ("My husband, Robert K. Rauth, Jr., died of a heart attack when he was only 37") in some stories stand beside slightly altered ones in others (a husband named Roger, a husband who drove off the road, a husband who died in his early 40s). The author's wit, clarity, and literary inventiveness dance circles around the omnipresent sadness, making this book a prime example of the furious creative energy that can explode from the collision of grief with talent and craftsmanship. A few stories are traditionally told; many rely on formal strategies—a list, a quiz, a speech, an annotated index, various narrative voices, and a metafiction about the use of narrative voices. Running through them are recurrent details that add the weight of obsessive memory: a carefully organized library of books, a bowl of cornflakes, the music of Springsteen (a misunderstood line of which gives the collection its name), an extramarital affair. Pietrzyk explores every aspect of the truth, including the parts you have to make up, and never gives in to sentimentality or self-pity. As in Joyce Carol Oates' much less successful book A Widow's Story, one learns that the author is remarried—the last line of the last story is addressed to her second husband by name—but here there is no sense of duplicity or caginess. The relief is what we want, both for her and for ourselves. This book is the winner of the distinguished Drue Heinz Literature Prize, upholding its tradition of excellence in short fiction.

Like Magic Rocks in a fishbowl, these stories turn the stones of grief into something bright, crystalline, mesmerizing.

Pub Date: Oct. 5, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8229-4442-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Univ. of Pittsburgh

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2015

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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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