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7 Books You Really Should've Read by Now

A collection that heralds a powerfully original talent—all the more appreciated given the all-too-often carbon-copy feel of...

WOMAN HOLLERING CREEK

AND OTHER STORIES

A tour-de-force second collection (after The House on Mango Street, 1989—not reviewed) by a Chicana poet who writes of life in Southwest border towns.

Cisneros' tactile prose brings to vibrant being the sights, smells, joys, and heartaches of growing up female in a culture where women are both strong and victimized, men are unfaithful, and poverty is mitigated only by family, community, and religious ties. Despite hardship, the spirit remains vital, whether as children taking pleasure in a bed shared with sisters ("My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn"), playing with charred, fire-sale Barbie dolls ("Barbie-Q"), or running up and down the aisles of an old movie house ("Mexican Movies")—or as young women stealing love in dark places at too high a price ("One Holy Night" and the title story). These women lead hard but passionate lives, perhaps none more so than the wife of a Mexican general whose story unfolds in the extraordinarily evocative "Eyes of Zapata." It begins "I put my nose to your eyelashes. The skin of the eyelids as soft as the skin of the penis....For the moment I don't want to think of your past nor your future. For now you are here, you are mine." Catholicism is another force operating here, brought alive in the ex votos of "Little Miracles, Kept Promises," and the smart-alecky "Auguiano Religious Articles Rosaries Statues."

A collection that heralds a powerfully original talent—all the more appreciated given the all-too-often carbon-copy feel of much of today's fiction.

Pub Date: April 1, 1991

ISBN: 0679738568

Page Count: 196

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 20, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

Another masterpiece.

BLINDNESS

The embattled relationships among the people of a city mysteriously struck by an epidemic of blindness form the core of this superb novel by the internationally acclaimed Saramago, the Portugese author of, most recently, The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1997).

A driver stalled at a busy intersection suddenly suffers an attack of “white blindness” (no other color, or any shape, is discernible). The “false Samaritan” who helps him home and then steals his car is the next victim. A busy ophthalmologist follows, then two of his patients. And on it goes, until the city’s afflicted blind are “quarantined” in an unused mental ward; the guards ensuring their incarceration panic and begin to shoot; and a paternalistic “Ministry” runs out of strategies to oversee “an uprooted, exhausted world” in a state of escalating chaos. But then, as abruptly as the catastrophe began, everything changes in a wry denouement suggesting that what we've observed (as it were) amounts to an existential test of these characters’ courage and mutual tolerance. But Blindness never feels like a lesson, thanks to Saramago’s mastery of plot, urbane narration (complete with irreverent criticisms of its own digressiveness), and resourceful characterizations. All the people are nameless (“the girl with the dark glasses,” “the boy with the squint”), but we learn an enormous amount about them, and the central figure—the ophthalmologist’s wife, who pretends to be blind in order to accompany her husband—is triumphantly employed as both viewpoint character and (as a stunning final irony confirms) “the leader of the blind.” Echoes of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and images hinting at Holocaust experiences enrich the texture of a brilliant allegory that may be as revolutionary in its own way and time as were, say, The Trial and The Plague in theirs.

Another masterpiece.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-15-100251-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

It is all expertly chilling and exciting.

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD

A modern variant of The Third Man is sponsored by that book's author (Graham Greene says, "The best spy story I have ever read") and it introduces on this side of the water pseudonymous Mr. Le Carré, who is a fine contrast to flamboyant Mr. Fleming and who proves here that one can be just as unnerving by being thoroughly undemonstrative.

This, then, with an adamant realism, cases the check points to and past the Brandenburg Gate when Leamas, an English agent, is presumably shelved so that he may become a paid defector and thereby determine how Mundt, his corresponding opposite and the second man in the Abteilung, has managed to dispose of too many of his people. Still, the personal equation cannot be entirely reduced to numbers, or ciphers; there is Leamas' attraction to a woman—a Communist—and Fiedler, Mundt's acolyte who turns apostate, so that eventually all are the victims of a ruthless revanchist plot. A domesday book of the Cold War and the lonely anonymity of the double agent.

