The author’s considerable talent is only intermittently in evidence here.


From prolific Alexie (Face, 2009, etc.), a collection of stories, poems and short works that defy categorization.

It’s wildly uneven: A few pieces drawn from his experiences as a member of the Spokane tribe rank with the author’s best, but much of what surrounds them feels like filler. Of the 23 selections, the longest and best is the 36-page title story. Sixteen chapters, some as short as two paragraphs, connect the dots between a hospitalized father’s fatal alcoholism and the nonmalignant brain tumor of his son, a 41-year-old writer accused in one hilarious incident of subjecting another Indian to racist stereotyping. Alexie frequently uses plainspoken language in first-person narratives to deal with ethical ambiguities—“to find a moral center,” as he writes in “Breaking and Entering.” That tale shows the narrator, a film editor, editing the facts to fit his story, only to feel victimized by the media’s editing of an incident that changes his life. Other pieces don’t work as well. “The Senator’s Son” is a cliché-riddled, credulity-straining parable of forgiveness concerning Republican hypocrisy and violent homophobia. “Fearful Symmetry” teases the reader with a protagonist whose name (Sherwin Polatkin) and description (“a hot young short-story writer and poet and first-time screenwriter”) both suggest an authorial stand-in, yet it has nothing more interesting to say about blurring the distinction between memoir and fiction than to ask, “What is lying but a form of storytelling?” “The Ballad of Paul Nothingness” ambitiously attempts to encompass the mysteries of desire, a critique of capitalism and the power of popular music. The latter also provides inspiration for “Ode to Mix Tapes,” the collection’s best poem; most of the other verses are slapdash and singsong.

The author’s considerable talent is only intermittently in evidence here.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1919-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2009

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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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