Stories in which laughter is sometimes the only response to sorrow, beauty is strange, and love is fierce and unending. A...

WILD MILK

Mark (Tsim Tsum, 2009, etc.) turns her poet's eye to the sublimely surreal in this collection of domestic oddities.

Over the course of 24 short, strange tales, Mark exposes the reader to the woman who loses her baby in the blizzard created when his caretaker begins to snow; the woman who marries Poems; the woman who becomes a tree to float her giant daughters to safety; the woman who does not eat the child. Though each of these characters is embroiled in a different danger, the sense of them as archetypes (the woman rather than a woman) and further as facets of the author's own lived experience filtered through a private symbology renders the stories at once both more universal and more personal. It is a fine slight of hand which Mark performs over and over throughout the collection: Language as precise and bitter as a pill is used to describe both the unknown and the unknowable; utterly impossible characters remind us uncomfortably of ourselves. The stories drift in the way of the best fairy tales—released from dependence on narrative sensibility to become both more odd and more true than any mere fiction. Many utilize a dream's abrupt authority. "Louis C.K., my husband, piles all my seahorses in the middle of our king-sized bed and starts shouting," begins "Let's Do This Once More, But This Time with Feeling." Other stories deploy a poet's love of words for words' sake in long, luxurious taxonomies: "The husband doesn't want his seventh wife to be sad and so he brings her Flounder. He brings her Mullet, Snook, Pickerel, Salmon, and Perch. He brings her Grunt. He brings her Bitterling and Milkfish. He brings her Tuna." Regardless of their form or feel, each is a fully rendered exploration of impossibility that loses nothing in its translation from the author's imagination to the reader's eye. It is a common cop-out to label the vagaries of nontraditional fiction written by women as experiments in language or voice and thus dismiss their agency in the "real" world in which plot-based fictions thrive. This collection, however, through both its humor and its sorrow, rings a universal chord. How to make sense of a world that refutes all sense and yet murders us when we cannot anticipate its next move? How to love in a world that uses our love as a weapon?

Stories in which laughter is sometimes the only response to sorrow, beauty is strange, and love is fierce and unending. A necessary book for our perilous age.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-9973666-8-6

Page Count: 168

Publisher: Dorothy

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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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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