Still, these characters’ observations and revelations ring true.

AWAKE IN THE DARK

STORIES

Holocaust survivors and their children battle dreams, memory and elusive truths in this debut collection.

In “The House on Kronenstrasse,” Christiane returns to Germany after her elderly mother dies, traveling from New York, where she was raised, to Heidelberg, the town where she was born to a Nazi soldier who died early in the war, and a German housekeeper, who worked for a family of wealthy Jews. She makes the trip to her mother’s deathbed, urging that she go back to the home where they lived as a family, at 58 Kronenstrasse. When Christiane arrives there, however, she finds that her own childhood memories seem to be those of another girl’s life. “The Porcelain Monkey” blends a historical footnote—in 1759, the composer Felix Mendelssohn’s grandfather, a Jew, was forced to buy 20 hideous, life-sized porcelain monkeys from the Royal Porcelain Works in order to obtain King Frederich’s permission to marry—with a contemporary Orthodox Jew’s decision to reveal to her daughter some dark secrets. In “The Lamp,” Miriam finds her mother, Ruth, has passed away, leaving behind a note asking her to protect the ugly old lamp her mother brought to America as a refugee from Germany. In a parallel storyline, Ruth narrates the provenance of the lamp—and her daughter. “Dark Urgings of the Blood” follows the increasingly fraught relationship between psychiatrist Deborah and her patient Dvorah, an Orthodox mother of seven who is institutionalized for trying to kill her infant son. The similarity of their names is just the first of many coincidences that lead Deborah to explore a darkness of her own. Nayman, a psychologist, constructs powerful emotional journeys for her characters, but does so from a clinical distance that keeps the reader once removed.

Still, these characters’ observations and revelations ring true.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-7432-9268-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2006

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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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