A likable and occasionally provocative set of variations on kid-lit themes.

A WILD SWAN

AND OTHER TALES

An assortment of fairy tales revised and thrust into the present day.

Cunningham (The Hours, 1998; By Nightfall, 2010, etc.) lightly touched on folklore for allegorical purposes in his 2014 novel, The Snow Queen, but here he approaches the genre head-on: these stories are each inspired by a particular tale, usually updated to add a dose of grown-up realism to its relationships. “Poisoned,” for instance, turns “Snow White” into a piece of flash fiction about pillow-talk role-playing, while “Steadfast; Tin” is a rewrite of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” that opens at a frat party. Cunningham clearly admires these stories for their flexibility, the way they can, with a twist or two, make room for mature observations about love and sex: his take on “Hansel and Gretel,” “Crazy Old Lady,” reimagines the witch as a much-married woman exiled for her sexual appetites, “a goddess…of carnal knowingness.” And in “Beasts,” he considers whether it isn’t so much the inner prince but outer animal that Beauty admires: “She wondered to herself why so many men seemed to think meekness was what won women’s hearts.” To that end, Cunningham embraces dark and sometimes-bloody characteristics of these stories as rendered most famously in the Grimm Brothers, but he also writes more open-heartedly about them, as in “A Monkey’s Paw,” which extends the original story (which ends with a couple wishing their zombified resurrected son to disappear) to a somber but compassionate conclusion. These rewrites are all elegantly told and nicely supplemented by illustrations by Shimizu, who gives each story a one-panel image that evokes Aubrey Beardsley in its detail and surrealistic splendor. But between the stories' brevity and borrowed plots, this collection also feels like a busman’s holiday for Cunningham, who thrives in more expansive settings.

A likable and occasionally provocative set of variations on kid-lit themes.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-374-29025-2

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Aug. 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 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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