Galchen’s stories feel remarkably believable, despite their suggestion of alternate worlds and lives. This is a collection...

AMERICAN INNOVATIONS

STORIES

In this story collection—which follows her debut novel, the well-received Atmospheric Disturbances (2008)—Galchen, one of the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, continues to plumb the unbelievable and unknowable mysteries of existence.

These are literary short stories, but there’s a detective lurking in their author, who peels back fine layers of life with close observation to uncover clues about the physics of daily living and how we process the world. In the title story, a woman wakes one morning to discover a third breast has grown on her back; she has to wrestle with societal expectations of beauty and identity. In "Once an Empire," the narrator says, “I’m a pretty normal woman…,” which immediately cues the reader to wonder what isn’t normal about her, or the story; soon she's watching the contents of her apartment—furniture, utensils and objects—get up and walk out. Do these things represent her life, and if they’re so important to her, why is she willing to watch them leave? And things get stranger in "The Region of Unlikeness": A woman discovers that her crush, a man she met at a cafe, is supposedly a time traveler, and his friend, whom she doesn’t much care for, is his father—and maybe her potential future husband. Not all the stories venture into the fantastic, though; many poke and prod at the challenges of the everyday, as in "Sticker Shock," which compares the finances of a mother and daughter and is written in the tone of an accountant’s review, and "The Lost Order," in which a woman obscures the fact that she’s lost her job from her husband and ponders what her life will be like as "a daylight ghost, a layabout, a mal pensant, a vacancy, a housewife, a person foiled by the challenge of getting dressed….”

Galchen’s stories feel remarkably believable, despite their suggestion of alternate worlds and lives. This is a collection to read and keep on the bookshelf. It will stand the test of time.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-374-28047-5

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 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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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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