Depressing, inventive, and marvelous—a thought-provoking path to feeling awful.


A bleak, relentless collection of short stories from Lopez (Asunder, 2010, etc.).

Are you a good person or a bad person? Don't ask Lopez: the “good people” in this collection are misogynists, abusers, victims, narcissists, and depressives. Not a lot of faith in humanity here. “Everything is always going to hell,” one character says. Another narrator—trying to comprehend and care about the death of his neighbor’s son—says, “I want to say that anyone can seem like a good person, that everyone in this neighborhood seems like a good person, but that certainly can’t be the case.” Another narrator, contemplating suicide, confesses, “I almost never prepare a meal for myself as I am not worth the bother most of the time.” The humor, when it comes, is dark—as in “Essentials,” which consists entirely of a narrator telling you what he won’t tell you. Is all life sadness and absence then? Few of these formally inventive, first-person stories gather much tension in a conventional sense. Instead, Lopez picks a subject (defenestration or massages or suicide or the movie Margaret) and circles it, his sentences like particles in a cyclic accelerator; the reader waits, nervously, for collision. “Remember to have a vision,” Lopez writes in the imperative-based last story, “How to Direct a Major Motion Picture,” and he certainly has a vision: this story collection is a comprehensive mosaic of misery. Read it in one sitting and you’ll feel out of breath. Is it exhausting? Yes, but that’s the point: you don’t read a book like this for variety. Instead, you read it to stumble into the sunlight afterward, trying to convince yourself you’re a good person, but man oh man, you’re not so sure.

Depressing, inventive, and marvelous—a thought-provoking path to feeling awful.

Pub Date: Jan. 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-942658-02-3

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 24, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2015

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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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