Accomplished and promising.



Ten debut stories that draw most of their inspiration from the author’s background in engineering and then a stint working in product development for the Ford Motor Company.

“But when he mentioned engineering, his old man was incredulous. He said in a mock-gentle tone, ‘But, Duke, how can you be an engineer when you’re always breaking things?’ ” Engineering becomes the controlling metaphor here: if characters work together or fail to do so, it’s usually connected to the machines around them and to the thinking and history that brought them into being. The title story is a quasi-historical account of the lighting of Luna Park and the subsequent electrocution of an elephant named Topsy, while in “What They Teach you in Engineering School,” the progress of engineering technology measures the educational distance between a father and son even as they both realize, after a sudden trauma, that they’re all either of them has. The final piece (“Aeronautics”) is another history of early aeronauts, the warriors who made war three-dimensional, and made balloons weapons as surely as men or muskets are weapons. “Telescope” is a single sentence short-short that plays with the engineering of sentences; and when a prototype SUV breaks down in backwater Michigan (“The Prototype”), it’s a chance for a local mechanic to fool its fish-out-of-water engineers and possibly engineer for himself a lost love. While Arvin’s prose often centers on the inner workings of things on the near-mechanical level (“Instead he sat frozen and hyperaware of himself—of the noise of his breath, the twitch of his toes against his shoes, the clutch of the muscles in his chest”), the emotions are always real, enlivened by the context that gives them life and shape. One wonders why only one of these stories has been published before, and what’s likely to happen when this author shifts to a longer form that will allow his vision the breadth it really needs to develop and grow.

Accomplished and promising.

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2003

ISBN: 0-14-200256-9

Page Count: 220

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2002

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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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Told through the points of view of the four Garcia sisters- Carla, Sandi, Yolanda and Sofia-this perceptive first novel by poet Alvarez tells of a wealthy family exiled from the Dominican Republic after a failed coup, and how the daughters come of age, weathering the cultural and class transitions from privileged Dominicans to New York Hispanic immigrants. Brought up under strict social mores, the move to the States provides the girls a welcome escape from the pampered, overbearingly protective society in which they were raised, although subjecting them to other types of discrimination. Each rises to the challenge in her own way, as do their parents, Mami (Laura) and Papi (Carlos). The novel unfolds back through time, a complete picture accruing gradually as a series of stories recounts various incidents, beginning with ``Antojos'' (roughly translated ``cravings''), about Yolanda's return to the island after an absence of five years. Against the advice of her relatives, who fear for the safety of a young woman traveling the countryside alone, Yolanda heads out in a borrowed car in pursuit of some guavas and returns with a renewed understanding of stringent class differences. ``The Kiss,'' one of Sofia's stories, tells how she, married against her father's wishes, tries to keep family ties open by visiting yearly on her father's birthday with her young son. And in ``Trespass,'' Carla finds herself the victim of ignorance and prejudice a year after the Garcias have arrived in America, culminating with a pervert trying to lure her into his car. In perhaps one of the most deft and magical stories, ``Still Lives,'' young Sandi has an extraordinary first art lesson and becomes the inspiration for a statue of the Virgin: ``Dona Charito took the lot of us native children in hand Saturday mornings nine to twelve to put Art into us like Jesus into the heathen.'' The tradition and safety of the Old World are just part of the tradeoff that comes with the freedom and choice in the New. Alvarez manages to bring to attention many of the issues-serious and light-that immigrant families face, portraying them with sensitivity and, at times, an enjoyable, mischievous sense.

Pub Date: May 1, 1991

ISBN: 0-945575-57-2

Page Count: 308

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

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