A step forward for a strong talent.



A powerful second collection (after A Night of Music, 1989) of ten connected stories about family and history in the tradition of Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid.

Sandor’s distant first-person permits an examination of the repetition of history in a single family. “They named her Clara,” begins the first story, “Legend,” which follows Clara’s mother through the aftermath of giving birth and serves as launching pad for a wandering treatise on motherhood, the past, and “the future, that perverse and squirming bundle whose gaze tells you nothing you can count on, but watches your move with unblinking eyes.” “Capacity” catches up with Clara, now grown, on her first failed attempt to leave home for situations she isn’t prepared for; and “Gravity” follows a much older Clara, now married to Gabe, who, despite Clara’s vertigo, arranges for her to go up in an airplane to spread his ashes when he dies. The title piece switches to Gabe’s family for another daughter’s recollections of her mysterious mother. It coalesces around the time when her mother is pregnant with the narrator, but not so far along that she can’t commit the vague sin of posing for a painting that will never be seen. “It was a year of maiden-lady suicides,” begins “Elegy for Miss Beagle,” a piano teacher. Music is a theme throughout the Sandor’s writing. She is sentimental and nostalgic in the best of ways: you sense an unblinking affection for characters, a positive regard even in the face of error and sin. Their sadness is real, their regret tangible: “Closing my window, I wished myself in her place, going north on that bus, leaning my cheek against the cool window while other passengers, men and women with unknowable lives, slept or told each other stories, making them better or more horrible than real life . . . . ”

A step forward for a strong talent.

Pub Date: May 1, 2003

ISBN: 1-889330-83-3

Page Count: 216

Publisher: Sarabande

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2003

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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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