A muddled, undercooked collection that does not live up to the promise of its conceit.

LESSONS IN RELATIONSHIP DYADS

Duos of all kinds knock up against one another in this collection from Mirolla (The Giulo Metaphysics III, 2013, etc.).

Relationships are fraught, complicated creatures, whether they’re between lovers, family members, or friends. In this collection, these couplings are explored one pairing at a time: sister and sister, sister and brother, brother and brother, daughter and father, father and son, and so on. In “Sons and Mothers,” an unreliable man self-reports his own family history while a psychiatric expert analyzes testimonies from the patient’s friend and mother. Two cohabiting sisters are on a crash course over a man in “Sister and Sister.” In “Daughters and Fathers,” the daughter of a famous writer, from whom she is estranged, wastes away in an asylum. There is much to admire about a good formal constraint, a collection with a tight unifying theme, thematic subheadings, use of artifacts, and metafictional flourishes. But while this collection includes all of these elements and more, the result is less high-wire artistry and more fragmented mess. Occasionally there is a lovely detail, a paragraph of character and action, or an interesting thought, but then everything—including the relationships that should be the beating hearts of the stories—is washed away by the author’s voice. That voice dominates and consumes the narrative, flattening each story’s potential life. As a result, they all sound the same. There is quite a bit of wordplay, including an irritating tic where an idea is stated and restated (sometimes more than once) for no apparent reason, but these moments of cleverness rarely work and never seem to match the mood or characters. Some books demand more of their audience than the average text, but this book demands too much; it rejects and rebuffs the reader at every turn.

A muddled, undercooked collection that does not live up to the promise of its conceit.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-59709-427-6

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Red Hen Press

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 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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