SISTER WATER

Willard, a poet, essayist, and well-known children's author, floats her second novel for adults (Things Invisible to See, 1985) down a stream that is both real and only imagined, a place where water can sustain you—or let you sink like a stone. Jessie Woolman grew up in Drowning Bear, Wisconsin, and settled in Ann Arbor to marry Henry—a man who owned a museum of natural artifacts, gemstones, fossils, and an indoor stream where fish could swim into view and then vanish, hidden by the floor. Henry is gone now. The museum is gathering dust. And Jessie's two daughters, Martha and Ellen, wonder how best to care for their aging mother, whose memory works like those museum fish—there one minute, gone the next. Martha is inclined toward accepting the offer of local businessman Harvey Mack, who wants to buy the museum property for a tidy sum and develop a shopping mall. Ellen, still recovering from her own husband's recent death, just wants to hang on. Enter Sam Theopolis, a waiter and unlikely savior with a red ponytail. Sam moves in to help care for Jessie and soon has plans to reopen the museum. It all seems too good to be true and, naturally, it is. Sam is taken to jail, charged with an unthinkable crime. Ellen is desolate. Jessie grows further confused. All seems lost—until the truth prevails, clear as water. Willard does for her Michigan setting what Alice Hoffman did for Florida in Turtle Moon, making the natural world loom larger—and more magical—than life. Every toad in the rushes has a secret. Any fossil might bear the footprint of a ghost. At times, too many symbols and portents distract from the story, but, ultimately, Willard's good-hearted, quirky characters win the show. Life and death, water and wings—what Willard conjures nicely here is a tale about family survival, the riskiest kind of magic.

Pub Date: May 12, 1993

ISBN: 0-679-40702-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1993

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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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