It is all expertly chilling and exciting.

Pub Date: Jan. 10, 1963

ISBN: 0802714544

Page Count: -

Publisher: Coward-McCann

Review Posted Online: Sept. 27, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1963

She’s an original, and she’s getting better with every book.

BIRDS OF AMERICA

STORIES

A fine new collection of 12 stories notable for their verbal wit and range of intellectual reference—the third such from the highly praised author of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994) and Like Life (1990).

Moore’s most typical characters are women in retreat from disappointing relationships or in search of someone or thing to relieve their solitude. One example is the eponymous protagonist of “Agnes of Iowa,” an unhappily married night- school teacher whose longing “to be a citizen of the globe!” is not assuaged by her brief encounter with a visiting South African poet. Another is the “minor movie star” of “Willing,” whose involvement with an auto mechanic can—t repair the unbridgeable distance she’s put between herself and other people. Or, in a practically perfect little story (neatly titled “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens”), there’s the housewife who mourns her dead cat, is chastened by her husband’s understandable exasperation, yet is still gripped by “the mystery of interspecies love.— Moore writes knowingly about family members who tiptoe warily around the edges of loving one another (“Charades”), who discover vulnerability where they had previously seen only dispassionate strength (“Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People”), or who learn to live, say, with the possibility of a baby dying (“People Like That Are the Only People Here”). Though her characters are likeably tough-minded and funny (who wouldn’t want to cry “Fie!” in a crowded theater where Forrest Gump is playing?), they invariably manifest a feeling that life is passing too quickly and that we haven’t made all the necessary arrangements. Accordingly, her hip, jokey mode is less affecting than her wistful, how-the-hell-did-I-end-up-here one. In Moore’s skillful hands, a new home owner pestered by squirrels in the attic and a modest woman subjected to a pelvic exam by a roomful of medical students are altogether credible contemporary Cassandras and Medeas.

She’s an original, and she’s getting better with every book.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-679-44597-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1998

With lantern-lit tales of old China, a rich humanity, and an acute ear for bicultural tuning, a splendid first novel—one...

THE JOY LUCK CLUB

An inordinately moving, electric exploration of two warring cultures fused in love, focused on the lives of four Chinese women—who emigrated, in their youth, at various times, to San Francisco—and their very American 30-ish daughters.

Tan probes the tension of love and often angry bewilderment as the older women watch their daughters "as from another shore," and the daughters struggle to free themselves from maddening threads of arcane obligation. More than the gap between generations, more than the dwindling of old ways, the Chinese mothers most fear that their own hopes and truths—the secret gardens of the spirit that they have cultivated in the very worst of times—will not take root. A Chinese mother's responsibility here is to "give [my daughter] my spirit." The Joy Luck Club, begun in 1939 San Francisco, was a re-creation of the Club founded by Suyuan Woo in a beleaguered Chinese city. There, in the stench of starvation and death, four women told their "good stories," tried their luck with mah-jongg, laughed, and "feasted" on scraps. Should we, thought Suyuan, "wait for death or choose our own happiness?" Now, the Chinese women in America tell their stories (but not to their daughters or to one another): in China, an unwilling bride uses her wits, learns that she is "strong. . .like the wind"; another witnesses the suicide of her mother; and there are tales of terror, humiliation and despair. One recognizes fate but survives. But what of the American daughters—in turn grieved, furious, exasperated, amused ("You can't ever tell a Chinese mother to shut up")? The daughters, in their confessional chapters, have attempted childhood rebellions—like the young chess champion; ever on maternal display, who learned that wiles of the chessboard did not apply when opposing Mother, who had warned her: "Strongest wind cannot be seen." Other daughters—in adulthood, in crises, and drifting or upscale life-styles—tilt with mothers, one of whom wonders: "How can she be her own person? When did I give her up?"

With lantern-lit tales of old China, a rich humanity, and an acute ear for bicultural tuning, a splendid first novel—one that matches the vigor and sensitivity of Maxine Hong Kingston (The Warrior Woman, 1976; China Men, 1980) in her tributes to the abundant heritage of Chinese-Americans.

