Brilliantly evocative contemporary stories about Haiti told by a personable native.

THE COMPANY OF HEAVEN

Life in Haiti, before the recent earthquake but no less steeped in hardship and spiritual overcoming, is captured in interconnected stories by a gifted Haitian American. The book won the 2010 Iowa Short Fiction Award.

In sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes sharply ironic fashion, Phipps-Kettlewell writes of coping in a place where the lush surroundings are a constant reminder of how removed from paradise people are. Lives are routinely cut short by diseases that are treated too late or not at all, and casual murders that are never solved or avenged. Viewed through the author's intimate autobiographical lens, Haiti is a place where people with nothing to do become attuned to "the timelessness of time," where voodoo priests compete with corrupt politicians for influence, and where dreams of escape never die, even for those who fork over their life's savings to a returning djaspora whose boat to Miami has no chance of making it there with them. Broken into brief alternating sections, the longer stories, spanning years and generations, are compelling montages that reveal how family is redefined as orphaned children are passed to relatives, neighbors and even strangers. For one lonely old woman, a pack of dogs that sleeps nestled against her in strictly assigned positions become surrogate offspring. But as sad as the stories can get, the author’s empathy for her resilient subjects, and her grasp of the human comedy in depicting the creative ways downtrodden people keep hope alive, makes the book unexpectedly entertaining.

Brilliantly evocative contemporary stories about Haiti told by a personable native.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-58729-921-6

Page Count: 210

Publisher: Univ. of Iowa

Review Posted Online: Aug. 30, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2010

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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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HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS

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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