Amiable manifestations of the bard’s life and times, though without the sheer driving éclat of, say, last year’s Mrs....

HER INFINITE VARIETY

STORIES OF SHAKESPEARE AND THE WOMEN HE LOVED

Berkman debuts with ten pleasant albeit airy historicals about episodes in Shakespeare’s life or characters in his plays.

At age 11, in “Gold,” Shakespeare declares to his mother that he won’t follow in his father’s footsteps as a glover, but instead—somehow—will earn great riches. And “In the Bed,” presumably Anne Hathaway’s second-best, his plan is formed; there is happy lovemaking between husband and wife before Shakespeare’s departure for London (“I believe I can be effective, writing for the theater,” he says in one of the moments of particular heavy-handedness that are sprinkled throughout), though in the same bed there’s also grief when son Hamnet dies of fever. In his mean lodgings in London, Shakespeare works on A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the fairy-queen Titania hovers over his shoulder commenting—and objecting that she’s made to love an ass. Though monologues by Ophelia (“Dark Blue”), Lady Macbeth (“The Scottish Wife”), and Juliet’s love-denied mother (“Duty”) have their own sorts of interest, they satisfy less than do the sketches offering fictional peeks into the life of Shakespeare himself. These are more abundantly provided in “Jennet,” where the author sires an illegitimate son, and in “Mary Mountjoy’s Dowry,” about life in the working-class London house where the great man boards—a piece that includes extensive diary-entries from the period. “No Cause” is among the most ambitious here, having to do with the marriages of Shakespeare’s daughters, especially plain Judith, who at 30 feels compelled to settle for an especially humiliating offer, her only one. Best of all and most deft with its learning may be the last, when Shakespeare dies in the large kitchen at New Place (the kitchen is where it’s warmest), thinking of Elizabeth I, in “Diamonds at Her Fingertips.”

Amiable manifestations of the bard’s life and times, though without the sheer driving éclat of, say, last year’s Mrs. Shakespeare, The Complete Works, by Robert Nye.

Pub Date: June 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-7432-1255-X

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Scribner

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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