Howard’s abundant career has been notable for its inventive amplitude—a feature that her most recent gathering demonstrates...

BIG AS LIFE

THREE TALES FOR SPRING

A trio of tales in the second of Howard’s novels (after A Lover’s Almanac, 1998) planned for each of the seasons. Spring, in her sophisticated vision, is a time of imaginative generosity, generative creation, and the bright moment when human finitude is brought into relief.

The author brings a characteristically tender and exacting eye to the natural world. “Imagine carp—flickering metallic orange, not gold,” she begins. “Natural, by design so natural.” In “Children with Matches,” Marie Claude, a historian grappling for her place in the academic establishment, is involved with Hans Gruen, an official in US international relations, whose worldwide ramblings and erratic availability daunt her efforts to find a home for her heart. In “The Magdalene,” the life of Nelly Boyle, who comes to the States during the Depression, serves as counterpoint to that of her cousin Mae—and also serves to illustrate both spiritual and material ways of coming to rest in a world of one’s own making. The strongest piece—and the most artistically personal—is “Big as Life,” which begins by narrating the life and varied fortunes of naturalist John James Audubon as seen through the eyes of his wife Lucy. By tracing the fate of the illustrations for his magnificent Birds of America right up to the present day, and by honing her story to follow the life of Long Island artist Louise Moffett, Howard fashions a narrative that recalls the history of the speaker’s own association with the massive volume. This simple version of one woman’s encounter with an object—an encounter that occurs in a specific place of memory and imagination—is remarkable testimony to the anatomy of the artistic imagination and bears all the passionate, particular traits of a personal philosophy.

Howard’s abundant career has been notable for its inventive amplitude—a feature that her most recent gathering demonstrates with powerful, if occasionally allusive, storytelling.

Pub Date: May 21, 2001

ISBN: 0-670-89978-X

Page Count: 227

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2001

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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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