Pub Date: March 22, 1989

ISBN: 0143038095

Page Count: -

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1989

He kicks the rock of reality, teases out the connectedness of things, and leaves us in awe.

UNDERWORLD

Working at the top of his form, DeLillo draws on his previous novels (Mao II, 1991; Libra, 1988, etc.) in shaping his most ambitious work yet, a grand Whitmanesque epic of postwar American life—a brainy, streetwise, and lyrical underground history of our times, full of menace and miracles, and humming with the bop and crackle of postmodern life.

DeLillo's bottom-up chronicle is also the history of garbage, from a rubble-strewn lot in the Bronx to nuclear waste dumps in the Southwest. And the true-blue American who spans these landscapes is one Nick Shay, now an executive with a waste-management firm, once a j.d. on the not-so-mean streets, where his father kept book and his mother worried her rosary for her two boys, the other a chess prodigy who later lends his mathematical genius to the weapons industry. From the '50s on, DeLillo's always accessible narrative is also the history of a baseball, the one that was the "Shot Heard Round the World," Bobby Thomson's pennant-winning home run in 1951. The fate of the actual ball, a relic of spiritual significance, seemingly lost, is also a lesson in enterprise. Snagged by a young black kid from Harlem, who identifies with Thomson's Homeric homer, the ball quickly becomes an object of commerce, purloined by the boy's desperate father. Eventually, Nick acquires it, but for him it more properly commemorates failure: Branca's losing pitch. Beyond garbage and baseball, DeLillo surveys the Cold War years with a satirist's eye for meaningful detail and a linguist's ear for existential patter. Sweeping in scope and design, incorporating such diverse figures as Lenny Bruce and J. Edgar Hoover, DeLillo's masterpiece shouts against the times in the language of the times: postmodernism against itself.

He kicks the rock of reality, teases out the connectedness of things, and leaves us in awe.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 1997

ISBN: 0-684-84269-6

Page Count: 832

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1997

In part a perfectly paced mystery story, in part an Indian Wuthering Heights: a gorgeous and seductive fever dream of a...

THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS

A brilliantly constructed first novel that untangles an intricate web of sexual and caste conflict in a vivid style reminiscent of Salman Rushdie's early work.

The major characters are Estha and Rahel, the fraternal twin son and daughter of a wealthy family living in the province of Kerala. The family's prosperity is derived from a pickle factory and rubber estate, and their prideful Anglophilia essentially estranges them from their country's drift toward Communism and their ``inferiors' '' hunger for independence and equality. The events of a crucial December day in 1969—including an accidental death that may have been no accident and the violent consequences that afflict an illicit couple who have broken "the Love Law''—are the moral and narrative center around which the episodes of the novel repeatedly circle. Shifting backward and forward in time with effortless grace, Roy fashions a compelling nexus of personalities that influence the twins' "eerie stealth'' and furtive interdependence. These include their beautiful and mysteriously remote mother Ammu; her battling "Mammachi'' (who runs the pickle factory) and "Pappachi'' (an insufficiently renowned entomologist); their Oxford-educated Marxist Uncle Chacko and their wily "grandaunt'' Baby Kochamma; and the volatile laborite "Untouchable'' Velutha, whose relationship with the twins' family will prove his undoing. Roy conveys their explosive commingling in a vigorous prose dominated by odd syntactical and verbal combinations and coinages (a bad dream experience during midday nap-time is an "aftermare'') reminiscent of Gerard Manly Hopkins's "sprung rhythm,'' incantatory repetitions, striking metaphors (Velutha is seen ``standing in the shade of the rubber trees with coins of sunshine dancing on his body'') and sensuous descriptive passages (``The sky was orange, and the coconut trees were sea anemones waving their tentacles, hoping to trap and eat an unsuspecting cloud'').

In part a perfectly paced mystery story, in part an Indian Wuthering Heights: a gorgeous and seductive fever dream of a novel, and a truly spectacular debut. (First serial to Granta)

Pub Date: May 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-679-45731-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1997

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