No dead author is more alive on the page than Berlin: funny, dark, and so in love with the world.

EVENING IN PARADISE

Twenty-two more stories from an author who died in 2004 and made it big in 2015.

Berlin (A Manual for Cleaning Women, 2015, etc.) published 76 stories in her lifetime in a number of small-press books. Three years ago, a collection that reprinted 43 of them took the literary world by storm, with placement on top-ten lists and comparisons to Carver, Paley, Munro, and Chekhov abounding. (The book was also a finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Fiction.) Blessedly, a second volume with 22 more stories is in no way second rate but rather features more seductive, sparkling autofiction with narrators whose names echo the author's in settings and situations that come from her roller-coaster biography (which is summarized in an appendix). The stories are arranged in roughly chronological order, beginning with two set in El Paso, Texas, about a little troublemaker named Lucha, followed by three in Chile. In "Andado: A Gothic Romance," Laura's family is invited to spend four days at the country estate of a man named Don Andrés. Her parents can't make it, so they send her by herself. "Ted said his child would be coming, not a lovely woman," comments the former ambassador to France, one of the wealthiest men in Chile. "I'm fourteen," Laura replies. "I'm just all dressed up for this party." This information will not have much effect on Don Andrés' conduct. The title story takes its inspiration from the period when the author was married to Buddy Berlin, a jazz player and sometime heroin addict, and the two lived with their kids outside Puerto Vallarta. It features cameos by Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, Ava Gardner, and John Huston, whose appearance in that area during the filming of Night of the Iguana is legendary. Its lightheartedness is immediately balanced by "La Barca de la Ilusión," which finds its protagonist in a palapa with a floor of sand on the Mexican coast, home-schooling her boys, hoping that living in the middle of nowhere will keep her husband off drugs. (What she does to his dealer is probably fictional, but we'll never know.) For black humor and alcoholism, go straight to "The Wives," in which two exes of the same man get together to chug rum and reminisce, spilling drinks and burning holes in their clothes.

No dead author is more alive on the page than Berlin: funny, dark, and so in love with the world.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-27948-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 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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