It’s not the animals, but the clueless humans who dominate this amorphous story collection, the author’s debut.

Of the ten stories (and two short flights of fancy), the longest, "Airbag," has been split into three nonconsecutive segments. It’s about a midget, Dorlene, who claims to be the seventh shortest person in the country. She’s described almost exclusively in terms of her size; that’s reductive, offensively so. She’s been brought to a party at a farm outside Seattle; she’s a former student of Tom, the host. Dorlene’s no higher than crotch level (cue the oral-sex joke). Tom has a truly enormous dog, which he’s forgotten to shut away; it looms over Dorlene, who’s so panicked she wets herself. The ending will not be pleasant. There is more foolishness in the next longest story: "Putting the Lizard to Sleep." A 5-year-old’s pet lizard loses part of its tail and has to be euthanized by the vet. John, the father, had been hoping to retrieve the dead lizard: “I wanted him to see what dead is.” But the lizard’s already been cremated, so John and his live-in girlfriend pretend they have the dead lizard in a box (it’s actually a sausage link). The ponderously delivered moral is that lying to kids doesn’t work. The other stories are even less developed. "Opinion of Person" is a study of anomie. Two housemates are united by their loathing of a cat, whose owner is away at work. James, in "Momentary," has lost his hand in an act of self-mutilation. He’s under observation in a mental hospital, yet there are no insights into his condition. "The Lion" is just as wispy. A wheelchair-bound woman has made a lion out of fabric. Will it be a Frankenstein’s monster? Who knows? And who knows what’s going on in "Jane," between the ghost and her sleeping ex-lover? As Sanders writes elsewhere, “Confusion burbles thickly.”

An awkward start.

Pub Date: July 3, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-55597-616-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2012

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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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