THE SKY, THE STARS, THE WILDERNESS

Two appealing short stories and an exquisite novella from Montana essayist and storyteller Bass (The Book of Yaak, 1996; In the Loyal Mountains, 1995, etc.). The title novella revels in the rugged beauty of bluffs and thickets in Texas hill country, where three generations preserve the family ranch as a haven for wild animals and the wild at heart. The narrator, a middle-aged woman living alone on the ranch with her memories, recalls her formative influences: iron-willed Grandfather, whose battle cry (``the natural history of Texas is still being sacrificed upon the altar of generalization'') was stifled by a stroke, then reemerged when the old man relearned speech using the cadences of birdsong; his Mexican right-hand, Chubb, who was afraid of the dark but a tireless worker and fiercely loyal by day; Father, the county agent, who fought in vain to end overgrazing and protect eagles from his sporting, good-old- boy neighbors; and especially Mother, who died when the narrator was still a girl, but whose limestone-bluff resting place ensured that her presence remained, even as the family dwindled one by one. These ties to the past, binding the mother to the daughter and the daughter to the land, prove more durable than any link with potential mates. In ``The Myths of Bears,'' another Texan, Judith, breaks free of the increasing lunacy of her longtime partner, Trapper, outwitting him and enduring winter in the Alaskan wilderness alone, only to be tripped up later by her concern for him; in ``Where the Sea Used to Be,'' an Alabama man breaks away from his cold-blooded rich boss to show a knack for finding oil from the air that makes him legendary, but also introduces him to a rival passion: Sara. As thoughtful and captivating as his previous work: stories that can only increase Bass's reputation as a writer remarkably able to put people in nature in a way that enhances our understanding of both.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 1997

ISBN: 0-395-71758-2

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1997

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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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