Exquisite: beautifully, perfectly imagined and written. Weird, too. A little heavy for the beach, perhaps, but perfect...

LAST STORIES AND OTHER STORIES

Vollmann (The Book of Dolores, 2013, etc.) turns his considerable intelligence and skill to a broad genre that doesn’t get much respect—namely, the ghost story.

Not all the pieces in this collection are ghost stories as such, mind you; not everything here goes bump in the night. But the very title is suggestive of Vollmann’s intent: These are not his last stories, or so we hope, but instead the last stories of men and women who are soon to become dust. Vollmann’s omniscient narrator instructs us, early on, in what to expect, intoning, “[t]o the extent that the dead live on, the living must resemble them,” and adding, to the list of axioms, the observation, “[c]onfessing such resemblance, we should not reject the possibility that we might at this very moment be dead.” In the first story, a blameless young couple, newly married, find themselves mowed down by sniper fire in a grassy lot in Sarajevo. Says that narrator, having darkly admired the skill of the gunner and raised a speculation or two about the events, “everyone agrees that the corpses of the two lovers lay rotting for days, because nobody dared to approach them.” The two hapless Bosnians needed La Llorona, the ghost of Mexican folklore, to warn them away from dangerous places; she turns up in another story, in which Vollmann ingeniously retells her legend, noting her bad habit of stealing away innocent children: “So La Llorona kept little Manuel, who was quite fetching except for the fact that his face resembled a death’s-head.” Small wonder those calaveras are so prevalent south of the border. After traveling the world, Vollmann brings us to an America in which death has definitely not taken a holiday: A dying man, having seen much of death before, finally gets to have a conversation with the love he’d lost track of ages before; that closing story is long, pensive and, like the others here, utterly haunting.

Exquisite: beautifully, perfectly imagined and written. Weird, too. A little heavy for the beach, perhaps, but perfect reading for the Day of the Dead.

Pub Date: July 14, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-670-01597-9

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2014

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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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HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS

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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